I started writing Visible City in the weeks after moving from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the suburbs of Boston. More than anything, I missed walking in the city, down Broadway, up Columbus, where there was always the chance of something interesting happening.
In the suburbs, I felt a kind of sensory deprivation. I still walked, to the library a few blocks away, to the town center that was half a mile from my house, but there was little to look at, no one I might pass: just houses, just cars.
On every visit I made back to New York, I felt my eyes regaining a wider stance. I was like a tourist, always looking up. Once I started writing about the city, my homesickness eased. When I wrote, I could still be on my beloved streets, still walking as I always had.
But as home as I felt, there was no denying the fact that the city I was writing about was changing – new buildings were going up, stores were changing, the people I knew moving away. The city I was writing about was my particular version of a place that comes in millions of versions. Each city dweller occupies a different place. We all navigate our own internal maps. In addition to the sights we see around us, there are parts of the city that exist in our memories: those old buildings that once stood, torn down to make way for something new. The people who occupied our apartments before us, leaving behind tiny traces.
And there are also parts of the city buried out of sight. As I wrote Visible City, I became fascinated with the idea of yet another version of the city that lay below, the old “ghost” subway stations which are no longer in use but still intact. The stacks beneath the New York Public Library, what used to be the water system of the Croton Aqueduct. The labyrinths beneath Grand Central. The steam pipes and atomic tunnels beneath Columbia University. The unused Amtrak tunnels under Riverside Park.
As a novelist, the metaphors were inescapable: what parts of ourselves are buried too? Can those closed-off parts ever come above ground, become visible?
There seemed to me too to be something very Jewish about the notion that the past remains a part of who we are, and in this case, physically so. As I wrote, I thought often about the different archaeological sites I’d visited in Israel, the excavations underneath Jerusalem’s Old City or in the town of Bet Sha’an. Here was the Manhattan version of these ancient sites. Even in a place so bustling, so modern, the physical remnants of the past were close by.
I researched urban explorers who snuck into these sealed off spaces. I visited City Hall Station – which is fleetingly visible if you stay on the 6 train after the last stop and is accessible by MTA tours a few times a year. Each time I went back to New York, I rode the 6 train, staying on for this glimpse of the grand stairway, the red and green tiles.
What is the allure of gaining entrance to these closed off spaces? What are these urban explorers in search of? A place, amid the crowds and congestion, that we can think of as being all our own. A view we share with no one. A feeling that we alone have discovered something new.
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When someone asks me where I’m from, I never hesitate to say that I’m from New York City. Then, a little ashamed, I often confess that I’m not really from New York, that I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. While I did not spend my formative years in the city, I have always considered myself a New Yorker, which probably has to do with all those summers I spent on Long Island with my mother’s parents. The day trips to Jones Beach and into the city to see a play or wander around Macy’s! Some of my favorite memories still involve being stopped between stations on the subway or the Long Island Railroad. And then our slow approach into Penn Station and the skyscrapers obliterating the sky and my mother leading my brother and me up into the beautiful, congested fray that is Manhattan.
Every step I took along those overpopulated sidewalks, every museum and bookstore I wandered through, every salty pretzel I pulled apart and devoured—all of it was leading me closer to my future self. At the time, I had little idea that years later I’d live in and among those crowds, museums, bookstores, and pretzel carts, though I should’ve suspected as much, given my early fondness for the city. When I was a boy, I fell head over heels in love with the city, yet it wasn’t until I finally moved there as a young adult that I came to really believe what Le Corbusier meant when he said, “A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe and 50 times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
A beautiful catastrophe, unlike any other in the world, especially for a young man who wanted desperately to become a writer. Even now, when I think about it, I am still filled with a sense of the romantic and haunted by that earlier version of myself, who traversed the sketchier and verboten neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Spanish Harlem on his bike, who lived on 107th and Central Park West, in what was and would continue to be for ages the biggest, most amazing apartment he ever lived in—a doorman building with view of the park, our rent only $1,400 a month. I shared the apartment with a friend, another Columbia undergrad, and eventually set a short story there. It was hard to leave an apartment like that, but leave it we had to do. After graduation, I moved downtown, then ultimately to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where I stayed for over a decade, until it was time for me to go. I had become too hard, too covetous of what other people had, and New York was killing me.
From there, I went to DC, then to Gettysburg, PA, then back to New York for a brief stint that lasted a summer and fall. Then, it was to Berlin, then back to Gettysburg, then Durham, NC, then Gettysburg yet again. Now, I am in College Station, Texas, soon to be moving to Atlanta—but, but, but…I left my heart in New York, just like so many of my characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence. No matter where I have gone, no matter where I have lived, New York always beckons me back. She is an impossible place to leave for long, even more of an impossible place to untangle from. Just ask Antonia Lively herself, or Henry Swallow, or Catherine Strayed. Just ask any of these characters where they’d rather be and they will tell you, “Well, New York City, naturally.”
Unfortunately, we do not always get to choose the places in which we live; some places choose us. Antonia, Henry, and Catherine live in Winslow, a small college town in upstate New York, and it chose them. It also chose me and it is where I have lived, in my imagination at least, for over ten years. I know the town just as well as I know New York City, perhaps even better than that, because I created it whereas, in some ways, New York City created me.
In New York City, in our Upper West Side apartment, my little brother and I watched my father act out the events and characters of his youth in British Mandate Palestine. He was a pantomime by trade and a teacher of physical acting, and when he told a story he didn’t just relate it with words— he performed it with every muscle in his face, with every physical gesture in his vast repertoire. And even then, though I thrilled and laughed at his exploits, I suspected that perhaps there was something exaggerated, slightly of the grotesque, in his portrayals of the multifarious denizens of that remote, ancient city; a city on the one hand so tiny and provincial, on the other so vast and timeless and redolent of eternity. A city against whose harsh, stony face the human dramas enacted by my father stood out in sharp, colorful relief, like a commedia dell’arte performance. Tragic, hilarious, and surely daubed with a huge dollop of fancy.
Then my parents would pack up for the summer and we would fly to spend several months with my father’s family in Israel… Get in the taxi from Tel Aviv and make the hour and half drive up to Jerusalem… Arrive at the corner of Jaffa Street across from the shouk, where my uncle lives with his huge family in the house that my great grandfather built over half a century before, in the precincts of what was then British Jerusalem… Get out of the cab, and breathe the suddenly dry, elevated air… Take in the sunlight glowing pink on the stone buildings, the strange, grotesque faces and postures of the city’s colorful, multifarious denizens… and then… realize, once again… that it was all true.
The truth of my father’s every gesture, every exaggeration, every outright lie, was borne out by the details of the real city I found myself in. And when I wrote this story I tried to put myself in my father’s shoes, as he told stories to my brother and me in our little apartment in New York City— mimicking voices, adopting postures, prancing, slouching and posing. Recreating what was into what is.