Words & Photo by Tom Robotham

One cant paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt. – Georgia O’Keeffe


Last month in this space, I wrote about what I call the resonance of place: the vibrations in your very soul that you feel at the mere mention of a particular city or country. 

It’s all so subjective, of course—utterly dependent upon personal experience and sensibilities. It also depends greatly on where within a given city or country you happen to go, and the people you encounter. At the tail end of a recent 10-day visit to New York, I was reminded of this fact with renewed force. 

Since I no longer like to drive long distances by myself, I took the Amtrak, which arrives at Penn Station on the west side of midtown Manhattan. Ten blocks to the north, is Times Square, which I tend to avoid like the plague. But on my last night in the city, I wanted to be close to the station so I could catch an early-morning train without a lot of hassle. Unfortunately, all the hotels in the West 30s were either booked up or too expensive, so I ended up in one on West 46th, right in the heart of Times Square—which is to say, right in the heart of the busiest tourist trap in the world. On any given day, it draws some 360,000 visitors, according to various sources. That’s roughly 120,000 more people than the entire population of Norfolk—crammed into a few square blocks. 

As I sat on a bench, pondering my late afternoon plans, I watched with curiosity all of the people gawking at the gigantic electronic billboards, corporate megastores, costumed characters who offer to take photos with you, then hit you up for money, and wildly over-priced souvenir shops. To make matters worse, it was oppressively hot and humid. If there’s a hell, I thought, perhaps this is what it looks like. For a moment, I had the urge to go up to people randomly and yell, Get out of here! New York is a beautiful city, if you make even the slightest effort to explore it. I decided not to, of course. If folks don’t have the good sense to venture beyond Times Square—and many tourists don’t—that’s their business. 

I escaped as soon as possible, heading south on the 1 train to meet an old friend at the historic White Horse Tavern in the Village—the second oldest bar in the city, after McSorley’s. It’s a storied pub, best-known as the place where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. For my part, I felt a new sense of life as I walked through the familiar front door, which I entered for the first time 45 years ago. As my friend wasn’t there yet, I stepped outside for a smoke and had a delightful conversation with the hostess—a friendly young woman who moved to New York from Chicago to study media and culture at the New School. 

When my buddy finally arrived, we grabbed a quiet table in the back and talked about old times over a couple pints of Guinness. It was the perfect jumping off point for our evening together, since the White Horse has scarcely changed at all over the decades. Our ultimate destination, however, was the Village Vanguard, which, since 1935, has hosted virtually every great jazz musician you can think of. During the pandemic, it had to close, and I was deeply concerned that it might never reopen, so I was elated to be there once again. In addition to some superb music by the Billy Hart quartet, my friend and I enjoyed a conversation with a young man from Paris, who happened to be seated next to us. When he told me where he was from, I mentioned a jazz club there—38 Riv—and he said he knew it well. Earlier in the week, by some bizarre coincidence, I’d passed a woman on the street who was wearing a 38 Riv tee-shirt, stopped her in her tracks and told her I love the place. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d taken me for some creep, but she smiled and said she did too, remarking on its cavern-like interior. 

After the show, my friend and I strolled east, through Washington Square Park, which—at 10 o’clock—was still populated by people enjoying the warm summer evening, and was beautifully illuminated by the well-lit arch at the park’s northern entrance. When we got to University Place, we stopped in for a nightcap at another favorite old haunt, the Knickerbocker, where I once saw Harry Connick Jr. perform before he hit the big time. It’s a fine restaurant that’s usually crowded, but at that moment it was virtually empty, which suited us—the perfect spot to continue catching up. As an added bonus, the Mets game was on TV, and it turned out that the bartender was an avid fan. Thus, I had yet another bonding moment during a chance encounter.

