If I can make it there, I can make it back
Chris Hammett takes a look at the highs and lows of life in the "Capital of the World"
C ontrary to what I had been led to expect, when I drove a rented moving truck off the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan, I did not pass under a sign reading "Abandon all hope . . . ." Neither, however, did I pass a sign saying "Welcome to New Yorkwe're glad you're here!" In fact, if there had been a sign to document the city's reaction to my arrival, it would probably have been a picture of a big, collective shrugalthough even that would have implied that the city had noticed.
In the movies, this is where the hero/protagonist/victim shakes his or her fist and yells, "I'm gonna make this city notice me, gosh darn it," but in my case, the only fist-shaking was done by another driver yelling that I was going to get a ticket for taking a truck on the West Side Highway. Maybe it's just a defect of my character, but the first lesson I took from this place is that things are bigger than you are, and it's better just to accept that. After all, a sizable number of those movies end with the protagonists going either into the East River or back to Iowa or Ohio or Idaho or whatever flyover state it is they came from. Not that the latter would be entirely awful, but I hate those moments when my life threatens to turn into one of the bad cliches inhabiting the Zeitgeist, like moving to California and coming out.
That said, since I've been here I've been studying this town, in much the same way that I studied Los Angeles while I lived in Southern California (yes, if you must know, I did). That's part for the sake of survival, part out of anthropological interest, and part in preparation for the moment when I finally do decide to stand in the middle of Times Square and shake my fist. So here-with, and with no particular attempt at an organizing unity, an assessment of the place. And if I should contradict myselfwell, as Walt Whitman, Brooklyn's greatest visionary, once said, very well then, I contradict myself. This place is large, and it contains multitudes.
W here it flows under the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River is the better part of a mile wide. It was one of the rivers of its eranot a river for all time, like the Mississippi or the Amazon or the Yangtze, but one that helped shape and define its moment, like the Thames or the Rhine before it, or the Columbia after, or the Colorado, perhaps, today. Immense and silent and powerful, it demanded a suspension bridge that was the longest in the world when it was built, and the commerce that passed underneath it demanded the highest.
Cities have eras, too, and it was the Hudson that made New York's, building its harbor and putting the city at the gateway to a nation, or half a nation at least. But even more than rivers', cities' eras tend to be finite, and the great underlying angst of New York is whether it's nearing the end of its run. That question is a little bit less apparent when Wall Street is booming, the Yankees are winning, and the mayor has proclaimed the city "Capital of the World," but the thinking here is that if you have to start telling peopleand yourselfthat you're the big dog, your days as the big dog are probably numbered. It's the sort of thing the Great and Powerful Oz says, a verbal combover.
After all, Chicago and Kuala Lumpur are arguing about who has the tallest building in the world while New York now stands on the sidelines. More people see a single episode of "Seinfeld" than the entire Broadway season, and the sitcom may be set in New York, but it's written and filmed at a studio in Los Angeles. The place to be a whiz kid genius is at the south end of San Francisco Bay, and the place to be an up-to-the-second powerbroker is Tokyo, or maybe Hong Kong or Singapore, where you can be faster and looser with other people's money. The truly hip are all in Miami or Prague or Seattle or, during the Sundance Festival, Utah, of all placesbut not really here. Even organized crime seems to have moved its headquarters to Moscow.
Other cities, for a hundred different reasons, are just younger and faster, while New York has a little more trouble getting things done. That's an inevitable effect of maturity, the result of having used up all the available space and of having developed too many bad habits over the years. The challenge upon reaching this stage is to find a way to age gracefully. Paris figured it out; London's grappling with it; New Yorkwell, those "Capital of the World" banners suggest that New York hasn't quite accepted it yet. Then again, graceful has never really been what this city is about.
The early indicators suggest that New York is going to turn into a crotchety old geezer who hates the music the kids today are listening to. For a city that prides itself for being on the cutting edge of America, this place has carried the art of not moving forward to new levels of refinement. The city has institutionalized obstructionism in a Kafka-as-city-planner network of Community Boards, Neighborhood Councils, Bureaus, Offices, Governing Panels, and Reviewing Committees, each of which the mayor seems to hold veto power over, to say nothing of labor unions, chambers of commerce, business-improvement districts, the Mafia, whatever ad hoc committee arises around a particular issue (often evolving into a standing organization of some kind), and a state legislature where saying "no" to the city is red meat among tigers.
