As most of my readers no doubt know, I’ve made neighborhood maps of many of the cities that I’ve explored, including Barcelona, Busan, Detroit, Glasgow, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seoul, and Taipei. There are many more big cities that I’ve visited, however, that I for whatever reason haven’t made neighborhood maps of — even cities I visited since I began mapping them — Kyoto, London, Mexico City, Montreal, Osaka, Paris, and Tokyo to name just a few that immediately come to mind. Of course, I’m hardly the only person who hasn’t mapped all of the cities that they’ve visited. Most people, I suppose, don’t draw maps of any of the cities that they’ve visited. Nevertheless, I decided to have a crack at New York City, recently.
A few weeks ago, my partner sent me a link to something about an organization offering to pay room and board to a writer willing to explore and write about New York City for the summer. I didn’t figure that I was the sort of person they were looking for (not juicy, no large social media following) but I did find myself suddenly thinking a lot about New York. In imagined preparation listened to music from New York and watched movies filmed in New York. I also, given New York’s successful implementation of a bus-only lane in Midtown Manhattan, found myself wondering whether or not New York still has a lot to teach other American cities, including, especially, the city I live in — Los Angeles.
Then the COVID19 pandemic happened. Now it seems unlikely that I, or most folks, will be heading to New York any time soon — or anywhere else, for that matter. On top of that, I got ill. The COVID test revealed it probably wasn’t coronavirus that I was afflicted with although I suffered from body aches, sore throat, runny nose, fever, and exhaustion. My doctor nevertheless recommended that I quarantine myself for a couple of weeks. And so, here’s a map of New York City neighborhoods and an essay about my relationship with New York. First the map.
To make the map, I relied mostly on preexisting maps, including a recently published one that was pretty extensive. I also relied on Wikipedia, and — despite its deserved notoriety for being an unreliable source when it comes to neighborhoods* — Google maps. I have little doubt that there will be those who find fault with my map and if they are from New York, they might be quite blunt about it. If you are offended by my map, I am sorry. If you have, on the other hand, constructive criticism regarding boundaries, designations, or omissions; I welcome you to leave a comment and, when possible, I will incorporate your input into my map in order to improve it.
I LIKE NEW YORK
Like I said, I’ve only been to New York City twice. Aside from a trip I took to the Grand Canyon, by mid-20s I had never been anywhere in the US outside the South or Midwest. Growing up as I mostly did in Missouri‘s Little Dixie region, the “big city” for me meant St. Louis** or Kansas City. In my junior high, a group of exchange students from France visited us. They expressed their desire to visit both the Grand Canyon and New York City. We took them to St. Louis and Kansas City.
From my home in the country, real cities were practically the stuff of fairy tales. I loved the works of Brooklyn-born author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats — especially Apt. 3. and Googles. I loved Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. I was simultaneously disturbed and enthralled by The Wiz. I bemoaned the fact that the tallest building in my town, a fifteen-story housing project called Paquin Tower, had been built the year I was born and Columbia (the town I lived outside of) hadn’t seen much verticality since. On the rare occasion that I saw a taxi (the sort people phoned for rather than hailed), I’d find myself excited by the possibility that its existence somehow heralded Columbia’s becoming a proper city. I remember the thrill of seeing a sign reading “subway” near the campus of Stephens College — only to discover it indicated the presence of a now-ubiquitous sandwich chain rather than the entrance to a vast, newly-built network of underground trains.
Until about ten years ago, the furthest north I’d ever been on the Atlantic Coast was Miami. As a child I imagined the Northeast was one unbroken urban mass of brick highrises and brownstones, fire escapes and subways. In my uninformed imagination, it included within it Baltimore, Boston, DC, Jersey City, Philadelphia… and Pittsburgh. Within this hard but electric megapolis, I imagined inhabitants in fingerless gloves warming their hands over fires burning inside of old oil drums whilst steam rose from beneath the cacophonous streets.
Most of the images I had of New York (and more broadly the Northeast) were the result of watching films and television set in New York. I don’t think I’d ever met anyone from New York until I moved to Los Angeles. One of my roommates alternately claimed Harlem and the Bronx, the other Staten Island. They were also two of the most obnoxious people I ever had the displeasure of knowing and both, even though they lived with me at different times, would shrug it off inappropriate roommate behaviors with a dismissive “I’m from New York!” which seemed to me like shorthand for “deal with it.”
