My Own Private New York
Somebody likes Los Angeles. Somebody likes Chicago. Some people cannot imagine their lifes without Boston. But New York is definitely beyond competition. It is a city of power, city of money, city of great opportunities. Almost all the Christmas romantic comedy films are made here. The Statue of Liberty, which says to everybody “You’re in America!”, is also here. If you did not visit New York, you did not see America.
And, of course, many people write books about NYC. History of this place needs to be noted because time is passing by, and everything is changing. While movies again and again provide people with recognizable clichés (yellow cabs, Central Park etc.), a talented writer works at another level: he or she puts inside not only some plot. The writer can also be incorporated in a book him or herself, so can his past, beliefs, dreams, impressions, and even entire private life. And it still will be a very interesting reading. To my mind, Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead is one of the books that any New Yorker must read at least once in their life just to remember how temporal everything in this place is. According to the key thought of the book,“You start building your own private New York the first time you lay eyes on it” (Whitehead 5).
So as passages about endless variety of changes that happen to NYC every time you are sleeping. But something always stays stable. It is not the architecture or language, or fashion. It is the atmosphere of the city of big opportunities. And the caste system that binds parts of this system together. Below I will try to explain why I think so.
Living in the USA, one cannot stay aside American popular culture. Gossip Girl was the first American TV series I watched in my life, and it made me really believe that New York was the place where all your dreams would come true. I imagined the biggest American city as a place of the biggest dramas, luxurious life, relaxing life style – exactly the way it was shown in the TV show. However, at the end of the day, I realized that not all New Yorkers can afford the life the characters of Gossip Girl have. What the media call a decent representation of NYC is just showing the audience a small part of the city. Creators of the show found the most glamorous spots in the Upper East Side, leaving behind the curtain all poverty, filth, and other problems of the locals. The good job was done because I cannot say that they lied: they just showed what they wanted to show, and nobody can blame them for that albeit marketing was a part of this job, and it tried to convince viewers from all around the world that NYC was “the main protagonist” of this teen drama.
Normally, when we see some movie hero (say, Howard Hughes), we can observe not only his handsome face. We also see shapes of his torso, his limbs and even aware of his buttocks size. That is, I think, we can call an honest representation. Of course, we hardly can find a biopic about an existing person that exposes “everything”, but at least we are aware of hero’s bad habits, his issues, losses and failures.
Even in the typical Hollywood “success stories”, not everything can be well all the time: I think, creating a proper drama needs changing the tone and the mood of the story from joys to tears (and vice verca). So, we cannot avoid showing the other side of the coin. To me, any other representation is not full. Yet, we cannot force movie industry moguls to show only “pure truth”. They will suggest renting some documentary. And it makes sense because movies and TV shows are definitely works of fiction, more or less, so how can we complain about that?
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However, in order to compare the whole city to a human, one needs to show not only what one sees in the mirror. I think the audience has the right to see the protagonist “naked” because they were promised to show a true portrait of this person, not only his studio photos. If to talk about NYC, before actual coming to this city, I had some idea only about its “face”, as it was represented in Gossip Girl. Later, I realized how naïve I was. It appeared that The Big Apple consists not only of Manhattan and Brooklin. Harlem is a part of NYC as well. So is Williamsburg. Yes, if you live like one of the characters of “Gossip Girl” and your life spins around groovy clubs and blazing boutiques, maybe you will never see these places, just because you have no reasons to go there.
That is the reason why I cannot disagree with the author of Colossus of New York: everyone has its own path in NYC, and everybody builds their own private New York. I suppose everything depends not only on the exact place where you live, but also on your age, habits, tastes, and desires. Having a favourite Chinese restorant means going there from time to time, so you will know it better than your friends, who prefer McDonalds. Those who like pets cannot just pass by a pet shop without visiting it. Movie fans always know the shortcut to the best movie theater in the district. One’s everyday life consists of these paths and places, and they tend to change once one changes their home.
