New York City - Crowds that move like fish; towers not so much scraping the sky as announcing it; cafés below homes, like warm bellies in brick bodies. A war between beauty and ugliness in which neither gains ground and which demands both become strange new things.
The relaxed frenzy, the casual hurricane, the continual, negotiated accident of old New York. It's not for no reason, after all, that the place is one of the few cities that actually has the word "city" right there in its name.
I'm here with a friend and former New Yorker. The plan is to wander. That won't be hard - it's not necessary to have a destination here, and the contrast with Toronto is clear.
In New York, the journey truly can be the destination. This city is never finished. Construction workers are everywhere - often, I think, disassembling things so they can be transported five blocks and reassembled in time to be disassembled tomorrow. Construction hoardings cover Victorian buildings like facial masks. The city is vintage, the city is ad hoc.
My friend advised me that I'd be getting a snapshot at best; she didn't tell me I wouldn't even get to hold the camera still. Stepping off a side street tributary into the whitewater of midday Manhattan, I find it's best to just turn the burner of the mind low.
If I stay flexible, then the constant motion becomes almost meditative. Just move your legs, and the city maps you.
Of course, in a place where one step quickly becomes a hundred, communication becomes blunter; in contrast to the quiltwork of Toronto, I see hardly any posters (maybe a bit of business-district puritanism there, too).
But there are massive, monotonous billboards, a constant shout. "Hey! You! Wanna buy something?" What? Oh, maybe, but I can't stop here.
Toronto a "Megacity?" No, not really. Sure, we're big (in fact, upon returning I'll be surprised to learn that New York is only one and a third times bigger). But looking up at the Flatiron Building (theirs, not ours, though Toronto's was first) from the edge of Madison Square Park (Madison Square Garden nowhere in sight), the place feels large enough to hold Saturn.
Maybe it's the casual Saturnalia of a place housing an average of a million in every 38 square miles (2.48 million live within Toronto's 247). New York may not actually be a hundred times larger than Hogtown, but it walks like it is.
Dense? Like a pound cake. "You live in New York, you live in an apartment building. It's just part of the culture,' said Anthony Borelli of NYC's Community Board 4 last fall, at Toronto's Higher Learning symposium on how to build densely and humanely.
Community boards are comparable to our community councils - with the exception that they are planning bodies in practice, not just pretense. They have offices and employees, not just spots on City Hall's calendar.
Is this why density seems to work in NYC? New Yorkers might laugh, but there are no "dead zones' like the ones that pepper T.O., long stretches with nothing but houses. Shops and cafés are everywhere, electrifying sidewalks and fed by the density of which half of Toronto has a deathly fear. What I've long believed was prudence is starting to seem priggish.
Of course, it's hard to separate NIMBYism from genuine caution. NYC has an unfair advantage, and that's age. Nearly two centuries older, its density isn't just physical, but historical, economical, emotional. It's grown in layers, while our nascent and often adolescently demonstrative muddle is erupting in blocks. New York feels comfortable being what it is.
This has given it a scale both staggering and human; at its core, New York is a gigantic agglomeration of little things. The facade is massive, but the material is manageable, malleable, tactile.
Of course, New York may be locked in motion - rezonings are usually dispensed within seven months, a brief chat compared to Toronto's endless conversation. Our caution seems more democratic. Yet density done right could mean democracy doesn't need imposition, just permission.
Diverse density permits personal ownership of a city in a singular way. So much of New York is public space, and with physical density comes emotional complexity. Borelli memorably remarked that New York's high rises are the most engaged communities; my friend sagely remarks that people in New York (mostly) get along because they have to - there are so many of them.
But mostly I thank the parks. What many lack in verdure, they make up for in placement. Andre Aciman once wrote of Straus Park being an accidental "oasis of the soul,' a "place that had at least four addresses.'
In a city pressing up against itself, where the melting pot seems more like a pressure cooker, the parks are buffers, beautiful airlocks between neighbourhoods, places to allow transition in yourself before transition in your surroundings. Not necessarily destinations, but not just scenery. Awash in transience and history.
Our last day here, I'm standing in front of the 5 Pointz building (not affiliated with the 5 Points neighbourhood) in Long Island City (not on Long Island), a warehouse-complex-turned- artists'-studio covered in graffiti murals.
It's nothing short of erotic. I find I'm crying. It's not just the beauty; it's not even the proud display, outshining the tenuous hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner relationship Toronto has with street art. It's the fact that it's both New York's blessing and blind eye that means this can exist. It's like the first time I made love, losing youth and taking final ownership of my body. I see the admission written on every inch: we are citizens, this is our home, this is our second skin, this is where we are, this is what we are. I feel a sense of mourning as well. Love for a city may be a doomed love. Anything that seeks to turn earth into concrete may truly not be long for this world. But this is what we are right now, right here.
New York has never claimed to be anything but a metropolis - huge, filthy, stinking and loud. I think, with sadness and hope, of home, still deciding whether or not it's going to come out and be, really be, a city.
Of course, we really have no choice. But then let us make the choice, and not have it made for us. Let's own the accident.