Before I Knew New York, I Knew Liberty City: A Retrospective on GTA IV’s Setting

Grand Theft Auto IV is celebrating its 15-year anniversary today, April 29, 2023. Below, a New Yorker recalls how Rockstar’s imaginary version of Manhattan helped him connect with his home.

Ask anyone I’ve ever shown around New York and they’d tell you that I refer to myself as “the worst New Yorker.” That’s because, for the longest time in my life, I just didn’t know it. I knew the city as a skyline I could see from my window and maps I could reference online, but I rarely went out and explored my own home. I couldn’t tell you up from down on the Manhattan grid and I certainly couldn’t point you to any specific locale. Early in life, this flaw was easy to chalk up to having a busy immigrant family that couldn’t afford to take me out as a kid. Later in life, though, when opportunities arose as a teenager, it was social anxieties and unfortunately learned behavior that kept me indoors and playing games instead. And so for the longest time in my life, I had no intimate knowledge of or connection to the only place I’ve ever called home. That was, at least, until Grand Theft Auto IV came into my life.

Now Playing: History of Grand Theft Auto

15 years ago, GTA IV upended my relationship with New York City by providing me with one. Before I knew the sights and sounds of my own home, I knew Liberty City like the back of my hand. Around the time of GTA IV’s launch, Rockstar went all in on increasingly detailed and realistic simulations of people and places. To its credit, GTA IV felt like enough of a simulacrum of New York (for the time) that I treated it as a substitute for the real thing. So, yes, reader, I first mapped out my home of New York City via Liberty City. In turn, I learned to love a place I had never given a proper shot.

As a kid, the city scared me. Some of my earliest memories of it include walls of pedestrians slamming into each other at crosswalks just because of the sheer density of people present. Others consist of me looking up at the impossibly tall skyscrapers and despairing at how small I was by comparison–or imagining the terrifying sight of the city below me from its highest points. Speeding cars were and remain a threat, and in a city of infinitely tall buildings and long streets, my biggest worry as a kid was getting lost. One of my earliest solo expeditions into the city saw that exact nightmare manifest. By comparison, I could afford to be fearless and thorough in my explorations of Liberty City from the safety of my cousins’ bedroom, which I frequented enough to play GTA IV often.

Obvious issues arise when you start to think of my mapping out New York, though, since Liberty City is not as one-to-one as future Rockstar settings would turn out. Bohan, GTA IV’s analog for The Bronx, is criminally small for starters and Flatbush, known in-game as Beechwood City, is in the entirely wrong part of the game’s rendition of Brooklyn. Whole neighborhoods are truncated down to a few blocks or put in rough approximation to where they’d be, and yet so much of New York is still there in some way that I made do. BOABO, Liberty City’s equivalent of DUMBO, is just due north of Downtown, a stand-in for the industrious Downtown Brooklyn, which tracks in reality. I learned where to place neighborhoods like Red Hook, which you begin the game in, and became familiar with parts of town I wouldn’t explore till college and adulthood. Prior to my later high-school years, I rarely stepped foot in Manhattan, but I was a regular in Algonquin storefronts and restaurants in GTA IV. And unlike other parts of the map, it’s largely laid out almost exactly like its inspiration, though Middle Park is a little too far uptown to be a true replacement for Central Park.

Most importantly to me, I saw project buildings throughout GTA IV’s city just months after me and my family moved into one ourselves. It’s one of the first times I can remember ever seeing project buildings in a game. While no singular representation of New York will ever be truer than another, most media had led me to understand my home as the glamor of the big city, rather than the grime of the reality in most other places or the juxtaposition of the two. Prior to GTA IV and the wave of gentrification that’d soon change the city, much of New York outside of Manhattan was an afterthought to folks looking from the outside in. But in GTA IV’s eyes, we were equally worthy of being a part of the bigger picture. It was a depiction that felt honest, and that meant something to me–and it still does. And along the way, my efforts worked and GTA IV demystified the city for me, or at least made enough sense of it for me to confidently explore it and uncover its other secrets and delights.

What’s most interesting to me in my reflection of GTA IV isn’t how much of the city I know and confidently explore these days thanks to it, but how much it’s now a snapshot of a place that doesn’t entirely exist anymore. As much as the game informed me of the New York City of the mid-to-late aughts, it’s unrecognizable in spots now. DUMBO, then a relative piece of crap due to its various abandoned industrial buildings, has been heavily developed since, first housing a burgeoning art scene before transitioning to tech startups and high-end residentials that are completely at odds with the rundown feeling of GTA IV’s equivalent. That’s because so many abandoned buildings and warehouses of the time got retrofitted into high-end living around the turn of the decade to meet the demands of gentrifiers in the 2010s. Similarly, East Island City doesn’t reflect how astronomically upscale Long Island City has become in the last decade, to the point that Amazon was banking on building a headquarters there some years ago that would’ve driven out whatever low-income households were left in the area. As a result, GTA IV is this odd glimpse at a pre-recession and gentrification New York City, a place I’ve got a faint memory of these days.

What’s even funnier to me about how dated GTA IV’s city feels is what doesn’t make the cut in its version of Liberty City and how clearly it points to the era in which this game was made. Williamsburg, the neighborhood I grew up in most of my life, is nowhere in the game, an oversight that could only be made before the 2010s and the explosion of change that’d transform the neighborhood into a parody of itself and the hub of Brooklyn. GTA has never been shy about who and what it satirizes, with GTA V taking particular aim at hipsters and techies on the other coast back in 2013. At the same time, though, both of those groups were also encroaching on Williamsburg and parts of Bushwick, the latter of which at least exists in parts of Schottler in-game. One imagines a modern Liberty City making them the biggest respective section of Broker, filling the streets with oddly dressed hipsters saying the most pretentious stuff you’ve ever heard on the way to the closest cafe as a kind of toothless jab at the populace, but as it stands, it’s nowhere in sight. That isn’t to condemn Rockstar for not being prescient enough to write them in, but a funny observation considering the meteoric rise of either neighborhood in the ensuing years. So much of what I’ve grown to know about New York in the years since GTA IV filled in the blanks isn’t accounted for, making it an odd tribute to a place I only fleetingly knew just before it slipped away from me.

Nonetheless, the most rewarding thing about this trip down memory lane though has been coming back to the game all these years later and picking it apart in a way not motivated by spite but out of love. Like how I can’t visit Grand Army Plaza in the game without lamenting that the Central Library is on the completely wrong side of the arch, or the lack of the Eastern Parkway, where I’ve enjoyed many refreshing walks and seen joggers and their cute dogs over the years. While I don’t owe all my knowledge of the city to GTA IV, it’s hard to deny its role as a foundational aspect for why I know it as well as I do now. And though there’s a bitterness to how much of this game’s setting has slipped away from me, I’m glad it at least exists as a time capsule of it. So as I forge ahead in life, and as the world around me continues to change, I intend to keep holding onto GTA IV as a keepsake of the first place I ever loved.

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