A Love Letter to New York

There will be a lot of posts about 9/11 today. This is one too. But, it’s slightly different. Rather than dwell on the horrors of that day, I wanted to talk about everything I love about New York – and, specifically, Brooklyn, where I lived.

I lived in New York for four years prior to Sept 11. The aftermath of that day meant I could no longer find work as a musician and had to move back to Ireland. These were my thoughts before I left.

The day before I leave New York, I take a walk down by the water. I look out across the vast expanse of water, ironically called ‘The Narrows’. It seems to go on forever, widening and widening, until it opens up and gets sucked into the vast reaches of the Atlantic.

The sun is sparkling off the surface. The brightness of the sun is misleading. It’s not a day for brightness. There should be a melancholy hue hanging over everything. Instead, the air is crisp, the sun is shining and Brooklyn marches on – oblivious as always. She’s seen this so many times before.

Looking around at the inspiring view of the bay and the Verrazano Bridge, I’m thinking how different it all is to the idea of Brooklyn – the Brooklyn, that is, of the people who’ve never been there. The Brooklyn of the movies and books, with its violent neighbourhoods and dangerous characters.

Not the real Brooklyn. The real Brooklyn is a hundred different cities squeezed into one landmass. Paris has its Arch de Triomphe, its Gardens of Versailles, and its Pere Laichese; Brooklyn has Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery. Atlantic City has its boardwalks; Brooklyn has Coney Island. San Francisco has its bay and its bridge; Brooklyn has the Narrows and the Verrazano Bridge.

And all the countries of the world are here. Bay Ridge with its Irish bars, the young bar staff straight off the plane from Ireland, its Egyptian cafes where the men sit smoking hookah pipes and drinking coffee that looks like tar, and its sports bars like PJ’s, where the last of a dying breed gather to hum Sinatra tunes and talk about what life used to be like; Russia in Brighton Beach; Poland in Greenpoint; the Caribbean on Flatbush Avenue; Israel in Borough Park, where orthodox Jews swarm the streets in the early hours of Sunday morning after the Sabbath has ended; Mexico, Guatemala and Puerto Rico in Sunset Park, where the last of New York’s ‘real’ strip clubs – the only ones that survived Giuliani’s crackdowns – go to die; Italy in Bensonhurst, with the old guys sitting outside social clubs; Brooklyn Heights, with its old brownstones and its esplanade; DUMBO, where the last of the borough’s old cobbled streets sit in the shadow of the of Brooklyn Bridge.

I think about riding the B train into Manhattan, looking out the windows at the tenement buildings, with their fire escapes and their graffiti. How from the ‘El’ they look like toy houses, as though someone just placed them there. I think about the old ‘Textile’ sign that rises in the distance as you head for the Manhattan bridge, and all the old arcane neon signs that don’t light any more scattered around the area, their style recalling a long gone era.

And I think: I’m leaving it all.

The thought brings me back to reality. I look out at the bay again and think of all the ships that have sailed this way in the past 300 years; all the ships carrying immigrants on their way to Ellis Island. So many songs were written by those people bemoaning the fact that they had to leave their native countries. So many songs written by people who stood in this very spot, looking out over the ocean and dreaming of their home. But, how many were written by those who had to go back?

We need more songs. Songs that tell us that home is not dictated by a random geographical twist of fate. Home is not a place at all; it’s a state of mind. It’s something that inspires and fulfils you – that makes you whole.

You’ll know it when you get there. And you should never have to leave.

Photo credit: Zepfanman.com


45 thoughts on “A Love Letter to New York

  1. That’s a lovely personal tribute to a place so familiar to many of us but so unknown. Thanks derek. Have only ever been to manhattan. Thanks for bringing me to Brooklyn

  2. Wonderfully thoughtful. I love that all countries of the world are here, More so in New York City than anywhere else, but it is everywhere. A colorful mishmash of people and cultures that continue to blend. You remind me. I also like your phrase that “home is a state of mind”. Nice.

    1. Thanks Barbara, Kellianne. A lot of people don’t venture to Brooklyn, even though it’s only a few mins away on the subway. And there’s so much to see there. Especially if you’ve been to NY before and have seen all the obvious sights.

      Phantomimic, given the day that’s in it, those were my thoughts exactly.

  3. I definitely love the idea of home as a state of mind. Wow.
    I think no matter where we’re from, 9/11 affected us all. I sure remember that day vividly, and I was still very young.

    I have never been to New York, I really would love to go. It’s funny though, because when I was in Dublin, I thought of it as New York. Thank you for your post, I adored it!

  4. I enjoyed reading this. I’ll be visiting Brooklyn the first week of December, hitting some of the bookstores there. I travel to NYC but have never been to Brooklyn, so this will be a first. Likely will walk the bridge, Hart Crane’s bridge, yes? If it’s not too cold!

    Thanks for sharing this on Twitter, which is how I found my way here.

  5. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but dammit, the tears are falling. You have to stop doing this to me. I’m not fond of NY, but I’ll never forget 9/11, and I’m sorry you had to leave because of it.

    My story about 9/11 won’t be written for many years. I’m not sure I want to write it, not sure I want to let that part of me go out for the world to see.

    1. Ashley, yeah, that’s how I’ve always thought of ‘home’. And you’re right, it touched everyone no matter where they lived.

