Realcity was borne out of my frustration with New York’s elitism. Coming from smaller cities like Portland and Boston — where, even if people didn’t always get along, they were at least considerate — the social divisions here were shocking. New Yorkers exist in their own tunnels of reality, oblivious to anyone outside of their immediate lives. This survival instinct is understandable, but also unfortunate. The city has its own reality that connects all of us in more ways than we could ever imagine. By exploring that “realcity,” I hoped to show people just how crazy it was to think they had this place figured out.
Six months and 200 articles later we’ve greatly expanded our understanding of what’s happening in the city, but inevitably we’ll always be one step behind. The lives of eight million people in five boroughs move too fast for anyone to truly comprehend. Rather than give you some half-assed declaration about what realcity really means, we chose the most honest alternative. Last Thursday, I embarked on a five borough tour to face the scope of this idea that I created. This is not meant to be a definitive report. The cloudy weather and eventual fatigue likely colored my view of places that on a sunny day could be 10 times more vibrant. Instead, consider it a reminder of what else might be going on in the city right now, just one block over.
I walk up this street all the time, but today I try to be more attentive. I’ll be travelling to some very unfamiliar places and want a point of comparison. My neighborhood is on the other side of gentrification now; not quite full blown but damn close. Perhaps it’s the surplus of beautiful old brownstones that draw people in, though the monstrously tall condo tower that just opened on my block might say otherwise. That aside, we’re still retaining a good sense of idyllic city life. For every stray cat and old Latino man selling flowers out of a shopping cart, there’s a leather-clad student holding locally brewed coffee in one hand and an unwieldy art project in the other. Just the right balance between authentic and progressive. The gray skies and promise of rain threaten to give this trip a negative tone, but I do my best to stay objective for what’s sure to be a long day.
Even though I used to get off just one stop further, this intersection is still bewildering. A vast pit of construction sits across from institutional buildings and a modern gas station, all intersected by strangely large roadways. It’s a reminder of how Queens’ true identity has always seemed to be in transition. I soon stumble upon Murray Playground, a sprawling modern feat the size of at least one city block. Teenagers who undoubtedly should be in school populate the swings and basketball courts, but generally the place is empty. With a nearly perfect view of the city in the distance, it seems a shame. Hanging just above the warehouses in the foggy air, Manhattan’s upward sprawl is so clear that it looks like a mirage.
I venture further into the neighborhood and the playground starts to feel out of place. Aside from a few side streets with Queens’ typical vinyl-clad row homes, the area shows no signs of life. The buildings are short and drab, housing everything from the Queens Center for Change to elevator repair shops. Crossing the street I’m narrowly passed by an SUV hauling a small bakery cart, likely empty from its morning duties in Midtown. It’s clear that this neighborhood is meant for functionality, not leisure. The only point of non-industrial activity seems to be the East River Diner, so I give it a shot.
Inside, the place features the same dark wood paneling, Formica counter and wall to wall mirrors of any small town fixture, yet here we are in an industrial park. A slow-moving old man in a cable knit sweater stands behind the register, undoubtedly the proprietor, and a younger guy works by his side. As the only one with a grasp on the kitchen’s Spanish and the old man’s native tongue (perhaps Russian?) the younger one seems to be the operation’s lynchpin. The late lunch crowd consists of some blue hairs and a few bloated men in suits reading the paper. My meal of meatloaf slabs, mashed potatoes, gravy (with what pleasantly might be a hint of cinnamon), mushy string beans and buttered rye bread is efficiently bland, as are the brief interactions with my waitress. Looking around, I quickly realize that I’m likely the youngest person they’ve had in all day. Yet, everyone seems too tired or reserved to mind my intrusion.
While everyone seems distant, there’s also camaraderie in their interactions. Their days may be boring, but they’re getting through it together. Halfway through my meal, a particularly mom-looking type comes into order her Cheeseburger Deluxe (sub onion rings) to go.
“Hey, where you been lately?” the lynchpin asks.
“Home, work,” she replies with fatigue.
“I don’t see you guys no more,” he says in a way that’s not so much disappointed as resigned. He may appreciate the familiar face, but he also knows that their interactions will always be functional at best. Of course she’s been at home and at work, that’s what everyone has been doing.
