Familiar places get boring, except when they don't
Chrystie Street, in the lush leafy glory of spring or summer, is where New York begins and ends for me - the place where the snake eats its own tail, or maybe the psychogeographical navel. It's a relatively short street, a southward extension of Second Avenue that runs from East Houston to Canal and ends right by the Manhattan Bridge. A strip of park space runs along its entire length, filling the space that would otherwise be a narrow block of buildings between Chrystie and Forsyth. Together, these two streets form a single wide boulevard. On the Chrystie side you'll find a mix of Chinese businesses - including hardware stores, restaurants, a laundromat, a shoe store and several bus companies - and the occasional discreet gallery or trendy basement nightlife spot. In the park, there are basketball courts, a soccer field, playgrounds, gardens and a sunken roller rink where I once stumbled upon a bunch of people playing polo on sleek bikes.
Why am I attached to Chrystie Street? I vividly remember the first time I ever arrived in New York alone, on a warm June night, a week after graduating from high school. I stepped off the Chinatown bus onto the corner of Chrystie and Canal, into the tropical air of the Lower East Side, full of the smells of ripe fruit and garbage in the gutters, throngs of people, and neon lights. It was absolutely thrilling - particularly coming from Boston, a city that often feels cold and formal. Chrystie Street brings to mind all of the excitement that I felt then.
When I first got here, New York felt infinite. The grid was liberating: I could walk to totally new places and always find my way home without a map. The first weekend of freshman year, my younger brother came to visit me with a friend and the three of us spent several days and nights wandering Midtown and the Village. I remember that we sat in Bryant Park looking up at the glowing skyscrapers; went into a hotel lobby to use the bathroom, then took the elevator up to the top floor and ran all the way down the stairs; hung out for a while on a piece of furniture that someone had tossed out onto the sidewalk, something that I am now too bedbug-savvy to do. Ignorance is bliss!
Boston gave me that thrill of novelty at one point, too. I went to high school in Copley Square, in the heart of downtown, an area that was new to me when I started ninth grade. Downtown Boston is compact and walkable but quite diverse, and after school my friends and I could wander around as we pleased. By the time I graduated, however, I felt like I had loitered in every single public space in the city. This isn't true, of course. I've realized that the place you come from can be the hardest to really explore, thanks to the inevitable prejudices that come from having lived somewhere a long time. For instance, I have always assumed that I would feel unwelcome as a visitor to South Boston (also known as Southie, of gangster-movie fame), mostly because I associate it with a history of local pride verging on xenophobia. I have been there only about two times and both visits were brief. Meanwhile, young transplants to Boston have started moving into brand-new condos there. I suppose they don't feel the weight of that history in the same way, not being natives of the area; but more importantly, it's entirely possible that Southie isn't really the way I imagine it at all.
Back to Chrystie Street. I know it well by now, but somehow the familiarity amplifies my feelings towards it rather than dulling them. I can measure the past three years of my life in bus trips to and from the Lucky Star Bus Company's waiting room. I have speed-walked down there to catch dozens of buses; I have also missed more than one bus, and had to sit in the park eating pork and rice or whatever to kill time before the next one. The trip from Boston, as well, is a familiar sequence of landscapes. From the depressing bus terminal at South Station, we get out onto the highway through Connecticut, passing through alternating mall-sprawl and green idyll; we stop at a Burger King outside of New Haven; we drive through Westchester and the Bronx, over Queens and Brooklyn, and finally come across the Williamsburg Bridge onto Delancey. Yet when I get out on Chrystie Street to elbow my way through the crowds and past the fruit stands, I still feel viscerally excited about New York.
In any case I have always felt more free in New York, although it has gradually become less mysterious to me. The Village started to feel banal after a while, as I now associate it with the semester-long routine of going to class, going to the library, grabbing lunch. The grid now feels oppressive: what incentive is there to wander when I always know exactly where I am? Last summer, I was able to rediscover the mystique of the city by moving to Brooklyn, getting a bike, and getting lost several times. I know now that this city is far too big to truly become boring, but you have to continually expand your territory to take advantage of it.