The City and Self

An essay about New York, LA & Identity

Ade D. Adeniji


I’ve been going about this the wrong way. I moved, but never came back long enough to see how far I’ve come. In 2005 when I was 17, I left New York City for California and have only been home once or twice a year ever since. Usually my trips are short and sweet, long enough to catch up with my closest friends and family, but that’s about it. I haven’t been in the city long enough to be pissed off at it. I haven’t in the city long enough to be in awe of it either. Mostly, my time with the city has been based on nostalgia, remembering something old and far-gone rather than building something new; I do my normal walk the length of Manhattan south to north, eclipsing in a day how much I walk in a year in L.A; I try to spot all the changes in my neighborhood like the high-rise condo that now towers over St. John’s of the Divine, the largest gothic cathedral in the world; I try to spot all the non-changes in my neighborhood, like the lone drug store across from St. Luke’s Hospital that still serves low-income people of color while every other building has been swallowed up by Columbia University and gentrification.

Sometimes you come home to remember. Nostalgia and sentimentality has its place. But also consider why I moved out to California in the first place. I had one’s typical Hollywood ambitions but also quite a few existential dreams too. I moved west to grow up. I moved to self-improve. I moved to get away from my parents as an only child. I moved to reinvent myself. As a kid, I was expressive and curious, but somewhere down the line I turned inward. By high school, I was a full-on introvert, socially anxious and closed off. Not too many people knew me and I had lost touch my most of my childhood friends. My mother and I took the train out to California and by the time I came out on the other coast three days later, I already felt reborn. A long nine years later, at 26, I’m back in New York for the holidays on a three-week trip. A long three-week trip.

I can now say I’ve been in New York City long enough to be pissed off by it and in awe of it again. Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever understood the city or myself better than right now. Consider New Years Eve. Last year in L.A., I hopped in my car and went to a house party in Santa Monica. I parked on a quiet street, only to realize the house we were going to was a few blocks away. I then returned to my car and drove closer as my friend visiting from New York shot me a scathing look. We then stepped out into mid 50-degree temperatures and walked across the street to the house. Story over. This year in New York, I walked to the train station, took three trains across three boroughs, transferring on foot each time, only to walk some more to a pre-party at a house. (Oh by the way, it was 20 degrees outside with a wind-chill of 10). Then my friends and I all took cabs to a warehouse party where we stood in line for an hour in said temps, only to get inside where it wasn’t much warmer. Sheer will got us to that point, so much so that I was fresh out by the time we got to the party. A cute girl approached me and told me I “looked bored.” In L.A., I would’ve taken it as a flirt. In New York, I considered it truth.

Winter in the east is a unique beast. Perhaps I’d be less pissed off if I visited New York during the spring and summer when it was warm. The clock struck twelve and on my subway ride home I noticed a couple in their mid-40s. The subway was still jam-packed at 3AM with young and old, ravers and dinner partiers. A young guy around my age entered on 14th street with compact external speakers bumping hip-hop, a 2014 hipster version of Radio Raheem. As with most goings on in the city, about 75% of the people in my subway car didn’t care at all. I was feeling a bit more chill at that point and liked most of the music that he was playing anyway. It started with a look, the 40-something wife glancing over at her husband, non-verbally pushing him to act. You could tell he probably didn’t want to but after an older woman took on the guy — “shut that shit off!” — and failed, it was now a matter of pride. Throwing his voice, hopefully not in my direction, he said “hey asshole did it ever occur to you that maybe everyone doesn’t want to listen to that crap?” The music stopped. Did it work? Nope, a second later the bass returned and twice as loud.

Such a scene has never happened in L.A. Not even close. No one clashes in L.A. like that. In New York, every time I travel by subway or pass through overstuffed Time Square (by the way the latter now gives me a bit of claustrophobia) I puff out my chest and walk assertively. I can perform just like that husband performed on the subway –our boombox player too, who raised the volume “just cuz” — but I’d prefer not to perform. That’s not me. You get into conversations a lot in L.A. about New York. “Which do you prefer? That must’ve been awesome growing up in New York. Do you miss it?” Normally I go the diplomatic route: “California is the best state but New York is the best city.” This satisfies most. I also used to talk about how if something were to go down, there’s no city I’d prefer to be in than New York. I’ve often cited 9/11 as proof of that. When the attack happened, we all came together. On only my second day of high school, Manhattan Island closed and I was stuck in the Bronx without a way home. A classmate’s family immediately took me and four other kids in without question. Before, I waxed poetic about New Yorkers’ toughness and resilience, without really considering what that meant on a daily basis, what that kind of protracted and prolonged vigilance does. The city makes it so.

