By Johna Till Johnson
This year I became, officially, a citizen of New York City.
How’s that, you ask, given that I’ve lived in New York City for over 20 years?
Well yes, but living somewhere doesn’t automatically mean you’re a citizen of the place. Citizenship connotes something larger: a mix of rights and responsibilities. You’re not just passing through, you’ve put down roots. You take personal responsibility for how things are run, and feel that you’ve earned the right to enjoy (or criticize) the results.
And as of last year, New York City actually has a formal rite of passage for becoming a city citizen (in a sense): getting your New York City ID card.
You might be curious as to why there’s such a thing as a New York City ID card in the first place. In the most basic terms, it’s due to New York City exerting its rights as an autonomous political entity.
City IDs are a relatively new phenomenon for this country, which was founded as a union of largely autonomous states. But these days, practically nobody thinks of themselves as a citizen of New York State, or Delaware, or Oregon. (Texas is a separate case, but Texas used to be an independent country.)
Unlike states, cities were never envisioned as fundamental building blocks. Many of the founding fathers actually had a deep-seated aversion to cities overall, and hoped this country would stay true to its agrarian roots.
So why would cities start asserting autonomy now? Because oftentimes people who live in a city find a set of shared values that may be out of sync with the rest of that city’s state, or even the country as a whole. And that’s perfectly fine (up to a point): the beauty of freedom is that individuals have a choice. They can choose to build a community—a city—around shared values, while respecting that others may not share those values.
It’s significant that to be a citizen of New York City, you don’t have to be an American citizen—or even a legal immigrant. One of the purposes of the card is to give New Yorkers official standing with the city while they sort out their legal status with the Feds. And without getting into the divisive issue of immigration (an issue on which reasonable people can disagree), one of the characteristics most New Yorkers share is that we come from somewhere else—and that’s fine. We don’t care where you were born or how you got here. If you choose to live here, you’re a New Yorker now.
And I chose to live here, some 20-odd years ago. So when it became possible to get an official document attesting to that choice, I wanted to. Sure, there were the practical benefits: discounts on a range of city services and cultural offerings, and the convenience of having your next of kin listed on the back of an official document. But most of all, I wanted a card that officially documented that I belong: to my neighborhood and my city as much as, or perhaps more than, my state and my country.
That’s why I found myself in the sunshine of an early spring morning walking up through El Barrio to 116th Street, where, I’d been told, the nearest City ID office was.
About El Barrio: It’s a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan. I don’t get to say it’s our neighborhood; technically speaking, we live on the border between the Upper East Side and El Barrio. But I somehow feel closer to the latter, perhaps as a result of our many kayak circumnavigations of Manhattan, which include a long stretch heading up the Harlem river, alongside El Barrio.
El Barrio—or Spanish Harlem, as it’s sometimes called—is a neighborhood that, in an increasingly homogenized New York, has remained distinctive.
Yes, there are gangs, and the highest crime rate in Manhattan—even now, people are regularly killed in gunfights.
But there are also middle-aged ladies who will gossip with a complete stranger on a sunny morning, and taciturn young men who will hold the door for you, and old men sitting on stoops who greet you with a smile and a nod. (One older gentleman actually tipped his hat at me in greeting!)
El Barrio has had its ups and its downs. It was hard hit by Superstorm Sandy. But this year it was singled out by the Pope during his visit to New York—and Vlad and I were lucky enough to see him (or at least his car, and his waving hand) from our apartment building window.
And on this bright morning, I couldn’t think of another place I’d rather be. This is why I love New York City, I realized as I made my way to the City ID office through my neighborhood of choice: I’m a citizen here. This is where I work, shop, think, dream… and of course, paddle.