O New York, New York, carousel and carnival of the too-rich, busy, full life, how can one ever do justice to your insane human fullness? —Alfred Kazin
By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange. —Jane Jacobs
One cold spring night, the promise of summer held back as if in spite, I emerged from a subway station on the edge of Williamsburg, on my way to meet a friend for dinner. I noticed an Orthodox Jew in characteristic all-black attire and shtreimel walking swiftly toward me. I assumed that he found me suspicious — a not-rare-enough reaction to the mundane fact of my having black skin — and so was advancing threateningly to ward off the threat I was presumed to be. I began to move away from him, but not too quickly, lest I appear all the more guilty. He altered course to intercept me, like a bullet that wouldn’t be denied its target. I zigged, hoping that a quick veer would get me away from him, but somehow he managed to close the distance between us. He didn’t walk so much as glide. Perhaps the man was a ninja and I had scanned him wrong. I stopped and flinched, thinking, Not the face, please, but he leaned in and, with gentle insistence, asked, “Would you like to do a good deed?” There was an undertone of challenge to the question, and also an irresistible strain of pleading. I answered yes, and he made a sharp turn and said, “Follow me.”
He took me around a corner, where an older man stood with three young kids huddled beside him. “Follow the rabbi,” my chaperone said. So I followed the rabbi, who crossed the road, children in tow, entered a synagogue, and climbed the high stairs that overlooked its majestic hall. There he stopped and entered a modest kitchen. He instructed me to unplug a kettle. When I had done so, the rabbi graciously bid me goodbye, and I stepped out onto the windy sidewalk, ready to rush to my appointment. But my good deed wasn’t done, apparently. The friendly ninja said, “There is one more. Come with me.”
Off we went, down the road to what turned out to be his own apartment. His wife and two curious children were standing in the living room — they’d been waiting for hours, I was told, for whomever was ready to perform a good deed on a Saturday night (it was the Jewish holiday Shavuot) — and he had me set his thermostat at a desired temperature and turn on his dryer, which had wet clothes in it. As I was checking appliances, he asked what I did for a living. “I’m a writer,” I answered, and he asked me to email him my work. I looked at the email address he scribbled on a paper and tried to repress a smile; it was the kind of address I’d expect from a playful teenager, not from this distinguished-looking Orthodox Jew who was graciously insisting on giving me food for my journey. I explained that I needed nothing — a good deed should be its own reward, after all, plus I was on my way to eat Japanese food — but he insisted that I shouldn’t leave empty-handed and gave me a freezie. “Look — it’s kosher,” he reassured me.
A neighbor was waiting in the hallway. He beckoned me to an apartment one floor below, where I turned on lights to discover about a dozen people standing in the living room, no longer in the dark because I had flipped a switch. I didn’t have the heart to ask how long they had congregated there in the darkness. Thermostat and kettle checked, I finally made my way out of this building populated with people who depended on the kindness of strangers.
Out on the quiet sidewalk, I looked around. No one was waiting to accost me. I stared up at the building, and the darkness in the windows tugged at me — were people up there waiting for hands willing to work on the Sabbath? Would they shout for assistance if they saw me? The only sound I heard was the whistle of a wind that rushed down to push me along, as if someone had whispered that I was late. Suddenly these sidewalks where I had walked dozens of times before became a place more revealing, and more mysterious.
New York City does that to you — it sneaks up on you. It sneaks up on you and promises that there is always more to see, to hear, to know. It surprises you with its inexhaustibility. At the same time, it reminds you that there is much that is hidden, because of the basic algebra in which knowledge equals identity. Behind what is revealed lie layers of national histories and cultural rituals and religious traditions and family lore. The city is a fossil record, and every layer you peel back exposes another layer whose contours reveal only our limitations in knowing the city.
And yet, New York is as ready to give of itself as it is apt to withhold itself. Nowhere is this tendency to announce its marvels while simultaneously whispering its secrets as interwoven as within its immigrant communities.
