The last love letter I wrote to a person was years ago, to acknowledge the ending of a relationship. It was a mix of sentiments. Wistful thoughts caught in the still-warm glow of pleasures enjoyed, but also candid recognitions of missteps and incompatibilities. To write the letter was to honour the life and the death of the relationship, and to acknowledge the ways in which I was affected and altered by it. Love letters can hold a vast array of feelings that speak to the oscillating joys and pains of the living, ever-changing relationships we have with others.
A couple of weeks ago, New York City’s 122-year-old luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman launched a citywide campaign inviting anyone to write a love letter to NYC. A public call to recognise the fuller reopening of the city’s museums, Broadway shows and restaurants by way of epistolary tribute. Life-long New Yorkers as well as top designers, actresses, musicians and models have all scribbled lines about their relationship with and love of the city.
I have been so charmed by this campaign because I know how different places can pirouette into the heart until you’re left dizzy with love for their streets, their social culture, their lifestyle. I also know how different cities can elicit different sides of one’s personality, just as in human relationships. I could write a sensuous love letter to Paris, a city that brings out an attentiveness in me, a deep awareness of all my senses. Yet it would be peppered with acknowledgments of unrequited love, because it is not a city I feel deeply welcomed in. I could write a letter of nostalgic adoration to Abidjan, a city in which I played openly and safely as a child, darting around environs I knew like the back of my hand, a city that taught me how to slip tongues between languages and how to dream in accents, holding multiple identities with unquestioned ease.
What’s especially poignant about the Bergdorf campaign is its potential to help people wanting to reclaim their sense of belonging in spaces that may have felt foreign and frightening over the past 16 months. And sharing some of these letters publicly could help create a powerful communal narrative suggesting that we’re all in this together, remembering and redefining our cities and our lives within them.
I flew into JFK airport two days before the first lockdown and have not left New York since then. Having spent the previous five years between Europe and Africa, I spent most of the pandemic trying to decide if I would stay in New York whenever the world reopened. A few weeks ago, I signed a lease for the foreseeable future. I’m choosing this relationship for now, and here’s my love letter to mark it.
Dear New York,
I’ve come and gone from you since the day you welcomed me into the world at that hospital in Manhattan. As a kid living here with my Nigerian parents, you taught me that you can be a home for all types of people from all types of backgrounds and places. Still I left you for a while, snuggled up in other cities, flirting shamelessly with other countries, thinking about committing to other continents. But you always held a place for me, letting me race back and jump into your arms every few months without asking for any explanations. Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan: I’ve dug into your boroughs like a mole seeking refuge, trying to figure out my way in the world again.
You don’t hold grudges. You shrug, laughing open-mouthed, and say in that accent of yours, “Honey, I’m just happy to see ya.”
You’re funny like that. Unpredictable but reliable at the same time. You’re moody with your sweltering Julys and your frigid Februarys. You’re wild and unconventional. You make space for all of us and try to get us to do the same for each other. I pass an episcopal church in Midtown and see people waiting on the sidewalk for a free meal, clutching their worldly possessions in backpacks and plastic bags. It’s not easy, but you try to take care of your own.
I don’t shield my eyes any more from your other lovers. The rich ones and the poor ones, the famous ones and the hungry ones, the ones loving you in ways foreign to me. I saw one dancing on 9th and 30th the other day when I was walking to Penn Station. Swirling in the streets with glazed eyes and a peppered beard, serenading me with Marvin Gaye, and offering me a healing I wanted nothing to do with. You shelter us all.
You’re hard and abrasive one day, generous and full of opportunities the next. You can turn a cheek and blush with the quiet graceful beauty of Gramercy Park. You can flash a full-toothed grin, crazy boisterous like Times Square. But when I’m down and doubting, I just have to turn a corner and you’re whispering words of encouragement as I scurry along. Last week, I found three love notes stamped on your concrete streets, all in the space of 10 blocks. You told me to “be proud.” You told me to “keep dreaming till it’s your reality.” You said, “It’s just love.”
You’re relentless with your affirmations even through the grit and grime. You’re whole and broken, just like everyone else. Your glamour is real magic, a trick for our aching eyes. You have so many ways to massage my penchant for wonder. So many ways to revive my sunken spirits. So many ways to keep me believing in you. And in me.
Enuma Okoro writes weekly for Life & Arts
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