I first came to New York during the sweltering summer of 1999. I was twenty — old enough to travel without supervision, but still young and impressionable enough to be irreversibly affected. Though I’d travelled around Europe quite a lot, I’d never visited the United States, and growing up I was always slightly in awe of those who had. Shuffling off the 747 at JFK and into a yellow cab, I was acutely aware that I was realising a boyhood fantasy. It was, in short, a big deal.
While New York was already well on its way to becoming the city we know today, it felt like quite another place in ’99. When I arrived at the end of June the Knicks had just lost the NBA finals and Ricky Martin was on the cover of New York magazine. Incredibly, there’s not a single Starbucks in any of these photos. It was pre-9/11, and before the digital explosion that would shape global culture throughout the next decade. Many Americans had already begun to embrace the internet, but I didn’t have yet have an email address, or even a cell phone. Though it was only fifteen years ago Manhattan looked and felt a little different, a little rougher around the edges. It may have become de rigeur to lament the passing of the city that was, but I feel lucky to have got here when I did, as the town that had helped define the twentieth century took its final breaths.
I stayed at the On The Ave hotel on 77th Street. I enjoyed my first experiences of New York street life as I wandered down Broadway shortly after checking in, and spent the next 24 hours in a sort of haze, not quite able to comprehend that I too was here. There was a Fishs Eddy on the corner, a laundromat directly opposite and a café around the block called Xando (which later merged with the Così chain) where I ate breakfast each morning. Even though I’ve never lived on the Upper West Side, that neighbourhood maintains a warm familiarity for me, and I always feel especially safe and at home there.
Armed with my trusty Pentax K-1000 I explored Manhattan for the next six days almost exclusively on foot, documenting the city as extensively as possible and stopping what seemed like every few blocks to stock up on rolls of Kodak Gold 400. While New York was many things I’d imagined, there was much more that I couldn’t have prepared for, not least the positive vibe and the politeness of strangers. Interaction with New Yorkers was as frequent as it was delightful, and I still fondly recall witty exchanges that took place on the street, across restaurant tables, and while watching the July 4th fireworks from the shadow of the 59th Street Bridge.
I can still remember the song that played as the taxi sped back across the East River a couple of days later. Having had my hopes confirmed and appetite whetted I had no idea when or if I’d be back, a situation I found highly unsatisfactory. Much like the irresistible hooks of “Livin’ La Vida Loca”, New York persistently lingered with me in the months that followed. It became the setting for recurring dreams, and I began meticulously cataloging my most detailed memories of the trip, so paranoid was I that I would eventually forget them.
When I finally did return in 2006, the city had already changed, for better or worse. A year later I moved to New York for an internship. That was seven years ago and I’m still here (in New York — the internship ended). Today those giddy feelings I felt in 1999 seem very distant, almost quaint. It’s a bittersweet compromise, but the inevitable consequence of moving somewhere you’d dreamed of living is that the mystique soon evaporates, and that very special feeling — the urgent, almost frantic desire that once consumed you — is lost. Of course, it’s replaced with something arguably much better: the real and more rewarding experiences that come with actually living there. Occasionally those memories are jolted back to life by the slightest stimulus: the waft of pizza, an unmistakeable Motown intro, evening light on the side of a building. In those moments I’ll admit to standing there and squinting, trying desperately to cling to those first sensations, or even attempting to remember how I’d imagined New York all those years before I ever got here. But I can never hold on to them, because unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — you only get to visit somewhere for the first time once.
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