Immigrants are central to the allure of the city. It’s a truism the city repeats endlessly to itself: Immigrants provide a rich diversity and cosmopolitan flavor that awaken one’s senses and enliven one’s sense of identity. (Though for far too many residents, immigrants are merely wonderful entertainment: “Give us your singers, your dancers, your cooking masses” seems to be the motto for the hordes talking about the coolest new Chinese restaurant or the funkiest new Brazilian band.) The ubiquitous presence of nonnative bodies with foreign tongues is among the reasons people assert that New York has a “low bar of entry”: A new immigrant can get off the plane at JFK International Airport and, shortly after, declare status as a New Yorker.
So many immigrant groups lay claim to New York — a favor the city, in general, returns by championing itself as a city of immigrants — that newcomers can feel attached to the city merely by virtue of their intense allegiance to a group that already feels at home there. Certainly, many who migrate to the city are like the seeker E. B. White described in the middle of the 20th century in Here Is New York: “the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.” But for a sizable number of these immigrants, especially those who were forced here from elsewhere, home in New York may very well be a facsimile or echo of a home left behind. In some parts of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, I am tempted to take photographs, develop them, and playfully write “Kingston, circa 1990” on the back of the prints before I mail them back to Jamaica, where I grew up. In New York one can easily be elsewhere by being here.
New York opens itself up to those willing to explore it, and so the view from elsewhere can be glimpsed — and enjoyed — by wandering the city’s streets. I regularly walk those streets, hoping for serendipity and its gift of fascinating encounters. A city is, in part, the sum of its stories, and those stories are best gathered up close — on foot. So I walk, in this city of walkers, and join its throngs, even in places the locals shun. Many people avoid Times Square because of its aimless tourists walking like drunk goats, erratic in their stop-start-turn anti-rhythms, stubbornly oblivious to anyone around them. But these tourists carry the eyes of the innocent, the refreshing curiosity that asks: Why? Where? How? When? Who? Where? Where again? Creeping crowds of foreigners smiling, laughing, gazing, and grazing somehow puncture the jaded bubble I surround myself with to block out the high-wattage advertisements glaring down and screaming: want, covet, buy.
On some days, as I try to zoom past costumed characters (Elmo and Cookie Monster trying to make the rent) and desnudas (nearly nude women whose costume is mostly the shedding of costume), I catch a glimpse of a face or overhear a voice that expresses surprise at the vibrancy or eccentricity of this city, and my capacity for wonder is refreshed. I’m also reminded that never far from the glamour and gloss of New York are its immigrant workers, the blood and sweat beneath or beside the city’s sheen. Most of the performers in Times Square posing for photos in exchange for tips are immigrants. Minnie Mouse might be from Mexico, Cookie Monster from Peru, and the topless woman with the American flag painted on her bare chest from Brazil. The place might feel like Disneyland on meth, but if one pays attention and relinquishes the right to be the hare overtaking the tortoise, I’ve come to learn, one will see an overture to New York’s complex diversity in the many faces gleaming beneath the glare of Times Square.
All those visitors in Times Square are there to see New York — or a particular dazzling version of it — and I walk around that bustling public space to see past the glitter to “people, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants,” as Walt Whitman once celebrated. “Manhattan streets, with their powerful throbs ... Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus — with varied chorus, and light of the sparkling eyes.” But Manhattan’s streets aren’t enough for me: I want to witness all across the city how people take their home countries with them to New York and adapt easily or uneasily to this challenging metropolis.
E. B. White said that “the city makes up for its hazards and deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin — the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.” Many dreamers in the city — and I count myself among them — will nod to that, but a lot of immigrants press on because of the need and will to survive: They persevere not only for themselves but also for those dependent on them in New York and in the place they left. They trade in the vitamin with its intoxicating vision of the city for a drug that will help them endure the pain this increasingly unequal city inflicts on the poor, the weak, the undocumented.
