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Because Crowds Aren’t Just a Thing to Fear. They’re Home.


On the first dream I remember having, I was standing with my mother in a crowd in Manhattan, jostled by strangers, watching balloons float into the sky; the second was of studying people on a crowded subway platform on what was then the RR line.

What would New York be without its crowds? I’ve lived in this city my whole life, and to me New York is walking in crowds, negotiating the bags, elbows, feet, and clusters of others, anonymous but seen, present yet alone, amiably connected to the life of the city and as free of connection as you choose. When I walk the streets, especially at this time of year, I feel I am among people the way the city windows are among skyscrapers, scores of them lit up as Hart Crane’s “fiery parcels.” The skyline is a crowd; the traffic is a crowd; we’re a crowd. On evenings when the first chill has come, and you’re heading to the theater or a restaurant to meet friends, it’s impossible not to feel thrilled by the energy of others, the sense, as Joan Didion once put it, the city gave you (especially when you’re young) that “nothing was irrevocable.” The crowd is a space of possibility.

What kind? I live also, these days, in Paris. I stay not far from one of the restaurants that was attacked; I go to the bakery beside it — a gluten-free one, if you can believe it — all the time. The neighborhoods that were targeted in Paris were the fabric of the youthful city itself, where crowds of 20-somethings congregate casually. The American media was quick to analogize — it was as though the East Village had been attacked, they said, or the Lower East Side. The comparison was, of course, natural, since the mode of fashionable cheek-to-jowl living exported over the last decades to every metropolis in the wealthy world was, actually, invented in New York.

Those neighborhoods were built by crowds, too — the so-called unwashed masses, millions of them, arriving on boats packed enough crossing the North Atlantic and literally teeming on the deck by the time they arrived in New York Harbor. They piled into tenements, in the burgeoning cluster of them stretching from the Brooklyn Bridge to 14th Street (nearly a single neighborhood then, before it was divided up into boutique fiefdoms by real-estate agents). They dreamed of getting out, toward more light and space — the Grand Concourse, Brooklyn, Kew Gardens. And they did. But, a generation later, their children all wanted back in. Their grandchildren, even more so. When, last spring, the gas line in a rickety five-story East Village walk-up detonated the building, it exposed a whole surviving skeleton of tenement living, post–white flight, post-punk, post-Giuliani, and post-Bloomberg. The floors had been redone; the light fixtures, some of them. But the floor plans largely remained: What was exposed were tiny cages for living, stacked one on top of the other. Who could live like that? Who would want to?

We do. The other day, my Pilates teacher, a new mother, was worrying out loud to me about the vertiginous chaos of the city. The very next day in midtown, a man threw a Coke all over me and another woman passing him. After Paris, you hear people talking of “soft targets.” We used to say, “You don’t see what’s coming.” A friend no longer takes the 2/3 home because she thinks it’s too crowded; the R is less likely to be a target. I find myself moving superstitiously among subway cars, avoiding Rockefeller Center. A New Yorker knows how to register when something just “feels wrong.”

But that feeling of wrong is, also, so peculiarly close to comfort. Because the crowds represent something valuable to us, too. And in response to the threat, a perverse New York spirit replies: the dynamism, electricity, and diversity, the feeling you have, rushing onward, that you belong, along with everyone else who made their way here and has become adept at negotiating the slipstream. Personally, I like to walk the winding and still-disorienting streets of the West Village in spring, or midtown in winter, to see the crisp neon theater lights at twilight, darting among Frank O’Hara’s “hum-­colored cabs.” Vigilance has its limits.