Some Like it Hot:

Summers of New York City's Past

By Christa Tarnoviski
Illustration by Kylie Agon

The New York City summer air is both hot and dense, so much so, describing it as “humid” feels like a poor and inadequate descriptor. Although outright disrespectful at times, the heat is a unique and essential marker of New York City summers, like intermittent rainfall is to Seattle. Appearing slowly, at the tail end of May, the first signs of summer heat manifests in sync with soulful sounds of anachronistic tunes bellowing from stoops and storefronts signaling the much-anticipated arrival of New York City summer.  

During its extended days, time slows down momentarily and—regardless of age, gender, block, or borough—a sense of invincibility reigns and a rebirth of sorts takes place as we shed the layers of previous seasons and rush outdoors for a necessary reprieve. Gathering in collectives, tribes, and by the masses, we display a bill of behaviors native to us New Yorkers yet undeniably questionable and foreign to visitors. We overtake streets jovially blocking traffic with neighborhood block parties, we sunbathe in man-made parks and on concrete jetties, we stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers on New York City’s ancillary islands and greenspaces absorbing the melodies of notable artists. And our backyards, although a luxury and typically minuscule, moonlight as club venues hosting parties and performances, from late at night to early in the morning. Suffice it to say, summertime is when New York City is fully alive and, like its residents, is its most authentic and unadulterated self. Those of us lucky enough to have battled its heat, for years or even decades, can attest to the fact—yes, I wrote fact—that summertime in our concrete metropolis is unmatched.

However, with the threat of COVID-19 looming still, much of what we know and love of New York City summers has shapeshifted or, in more severe cases, disappeared with no immediate sign of return. The impact, subsequently, on our outdoor summer routines and rituals, forces us to begrudgingly embrace a new collection of socially distanced behaviors—like mask wearing, limiting person-to-person physical contact, and avoiding crowded gatherings—for our own good and the good of others. Though these newfound behaviors are undeniably reasonable, they also feel overwhelmingly cold and alien, like an antithesis, however unexpected, to New York City summers.

It’s apparent that this summer, however, differs dramatically from the summers of New York City’s past in both appearance and climate. Plywood boards dress storefront windows, music venue, and most bars are temporarily shuttered leaving few to no public places to dance late into the night, and even New York City beaches are enforcing social distancing between beach towels upon their reopening. Not to mention, the boisterous longing for justice hanging heavily in the city air, steadily and rightfully increasing in weight and volume as the days grow hotter.

Not to mention, the boisterous longing for justice hanging heavily in the city air, steadily and rightfully increasing in weight and volume as the days grow hotter.

Selfishly, I long to see the City alive and wholly itself again; burgeoning with freedom rather than caution; disrespectfully hot, crowded, and loud. I long for the days where we can safely embrace our friends, unmasked. I long for the days where we can gather by the hundreds to scream-sing our favorite lyrics in music venues with sticky, beer-covered floors. I long for the days where we can enjoy flavorful meals in tiny restaurants surrounded by a company of strangers worrying not of transmitting a virus, but of ordering the best dishes on the menu. I long for the closeness, the connection, and warmth that New York City summers uniquely offer. There is so much that I miss about New York City summers, and I know that I am not alone (or simply in my feelings). Though our current summer is noticeably different, possibly even subpar compared to years prior, and the summers of our future have yet to be written, I suggest that we revisit and playback the summers of New York City’s past, reliving extravagant and mundane memories alike as we wait for what comes next.

Here’s some inspiration: a collection of summer memories addressed from a few friends of mine.

Dear New York City summer,

We miss you.

“Summer in NYC is always an experience. None like the year before. Every summer has that defining moment that marks your memory forever. There’s that warm breeze that lets you know you can go from hoodie to t-shirt. But, being from Harlem, it’s a race to see who is going to claim summer first. You can feel, better yet, taste it in the air. But summer isn’t truly summer until you hear dirt bikes going up and down the street. It's not summer unless I’m rushing to my window to capture video of dozens of bikes, some popping wheelies, others zipping left and right through traffic, and the occasional police chase.

Summer is here when Mister Softee comes out and every kid from the playground runs to get in line only to shout for their parents because they don’t have any money, but can’t lose their place in line, or, the best one, you haven’t experienced summer in NY until you get on the 1 train. It’s HOT and you’re waiting on the platform for what feels like hours. It arrives only for the doors to open and the hottest gust of wind to rush out, but you’re late to an event, meeting, or interview and you can’t not get on. This is summer in New York City. The hustle, the sounds, the heat all make this city what it is.”

Raf, Harlem

I remember the hottest summer in Brooklyn both physically and mentally in that my body created lakes and rivers in every fold of my skin and mapped itself all over my clothes. It was the year Micheal Jackson died and I was living in a railroad loft with my alter ego twin who I attended architecture school with at the time. I remember our whole block playing “BAD” on repeat. It was one of the hottest and wildest summers I’ve experienced to date. Brooklyn, like always, was running to the beat of its own drum. Street music was my nightly lullaby. Crazy block parties ended at Los Hermanos before it was popular—2-dollar tacos, 3.50 for tortas, and watching women make corn tortillas for hours. Brooklyn summer isn’t just a moment, it's a challenge, a mandate even, to experience summer in its fullness, sweat and all.

Bunmi, Brooklyn

“During the summer of 2015, the LES was my second home—even though I spent more time there than I did at my own home. It was the twilight of the 2010s and though we didn’t know it, it was the last time a few friends of mine would be friends. By the end of that summer we were family. We created a brotherhood in the city that never sleeps, under a sun that was always shining and a sky that was always blue. We found a way to have a rooftop barbecue which, for its time, was unheard of as believable or unbelievable as that may be. We wound up setting things up and having a wonderful time surrounded by friends, family, and music. As the day carried into night, we were surprisingly invited into a neighbor’s home where a music video was being directed by Vashtie featuring some of her friends. We got to liven things up and watch the sunset on the joy we shared before heading home and reminiscing on the beauty of the day. We all still reminisce on that day whenever we get together now.”

Jennings, The Bronx

“Summertime in NYC has the most beautiful ring to it. Maybe it’s because we’re cooped up inside of our tiny apartments for 8 months of extended winter, but when May rolls in the city truly comes alive. Through the countless summers signaled by kids gleaming with joy as they run through open fire hydrants, I’d say my fondest NYC summer memories are the super laid back ones. Having random picnics, sitting on stoops for hours with friends, or taking midnight walks through the park. It’s in those moments where the fast pace of the city slows down and I feel the joy of summertime magic.”

Charlene, Brooklyn

Summer 2019 was the HOTTEST summer on record, and the corner of Lenox and 128th was the only place to be. “The Stoop'' at Sarge’s place never failed to bring joy. In the mornings, old heads lined the block playing the Isleys and a little Maze & Frankie Beverly. The voice of a neighborhood mom rang out from the laundromat falling on the ears of her kids running up and down the block. At nightfall, all the homies would pull up and we’d post up outside the laundromat eating Jacob’s—a true hood classic—and then we’d travel Uptown to Locksmith or a rooftop function. It’s not really “SUMMER” in New York City unless you pull up to a function and Jennings, Cory Townes, or Q are on the tables.

Jimmie, Harlem ︎