A City of Glorious Imperfection
Of all American cities, it’s New York, in all its glorious imperfection that comes closest to being what I consider truly urban. For me New York's urban character consists of much more than the sum of its world-class museums, theatres, restaurants, hotels, and glittering expensive shops. Much of the city’s urbanness derived in the crowds that throng Manhattan's streets, and always provide one with a visceral rush. Those crowds of strangers that one can get lost in on a swarming midtown avenue always remind me of the epilogue of the 1940's film The Naked City, in which the narrator sombrely intones that there are 8 million stories in New York and that we have just seen one of them. The crowd’s many faces and stories evoke the New York experience in all its mystery and complication.
The city’s anonymous crowds also provide consolation. However despairing one's personal mood, seeing people out strolling in public, shopping, heading briskly to some destination – provides one with at least the illusion that life is being lived and embraced. Discovering that even in the midst of a heavy snow or a rainstorm, restaurants, bars and movie theatres are packed – confirms that the city’s vitality remains intact. People brave the elements to seek the light, warmth and pleasure of a public world, and to escape from their own private demons or isolation.
Active and intensely used public space is a key to what makes for a truly urban city. Most American cities are devoid of street life; have bleak deserted downtowns (especially during evenings); contain sterile, unused public squares; and harbour a population whose lives are rooted in their apartments and homes. In New York, especially in Manhattan, and in a number of outer borough neighbourhoods like Williamsburg, Jackson Heights and Park Slope now as well, a dynamic public life takes place on the city’s streets, parks, and squares.
New York, as the worn motto goes, is the ‘city that never sleeps.’ It's a place where intense public interaction is the norm rather than the exception - aided by the city's high density and streets with few empty spaces and few blank walls. The street, according the late urbanologist William H. Whyte, ‘is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the centre.’ It's where people hang out, talking or just slouching on street corners, noisily eating and drinking at café tables, and doing an elaborately choreographed pedestrian dance with cars and with each other.
What is true about the street holds for Central Park as well. One late spring night, walking along Fifth Avenue, I am struck by the beauty of the lights shimmering over the park’s reconstructed lawns and walks, with the strikingly silhouetted Central Park West apartment buildings looming in the distance. But what most stirs me is watching a white ribbon of men and women working out by running around the reservoir in the darkness. The park, like the street, is a hive of activity, and though it contains woody, hilly areas like the Ramble, where one can escape into relative solitude, it is Central Park’s more heavily utilised, shaped spaces (e.g., Bethesda Fountain, the Sheep Meadow) that leave the most powerful mark on New Yorkers.
The city's urbanness also exists in the plethora of images it conveys to even the least alert of its residents. Besides the mélange of people, the eye is captivated by a rich variety of signs, from the worldwide kitsch of McDonald’s golden arches, to the Metropolitan Museum’s large multicoloured banners billowing in the wind, to the lush soft-core porno of Calvin Klein’s photo ads; by variegated buildings and how the light illuminates them in mid-afternoon - mansard roofs and elegantly crafted cornices here, pediments, finials, ornamental reliefs, and balustrades there, stone grace notes that catch one by surprise; and finally captivated by multitudes of shop windows – Bergdorf Goodman and Lord & Taylor’s imaginatively conceived Christmas tableaus, and the glamorous clothing and ingeniously designed objects on display in other shops.
Given that the city is constantly in flux, there is little danger that what
we look at will become monotonous and predictable. For example, almost every West Village walk I take brings something new into view: the death of most small ‘mom and pop’ stores has brought an excess of luxury shops (many now going bankrupt); reconstructed sumptuous single family townhouses with elevators; tour groups clamouring around brownstones to see where the TV show Sex and the City was shot. And the advent of Renzo Piano’s tourist magnet Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking district (adjacent to the West Village) has obliterated almost the last remnant of the neighbourhood's industrial function. Some of these changes are motivated by developers’ and landlords’ greed, and have a destructive impact on the neighbourhood aesthetic and sense of community. Other changes, however, are a necessary piece in a neighbourhood's evolution and transformation. The reality is that a viable, striking city must maintain a large piece of its past, but it can't be preserved in amber. Regulated change of the urban-scape should be the norm, but those who seek quick profits often circumvent these constraints.
A truly urban city also needs a sense of creative disorder. It demands the kind of edginess that doesn't generate in its population a paralysing fear of the night streets (which New York came close to experiencing in the 70s and 80s), but rather offers an opportunity to intellectually face the unexpected and adventurous on those thoroughfares. That sense of open-endedness is what often grants excitement to walking through the city. It provides the possibility of unscripted surreal and naturalistic dramas spontaneously erupting on every corner.
There are infinite ways to think about the city - from a sociological or historical overview, to a first-person perspective that makes one’s reactions the centre of the writing. I usually do some research, but I focus on my subjective impressions and responses to the city’s ethos and daily life. For a sense of the city’s luminous possibility, one can only quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.’
Innumerable writers have taken the measure and captured the soul of the city, from Whitman and Dreiser to Frank O'Hara and Ralph Ellison to name just a few. Clearly they are my literary betters, but I share with them an emphasis on what I observe and feel and then try to synthesise my impressions when I wander about the city’s streets.
So when writing about the city, I not only look at what makes it grand and majestic, but at its underside as well. That’s not hard to discover, for on a number of blocks of Manhattan the multi-ethnic homeless lie supine in doorways under tattered blankets or congregate under building sheds holding cans of beer, with scrofulous dogs resting next to them. And all the proposed solutions can do is merely maintain the status quo. On another day I walk to a section of the Lower East Side that has begun to gentrify with a number of art galleries and some new buildings. However, in the nearby local park I see a group of tattooed addicts shouting and cursing at each other. They bring back memories of the nightmarish and volatile 70s and 80s, a time when one felt crime and addiction had taken over our daily life.
I can list other problems, like the subways – the city’s lifeblood. The subway’s crisis rests with an outmoded signal and switch system (some of whose parts date back to FDR’s presidency), as well as ageing cars and track equipment.
We also still live with a school system that has many low performing schools and a great deal of de facto racial segregation and a municipal prison system that is violent and corrupt.
The most significant problem is the fact that like London, we are a city where the income gap between the haves and have-nots is intensifying. What follows is that housing has become often unaffordable, especially for artists, many of the young – singles and families – who rent or buy their first city apartment, and working class and lower middle class families who are pushed out by wealthier people in rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods.
Still, the triumph of big money and the building of sterile luxury monoliths have not prevented the young and ambitious, including unskilled immigrants, from flocking to the city. What it has often led to is vital, cohesive neighbourhoods in the outer boroughs like the very large Chinatown in Flushing Queens (immigrants can still create viable lives here and contribute to the city’s well-being), and more exquisite stores, fine restaurants, and even more cultural venues and options. Of course, if you are financially comfortable all this makes for a much easier city to live in, even though if one is at all sensitive and reflective, one knows that the city’s achievements often rest on inequity and injustice. But if our vision of New York is generally affirming, we can see a city that in E.B White’s words:
is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.