Imagining Place: New York, New York. It’s A Hell of a Town

Hi, you.

We started this relationship on the day I was born. I was given the birthright of your skyscrapers, your bridges, your busy streets and your sleepless nights.

We left you behind when I was very small, but the pull of the City that Never Sleeps just kept dragging me back, until I was 23 and came here to study.

I stayed for ten years.

But we’re done now. I have to be. I could blame it on the transit system, on the overwhelming nature of the city, on the isolation of New Jersey. I could blame it on any one thing, but the truth is, it’s everything.

You’re an inhospitable, genre-eating monster that I want to visit from time to time, but not something I want to live with for another decade.

Yet I also love New York City for what she is. When I call her a genre-eating monster, I’m not joking.

New York City is a genre all to herself.

Mythical and yet also searingly real. I think that New York often blurs the line of reality. Sometimes she feels like a monster, with the ways that puffs of smoke rise out of manhole covers, and the way it feels when you walk down a cobblestoned street or a narrow alley on a rainy night. You can walk through real film sets on your stroll home from work, and if you sign the right forms, your commute is suddenly a part of a Marvel film.

Or it can happen the other way around—the tragedy of my childhood was the AIDS crisis washing over my community like a curse. You can watch what happened if you turn on Rent or HBO’s The Normal Heart.

See? New York is so imbued in our fictions that it’s hard to sort out what’s real and what isn’t.

New York is a city of contradictions, living and breathing in its own tropes. The Ghostbusters firehouse is right there—you can visit it. Kisses have been had on the bridges in Central Park—both fictional and real. Brooklyn Bridge has been the site of breakups and proposals.

It’s why I’ve stayed with you so long, after all. One day I can feel like a heroine in an urban fantasy novel, the next I’m stalking the streets of the LES like a noir detective.

I think it is this liminal space—where New York is the fiction that is written about it, and the fiction that is written about New York is so palpable—that makes New York both so delightful and so terrifying.

Everything you’ve ever heard about New York City is true, and that’s why I want to leave. Everything you’ve ever heard about New York City is also a lie.

We consume New York as a genre—but in exchange she consumes our energy.

This relationship is sucking the marrow from my bones.

Because there is one thing that is true about New York. No matter how kind people are, no matter how fucking good the food is, no matter how great the theater scene—this city will eat you alive. It will spit you out, and then stomp your bones to gruel to feed to its little borough babies so they grow strong and tough and mean.

New York City will attack your senses, an assault of noise and emotion. As a deafblind woman I’ve learned when to turn my hearing aids off when walking through certain parts of the city, to dull the overwhelming scream of jackhammers and honking horns. The voice of the city is too much.

As a woman I’ve had to learn to live with the close quarters of men who decide my personal space is not something to respect, and I’ve grown weary of the constant prickle at the back of my neck, the hypervigilant sensation that I need to watch my own back because the city won’t do it for me.

As a disabled person with a guide dog I’ve had to navigate the inaccessibility of the city so many times that I build extra half hours into my adventures. Will I need to navigate the subway an extra three stops because there’s an exit we can’t navigate?

How many people will stop me to pet my dog?

How many times will I be turned out of a bar because, despite the law, he’s not welcome?

At a certain point, the liminality of New York, the shiny brightness of the genre that has been written for her—it wears off. The excitement turns to drudgery for some of us. The energy of the city—an endless whirl of things to do, people to see, places to visit, new food to eat—becomes not a joy to behold, but instead the stalking grim haunt of FOMO. How much energy will you expend to do the things you love in a city that hates you?

So that’s why we have to break up. Because New York, you don’t really love me anymore. You may have once, you may have sustained me, fed me, brought me joy…but instead I see you as something I’m required to participate in, something that drains the joy from my soul.

New York City may be a beloved place in my heart, but it does not love me back.

This relationship isn’t working for me anymore.

Because you could be better. You could decide that revamping the NYC metro system was worth it. You could decide that cracking down on guide dog refusals was important. You could decide that New York being a city for disabled people was something you wanted.

But you won’t. I know you won’t. And so I have to get away before you swallow me whole, before the marrow in my bones gets sucked down into the subways and my blood runs through the electrical wires. Before my joy is all but extinguished by the endless whirl of New York’s energy.

The tropes are true. The tropes are false. The fiction that lives and breathes in the bones of the City of New York is beautiful and terrifying.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Elsa Sjunneson

Elsa Sjunneson is a Deafblind author and editor living in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and nonfiction writing has been praised as “eloquence and activism in lockstep” and has been published in dozens of venues around the world. She has been a Hugo Award finalist seven times, and has won Hugo, Aurora, and BFA awards for her editorial work. When she isn’t writing, Sjunneson works to dismantle structural ableism and rebuild community support for disabled people everywhere. Her work includes her debut memoir Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, her Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla novel Sword of the White Horse, and her episode for Radiolab “The Helen Keller Exorcism.”

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