NYC: The modern urban pilgrimage

When the idea of pilgrimage was mentioned, the first and only vision that surfaced in my mind was Mecca. I had momentarily limited the grand idea of a journey taken for spiritual or moral significance to a singular context. However, I soon realized that another destination for pilgrims was all around me: New York City.

While pilgrims are much more likely to land at JFK than disembark bleary-eyed on Ellis Island, the personal meaning of the journey can be just as deep. My family and I undertook this journey two years ago. Two of my friends make regular pilgrimages here. For them, New York City is an attraction in every sense of the word.

Here are the experiences of Polina, a fashion photographer in Indianapolis; David, an accountant and musician in Ireland, recently transplanted from Australia; and myself, a non-profit marketer and blogger in NYC. The reasons behind our journeys to Gotham range from an afterthought to a quest for purpose.

What was the occasion of your first visit to New York City and what was your experience?

POLINA: My first visit to NYC was in 1991. I was passing through on my way to Israel where I was going to spend 6 months on a Kibbutz with a friend of mine (only lasted about 4 days, but that’s a whole other story).

I fell in love with NY instantly. It had the pulsating energy that I had always envisioned and the sheer diversity of people, food, buildings, food and pretty much everything else was intoxicating. I was only in NY for about a week at that time, but vowed to return.

One memorable moment: I was 19 and had spent my youth growing up and going to school in Australia. I didn’t know very much about America or its culture, but had seen enough American TV to know that a white person wasn’t always welcome in a black neighborhood. So there I was, checking out Columbia University, because I was thinking about attending there. I love to walk and one of the joys of being in NY is doing all that walking and taking in the sights.

After I was done with Columbia, I wandered into Morningside Park. I didn’t really have a destination or a plan, so I just followed one of the paths through the park, came out on the other side of the park, and kept walking. It took a little while, but eventually I noticed that people in the street were looking at me like I was odd or something. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what the problem was… until I looked up at one of the storefronts and saw that I was in Harlem.

I was literally the only white person for blocks around. It was a very interesting experience – first of its kind actually for me, as neither Australia, where I went to school, nor Russia, where I was born and lived until I was 9 years old, have very large black populations. I didn’t feel in grave danger by any means, but I didn’t feel very welcome either. I think the folks who saw me walking around there probably realized that I was just a dumb tourist.


DAVID: July 1994 on a choir tour. It was around 1:00am, and for reasons I doubt I ever knew, our bus from JFK to Amsterdam Avenue brought us in via the 678 & 95, so we entered Manhattan in Washington Heights [note: a neighborhood near the top of Manhattan] and came down rather than what everyone was expecting, which was a trip through Midtown up.

The bus driver had to detour several times due to some street fighting. For a bunch of teens and twenties from Australia, many on their first overseas trip, and everyone’s first time in NYC, that was an interesting greeting. But I was hooked right from the start.

We had three free days out of the seven we were there, and I spent all of them walking the streets and riding the subway with a few mates anxious to see as much as possible. We went up the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building within two hours of each other.

I was hooked; still am.

ERIC: I feel like the latecomer, but I didn’t first set foot into NYC until October 2005. I spent my early childhood in the Northeast, so I think that I had visited as a baby, so that doesn’t count as ‘setting foot’ anyway. My wife and I came up from our longtime home of Gainesville, FL for a relatively whirlwind trip: three days, two nights over Veteran’s Day weekend. We booked the cheapest room that we could find in the heart of Manhattan: a relative matchbox in a Times Square Days Inn.

The main thing that I remember about the trip is the pain in my feet. In an effort to look New York Cool, I wore shiny black GBX low-cut boots instead of sensible walking shoes. By the first night, my poor feet throbbed and ached. We did our tourists’ duty and patronized the Empire State Building, Central Park, Times Square, Ground Zero, Phantom of the Opera, and many cheap well-reviewed restaurants that we researched ahead of time.

By the end of the trip, we were both confident in our opinion of the city: Nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.

How soon did you return to the city? How many times have you been here?

POLINA: I was back in NY about 8 months later and have been back countless times since 1991. Each time has been an adventure and a joy.

DAVID: First went back in 1997 and I’ve honestly lost count of the total number of times I’ve been. It would be around 10 I think, but only twice since 2001, which is the year I met my wife. Our travel budget generally meant coming to Ireland from Australia rather than anywhere else. I always promised Diane I’d bring her though, and in 2007 at the end of a month-long visit to Ireland, we spent a week in NYC. She was initially very intimidated, even though I noticed just how much friendlier the city felt in general compared to my first trip in ’94. After a few days she was as smitten as I was. We returned again for a day in July 2010 en route back to Ireland (where we now live) at the end of a 2 month trip to the Pacific Northwest. Just like my visit in 1994, the most recent was oppressively hot. Usually that would be a killer for Diane, but on this occasion, just because we love the place so much, we still had a great day around the villages.

ERIC: We returned to NYC three years later in 2008, and we did want to live there. Since our last trip, we had gone to Europe a couple of times, we had a beautiful baby boy, and my longtime job in Gainesville ended. With unemployment looming, we asked ourselves what we wanted to do with our lives. With our 1-year-old, we felt that the time for going on crazy adventures was coming to a close. I wanted to reinvent my career, and during an impromptu but fateful discussion at Chick fil-A, the question was posed: “What about New York?” After two months of twists and turns and waves of excitement, anxiety, and doubt, we moved to NYC over Labor Day weekend. After another uncertain two months of job searching and hemorrhaging of our savings, I landed a job and we secured the beginning of a cramped and wonder-filled life in Manhattan.

What keeps bringing you back?

POLINA: I keep coming back because there is so much to do and see, but also because it is creatively invigorating. Living in the Midwest as I do, the pace of life here and also the things that are important are on a different plane, if you will. NY serves as a reminder of all that is possible and of how much life has to offer. It is the antidote to complacency, to settling and to living the easy, suburban life.

DAVID: We’re never going to come close to seeing it all. Just like Sydney (where we lived before) but on a far larger scale, it’s a huge clash of cultures all living together, bumping into each other and rubbing off on each other. It has a unique personality that keeps drawing us in.

ERIC: Delta or Jetblue; whichever has the cheapest flights for our short jaunts to Florida. I guess for us, the question is more like, “What keeps us here?” Life here is inconvenient and uncomfortable, especially after having our second beautiful baby boy, but we feel very alive. We experience mostly the best and occasionally the bad in people. As far as my career goes, the opportunities here are endless, and I’ve taken my strides to using my God-given talents to their fullest. Though in-home laundry would be a life-changing gift right now, NYC is changing our lives on much deeper levels.

* * *

For all three of us, New York City opened our eyes to the beauty, brilliance, riches, and roughness of humanity. It is the world conveniently housed in a 305 square mile area. This city is a lens that magnifies and focuses what is possible in our own lives. Whether the flight is three hours or 36, the impact of a journey to New York City easily qualifies it to me as a pilgrimage.