New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down.
New York City is probably the greatest love of my life, and being a New Yorker is perhaps the largest part of my identity. In many ways, I owe everything to New York. My upbringing consisted of crosstown bus rides, scalding pizza at my neighborhood pizzeria on frigid February days, and going from park to park to see which playground had the best jungle gym. Of course, as I got older, what I did changed—yet visits to my favorite movie theaters and museums were as beautiful as those pizza slices from earlier years. There was always something to do and somewhere to go, and even if I was by myself, I’ve never been alone in New York.
For most of my life, I’ve said that New York was the greatest gift from my parents. I think it was something that I grew increasingly cognizant of once I started to consider the possibility of leaving it, so when I got rejected from my dream college in the city, New York slipped away from me entirely. Every block I walked suddenly looked grim and empty. The thought of leaving the city was a constant presence—a nightmare I now couldn’t escape.
This past January, I bought a small tan journal with an orange binding that stuck out to me in the store. I liked that it fit in my tiny black purse, so I naturally began taking it with me whenever I went out. I didn’t use it until I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge with one of my best friends a few weeks later. As we stood gazing at the East River, we both mutually realized that we were at the one spot that was completely in the middle of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Right there was when the switch flipped, and New York instantly felt less daunting to me. Maybe it was because I stood taller than it, but I wasn’t afraid of leaving anymore. I felt compelled to document the feeling. I happened to have my journal in my tote bag, and while we stood, I wrote.
And I kept writing. The journal became an assemblage of fragments. I took note of the people who rolled their cigarettes on the M train and odorous, jam-packed train rides from the Lower East Side. I dwelled on sweet midday tea breaks and cute guys I’d see at Caffé Reggio on MacDougal Street. I reflected on solitary strolls to songs by Joni Mitchell and nights spent under the Washington Square Park arch with my friends. Sometimes, I’d even stop in the middle of the street just to jot something down. The sadness I’d felt only a month prior completely withered away, and I found myself in a newfound love affair with New York. The little tan notebook with the orange binding knows New York better than I think I do at times.
Two months into my entries, the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City hard. Day by day I watched small businesses and restaurants I loved close and saw the streets empty out. It seemed New York City was at a dead end. But I was too. In her book The Way Through The Woods, Litt Woon Wong writes that “When you lose a witness of your life, you lose a portion of yourself in the process.” I don’t know if New York is that witness, but I began to grieve for New York, and I did begin to lose a bit of myself as well. I had no motivation to pick up my camera, and I’d stopped writing in my journal. In a personal way, all the sadness I had initially felt about New York turned into bitterness and disappointment. These feelings only intensified as more time elapsed in quarantine.
I left New York City recently to go to college not too far away––actually, still in the state of New York. I miss the vibrancy, the noise, and the adventures at my fingertips, and it feels quite distant from the city at times, but I think that distance from home is just what I needed because in many ways, I feel more inspired than I have in a long time. Kim Gordon wrote in her memoir Girl In A Band that “Writing about New York is hard. Not because memories intersect and overlap, because they do… Now, it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart.” I’m on a brief hiatus from the city, and although I’m heartbroken about it, I’m still writing my love story. The most comforting part is knowing New York is always my home, even when I’m not there. Everything I do is a product of a life spent in the city, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what New York means to me. From my photography to my journal, I feel a strange duty to immortalize New York, and not being there for some time has only intensified that obligation. In one of my film classes this semester, we’ve talked about ways to tell our stories as documentarians. I suppose I’ve already been documenting about New York for some time, but as I enter the world as a filmmaker, I truly see the beginning of a lifetime of paying homage to the city.
By Colette Bernheim
Illustration by Ashley Setiawan