There are performances that go on in L.A., though, too. In Hollywood, however, they don’t occur on the streets and in the subways but in a social setting. This is particularly true in my industry, where business and socializing often mix. If New Yorkers are dogs, Los Angelinos are cats. Dating and going out in Los Angeles really is a baptism by fire kind of thing. It doesn’t help that I never went to a party or had a sip of alcohol until college, not too common for a New Yorker, particularly one that went to private school. The City of Angels hardened me and caught me up socially. In some ways now I feel ahead of the curve. Take, for example, when I first started in the Hollywood nightlife “scene.” Some friends and I went to a smoky lounge where everyone appeared, better yet claimed, to be an actor or a model. I saw a girl I liked and walked over to her. I held out my hand far too earnestly and directly introduced myself. “You’re in my space,” she informed me, keeping a stone-cold face. My jaw dropped. She was performing and it took me a while to learn how to hold my own and perform too. Much like my dilemma in New York, the question becomes, do I want to perform?

Here’s the good news. You can take what you like about a city and leave the rest. At least that’s what I’ve done. And then when you have the means, you can quit a city altogether and find a new one. I learned how to be an individual in New York. I also learned how to be curious yet skeptical, open-minded yet stubborn, or any of a number of my contradictory traits. It’s a humbling thing moving around on your own two feet, through rain and wind, humidity and wind chill, past businessmen and homeless. You see all kinds of people and all kinds of things. The hip-hop hater clashes with the hip-hop acolyte on the subway. One can’t simply hop in one’s car and miss people, places and things. It’s far too easy to do that in Los Angeles.

However, for all the talk about L.A. urban sprawl, I kind of think it’s counterintuitive. Neighborhoods seem far more coherent and hefty in L.A. than in New York. In NYC, anyone can be anywhere at any time — at least in theory — and so it’s hard to get a sense of the locals of each neighborhood. Everyone is passing through, to go to work, to make a transfer, to go a party. Sure, you get the hipsters that define Silverlake and the hipsters that define Williamsburg but the latter feels diluted in a way and overpowered by the far more significant force that is New York. I also forgot about how small New York City (and especially Manhattan) is in terms of land, doubly true when I rented a car the other day to help my mother move. We covered a lot of ground driving back and forth in terms of neighborhoods and people, but I only had to put 8 bucks in the car to fill it back up at the end. That amount of mileage barely gets me to and from my nearest Costco in L.A.

In New York I felt while driving how I feel in LA while walking. Both are faulty and the infrastructure does nothing to encourage you. The streets are just far too narrow in New York where double-parked cars and tenuous road clash like wood blocks and open gaps in a late-stage Jenga game. Something has to give. I remember driving from 107th and Amsterdam to 84th and Columbus in an instant. The city felt like a small town at that pace. In L.A., you feel like some sort of pariah walking around; Yet, as I’ve discovered living without a car for a month, it’s the way many lower-income people get around (including bus, bike and train).

I’m grateful that New York taught me how to walk. I walked up a mini-mountain in South Pasadena for a job interview, quietly dried off my sweat and told the interviewer “I found parking just fine” without missing a beat. As for Los Angeles, I’m grateful that it taught me how to come out of my shell. For someone who in the past was very reluctant to put myself out there, I’ve often felt a deficit of experience. The only antidote to inexperience is experience and Los Angeles has given it to me in spades. I also think I’ve found the right balance in terms of social performance. Not every social setting is like the extreme one I described. I’ve befriended cool people. I’ve dated cool girls. I haven’t always felt the need to perform. Sometimes I was performing when I didn’t even need to and simply had to get out of my own way. The same goes for the kind of performance that goes down in New York City, the city of my birth. I just haven’t been here in a while. And I tend to go back in the winter. When it’s cold. No more of that. I need to come home more often. There’s still more each city has to teach me.