A Palestinian food-cart vendor with a secret recipe and a Chinese family struggling to earn its living with a takeout restaurant in the South Bronx; an ambitious young politician with a knack for working the press and a police chief who's better at politics than his boss; a character actor trying to break into opera and a Queens rapper navigating the shoals of high art, pop stardom, and industrialized sexism; a famous woman who would challenge the supremacy of The New York Times and a self-deprecating man who would be its shining knight; the street hustles of the perennially homeless and the street photography of a fashion icon.
These are some of the characters we've covered at Capital New York over the last three years, since we began publishing from a cluster of white melamine Ikea desks in a windowless room in Soho in June 2010. The story subjects are a diverse group, but they have in common a desire to fix their fates against the roiling reality of life here. They're famous, infamous, unknown, or invisible, but they're all part of the same messy project of New York City.
This place is both hard to describe and endlessly describable. It's a city of disparate instances, and it's in the disparities that the engine of the city becomes, barely, visible.
E.B. White, that inescapable and comforting shadow under which anyone who wants to think or write about New York City must work, knew only some of these varieties of the New York experience, in fact. But he in turn knew what he didn't know, as he wrote in his 1949 book, Here Is New York:
A block or two west of the new City of Man in Turtle Bay there is an old willow tree that presides over an interior garden. It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it. In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: "This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree." If it were to go, all would go — this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.”
It's a city of stories. Telling them in their specificity, and smashing them all together without an overweening concern for their comfort or compatibility, is the only real way to tell the story of New York. It's an endless project that's so rewarding because it's a project that can never go away. It's what we've tried to do with this website: To tell some of these stories, in their utter specificity, as a way of getting at the big stories that defy the keystroke.
This is a selection of articles we've published over the last three years, and not a collection, because with writers like ours, as passionate about their subjects and as determined to get the story right in its utter specificity, there can't be a final anthology. Which is why we are so thankful for the last three years of Capital, and for the time to come. And which is why we hope, if you find these stories as compelling and immersive as we do, there will be ample occasion for more selections like these ones.