I want to see displays that remind me of my old home, like the Jamaicans and Haitians and Bajans and Trinis in jubilant celebration on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn in the annual West Indian Day Parade, their costumes outshining the most brilliant male Indian peacock you’ve ever seen. I want to introduce myself, introduce my friends, to the many cultures that call New York home, like the euphoric mix of Colombians and Argentinians and Ecuadorians and Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Nepalese and Chinese and Filipinos in Jackson Heights. I want to see how people long for home; I want to observe how they declare: “This is my home.” Cosmopolitan that I am, I’m most at home at the intersection of many homes, so I search for the “turbulent musical chorus” in all five boroughs of New York.
I know of no better way to create a sense of place, a sense of home, than through walking. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a walker, one who makes sense of the world by strolling through it. It’s no surprise, then, that when I moved to New York I made it my home by walking all over it. Many immigrants, from countries where the walker has not been displaced by the automobile, lay claim to the city by grasping it underfoot. They warm up to it at walking pace. And they reacquaint with it at the same pace. One of the ways they arrive in the city is through walking; each step we take, after all, is a movement from departure to arrival. So I walk to connect with the city, but also to connect with other immigrants who pursue home — step by step, encounter by encounter, ambition by ambition — the way I do. And the way I don’t. After all, “All day all over the city,” Robert Pinsky tells us, “every person / Wanders a different city, sealed intact.”
The city gives itself over — unevenly, but genuinely — to those ready to explore it, and one can catch glimpses of parts of the globe by rambling from neighborhood to neighborhood. The world has come to New York neighborhoods, after all; time and again I’ve met neighbors who told me they were neighbors in the old country, and their moves were less city to city than neighborhood to neighborhood.
One spring afternoon in 2015, I decided to “visit the world in a day” by walking for 24 hours through all five boroughs. Though the idea had the whiff of gimmickry, I thought that it would be a good exercise to have the exhaustibility of the body meet the inexhaustibility of the city. I wanted my body to be aware of its limitations (in energy, that is; I’m regularly made aware of the lines of trespass drawn because of my complexion and have inculcated rules for “walking while black”). Moreover, I thought, it’d be fun to walk in a circle around New York to see what it would throw at me — my route was both planned enough and arbitrary enough to make serendipity and vulnerability intersect.
I began near the northwest tip of the Bronx, in Riverdale, walking past its kosher delis and Jewish schools; to neighboring Kingsbridge, with its Irish and Dominican population; over to Arthur Avenue, where the Bronx’s Little Italy overflows with Italian-American families enjoying culinary delights; across to the Grand Concourse, a thoroughfare modeled on the Champs-Élysées, where the sound of bomba greets me along with its Puerto Rican residents; along to the energetic crossroads in the South Bronx known as the Hub, nicknamed the Times Square of the Bronx, with African and Latino shoppers pouring in and out of the commercial centers; down to Le Petit Sénégal, a stretch on 116th Street in West Harlem where West Africans beckon passersby into shops and restaurants with inviting colors and smells and laughter. I’m greeted with such warmth in a restaurant that I wonder if I’ve walked into a friend’s living room. I linger and observe and chat, as I’ve done my entire trip. Here in Harlem, as in all the places I’ve walked, there are signposts of the home being made and reminders of the home left. I remember Jane Jacobs’ observation: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
I make my way down to the headquarters of the United Nations, an institution created to unite high ideals and national interest to promote cooperation; to encourage humanity’s best instincts and oppose and temper its worst, you might say. I detect a resonance from abroad in this neighborhood that I don’t perceive anywhere else in New York. It has among the city’s most diverse peoples, certainly the most diverse collection of nationalities we can see on a map of sovereign nation-states. There is a whiff of anti-colonialism here — or at least the sense that those at the margins get to sit at the table and make their voices heard. (This, in a city where far too often the voices of poor immigrants are muted or ignored.) And to boot, there is the deep affinity that anchors connection: If you come to New York City from, say, Mali and go to the UN headquarters, you know you’ll encounter Malians there. Some pleasures that seem trivial — you want Chinese or Filipino or Jamaican or Ghanaian or Colombian food, you can find a lead to it here — run deep for the immigrant new to this city, trying to make it a new home.