Growing up, though, I loved the films of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Woody Allen, and Wayne Wang. I watched Hill Street Blues and assumed that the unnamed city it was set in was New York. Only in researching this map did I discover that it was intended to be a hybrid of Chicago, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh — and was filmed in Los Angeles.
Of course, there was also the music of New York. With rare exceptions, most of the hip-hop I liked was from there. Melle Mel, Whodini, Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and my favorite, Eric B. & Rakim. I loved electrofunk and freestyle. In high school, I was, for a time, all about the Native Tongues. After high school, I discovered a love for Tin Pan Alley, Harlem stride, bebop, doo-wop, Brill Building pop, no wave, Hi-NRG, and garage.
I went to college at the University of Iowa. After a year of obsessively making a point of exploring every block of every street of not just Iowa City but neighboring Coralville, North Liberty, Tiffin, University Heights, as well. It was time to set my sights higher. New York was the obvious choice, being the biggest city in the country — but my music tastes had turned toward New Orleans. I also considered Seattle because Twin Peaks had made the Pacific Northwest look so appealing.
Somewhere along the way, it seemed, though, my interest in New York had flagged. The commercial, pop-rappers of Bad Boy struck me as corny. Somehow, the New York of The Equalizer had been replaced with the New York of Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, and Sex & the City. Was it possible that New York was… over?
So much of New York’s reputation seemed primarily dependent on New Yorkers’ high regard for their city. New Yorkers love to tell you that New York is the “greatest city on earth” and “the center of the universe.” It’s the biggest and best at everything. As I got older, though, I began to detect apparent cracks in the New York Myth. The population of Tokyo, after all, surely seems more like the city of the future and its population overtook the population of New York back in 1968. The “tallest skyscraper,” had since 1973 been the Sears Tower in Chicago — the city which happens to be the birthplace of the skyscraper. Bagels and pizza? Fuggedaboutit! Those were invented in Poland and Naples. The Stonewall Riots? That happened two years after the Black Cat Protest in Los Angeles. The High Line? Paris’s Coulée verte René-Dumont got there sixteen years earlier. The Statue of Liberty? Ellis Island? Jeez, those are in New Jersey!***
At the same time, the New York City myth seemed too fragile to acknowledge certain unpleasant un-urban realities about itself — like that it was the birthplace of the American freeway (the Long Island Motor Parkway), suburban sprawl (Levittown); and businessman, television personality, and doofus president, Donald Trump.
My faith in New York was further tested during the Rudy Giuliani era. Everything I liked about New York seemed to recede further into the past. At any time from the 1850s to the 1980s, New York would’ve almost certainly been the American city in which I’d most want to have lived — but by the 1990s, Metropolitan, The French Connection, Ain’t Misbehavin’, This Side of Paradise, Gangs of New York, &c seemed to be fading away. On the other hand, Los Angeles was a place that had never interested me in the slightest — indifferent as I am to cars, sun, and slebs. Plus, I’d already had enough of boring, palm-lined suburbs during the nine months I’d lived in Tampa.
Nevertheless, in 1998, a friend and I headed west to visit friends on a road trip. I drove through thirteen states. Los Angeles, where I dropped of my friend, thankfully bore almost almost no relationship with the Los Angeles of my imagination. I’d heard of “the Valley” but never heard of the San Gabriel Valley. I was stunned by vibrancy of Koreatown. No Hollywood film or television show had ever acknowledged in any real way that Los Angeles was not, in fact, a boring Florida suburb, but rather an unparalled pan-Asian melting pot — home to the largest communities in the world of Cambodians, Filipinos, Iranians, Koreans, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese outside their respective homelands — and the nation’s largest populations of Burmese and Indonesians. Of course, I knew there’d be Mexicans — but nothing from Hollywood had ever hinted at how central to Los Angeles’s identity Mexicans were — nor the massive communities of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and other Central Americans.
It wasn’t just the people who were diverse, though, it was the ecology and landscape as well. No one, for example, seemed to acknowledge that Los Angeles’s skyscraper-dwarfing mountains made it not just vertical but the most vertical city on earth… or that the streets and yards of the city were not just patrolled by the usual urban suspects like rats, skunks, raccoons, and opossums — but also coyotes, ringtails, bobcats, bears, and mountain lions. And although I found the pseudo-tropical suburban oases I’d expected to find, I also learned that Los Angeles is characterized lush wetlands, chaparral-covered hills, grasslands blooming with poppies and lupines, vast deserts, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, the Galapagos-like Channel Islands.
