Ear­li­er this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about how both nov­el­ists and voyeurs watch oth­er peo­ple, try­ing to uncov­er the hid­den parts of their lives. Her newest nov­el, Vis­i­ble City, will be pub­lished by Houghton Mif­flin Har­court on March 18th. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I start­ed writ­ing Vis­i­ble City in the weeks after mov­ing from the Upper West Side of Man­hat­tan to the sub­urbs of Boston. More than any­thing, I missed walk­ing in the city, down Broad­way, up Colum­bus, where there was always the chance of some­thing inter­est­ing happening. 

In the sub­urbs, I felt a kind of sen­so­ry depri­va­tion. I still walked, to the library a few blocks away, to the town cen­ter that was half a mile from my house, but there was lit­tle to look at, no one I might pass: just hous­es, just cars.

On every vis­it I made back to New York, I felt my eyes regain­ing a wider stance. I was like a tourist, always look­ing up. Once I start­ed writ­ing about the city, my home­sick­ness eased. When I wrote, I could still be on my beloved streets, still walk­ing as I always had. 

But as home as I felt, there was no deny­ing the fact that the city I was writ­ing about was chang­ing – new build­ings were going up, stores were chang­ing, the peo­ple I knew mov­ing away. The city I was writ­ing about was my par­tic­u­lar ver­sion of a place that comes in mil­lions of ver­sions. Each city dweller occu­pies a dif­fer­ent place. We all nav­i­gate our own inter­nal maps. In addi­tion to the sights we see around us, there are parts of the city that exist in our mem­o­ries: those old build­ings that once stood, torn down to make way for some­thing new. The peo­ple who occu­pied our apart­ments before us, leav­ing behind tiny traces.

And there are also parts of the city buried out of sight. As I wrote Vis­i­ble City, I became fas­ci­nat­ed with the idea of yet anoth­er ver­sion of the city that lay below, the old ghost” sub­way sta­tions which are no longer in use but still intact. The stacks beneath the New York Pub­lic Library, what used to be the water sys­tem of the Cro­ton Aque­duct. The labyrinths beneath Grand Cen­tral. The steam pipes and atom­ic tun­nels beneath Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. The unused Amtrak tun­nels under River­side Park.

As a nov­el­ist, the metaphors were inescapable: what parts of our­selves are buried too? Can those closed-off parts ever come above ground, become visible? 

There seemed to me too to be some­thing very Jew­ish about the notion that the past remains a part of who we are, and in this case, phys­i­cal­ly so. As I wrote, I thought often about the dif­fer­ent archae­o­log­i­cal sites I’d vis­it­ed in Israel, the exca­va­tions under­neath Jerusalem’s Old City or in the town of Bet Sha’an. Here was the Man­hat­tan ver­sion of these ancient sites. Even in a place so bustling, so mod­ern, the phys­i­cal rem­nants of the past were close by.

I researched urban explor­ers who snuck into thse sealed off spaces. I vis­it­ed City Hall Sta­tion – which is fleet­ing­ly vis­i­ble if you stay on the 6 train after the last stop and is acces­si­ble by MTA tours a few times a year. Each time I went back to New York, I rode the 6 train, stay­ing on for this glimpse of the grand stair­way, the red and green tiles. 

What is the allure of gain­ing entrance to these closed off spaces? What are these urban explor­ers in search of? A place, amid the crowds and con­ges­tion, that we can think of as being all our own. A view we share with no one. A feel­ing that we alone have dis­cov­ered some­thing new.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three nov­els, Vis­i­ble City, The Out­side World and The Ladies Aux­il­iary, which was a nation­al best­seller. Her essays have appeared in var­i­ous antholo­gies and news­pa­pers includ­ing The New York Times, The Boston Globe Mag­a­zine, and Poets and Writ­ers, and her fic­tion has been broad­cast on Nation­al Pub­lic Radio. She lives in New­ton, MA with her three chil­dren. Vis­it her web­site here.

Relat­ed Content:

Tova Mirvis is the author of three nov­els: Vis­i­ble City, The Out­side World, The Ladies Aux­il­iary, a nation­al best­seller, and the mem­oir The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe Mag­a­zine, and Poets and Writ­ers, and her fic­tion has been broad­cast on NPR. She lives in New­ton, Massachusetts.