The UN complex overlooking the East River is worth a reflective pause, because the clichés about Immigrant New York City — a bouquet of difference, a rich mix, a flavorful stew (that cloying phrase: melting pot) — are tempered here. One is reminded of what we can aspire to or even reach, but we are also shown the depths to which we plunge to degrade ourselves and harm others. And it reminds me why a phenomenally diverse place like Jackson Heights in Queens is such a marvel: People who are at each other’s throats in their home countries have found a way to coexist in their new home in New York.
I travel onward, passing through Grand Central’s busy mix of travelers; down past “Curry Hill,” with its row of Indian restaurants and spice shops; farther down past Loisaida, the Puerto Rican neighborhood on the Lower East Side; on to the Williamsburg Bridge, where I’m led to Hasidic Jewish, Italian-American, and Hispanic communities. (Though I’ve crossed that bridge more times than I can remember and am aware of the tensions that have arisen between some of those communities, I can’t help but feel like the narrator of The Great Gatsby when he crosses the Queensboro Bridge: The city I see is “the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”)
I traverse and linger in neighborhoods — Maspeth, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Corona, and Flushing in Queens; Parkchester, East Tremont, Belmont, and Fordham in the Bronx; and Tompkinsville in Staten Island, where I end my journey after jumping on a train from the Bronx all the way down to the tip of Manhattan, then catching the famously free ferry across the harbor and walking to reward myself with Sri Lankan food. At each stop I encounter familiarity and surprise, continually bumping into the city’s mystery and beauty. Block after block, I keep trying to search for what lies beyond. Beyond my own neighborhood, beyond my awareness, beyond my self. I am searching for what the city’s immigrant communities hold forth and hold back, recognizing that, as Alfred Kazin once said of lights along Jamaica Avenue, “they were searching out so many new things in me.”
We carry within us the maps of our wanderings. We inscribe upon our imaginations the routes we have known, and we impose them on new journeys, one map layered on another. So I try to walk against the maps soldered onto my mind, hoping to create fresh, unencumbered ones. (As I move around, though, I never forget the unremarkable yet remarkable fact that because I am black and an immigrant, there are many regions that I have to navigate with caution, and others that are out of bounds to me.) Our maps are our stories, and we leave ourselves open to new stories, new possibilities, new visions of ourselves and the world if we walk to get lost, to admit our ignorance and finitude by encountering the new and different. Something inside of me wants to master this unconquerable metropolis that is New York.
But the city is unstoppable, moving on unsentimentally and making my attempts to know it hardly more definitive than snapshots across time. Each pass I make through the city uncovers more of its texture but also reminds me that much is hidden. I’m not seeing the tip of the iceberg — I’m seeing the tip of a wing of a bird on the iceberg. When I walk through the immigrant communities of New York, then, I feel humbled. The city tells me that mastery is beyond my grasp, that the grandest gift of the streets is mystery. New York promises that, in a place where ambition is the treasured watchword, we can more fully find ourselves in each other and learn to be enchanted by the things revealed and the awareness that much is held back, awaiting our gentle curiosity. “And what happens next,” to borrow the wisdom of Seamus Heaney, “is a music that you never would have known to listen for.” This inexhaustible city need not exhaust us — we can walk into wonder.
This essay appears in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, from the University of California Press.
Garnette Cadogan is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. He is editor-at-large for Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro) and is at work on a book on walking.
Garnette Cadogan is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. He is editor-at-large for Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro), and is at work on a book on walking.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.