By Luisa Conlon and Gigi Rose Gray
Have you ever had a stranger openly question your upbringing?
We have. A lot.
It’s a sensitive subject. Despite the hard-line attitude often associated with "real" New Yorkers, the truth is that no one likes hearing their hometown is the wrong place to raise a child, and that it was probably a mistake for their parents to attempt it. That tugs at heartstrings you didn't even know you had.
The questions native New Yorkers field from people who didn't grow up here are enough to throw the staunchest city dweller into a full-blown existential crisis. Did we really miss out on a real childhood as kids in the concrete jungle? Would we be more wholesome people had we grown up in an idyllic suburban landscape of houses and trees and backyards? If our parents had moved us there, would we be less cynical? Less jaded? Less New York?
The authors, as children in New York
It's unclear. Because we've never known any other childhood; and ours was beautiful for both of us, strange as it may seem to an outsider.
We’ve known each other for twenty years. We met for the first time in a Manhattan nursery school, where we shared nap time on the floor of a mid-nineteenth century townhouse.
Our fathers grew up in Queens, they themselves the children of city kids. We come from a long line of New Yorkers. We are the product of men and women who have seen this city change at an immeasurable pace, and somehow survived it all.
The truth, it seems, is that many people think we lived through a childhood that was out of a Tom Waits song: Fast men and women, drugs, alcohol, and whatever quotidian insanity New Yorkers wake up to every morning.
Much of that is true, yet we thought we’d take on some of the most common doubts and questions from non-natives and reply to them. At the very least, to answer some of our own doubts about growing up in the city that never sleeps.
"New York is no place to raise a child"
Gigi: It's no surprise someone would question whether this scary metropolis is a safe or nurturing place to raise a child. However, as products of this city, I feel confident that a child can flourish amongst all its conflicting extremes.
Gigi Rose Gray
Growing up here, kids experience and see things some people miss out on altogether in life. Yes, we did get a condensed, large dose of reality early on, but children are children no matter where they grow up. They live in the fantasies of their minds and take in the realities of their environments in stride. My nightmares were filled with crazy bums chasing me down the street rather than ghosts or zombies, but I too dreamt of fairies, frolicking the magnolia trees of Central Park, the closest I got to having a backyard.
Central Park is an oasis that holds a lot of mystery for a child, and many of my own beautiful experiences were lived there. Whenever I woke up, looked out my window and saw the city quietly covered under a blanket of snow, it felt like Christmas. My mother would pull out our old wooden sled as I would zip up the waterproof onesie that filled me with such shame, and excitedly waddle out of the building into the park. Climbing the boulders of Central Park felt like scaling Mount Everest: knee deep in snow, we would search for the highest point and I’d speed down, gathering snowflakes in my eyes. It was exhilarating! But the actual highlight was the enchanting ride home. I would lie down, my onesie cushioning the wooden planks of my sled, and my mother would pull me along all the way home. Gazing up—with the park's trees and skyscrapers perfectly framed in the night sky, I was floating through a city that was my Narnia. Every noise was dampened by the snowfall. It was magical and peaceful. It's one of those memories that, upon reflection, I question whether it was a dream or a reality.
Luisa: When I was in kindergarten, my aunt Joan would bring me to a playground on the West Side, off of Riverside Drive. This was the early ‘90s, a time when you had to keep discarded syringes out of your kids’ hands. Joan had a deep trove of New York stories: Muggings, assaults, robberies. Walking to the park, my little hand in hers, I would beg for another tale: “Like when the guy stole all your money from inside of your sock.” My aunt would look down at me, her morbid and cherubic blonde niece, and tell me the same story again and again. I relished crimes stories, which I’m sure has everything to do with growing up here.
Illustration by Sara Griffine
Children like me are why people think that kids just can’t be kids here.
