When the wealthy decamp for the country, those left weather foul smells and stifling heat. We also get a glimpse of the old, pre-gentrification Big Apple
Summer in New York City sucks. It has always sucked. So, without doubt, the summer of 2016 will suck. Which, although it may not seem obvious, is excellent, life-affirming news for those of us stuck here.
Hear me out: New York City is in the midst of the biggest building boom in 50 years. Brooklyn is especially hard hit, but Manhattan and Queens are breaking records, too. In the cooler weather the construction explosion was unpleasant, but in the heat it turns the citys streets into a kind of hell. The jackhammers, banging and raging traffic are loud enough to hurt your ears and the sidewalks are either blocked off or scary rat-mazes through scaffolding.
And the construction pandemonium just amplifies the baseline misery of a normal Gotham summer, when rats frolic in ripped-apart bags of garbage and your fellow straphangers regular snappishness can explode into violent fury. Heat waves tend to inflict the most brutal suffering of the season, invariably sucker-punching you with despair while you bake.
It must be that you have failed at life, you decide. What else explains why you are in a crowded convection oven waiting for a subway and not on Cape Cod sipping a gin and tonic?
Its right there in your Facebook feed: anyone you know with their wits about them has found the escape hatch. And the delineation between the Country Mobile and the Urban Stuck is starkest on summer weekends. Then, its just you in New York, you and the working poor, the malodorous, the maladjusted, the emboldened rodents and a skeleton crew of grumpy civil servants contractually bound to keep the place running. And of course, the tourists are the worst of the lot.
Yet along with the physical and psychic distress, a New York summer engenders a unique inner reckoning. Like it or not, you are full frontal with yourself with your body, your life choices, your needs, your temper, your will and the immutable reality that you are, and always will be, a part of something much bigger than yourself.
Being confronted by your own cosmic insignificance as you struggle through an inferno to get to your dumb job can be a deeply unpleasant sensation. Yet gaining even a little self-awareness can lead to growth, creative insight and perhaps even a more profound sense of empathy than can be acquired whilst body surfing in Montauk.
Its impossible to hide from how much New York sucks in the summer by almost every metric of what makes life pleasant. And you cant avoid the fact that we humans are the ones who made it suck so hard. Spend a summer in this city and youve got a front row, center, ticket to the complex, inherently contradictory drama of mankinds existence within post-modern industrial capitalism.
There are great works of art which explore the strangely transcendent awfulness of summertime in New York. Turn off the air conditioner, open your window and watch Do The Right Thing, Rear Window and Dog Day Afternoon, look at Leonard Freeds photos of Harlem in the 1960s, read Desperate Characters. The city wont get better, but your vision of it might.
The people who tell you New York is fun in the summer are not lying. There are myriad bargains to be had, art-filled, de-populated galleries to explore, emptyish restaurants and bars, and lots of cool, free things to do. Although thats pretty much true of summer in every major city in the developed world.
Ultimately, whats unique and thrilling and life-affirming about a New York City summer is inextricably tangled up in how much it sucks. Because the heat and noise and smells and pollution which drive away the washed masses create an opportunity to experience the legendary good-old-bad-old New York the difficult, unpredictable, uncomfortable, scary, filthy, exciting city that supposedly died long ago, replaced by the gentrifiers driving the building boom.
Enduring summer here is the last remaining way to taste the inner intensity that New York inspired in the generations of misfits, exiles, immigrants and brilliant outcasts who made it their home.
Because the rest of the year, New York (with a few exceptions) is for the rich and the really rich and as such reflects their tastes and mores. And as Fran Lebowitz pointed out: You can like people with lots of money for certain reasons, hate them for certain reasons, but you cannot say that an entire city of people with lots of money is fascinating. Its not.
New York City really does suck in the summer. And if youre stuck here for the whole thing, well, lucky you.