So, can we call the image of New York that Gossip Girl strives to put in our minds “fictionalized”? Yes and no. Yes, because the lives of common New Yorkers differ a lot, and I cannot just ignore this fact. And no, because a “description” written by marketologists is just a trick to sell this TV show to the audience. I guess it does not tell us about the show a lot. We can even say that marketologists have their own vision of NYC, and we will get our own private opinion on this while watching this show.
Of course, the way the life of New Yorkers is shown in Gossip Girl is quite manipulative. It was convincing enough for me to believe that all (or at least the major part of) local teens live on the bright side. Then, I saw the dark side of NYC: many people from different parts of the country work rahter hard to try to find a place and fit in a huge city. They cannot afford the Starbucks and Tiffany life, they do not wear clothes from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, they do not live in luxury like youngsters from privileged families and high end locations. They just do not know what name-dropping is. Their ambitions and plans are quite limited as well. Many of them feel lucky if they can run at least a small restaurant, a deli market or a newsstand to provide for their families. Somebody fails balancing on the edge and becomes homeless, which is a really bad fate, especially in the cold winter. That is life, of course, but being a New Yorker is regarded as something special; that is why poor people go on with their tough life situation.
There is the novel The Queen of Bedlam by Robert R. McCammon written in Manhattan in 1702. According to the author, the population of the town at the beginning of 18th century was just around 5,000 (McCammon 15). It is very interesting to compare Manhattan of those days to the huge modern city that we live now in. I think the opening line of McCammon’s colonial detective is enough to understand how far the old New York is from its today state: “Twas said better to light a candle than to curse the dark, but in the town of New York in the summer of 1702 one might do both, for the candles were small and the dark was large” (McCammon 15).
NYC develops constantly, but even in the world of non-stop changes, some things stay the same, just like some families always stay rich. As the executive producer of Gossip Girl said, “The Upper East Side, New York, is old money New York. You know, it’s a place that has grand traditions, families that have had money for centuries and therefore it has a real caste system” (Bindig 78). No wonder why Gossip Girl tries to capture the essense of that piece of NYC, expressing it in scenes of glamorous life. Whatever you do in your district, the upper-class members of The Upper East Side will not change their paths. At least not until they become independent enough to chose something else. Because we all know what ‘parental control’ is.
Many people really like Gossip Girl; one can find a lot of memos and demotivators on the Internet with various famous phrases from there. Others suppose that NYC is now limited by Manhattan.They believe that accepting such an image of the “Big Apple”, one just tries to escape the cruel reality. Both sides are right. I think the creators of the TV show fully understand that not everybody is happy with the way NYC is represented in their work. But opposite opinions do not confuse them. They prefer to show the bright side of the life, and they always have an explanation why the characters stay in their luxurious “ghetto”. They just say: “You can’t fight against who you are” (“The Gossip Girl”). All we can do is shrugging: yes, of course. Somebody is on the bright side since their birth, and somebody is not. Somebody always has the opportunities that other people deserve more. And somebody always feels happy just managing to pay the rent.
It is hard to fit in somebody’s shoes, albeit sometimes, it helps us understand something that is not that obvious. So, I think we shall not take these works of fiction as some role-modeling lessons. They are just the image of something that one could have in one’s alternate life. One could be a famous teenage singer like Jason Bieber. However, one could also be a homeless refugee from some problem country. One could have a fortune, but one also could have a cancer. I think even rich ones have problems, but people see only the bright side of their life. Therefore, I think even a fictionalized version of life can teach people something, of course if scriptwriters know their job.
As Colson Whitehead wrote, everybody is the creator of their own NYC. Even the Gossip Girl characters have different attitudes to the opportunities they have, so I guess they will build their lives in different ways. So will we, TV-watchers. Somebody may have a great success, and their children (or grandchildren) will join the unnamed “The Upper East Side club”, while somebody will finally leave the city because of pricy rent. However, NCY is like a magnet, and I suspect even when New Yorkers complain about their life, they do not really think about relocating. They know the rules, and they all love the city, albeit it is not the city that was described in The Colossus of New York anymore. I remember an idea from a Chinese TV series, and I think that is how I understand New York now: if you love one, send them to New York, because it is a paradise; if you hate one, send them to New York, because it is a hell.