And they are right. In part. New York is a big, and often terrifying, city. There is a lot that can detract from the purity of childhood experience. But I always thought it is, in fact, the perfect place to raise a child. Where else can you come of age surrounded by such rare breeds of people? Artists, musicians, cooks, bankers, doormen, station agents, teachers. If it takes a village to raise someone, then we’ve got a pretty special one. To a New York kid, there is no one thing you can’t be. You navigate the city streets with childlike minds and the collective community on our side. Sure, it can get weird. Sure, there are mornings where your mom tries to shield you from the guy taking a piss on the sidewalk at 9 a.m. But you’ll meet that guy one day, whether as a kid or as an adult. Here, it just happens earlier.
"Don’t you feel like you grew up too quickly?"
Luisa: There is a lot of truth to this. It’s almost impossible for parents raising kids in this city to gauge the pace at which their kids are growing up, with unique experiences, some of which are not the kind you would want your five-, ten- or fifteen-year-old to have. From speaking to other lifelong New Yorkers, it seems many of us feel like there are things we could have waited for.
I had a fake ID before my sweet sixteen, purchased from a shifty man in the back of a smoke shop on St. Mark’s. We all had one because that was the only way to keep up. Everyone wanted to be part of the cool crowd, and that’s what they were doing. Clubs, bars, restaurants—we were hitting all of them at an age when most people are satisfied with the thrill of a high school dance. The advantage is that we stopped at an earlier age. I’m twenty-four, and have almost no desire to “go hard” anymore. So we did grow up fast, but we also gained perspective a little sooner.
Gigi: New York makes no allowances for naiveté. Perhaps it's true-as adolescence approaches, we were more like young adults than gawky teens, navigating the streets with caution and attitude, quick to bark back at any hecklers. But wouldn't one see this as an advantage rather than a loss of innocence?
Besides, the exposure to this landscape of differing human conditions, drugs, poverty, wealth and mental illness is not influential until a person develops an understanding of the world and their place within it. Anyone who comes to New York is struck with the variety of faces passing them in the streets, exotic languages spoken, and churches, mosques, temples all coexisting in the same neighborhood. A tolerance was instilled in us before we could even recognize the difference between black, white and everything in between.
"Wow, I've never met a real New Yorker before"
Gigi: Each time this phrase is uttered, which is upon nearly every introduction made, I think to myself: Where do we all go? What is this elusive character of the lifelong New Yorker? I always find myself promising people that in fact there were once many of us here roaming these avenues, mommy, daddy and (in some cases) nanny in hand. With over 1,400 schools in New York City one wouldn't guess us to be such a rarity. We populate all corners of this megalopolis. We are born and live everywhere. From the urban canyons of Midtown, to the townhouses lining cobblestone streets of the West Village, to the flamboyant yet demure Chelsea, to the noble Upper East Side and its bohemian counterpart the Upper West Side, to the ultra cool and euro-central Soho, to the distant memories of punk and grit in the East Village. We cover a lot of ground on a small plot. However, this island is also teeming with tourists, commuters, international exchange students, out-of-state and foreign residents. So perhaps the reason we are so often viewed as a rarity is we are one. We are outnumbered.
Luisa: Meeting another native New Yorker in New York always feels like a homecoming: We’re usually just as shocked to meet one of our kind as visitors are to meet us. And I too wonder where we all go; because when it comes to it, I rarely meet New Yorkers who feel like they could be happy anywhere else. Sure, we have traveled and even lived in other cities, but to us, there is no place like this to settle down. Surely, there should be more of us around.
But the truth is that we grew up in a place where other people come to form their lives. New York is a part of us, and it formed us into who we are today. But it’s not ours. It belongs to every man and woman who came here to make something for themselves. And this city takes them in whole heartedly, as it always has. We are outnumbered. By an incredible eight million people who, whether they love it as much as we do or not, make this city what it is.
Gigi and Luisa, today (Photo by Sophie Butcher)
Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator, designer and overall image maker, born, bred and working in New York City.
Luisa Conlon is a freelance filmmaker living and working in Brooklyn. She received a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2011 and is an active member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective.