you, me, and the borough
by lena singh & courtney lindwall
Lena and Courtney are both New Yorkers—but they live in different boroughs: Brooklyn and Staten Island. After a year spent on Zoom, they gave one another tours of their respective corners of the city.
where popularity is synonymous with similarity and similarity is synonymous with being american. here where i felt being american was a vulgarity. but so was being indian. but also a woman. it was a dream of mine to live in a house, alone, that was black and haunted like the one i often walked by to get to music class. it was approachable unlike the beige houses that lined up with cars in their designated parking spot. if you had a toyota and not a bentley, you were doomed even though both would get you to your destination. if you lived in an apartment only big enough to fit four people, there was no brightening your social life. the american dream was making just enough to show off and not go poor at the same time. my american dream is being able to open the door to my home without the cars on the street thinking that a colored person could never own such a house. a house, with a bmw truck, which was all apparently unachievable if you weren’t a u.s. citizen.
PHOTO: A purple brick house with a car in front, around a school neighborhood in Staten Island.
every wall has a mark. of graffiti, of posters, of warnings, of advertisements, of phone numbers. yet rarely anyone calls them and it makes me wonder what the point of ruining a wall could be. in history class, the 1930s was a decade of art freedom, where nature and beliefs pertaining to the country were highlighted in the paintings. at 15 years old, i found the art on the walls to be the expression of wanting visitors or portraying a message. it made my eyes slide to those who passed by without giving it a look. wasn’t this a free museum? some had coffee in their hands, some held their baggage, and others like me raised their cameras. whether they looked at such art with admiration or contempt, at least they acknowledged. and this was a place where you either ignored or acknowledged. i often found that the practice of disregarding others was a common one. and not just a common one, but a preferred one.
PHOTO: A wall that has a mural of masquerade masks and a local dentist’s phone number in Brooklyn.
watched or watching?
a friend and i got into a debate once about whether living in a dense city like new york leaves you feeling more exposed or more invisible. and the more we talked, the more i felt this question was a useful litmus test for judging how someone perceived their place in the world. in a crowded city, my friend argued, with its millions of bodies existing on top of one another and its paper-thin walls and its crowded mass transit, you never went unobserved. and this wore on your psyche and invaded your privacy and maybe, eventually, eroded your sense of self, with its constant feeling of performance and artifice. but the city only feels like a stage if you believe everyone around you cares enough to be your audience. (they do not.) new york is a hide-out. it’s too much, all at once, wiping you off the map completely. it’s why so many people who feel themselves strange in some way come here to live for themselves, liberated and anonymous. the city i knew, was for watching.
PHOTO: A mural of two blue eyes on a street in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“the yard is a diorama box”
few scenes are as iconically american as the front yard. heralded as both a rite of passage and suburban status symbol, the yard later became seen as something more sinister. an altar to a certain corrosive american individualism. a monoculture flattening. a weeding out of what was native and shared. the front yard turns the land—something inherently communal—into property, which starts to feel something like theft. and it’s true, i’ll always prefer a city stoop. but as i walked down the residential streets, the front yards felt more human than i’d remembered. their decorations were often absurd or dreamlike. the gardens were cared for and in bloom. they seemed more to me like little diorama boxes than capitalist grandstanding. the kind where you build worlds, real or imagined, and hope for others to peer in. an oversized metal chicken lurks among a bed of tulips. the shadow of big foot stalks by. a worn adirondack chair waits for your neighbors, to whom you presumably wave and maybe, occasionally, stop and chat. a native bird swoops in, steady and low.
PHOTO: A front yard in Staten Island, featuring a garden, a colorful metal chicken, and a Bigfoot statue, which Lena and Courtney saw on their trip to the borough in spring 2021.
Lena and Courtney came up with the idea of a cross-borough photo tour after realizing that the two lived across the river from one another, but had rarely ventured into each other’s neighborhoods. They made their respective journeys—which required a number of buses and trains—and then walked around together to take photos. They were able to see personal landmarks—Lena’s school, Courtney’s first apartment in the city—and then process the two trips individually through their writing when they were back home.
Lena is a junior in high school and she lives in Staten Island with her family and little dog named Oreo. In her free time, she’s either in her bed with a good fantasy novel or walking in the rain with her flip flops. A straightforward character that never backs down from an argument, she’s an introverted jalapeno that’s rare to find. Approach her if you dare.
On the clock, Courtney Lindwall writes about the environment for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Off the clock, you can find her biking slowly (but enthusiastically!) around Brooklyn or lounging with a book in Fort Greene Park.