Two days earlier, I’d gone to a Mets game at Citi Field, in Queens, where one experiences yet another slice of New York—one that isn’t always pleasant. The stadium itself is wonderful, and since I was with my daughter and son—both hardcore Mets fans—it was a lovely evening overall. The only drawback was that Mets fans behind us were heckling our own players for performing poorly. One even mocked designated-hitter Daniel Vogelbach for being “fat.” This is nothing new, of course—and always serves as a reminder that, true to stereotype, many New Yorkers are coarse and rude. 

Fortunately, most people I encounter whenever I go back to New York are the polar opposite, as my aforementioned anecdotes illustrate. Yet another example, is my experience at Ryan’s Daughter, a classic Irish pub on East 85th Street, where my daughter lives. The daytime bartender—a guy named Gerry—moved to New York from Dublin in the 1980s, and we had a fine conversation about his hometown as well as the Big Apple. In the process, we lamented the demise of many old pubs in New York, with their beautiful dark-wood bars, and agreed that we hated the more modern drinking establishments that have taken their place.

“There’s all this light-colored wood,” Gerry remarked. “They look like they were decorated by IKEA. And they’re too clean.” 

I laughed at his spot-on assessment. 

While staying for a few days with my daughter, I spent a fair amount of time sitting on her front stoop, smoking and watching passersby. In her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urbanist Jane Jacobs talked about the value of stoops and stoop-sitting—a New York tradition—as community builders and crime deterrents, since they provide eyes on the street. I experienced this first-hand, watching the steady stream of neighborhood residents: fit young people heading to or from the gym, elderly folks walking slowly with canes, couples with children in strollers, delivery men and utility workers, and folks of all ages carrying sacks from the market. Many ignored me, but some flashed friendly smiles, and a few stopped to chat. 

I did some stoop-sitting as well in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where my son and daughter-in-law live, and I was pleased that I wasn’t alone. On two occasions, my son and his wife stopped to talk with an elderly woman who spends so much time on her front steps that she’s become unofficial mayor of the block. 

I was also pleased that Bay Ridge hasn’t changed that much. It’s a lot more ethnically and racially diverse than it was when I was growing up just across the bridge in Staten Island, but it remains an Italian stronghold, which means it has superb restaurants, such as Gino’s, where we enjoyed a fine meal and service from old-school waiters. 

Since we were so close to Staten Island, we took a drive one day to visit my childhood neighborhood. As I noted in my last essay, my feelings about the Island are deeply ambivalent. My childhood home was torn down several years back and a hideously ugly McMansion was erected in its place—a symbol of how much it’s changed for the worse. We did take a nice stroll, though, through High Rock Park—a large stretch of preserved woods—and had a pleasant drive across Todt Hill, where the rich have always lived in more tasteful luxury homes. I couldn’t help wondering how I’d feel about the Island if my parents had been wealthy and I’d grown up on the hill. 

It was another reminder that our sense of a particular place is wholly dependent upon the specifics of experience—the cacophony or serenity of our chosen spots, the rudeness or warmth of the people we encounter, and the ease or difficulty of daily living. 

New York certainly makes life difficult at times. The traffic—which has always been horrific—seems to have gotten even worse, and the subway platforms in the summer at rush hour are hell holes. If you want to bypass them, you can get a cab, of course, but that costs an arm and a leg. One ride I took—from 24th to 85th—cost me more than my Amtrak ride from Norfolk to Penn Station. 

What I came to realize on this trip, though, is that New York remains astonishingly varied. Indeed, it’s not so much a coherent city, as it is an amalgam of sharply contrasting districts, from Times Square, with its gaudy commercialism and throngs of tourists, to the Village, with its lovely, tree-lined streets and rich culture, and Bay Ridge, with its middle-class sturdiness.

That’s worth keeping in mind if you don’t know the city well: Should you find yourself in a place that’s less than pleasant, don’t judge the whole town by that experience. A long stroll or short subway ride away, you’ll find, in essence, another city entirely. 

This is the second in a series about the resonance of place. Tom Robotham welcomes feedback at [email protected]