Nostalgia for New York 2: Referencing reality

At the end of last year I wrote a piece called Nostalgia for New York, which essentially looked at the idea of nostalgia that I was able to associate with a place that I had never been to. While writing that piece I was unaware that I would be in New York four months afterward, but circumstance and chance conspired and I found myself spending some time in the grand metropolis of the east coast of the USA recently, and this gave me the opportunity to rethink some of the topics I had originally looked at regarding New York.

It’s not that I had tried to write about New York specifically when writing the original piece – I was more tinkering with a popular culture model of the city; looking at how New York was portrayed and how this portrayal changed as I grew up. So one of the striking things I then found about actually hitting New York City was recognising all of these places that I had seen before in movies, TV shows or video games. Everything seemed bizarrely familiar – it wasn’t quite deja-vu, but more like borrowing another person’s memory to make sense of something that I was seeing. This feeling made my first impressions of Manhattan seem somewhat disingenuous.

It felt as if the Manhattan that was surrounding me was actually the synthetic copy of the one that I had lived with all my life. All in all I have spent more time watching movies set in or featuring New York than hours I have spent or may ever spend there. The Manhattan that Ghostbusters and Woody Allen traveled through acts as the real experience, rich in memory and history. So this new Manhattan had to be fake!

A chunk of Egypt trapped in the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan

It raises an interesting question about how we view place when that place becomes a saturated memory. Just as the Met Museum houses a broad and juxtaposed collection of the world’s memories in the centre of New York City, so too the minds of people who have never visited the city may hold a conscious collection of memories of New York City that create an alternate viewing of the place to the decidedly more authentic experience of visiting the city.

The references came in relentless waves. As I walked around the city I repeatedly noticed street names and buildings that reminded me of songs by Patti Smith or the Ramones. Staying in Brooklyn I took the L train to Manhattan regularly, and every time I entered the station I began to hum Jeffrey Lewis’ Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror to myself (I also caught myself glancing around a couple of times thinking I might see either Mr. Oldham looking brooding and menacing as he does in the song, or Mr. Lewis himself sitting quietly with his guitar).


During a conversation with a friend in the city, Ko, a connected but altogether separate realisation started to sink in. We were speaking about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he explained to me about how the region of Long Island near Astoria, which was the idyllic countryside setting for much of Fitzgerald’s significant novel The Great Gatsby, is a modern day metropolis, built high like other parts of the city. Gatsby’s mansion on the cliff-face, the winding dusty roads and the quaint rural atmosphere have been swallowed by the sprawl in less than a hundred years.

This point was the revelation that shattered the illusion. As fake as the “real” New York seemed next to the more familiar songs or movies, the place is itself an actual living, evolving thing. The most memorable scenes of New York that I have ingrained prior to my visit to the city are scenes from Taxi Driver or Serpico; these scenes are outdated. The city has moved on, and the movies will never change (unless they are George Lucas movies). Just like Fitzgerald’s rural setting being swallowed by the city, the city itself will swallow each history of its portrayal time and again as it becomes something new. Even the “futuristic” setting of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) shows the Word Trade Center buildings still standing.

Movie still from Escape From New York

The movies, video games, books, TV programs etc. that I had recorded as “the real New York” are, in fact, a part of it. They are the documents of history that piece together different times, events, or memories of the sprawling, diverse city. The only reason that their memory seemed so otherworldly to me is that this is the first time in history that we have such a vividly portrayed historical record. Movies show more of a genuine picture than words can do – they create a sense of recognition, not just imagination. But they are still tied to their point in history, and as such will be resigned to their place in it.

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