As a child I lived on a flat suburban grid. The mile streets were numbered; the houses sat on rectangular plots with lawns in the front and yards in the back, separated by driveways that emptied into the street. Beyond the square mile we lived in, bounded by 9 Mile and 10 Mile roads, freeways confused the linear order, but I was too young to know that.
As a student I lived on a mountain in Israel. I climbed 150 uneven stairs to get to school every morning. From the window of my dorm room space fell away. At night, I could see the outline of the Kinneret, a black hole surrounded by city lights miles below me. On days that school ended after sunset, I would watch the sky turn colors in the gridded windows of our trailer classrooms. Some days, I walked out of class and into the orange sky. I felt much closer to the heavens.
After Israel, I moved to Los Angeles. This time I had a car. The shape of the city changed in relation to me; mountains shifted, purple ridges appeared at the top of a street and disappeared several feet later. West began to mean something. It meant a fulminating ocean, the burst of blue that greets drivers emerging from the tunnel at the end of the 10 freeway. The ocean was always there, impossible to see or hear, hugging the end of the world.
In New York, I deny the feeling of entrapment it gives me. A world unto itself and impossible to leave. With a car I’d conquered space. In New York, I am constrained by it. Everyone hungers for it. The glass supertalls crane their necks up above the shoulders of the huddled masses of buildings, breathing cleaner air.
The city’s defendants keep their eyes on the frenetic life of the street; more life in a square block than all of Missoula, they say, more anger and love and injustice and desperation here than anywhere. A square foot costs more than your Mom’s mortgage payment, more than minimum wage for a week. Chinese takeout near designer handbags near drunk college students at the top of the world.
At work I talk to people who buy and sell pieces of space. They call our homes asset classes. They call the rent we pay net operating income. They think of the shapes of spaces as FAR, the amount of space zoning laws allow them to use for sleep, for play, for staircases so narrow they force awkward encounters with your neighbors.
Once, when I lived in East Harlem, I wrote about it for work, the forever story of New York: a neighborhood changing, a possible rezoning, near-death buildings abandoned by landlords, a neighborhood coffee shop opened by an optimistic half-Peruvian, determined to create a meeting place for residents old and new.
While reporting the story, I crossed the street from my building to the calm northwestern corner of Central Park, near the pond where two bodies were found when it thawed earlier that spring. On most days it was occupied by locals: runners, dog walkers, parents with strollers, parents on their way to school, workers on their way to work, the elderly from the home across Fifth Avenue, packs of teens, schoolchildren, depending on the time of day.
That day, a Sunday, it was still too chilly out for crowds, and the only man I had the courage to talk to was sitting on a bench facing the pond. He told me he was an organist who played at a storefront church on Third Avenue; he was playing at 4 that afternoon in fact, and I was invited.
He’d once lived across the street, on Fifth Avenue. He was in his fifties. Oh it was different back then, he said, and then paused, not mournfully but in a way that meant, where are we to start?
That was back when my building was still subsidized, before real estate agents tried to rename the blocks above East 96nd Street, before the condo building had been built on the corner opposite. In a deal with the developer, its first two floors had been designated as a community center for African-American and African art and culture, but the nonprofit organization had failed to raise the funds to build it. So for the three years I lived there, the concrete interiors of the grandiosely planned Africa Center sat vacant, beside the golden glow of the residential lobby next door.
That afternoon, I walked gingerly into the Third Avenue church, at the end of a bustling stretch of El Barrio. It was cozy inside and perfumed, packed with the body heat of the swaying congregation. The music bellowed, a woman described being possessed by the devil to a chorus of intensifying Amens.
This was a sacred space I didn’t understand. I left before the service was over to retread Third Avenue, to traverse El Barrio, to preside over the projects below me from my eighteenth floor apartment, to think endlessly about what it means to be situated in this space.