New York is billed much too often as the Greatest City on Earth and too rarely as an up-charged frenzy of chain restaurants, tourist traps, finance bros, and hideous new-construction condos. Can you explain in detail what’s so Great about it? I’m asking because I see a lot of you visitors wandering around here, fresh from JFK or LaGuardia or the Port Authority, your eyes betraying your confusion: Holy shit, there are a gazillion buildings in this city and I have no idea where the Greatness is!
It’s out there, friend. But to find it you have to know why you came here, and too many of you don’t. I’ve read your TripAdvisor itineraries. You arrive with a vague notion that you’ll do some City Things. You putter around Midtown. You hit a Ray’s Pizza and fold a cheese slice in half. You clomp over to the base of the Empire State Building, gaze upwards, and discover that it looks like any other building from street level. You go to the Met, stare at priceless antiquities and try to look impressed. You take in a show, and it’s usually Phantom. If you’re feeling bold, you take the A train one stop into Brooklyn, stand on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, and look across the East River at the darkly gleaming fortress that is the Financial District. “Finally did Brooklyn!!” you tweet.
You will return to Peoria or Fredonia or Bentonville having done some mildly diverting sightseeing, and having absorbed a nice contact high from being around a sprawling, three-state megalopolis of 24 million people in a big hurry. “Fascinating place,” you’ll say, “but I wouldn’t want to live there.”
There, in this formulation, is Midtown, Times Square, and Central Park. And you’re right. I wouldn’t want to live there either.
But if you want to see what actually, might, by some metrics, give New York City the right to call itself the Greatest City on Earth, go to the places in the city where you would want to live. They exist. And to find them, you have to ask yourself what you really, truly love.