A writer I follow recently wrote a wonderful essay on Philadelphia, in which she described the city as having a sort of “gritty sincerity.” I love that. It’s a description I would also tie to New York—-sometimes worn, sometimes battered, sometimes mean, sometimes dirty—but always real. You see, we only pretend to live in a world of manicured lawns and neatly whitewashed fences and cleanliness and convenience. We expect trash to be turned out neatly in cans on the curb, waiting for a truck to come by to pick it up. We expect our sewers to work properly and we expect our neighbors to respect our right to a good night’s sleep by keeping the noise down and the lights off. We don’t expect to smell urine on the street corner, or see bags and bags of waste piled up at the base of a stop sign. We don’t believe that paint should be chipped, or curtains faded, or sidewalks riddled with cracks. We don’t want to have to come face to face with the dirtiness of human life and the passage of time. We turn our heads away from scents, sights, and sounds we disapprove of, cast a blind eye toward the waste we create, and overall just pretend that the reality of life doesn’t exist.
Many times, we find cities like New York repulsive. It is dirty. It’s bright lights and sparkly billboards are downright gaudy. There is trash littered everywhere. Unpleasant smells often linger in the air. But it’s real. In New York, you can’t hide from waste and dirt and weeds, you can’t ignore the reality of this world. Sometimes it’s rough, sometimes it’s polished, sometimes it’s green, sometimes it’s concrete. Chipping paint reveal colors that once were, rusty staples in the telephone pole give testament to the many flyers and notices that have been hung there, the sidewalks are embellished with scratches made by children trying to write their names with sticks. In New York City, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the mess we create; instead, it confronts us. Maybe it is gritty, but it’s got the mark of life. Underneath it, there’s a beauty–the type of beauty that adds texture to the otherwise flat portrait of our world. In New York, tribute is paid to generations of people who passed through the world before us…each one, it seems, has left his mark on this place, even just by adding a bit of grit.