In this particular stretch of Queens — and from my experience, much of the borough — the residents live to serve the city. They manufacture its goods, crunch its numbers, deliver its morning muffins and come home just long enough to recharge for another round. That collective work ethic has its perks, creating an environment so relaxed that the mailman will comfortably leave his cart blocks away, but it’s also draining. Just like when I lived here, life in Queens today still seems to be a grind. That’s not to say that its residents don’t have happy moments amid the drabness, but they often languish in it just the same.
For whatever reason (we’ll chalk it up to ignorance) I’ve always imagined the Bronx to be New York’s most dangerous borough. Personalities and tempers seem to run high here. On the train ride up, I have the pleasure of sharing the car with an effeminate Latino man who’s quite vocally dismayed by the sudden service changes. Once above ground he continues these rants on the phone with whoever he’s supposed to be meeting for some kind of unknown deal. On the other hand, I get off with plenty of dog-tired working types who could’ve fit in just as well on the 7 train heading into deep Queens: A man in Carhartt carrying a drywall bucket full of tools, a pudgy girl in scrubs and a tired mail carrier rubbing her paper-worn hands with moisturizer. The methods may vary, but the Bronx seems to be a place of survival.
Immediately out of the train station it’s clear that this is a tough place to live. Hills roll up and around with no clear direction, traffic is just busy enough to never cease and there are few signs of happiness — from bars to churches — in sight. The local NYPD station sits atop a craggy plot surrounded by tall fences, as if a bastion against the destitution. Further up the hill and past some recessed train tracks, I finally find more residential areas, but they provide little comfort. The rain still hasn’t started, but the possibility of it seems to be keeping everyone inside.
The first few streets have a nice variety of houses with porches and turrets, yet even the best are protected by heavily secured gates. After this initial splash of character, the ensuing blocks are filled with row upon row of tightly stacked brick buildings as far I can see. Aside from the odd beauty parlor and bodega, the only sign of life is a local school. As kids burst out, they’re greeted by a Sabrett stand and an ice cream truck, though few seem to be buying. Their parents are too busy walking ahead or mingling on street corners, unaware of whatever mischief their children are up to. Immediately after passing a stray little boy, I spot a hooded, camo-clad man lurking ominously in a nearby alley.
Back out on the main roadway, most businesses hold connotations of danger. Everything from collision repair, alarm systems, security TV installation, window tinting and live poultry (“vivero”) are available. Complete with photos of all seven types of bird available (plus a rabbit) the vivero shop seems to have it all. Through plastic flaps, their holding area is in full view, yet none of the passersby seem to take notice. The flaps are so grimy with chicken filth that it’s hard to see inside, but the rustling of white feathers is definitely clear. These doomed chickens are the liveliest things I’ve seen so far in one of the city’s most densely packed boroughs.
Further up the road, I at least find a friendly cashier while buying a bag of chili-lime plantain chips, but his choice of ’90s era Aerosmith-pop is off-putting. Something about this neighborhood’s condensed desolation makes me feel uneasy and I decide it’s time to head back down the hill. I know that the Bronx has a lot more to offer — the zoo was nice last summer — but today’s spot-check bore troubling results. If life up here is about survival, as many factors I found seem to indicate, then the locals are hanging on by a thread. I suppose it’s only right that Manhattan’s decadence would have to be counter-balanced with a place like this.
The trip out here is easily the most anticipated part of my day. Nothing says adventure like riding a boat to an island. After departing from the impressively clean ferry terminal, our vessel, “Samuel I. Newhouse,” plows forth into the gray waters. The poor weather makes for a relatively clear bow, though some intrepid tourists are still out. An older gentleman in business dress seems to be hosting a group of Russian men, regaling them with stories of Sully’s miracle landing as well as a primer in Franco-American relations. Along with the standard giggly Asian tourists, I also share the deck with a group of Colorado University band students and their teacher. Apparently the city’s temptations have been detrimental to their livers, as they long for a previous weekend spent doing Star Wars puzzles from Target.
