I was walking with a friend along Bondi Beach in Sydney at the end of 2016, when I stopped in my tracks and blurted out, “I want to be around dreamers”.
I didn’t know what I meant at the time, but something was tugging at me. Something was pulling me back to a city I’d fallen in love with over two decades before. A city with a heart-racing pulse, vibrancy and lots of chutzpah.
Less than two hours after those words fell out my mouth, I had a chance encounter with a stranger. He told me he was moving to New York.
Sometimes there is no better way to reignite a dream, than to hear someone else is living it.
That conversation came at just the right time, with just enough velocity, that a long-buried promise to myself to one day live in New York finally got my attention. As some gutsy decisions collided with strokes of magical alignment, so began a three year journey that magnetized me to this city I now call home.
But New York doesn’t take you in that easily. She knocks you around, tests your resilience and makes you prove your loyalty, like a rite of passage, before rewarding you with her warm and inclusive embrace.
And so the road to get here had many twists and turns. Jobs won and jobs lost. Emotional hurdles of leaving family and friends, and practical hurdles of racing against more than a few visa deadlines.
In January this year, after jumping what I thought was my last hurdle and graduating with a degree in New York toughness, I landed back at JFK. With a new visa and a new job in hand, I was ready to make a brand new start of it.
Exactly two months later, the city that never sleeps fell silent.
I will never forget that visceral shock I felt the weekend her always-on buzz was turned off. When the lights went out on Broadway and sports and music events were cancelled. When the endless rows of restaurants, bars and clubs shut their doors. And when, finally, the constant stream of yellow cabs and their honking horns vanished from the streets and avenues.
For the next few months, from bunkered down inside our apartments, New Yorkers watched the city in the fight of its life. The Covid numbers skyrocketed for forty-two days, and then crawled back down for the next sixty-nine. United against an insidious enemy invisible to the naked eye, this city achieved the impossible.
Yet, now that we are out of survival mode, the skeptics have come out to play and the papers are fueling their narrative with headlines that declare the city dead and dying. Although we didn’t need a pandemic to spread this rhetoric. People have been plotting New York’s demise for decades, for there will always be those who hold on to yesteryear as the glory days.
I too have heard people complain that New York will be forever changed. But here’s the thing. New York has always been forever changing.
It’s people who want to stand still and hold on to the past, even when she is ready to move forward. We all know that New York will be standing tall long after the naysayers have left town.
Now to be clear, my rosy colored glasses are indeed tinted with reality. And I’m not for one minute saying these are easy times. No, New York is not the vibrant, hyperactive city we’ve known her to be. Many people are struggling with great loss, lives have been turned upside down, and while some businesses have adapted, others have had to close down.
But as dramatic as her shut down was, so will be her rise. It will take time, but she will rise.
For if there is one thing New York has pulsating through her veins, it’s resilience. The glue that binds this diverse city and the fuel that ignites her community spirit.
Living right in the heart of it over the past five months, I’ve witnessed her grit, resilience and community spirit first hand. I’ve seen restaurants step up to feed doctors and nurses on the frontline, and then adapt to invite back diners with their innovative outdoor spaces. I’ve experienced neighbors pulling together in solidarity to form tight bonds of friendship. I’ve watched a lone jazz band breathe life back into the East Village. And I’ve seen artists use any blank space on the neighborhood walls as a canvas for their self-expression.
The restaurants will open and shut. Music venues will rise and fall. People will come and go. But what will always remain intact is the essence of this city’s soul and the rhythm of her heartbeat.
For New York is not just a city. It’s an attitude, a way of being. It’s a state of mind.
And it’s this state of mind that has magnetized – and will continue to magnetize – the dreamers and creators, the innovators and builders, the artists and writers year after year. It is this attitude that will fuel her rebuild.
Of course, these scenes of breaking down and rebuilding are not unique to New York. With Covid a global equalizer, they are playing out in countless cities and communities around the world. Each with their own unique brand of resilience, soul and community spirit.
So as the leaves start changing color and we enter a new season – and as we commit to rebuilding on a personal, community and global scale – we can either look back in the belief that the best years are behind us, or we can look forward and say the best years are yet to come. We can either cling to nostalgia from the past while bemoaning the present, or we can roll up our sleeves and create the future.
The simple truth is we can’t stop change. We can resist it. We can roll with it. Or, even better, we can shape it.
As for me, I’ll continue to trust the pull I had to the energy of this city back on that November day in 2016. I’ll learn from her resilience, I’ll grow with her rebuild, and I’ll look to the future to write the next chapter.