I’m from a tiny town in northern Vermont (to give you an idea, we’re about 40 minutes from the Canadian border). Before coming to Columbia, I had been to the city a few times, but I had absolutely no concept of the layout of the city, and it very much existed as an abstract concept in my mind. What I knew about New York City I gained from popular music (Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z being a personal favorite - feel free to play the link at the bottom of this blog to listen while reading), the New York Times (which my parents usually only got on Sundays), and various TV shows and movies (Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, Friends…I’m starting to regret admitting these things). I had a vague concept of the boroughs, but I will admit I probably could only name Brooklyn and Manhattan before moving here. My first week, I made the mistake of asking a friend if Queens was in Brooklyn. Needless to say, her uncontrollable laughter answered my question.
I’ve been here now for almost three months, and my concept of the city, and ideas about what it means to “be a New Yorker” have drastically changed. I’d like to explore my personal relationship to this space, and how my conceptions of it have changed, and why, and what it signified/symbolized to me before and after living here. Marcel Danesi talks about spaces as “signifying systems” in his book Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things. He writes that spaces are constructed by people in a way that gives them meaning – buildings are seen to be a “library”, “office”, etc., not just a pile of brick or stone. He also discusses how societies are perceived as “communal bodies”: for example, a society can be “healthy, sick, vibrant” etc. The city itself seems to be a living entity when we refer to the “heart” of the city or if it feels welcoming or “cold”. It is interesting to consider Danesi’s spatial theory when people stereotype or try to understand cities they’ve never visited, or are new to.
For me, and many others, New York City is a place of opportunity, of nightlife, of lights, and of life. The skyscrapers themselves appear cold on the outside, but they promise greatness and potential as they literally touch the sky. Times Square itself (though some would argue against this being the “heart” of New York) literally pulses with movement, noise, and almost a life of its own. A friend of mine had a T-shirt with an interesting design on it. When I asked what it was, she responded: “It’s the New York City skyline!! How do you not know that?!”. In New York, simply the outline of the buildings themselves says something about the city, and, to New Yorkers, is a piece of their identity and connection with the communal body of the city’s society.
Before moving, New York was an idea, a feeling that I couldn’t quite describe – almost comparable to how Charles Peirce would describe an icon: something intangible, that loses meaning when people try to break it down, or discuss what it is. After moving here, I’ve learned the boroughs, and found that the idea of the city has less agency on me than I originally anticipated. I’d bought certain clothes, shoes, even bags, that I thought would help me fit in to this idea of New York I’d used media and anecdotes to construct. Now, living here, I realize that while my initial perceptions of the city haven’t necessarily died, not everyone lives like Jay-Z, or Carrie Bradshaw, or Ross Geller. The signs that give New York it’s impressive, intangible identity are all still around - the skyscrapers, the noise, the lights, the life – but I have come to know the individual people that make up the communal body, and they are not so different from me.