As we approach the statue, everyone’s cameras come out in full force and my initial reaction is to resist. Short of Times Square, this sightseeing ride would seem to be the ultimate tourist folly. With the statue now in full view, though, I can see why. It’s a reminder of the freedom we’re all supposed to feel here, especially in the city. Knowing that the locals inside the cabin are likely rolling their eyes, I pull out my phone and snap a couple shots anyway. If I hope to break through any of the city’s social barriers, the first step is to stop caring that they exist. Once the camera flurry is over, the locals begin pushing out onto the deck, just like any city train ride. Though, unlike the standard subway car, some of the passengers are on a first name basis with the deck hands. It’s refreshing to see such familiarity in something as crushingly anonymous as an evening commute.
The instant we dock, everyone shoots off like they never even met and I’m faced with the bleak streets of Staten Island. Aside from the recognizable city details of NYPD cars, trash cans, blocky government buildings and bus stops, I could have just as easily been on one of the Casco Bay islands back home. With its gleaming ferry terminal and nearby waterfront baseball stadium, this island is decidedly better funded, but its mentality proves to be just the same. Unsure of where to go first, I cut up the hill through the courthouse garden and stumble upon a bar called Steiny’s. Having spent much of the misty day walking around feeling cold, it’s high time for a drink.
Immediately upon entering Steiny’s I feel out of place, making a point to be very discreet about any notebook scribbling, lest I draw attention from the crowd. Six tough-looking older guys sit at the bar, already deep into what’s sure to be a long night. From their conversation, it seems that they work construction or make pizza, perhaps both. Their current activity, though, is harassing the attractive young bartender. Other than the stock photos of martini glasses and gimmicky pulsing specials board, she’s easily the most glamorous thing that Steiny’s has to offer. After suffering a number of sex jokes — with a brief reprieve spent talking about her childhood passion for swimming to another guy next to me — she has to shut them down. It’s doubtful they really feel that bad, but at least they recognize the potential for mistakes. “You wish your life away as you get older,” says one sagely. Downing my Newcastle, I make a note to fight that urge.
Outside, I head further up the hill past bodegas that look like country stores and a pack of shithead kids who get me with a, “Hey you dropped somethin’.” The deeper I go, the quieter it gets, until suddenly I find myself standing in the middle of the road surrounded by absolute stillness. My city instincts kick in and urge me back to the sidewalk, but it’s unnecessary. Wherever these people are, they don’t seem to be spending much time at home. While many of the houses are very nice, most of them have fallen into the same brand of coastal disrepair found in any New England town. Mattresses lay on the sidewalk, the innards of gutted houses clutter lawns and the paint is peeling in sheets.
Walking past a giggly teenage romance and a brief car-side meeting of some local hoods, I realize what’s been so off-putting: This island may have the back yards and window boxes of more idyllic regions, but it’s populated by the same fire escape jungles and slang phrases of New York. The offerings of their mini strip malls look just like the sequential awnings on any major outer borough street. Despite it being tainted by some of the city’s flaws, I find my time here to be very peaceful. Just like the islands back home, life out here may be hard, but at least it’s calm. While connected by a bridge, Staten Island is still New York’s much needed place of solitude. As I walk back into the ferry terminal, past a large piece of kaleidoscopic art overhead, I almost dread reentering the familiar chaos of Manhattan.
The ferry ride back feels too quick. After the ease of my walk around the island, the thought of cutting through the Village’s labyrinth is unpleasant. As we’re about to dock, though, a message painted on a nearby wharf gives me a sign. I can’t tell if it’s part of a larger phrase, but all I can see is, “AT THE SAME MOMENT” in large block lettering. On the tail end of my journey, no message could be more perfect. Living and working in Manhattan’s bustle was what gave me the idea for Realcity in the first place. Newly energized, I set off in search of a food truck.
To promote the upcoming series Game of Thrones, HBO has teamed with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio to create a rotating menu of Westeros-inspired food and serve it for free every night from a food truck. The locations are revealed each morning by Twitter and the first 300 people in line get served. I’ve never heard a more Manhattan idea. By the time I get there the line is already at least 80 deep, but I queue up nonetheless. Standing next to a miniature garden park, I have a nice enough view and welcome the moment to collect my thoughts.
