I recently spent the fourth of July in Manhattan for the first time. I’ve lived here for a few years, but have always found myself retreating back to the Natty Lites and lake houses of my hometown for this particular occasion. There is a hollow comfort in barbecues, bucket hats, bonfires, and friends from high school.
My hometown in upstate New York, with its crumbling infrastructure, its long-since abandoned automobile factories, and its opioid crisis, is in many ways high Americana. Most of the city had escaped gentrification due to the fact that nobody really ends up there on purpose.
Every year on the fourth, I would drive through our city’s south side, past sun-damaged houses and beauty shops and corner stores and the oppressive July heat, then out through the valley past parking lots and Goodwill’s and children running through sprinklers and this one spot where every highway on earth decided to convene at a dilapidated Dunkin’ Donuts.
Past the valley is farmland and unpaved roads and ice cream shops and roadside baked goods, and then I’d drive about 20 minutes further south. At this point, I would make it to the lake, where property is valued in the millions and the local high school is, without hyperbolizing, updated to the most recent statistic, 94% white. Here, I would drive past designer boutiques and Pottery Barns and a cool breeze from the water to finally arrive at the lake house that wasn’t mine, but was home to all of us for this one day a year.
We’d unfold chairs by the water and grill and light the fireworks someone had smuggled from Pennsylvania and drink too much. We’d sit on the dock and watch the boats go by, and my one friend who was passionate about water travel, but had never done it himself would explain to me which boats were the most expensive and why.
This is the glossy veneer of American youth. It’s easy to be patriotic when your public high school has a 95% graduation rate and less than 10% of students receive free lunches. It’s easy to believe in the American dream when your summer job at the country club funds first dates and the atrocious amount of gas it takes to fuel your Jeep.
Less than 30 minutes away, the majority black high school on the south side boasts a 62% graduation rate and 80% of students qualify for a free lunch. You don’t see a lot of Jeeps on the south side.
Every year, I’d look out across the lake at the dock on the other side, where the homeowners had made the all too on-the-nose move of putting up a green light to mark their territory. Like Jay Gatsby, I’d stare at that green light as if it were trying to tell me something.
Not this year, though. This year, I walked through the East Village to the sound of fireworks being lit on the street, watching summer interns don their finest Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts as they plot their escape to the Hamptons, to a friend’s shoebox apartment that may have cost about the same as the lake house.
I scrolled through my phone and looked at the anti-capitalist infographics that my peers posted from their Greenwich Village apartments and tried to comprehend why exactly this felt so much worse. I thought maybe I was homesick, but I’m not sure I could stomach that drive to the lake house this year.
Maybe it’s that New York City has a uniquely corrosive veneer. Maybe it’s that wealth inequality takes on new meaning in a place where true wealth is incomprehensible to everyone back home. My boat enthusiast friend would certainly have a field day with his price-naming game here. Maybe it’s that people here can play pretend because their million-dollar property doesn’t have a washing machine and looks about the same as my apartment back home that costs 400 dollars a month.
Maybe it’s that gentrifiers here have washed away their guilt by naming the problem on social media. It’s not me if I speak out about it, right?
Or, maybe it has nothing to do with New York at all. Maybe it’s the fact that the past year and a half has laid bare the fact that there’s not a whole lot to celebrate. We’ve been thrust back into the land of the living, and forced to look at it with fresh eyes. The routine was disrupted, the veneer has cracked.
The fireworks this year sounded eerily similar to body cam footage we’ve watched on repeat until it almost feels numb, and the American flags slapped over the rainbows of only a week ago remind us that this is, at its core, a distraction.
Back home upstate, the local newspaper celebrates high school graduation by interviewing the valedictorians of each school. This year, the best and brightest from around the city were asked about how the pandemic impacted their senior year.
From the south side, the Valedictorian will be the first in her family to go to college, and Yale no less. She spoke about how the pandemic in some ways allowed her to slow down since she no longer went to school and then work and then her various volunteer commitments, but she was now tasked with helping her brother through online school as her mother still worked during the day.
From the lakeside town, the Valedictorian also has an impressive future ahead of him, as he looks forward to attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. He was most impacted by the fact that he wasn’t able to have a regular football season this year, but worry not, as it allowed him to do more of the socially distanced activities he enjoys, which include golf, skiing, and sailing.
Here, in New York City, the fireworks and fanfare of the fourth of July echo the fireworks that celebrated the state’s 70% vaccination rate just last month. Since then, data trends show a disparity in vaccination rates by both race and economic status, resulting in a parallel disparity in infection rates that has only deepened since vaccine rollout.
If you squint your eyes, those Macy’s fireworks, (which cost a whopping six million dollars to put on this year), start to look a little more like a green light across the water.