Leonard Quart

A City of Glo­ri­ous Im­per­fec­tion

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Leonard Quart

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.

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