New York to the Core

It’s occurred to me that I’m entirely crafted of New York stuff; an amalgamation of its history and trends for four generations over various paths that led to the city.

My grandfather, James J. Hanley Sr.

Each of my great-grandfathers emigrated to New York from Ireland and England, and each married young women from Manhattan. My grandparents on both sides settled from Brooklyn and Manhattan, originally, but with economic success and family growth, both moved to Garden City, Long Island by the 1930s.

My father, Marine Lt. James J. Hanley in 1942

My parents met in Garden City, Long Island, married in 1950, and moved to a family home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. When two babies arrived in short order, they moved back to Long Island; first to Roslyn and then to Westbury, where I was born and raised until I graduated from high school.

As a freshman college student, I went to Marist College in the Hudson Valley, and fell in love with the river and the area. The river and the river cities with their mixed charms and history architecture, the sunsets, and the autumn and winter air that could make you feel as if you’d live forever were unforgettable for me.

My mother, Eileen Daly Hanley

When I was 22, out of college and realizing I could not move back to Long Island, I moved to Brooklyn, sharing a classic Brooklyn brownstone with two colleagues, from John Wiley & Sons, where I worked as an editor. Later, I moved from Brooklyn to Astoria, where I could pay for my own 2-bedroom apartment. Seeing a trend here?

If this could all be placed on a map, it would read like a convoluted checkers game, with generations hopping back and forth, to and from, the city boroughs and Long Island.

When I joined the New York City-bound career-focused movement. I lived in Brooklyn and Queens while working in Manhattan, on 57th Street and Wall Street, and drank up all of the incandescent charm of the city. Drinks at Michael’s and the St. Regis. Birthday dinners at the Oak Room at the Plaza. Glittering Wall Street parties wearing black velvet dresses under the crystal chandelier at J.P. Morgan’s headquarters at 23 Wall Street. Harry’s at Hanover Square post-party. Live music with pianist Lance at the Village Gate. Company-sponsored limousine rides after work. Meeting the beau after work at Bill’s Gay Nineties on 53rd Street. Shopping at Bergdorf’s when I couldn’t afford it, just to visit its hushed interior.

In 1996, I returned to the magical Hudson Valley when I bought a condo in Cold Spring, New York, living in the heart of the beauty and variety of New York State. I commuted on the Hudson River line, and drank up the view each morning as if it were new.

One bright fall weekend, I drove from Cold Spring, NY to Long Island; splitting the trip in two. First, I’d stop for dinner and spend the night at my parents’ home, and then continue the drive the next morning to Montauk for a week’s stay with high school friends.

I remember the iridescent beauty of the Croton Reservoir in early October. Driving over the Throgs Neck bridge, the view of Manhattan and the sparkling blue water took my attention momentarily from the traffic ahead of me.

The next morning, I watched the commerce of Long Island relax into the open spaces and ocean air and terrain of the Hamptons as I drove to Montauk. By the time I drove through Amagansett, I felt as though I had left the country for some piney beach paradise. The ocean views as I puttered down Old Montauk Highway were unforgettable.

In 24 hours, I had taken in the Hudson Valley in October, the graceful path of the Taconic, the crisp outlines of Manhattan and surrounding waters and magnificent bridges, and filtered through Long Island from the density of the Grand Central, to the northern state, to Route 25 and beyond to a different terrain entirely.

It was that trip that brought home to me how lucky I am to live in a region that provides such diversity and beauty. It made the think of the New York’s last 150 years, as represented by the lives lived by four generations of my family.

Emigration from Ireland and England. My great-grandfather’s death from pneumonia in 1901. Life in the gilded age of New York. My grandfather’s enrollment in World War I, and his college student and baseball years with Fordham University. His wife, my grandmother, dying in childbirth in 1919. The Jazz Age and the Depression. The building of both families’ economic rewards in coal transport and General Motors that kept them shielded from the Depression. World War II and my father’s landing on Guadalcanal, the post-war boom, the widespread exodus to Long Island in the early 1950s, an idyllic childhood in the 60s and 70s, and the changes in society in those decades that were to leave their mark on me. College in the Hudson Valley, a successful career on Wall Street, apartments in Brooklyn and Queens, when I knew the subway system (and the best nightspots) as well as my own hand. Weekends in the Hamptons. Moving to the Hudson Valley. 9/11.

And in spite of everything we collectively grouse about – the taxes, the commuting, the density and the cost of living – life in New York is incomparably varied and exciting. In a day, you can take in mountains, the great Hudson River, the greatest city in the world, miles of beaches, and the incomparable light of Montauk. And as for history? It exists all around us. In spite of our insistence on new homes, new buildings and office parks, we built our present out of its past.

It’s less a geographical area to me than a state of mind (apologies to Billy Joel). It’s an irony, a sense of humor, a certain accent, a tolerance of differences, an appreciation of the past and what came before us. New York is in my blood, my history, my imagination and is the sum of my parts.

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