It was only after ten years of living in Los Angeles that I finally got around to traveling to New York City for the first time. I visited my sister, then in school in New Jersey, as well as a few friends. It was winter. It was also almost eerily as I’d expected it to be… albeit decidedly less gritty . There weren’t any surprise climates, land forms, or animals roaming the streets… just more Koreans than I’d expected, and everyone wearing black coats and Burberry scarves.
In Los Angeles, I can still easily get disoriented on unfamiliar streets and the ubiquitous site of ocean or mountains on the horizon. My sister wanted to take the subway so much that I started to feel like a mole and begged to walk above ground just for a little bit. New York, on the other hand, proved easy to navigate. There’s Upper, Middle, and Lower Manhattan are arranged exactly as you’d expect them to be. “The Bronx is up but the Battery‘s down,” and all that.
This isn’t a knock against New York, mind you. It’s just an observation about geography, community, and place. Consider the remarkable range of New York neighborhoods that even a hreasonably engaged person will at least recognize the names of: Astoria, Bed-Stuy, Bensonhurst, Bowery, Brighton Beach, Broadway, Chelsea, Chinatown, the East Village, Flatbush, Greenwich Village, Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen, Hollis, Howard Beach, Jamaica, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, the Meat Packing District, Park Slope, South Bronx, Spanish Harlem, Tribeca, the Upper West Side, and Williamsburg.
Now consider Los Angeles locales. Beverly Hills, Compton, Inglewood, Long Beach, and the Sunset Strip — not one of which is actually in the city of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles neighborhood of Hollywood isn’t actually a neighborhood at all but rather a region akin to a borough… and a metonym for the superhero movie factory. The few actual neighborhoods with which I had some preexisting familiarity were almost always tied to a single pop cultural association. Bel-Air (the Fresh Prince of), Brentwood (the OJ Trial), Echo Park (Mi Vida Loca), Encino (Encino Man), Venice (birthplace of the Doors). The only exception might’ve been Watts — which I knew from both the iconic towers and riots. There are many more Los Angeles neighborhoods that most natives don’t know. Of the following — Canterbury Knolls, Chesterfield Square, Franklin Hills, Happy Valley, Hermon, Longwood Highlands, Monterey Hills, Morningside Circle, Rose Hill, University Hills, Victor Heights, Yucca Corridor, Wilshire Park, and Wilshire Vista — not one is included on the Los Angeles Times‘ less-than-conclusive neighborhood map.
A sense of place is just one thing I like about New York. While I may not like that much of its cultural exports (it can keep its hipsters, ramen burgers, cronuts, and Australian coffee shops), I do appreciate its ongoing commitment to being a proper city. In 2009, for example, New York closed Times Square to cars. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has at least 100 city “squares,” and with the exception of Pershing Square (which has cars parked beneath), cars drive through them all. Cars were banned from Central Park‘s scenic drives in 2018. Meanwhile, there’s not even a bus stop in Elysian Park, Grand Park is sliced trisected by streets, and a Griffith Park without cars is another impossible dream like California High-Speed Rail, daylit streams, ending parking minimums, Hollywood Central Park, Mobility Plan 2035, Park 101, building more public housing, vertical farming, or Vision Zero. While Manhattan may be able to ban cars from certain streets, even making room for bicycles in sleepy suburban Playa del Rey results in NIBMY weeping and gnashing of teeth as well as calls to recall a democratically-elected city councilperson. Whereas New York has about 730 green roofs, Los Angeles has, at last call, approximately two.
There are still plenty things I’d like to experience in New York on a personal level too. Los Angeles has an underappreciated theater scene but I wouldn’t say no to seeing a stage production in New York (provided its not a megamusical). I like alleys, bustling street life, and even night life — well, at least knowing that it exists even if though I personally am of the view that nothing ever happens after midnight that’s worth staying up for. I’d like to get a closer look at all of those uninhabited islands with their crumbling ruins that rarely show up on maps… or those European ethnic enclaves that complicate our racially distorted notions of diversity. I also want to explore those single-story suburbs that so many New Yorkers pretend don’t exist. And just once, I’d like walk out of my apartment with my shirt tucked in and not be asked by a stranger why I’m “so dressed up.”
*I was consulted by the New York Times for this piece