      Hi Kassie. It is indeed Hart Crane’s ‘The Bridge’. It will be cold but wrap up – it’s well worth it! And there are some great bookstores in Downtown Brooklyn and a fantastic view of Manhattan from the Esplanade.

      Krystal, I agree with you on writing your story of 9/11. That’s how I felt which is why I wrote this instead.

  6. I live just outside New York City. It is a loss to us all that you had to leave. I hope some day maybe you can return? It would be a wonderful dream to be able to visit NYC & hear you play your music. Would be so lovely to see you in person. Yes. 9/11 is an aweful day we will never forget, but the city is a fantastic place, full of the worlds most interesting collection of various people. May peace be with us all.

  7. Derek, that was beautiful and touching, a moving tribute to 9. 11 but a different and positive one! I love the way you tell the story, personal yet reaching out to your readers, taking them in for that moment in time when we see what you see and feel what’s in your heart and mind.

    Yes, home is a state of mind and as an immigrant myself, I can’t agree with you more.

    I’m going to New York next year and I know I’ll think of your memoirs of that great city when I am there:)

    1. Junying, I’m sure you’ll have a great time in New York and I hope we see a blog post about it afterwards!

      Thanks Louise. Delighted you liked it.

      Hi Mark. I hope to return there one day. That’s the dream!

  8. Home is indeed a state of mind. It was a moving post, and I appreciate you sharing such a personal reflection.

    I hope to someday visit New York, but I love the way you just showed me Brooklyn.

  9. What is always wonderful about your writing is your power of observation, you really evoke a sense of the New York and your affection for it is evident.

    1. Thanks, Maggie. Indeed, we do!

      lra0403, if you do get to New York, you should take a day to explore some of Brooklyn. You won’t regret it.

      Alison, coming from you that’s a great compliment. Thanks so much!

  10. Poignant, thought-provoking, beautifully written, Derek. Again you touched my heart and I wept a tear. I’ve been to New York a couple of times before 9/11 I see it all as it was in my mind’s eye – shan’t be going back I don’t think.

  11. Hmm… I thought Brooklyn was an awful place until I read this. I have never been, but you know how it goes; basing our knowledge on others’ stories.

    I never thought of the people who had to go back. Puts things in a different perspective.


    1. Elizabeth, it’s beautiful that you remember it as it was before 9/11. Thanks.

      Hi Marni. Thanks so much for the kind words.

      Darlene & Jazzygal, I hope I’ve set right a few misconceptions about Brooklyn. It’s a brilliant place.

  12. Fabulous writing Derek – so poignant, but uplifting – makes me want to go back to New York! Returned there with the kids about six years ago and vividly remember walking across the Brooklyn Bridge at night looking across at all the lights – one of those moments that forever stays.

    Especially loved your last few lines to close. Such a pity you had to leave this city you loved – not on the same scale as the fatalities of the day, I know, but still one of the many knock-on casualties of 9/11 . . .

  13. Love this, Derek! NYC is a place like none other…. and I agree home is a state of mind. I got engaged in NYC and it will always be a special place. We took our kids there for the first time last Christmas and they can’t wait to go back!
    Thanks for this positive post! And yanno, Ireland is pretty darn cool too!! Could totally live there. 🙂

  14. I lived in Manhatten for one glorius moment in time Derek, my uncle still lives in Greenwich village today, it was the girls with their sneakers on going to work, shoes in bag that I remember most for some reason?? Lovely tribute to Brooklyn… I remember first time I saw Brooklyn Bridge well, I was 13 it was1980…ahead of my time… generous Aunt & Uncle sent a ticket…home is certainly ‘a state of mind!’

  15. Thanks for sharing a piece of Brooklyn with us, Derek. And thank you for posting such a positive and inspiring message not focused on the horrors of 9/11. “Home is a state of mind”. That is what I will be taking away from this post.

    I’ve never been to New York, but hopefully will be able to visit next year.


  16. Derek this is beautiful. I have been to NY, even got engaged there. I noticed sadness when I was there, we went past ground zero on the bus tour….but I could not muster the energy to go there. There is an amazing energy in NY and the New Yorkers, fabulous place, fabulous people and fabulous place!


  17. Loved your article! I was in New York on 9/11 when the world came crashing down. Won’t ever forget it! My heart goes out to the families who lost their loved ones that day and to the responders who have lost their lives due to illness caused by the collapse of the towers. It was like the world was coming to an end. New York has incredible people.
    On another note, music is the heart of our soul.
    Jeannie Walker

  18. A lovely counterpoint to the darkness. I love the way you structured this piece and the end is amazing.

    “We need more songs. Songs that tell us that home is not dictated by a random geographical twist of fate. Home is not a place at all; it’s a state of mind. It’s something that inspires and fulfils you – that makes you whole.”

    Beautiful and deep.

  19. I’m a native NYer who fell in love with a country boy. I live in a place where everyone looks the same, has the same routines, and has the same manicured lawns. I miss the smell of smog intermingled with the smell of food, I miss fighting to get what I need (coffee on a crowded street to changing lanes in traffic), I miss just asking for something instead of wrapping everything in bows and ribbons, I miss all the world in a couple of blocks and I miss my city which will always have my heart. I was there on 9/11 and here for a hurricane, I’ll take NYC, anytime. I wish I could recreate it in my mind…

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