A survey was published this week in New York Magazine that caused more conversations over cappuccinos than any other hot issue of the moment: Which is the best community to live in in New York City? The winner was Park Slope in Brooklyn, a leafy, bohemian neighbourhood that has access to great parks, schools and transport links to the city. TriBeCa, where we live, came in fourteenth.
‘TriBeCa came fourteenth? Park Slope is better?’ I mused. I found myself feeling a bit short changed and territorial over my little tribe in Manhattan. It was a bit like turning up at your child’s school prize day and they don’t get to walk onto the stage and get the applause. You smile magnanimously, but deep down you are flicking through the excuses in your head as to why they didn’t win. ‘They have to give it to another area to make it fair’. ‘It’s because TriBeCa is so good that all the people who live there and answered the survey said Park Slope, so that thousands of people wouldn’t find out our great secret and come and live here, pushing up our property costs and squeezing our square footage’. As I eavesdropped and joined in heated discussions on the survey with other New Yorkers on the subway, in coffee shops, at the school gate, I began to realize that for the first time in my life I truly care about my neighbourhood.
I have lived in lots of places, where I have been very happy – not least my own home community in Northern Ireland, but none where I have felt this level of ownership and belonging. Of course, I belonged in my hometown, but that is a given. When you pop out of your mother’s tummy your place of birth is almost stamped on your forehead. It’s culture, attitudes, accents and beliefs, all unique to itself, all gradually sink under your skin and meld you to it. This is the first time I have lived in a place that has got under my skin and has taken ownership of me when it had no obligation to do so. I began to wonder how it could possibly have done such a thing in such a short space of time. And, is it really genuine, or would a few hundred more square feet of real estate make me want to belong to another tribe, perhaps in Park Slope?
The answer is found in how we live our day-to-day lives. We have no car and walk everywhere. As a result, we have built our family life in a concentrated area. The local store owners know us on first name terms and greet the kids with high fives, many friends are within walking distance, our music school, our swimming pool, our bike shop, our water parks, play parks, favourite coffee shops, restaurants, bars are all within a five minute walk. By the simple function that we cannot drive, we have focused our attention on our immediate area. The result is a very deep familiarity with a relatively small area. As we follow our daily routine of walking to and from the subway, we pass the same faces, stop and pet the same dogs, discuss the weather with the same newspaper guy, smile at the anonymous and familiar families who pass us on their way to other schools. It all builds up to making us feel safe and secure. We have become active in our community, getting involved in helping local organizations to stay afloat in difficult times. It is a community that we care about, that we feel safe in and that we have invested too much in to move on, even if it came fourteenth in the survey.
Caring for this community has its challenges however. Every we time we look out of our window, or cross a street, the ghost shadows of the World Trade Centre hang right over us. The great gaping hole in the skyline where the towers used to be is a painful and visual reminder of the potential fragility of our safety. Perhaps, some of those people who did not choose TriBeCa in the survey, had lived in the area on 9/11. I can only imagine what a desolate and frightening place it would have been. In the last few months, we came very close to ‘hosting’ the trial of the alleged masterminds of 9/11, right across the street from our building. It looks like it is being moved elsewhere due to local protests, but had that circus arrived in town; my family would have been living in a militarized zone that would have been a target for every nut job terrorist out there. Would I have cared about that kind of community?
Another grim and stark reminder of the underworld of a city was brought to life when yet another person was found murdered/dead in their apartment. This guy was living in a building just around the corner. We have now stopped putting local news on in the morning as it is starting to upset the kids. I think they realize how close by this stuff is happening. In just one week we walked past a man who was lying in the middle of the pavement, unconscious while people stepped over him, we had to move subway platforms to avoid some guy vomiting, we had to stop some drunk from trying to get in a cab we were in by opening the door when we were at a traffic light, all before lunchtime. The reality is that our school, friends, doormen and let’s be honest, money, are absolutely essential is keeping the real, but fragile sense of community around us.
So, as I joust, joke and debate with residents of other New York neighborhoods as to how the survey reflects our chosen enclave, I have in the back of my mind that city life can be messy, regardless of which community you choose. But, you know what? I am too much of a city girl to care.
Yours, going TriBal in TriBeCa.