A quick scan of my fellow fans and foodies reveals an odd mix. Aside from the requisite short, squat, nerdy and bearded fantasy buffs, we also have a strong contingent of the dress shoes/dress pants crowd. It seems that HBO’s marketing team has been working hard to get the message out there. Based on the perkiness level of their three official representatives, I’m not surprised. All wearing black Thrones T-shirts, they possess a combined level of blondness, Southern accents and naiveté strong enough to win over most any skeptic. One tells the girl ahead of me that she hasn’t read the books — and really why should she have to if she can just watch the trailers? — yet she represents the show gladly. I can’t help but wonder if the girl behind me who’s reading the fourth and most recent installment has an opinion on this.
Many minutes later, doubt sets in. Having catalogued every local business and landmark within sight for posterity (I’ll spare you the list), I’m now out of options. My hands are too cold to write or type on my phone, and my lips are well-sealed from a day of relative non-use and a dose of nautical chapping. Thankfully my fellow line-standers and marketing reps are available to answer all of the numerous questions from passersby about our purpose. Seeing as how the truck hasn’t even arrived yet — prompting outrage from some of the more ungrateful — most Village residents think we’re crazy. “Waiting in the rain for free food?” one man asks rhetorically. Living in the Village means one has enough money to not dally with such things.
During the hour I spend in line, the city’s collective attitude begins to seep back in. Having just experienced the other boroughs’ relative calm, Manhattan’s craziness is jarring. For being so needy as to require its hive workers to live out in other boroughs, you’d think it would at least have the decency to be appreciative of the options they provide. HBO will most definitely not be sending any food trucks past Central Park or over a bridge any time soon. Nowhere else do you have the choice of three banks, two fantasy costume shops and numerous food options all within one block. Yet, so many of the people who live and work here are too lost in their own realities to realize how good they have it.
This detour into negativity is all too common for me when in the city and I try to stay upbeat by thinking about the fancy food. My portion of “spiced roasted duck with dates, buttered turnips, cabbage and juniper” followed by a lemon cake eases the mental dismay. With no viable options for seating, I take a knee on the sidewalk, prompting many a strange look from my standing companions. The food is good — albeit a little cold from being exposed to the wind for too long — and gives me the energy for a final trek up to Union Square. Walking at breakneck speed to warm myself, I pass the usual sights of parents carrying their expensively-dressed children, tourists milling and NYU students hefting strange objects.
Up ahead the city lights remind me why this island can have such an effect on people. It may be a glaringly pretentious monstrosity, but it’s also the center of the entire five-borough operation. Few people move here with visions of Queens’ industrial parks or the Bronx’s brick buildings in mind. It’s the grandeur of Manhattan that everyone pictures when they think New York. Nowhere else are there enough indulgences to ease the stress of the expected workload. I used to fault people for sectioning themselves off here, but after today I almost understand. Live in the city’s madness long enough and you can adapt to it, but venture out even as far as another borough and your sense of reality may not survive the reentry. Having thoroughly shattered my concept of reality for the day, I decide it’s time to head back home.
I find my neighborhood no different upon returning to it nearly eight hours later. It still has just as many trees, just the same average amount of people and just enough noise to make you remember where you are. Down the street, my restaurant is still serving its “American-style,” organically-themed, locally-grown fare and in the other direction Pratt is still churning out kids with weird ideas. Of all the boroughs I passed through today, Brooklyn’s function may be the least clear, but it’s certainly the most fun. If people take too much homegrown pride it’s because amid the hipster garbage we have plenty of nice little gems. By offering such a drastically different lifestyle, our borough keeps the city on its toes.
As I walk down the hill, it seems that everyone is holed up for the supposed storm. The usually bustling Chinese food takeout room is empty, and the streets are free of bikers. At the end of my block, Manhattan’s skyline has even retreated into the fog but the ever-present BQE is still rumbling with constant activity. I wonder if I’m the only one in the city who went to all five boroughs today, but realize that it doesn’t matter when I consider what’s going on right in front of me. At the same moment, scores of people I’ve never met will pass by on the highway, and some whom I may have seen a hundred times. Even the combined scope of our realities is just a small part of what happened on this gray Thursday in realcity.