Much of New York's brand of reactionaryism, I suspect, can be traced back to the demolition of the old Penn Station, an act of civic stupidity so colossal that it seems to have forever traumatized those who witnessed it. (Those of us who weren't here to witness it have the new Penn Station, which is traumatizing enough in its own right.) The response has been a desperate nostalgia for the lost New Yorke.g., the current scheme to turn the main post office into a new new, meaning new old, Penn Stationcombined with a passionate determination to landmark and preserve anything that makes New York New York. (FunnyI grew up thinking that what made New York New York was that it was New. In reality, I understand now, this is simply the "New Apartments" usage of the word.)
Thus, the opening of a K-Mart made front-page news last summer, thanks to the fear that large department stores will mean the end of New York as we know it (by driving Macy's out of business, perhaps?). Thus did the letters section of the Timesa quarter of which is more or less permanently handed over to the just-say-no crowdrail against the introduction of the electronic subway-fare system (it's too slow, or it's too fast, or it makes it too easy to raise fares, or it's confusing, or you can't leave a Metrocard as a tip the way you could a token). Thus opposition to a giant red neon umbrella on the side of an insurance company's headquarters, a supermarket in Harlem, garbage disposals in kitchen sinks (illegal until this year), electronic voting machines, color in the New York Times, faster trains, anti-jaywalking initiatives, recordings in cabsyou name it. Any of these might be worth preventing on its own; collectively, they suggest the onset of arthritis.
The real fear, I suspect, is not that New York might go boldly on into the future but that it will become just like everyplace else. There's no question: Starbuckism and Walt McCoca-NikeSoft are advancing like roaches, and though you might not win the battle, you have to muster your resources to make sure you stay even. There's a mall across the street from Macy's, and aside from an occasional "Can I help youse?" it's basically indistinguishable from any mall you might find in Omaha or, worse, Los Angeles. That mall and all the GapLocker Barns around town represent intermediated life, a version of America where one's cultural and aesthetic tastes are determined by a group of marketers sitting in a board room, probably over on the other coast. So while I don't have a lot of patience for those who lament the death of the old Times Squareas if they're reminiscing about the good times they shared with the old gang from Peep WorldI'm in sympathy about what's arrived to replace it.
N ew York vs. Los Angeles: An outsider's comparison
New Yorkers speak in dozens of different English dialects and accents, many of them offensive and possibly injurious to the human ear. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has only the Valley dialect and TVNews-Anchorspeak, which are, respectively, what a mini-mall and an enclosed shopping mall would be if they were language.
In Los Angeles, where they live in their cars, people collect license plates (like a Ford Bronco's WE B 2TUF, which was very nearly the last thing I saw in this world). In the subway culture of New York, pedestrians collect overheard conversations. The winner thus far, from a midtown businessman: "Hawaii is so boring! There's nothing to do there but stay calm!"
L.A. has smog, and however much they try to say that it's getting better, or that it's just haze, or that the early white settlers noted the "smokiness" of the valleys, it's still the worst air in the country. New York, for its part, has what can only be described as filth, everywherethe streets, the subways, floors, walls, windows, you name it. Don't let them tell you this is a recent phenomenon; my mother reports that when she and her mother flew in from Europeto Idlewild Airport, JFK still being a war herothe garbage in the streets was the first thing they noticed. New Yorkers feel utter contempt for Los Angeles, and they care desperately that their superiority be recognized. Angelenos vaguely remember hearing about a place called New York.
In Los Angeles, the first question people ask you is when you think you'll move back home. In New York, they wonder why the hell you stayed there so long to begin with.
T he true paradox of New York is that, however much people regard it as a meccaor maybe Mecca and Gomorrah rolled into onethe first thing they do after making their pile here is to go buy property somewhere else, whether that somewhere else is Westchester or Fire Island or New Canaan or the Jersey Shore. Those who can't afford to buy property rent, and those who can't afford to rent make sure they have friends of one sort or the other. Those of us without the right sort of friends stand around on summer weekends and try not to let it show.
This phenomenon is in large part a matter of space, the city's defining issue ever since Peter Minuet put down his $24 and immediately started asking around for a place with an eat-in kitchen and rent control. (Members of the Bronck family were the first to master the art of getting out of town. Little did they know the English were going to move in and ruin the neighborhood.) Real estate--and the infinite possibilities of its division--informs every aspect of life here. At the summer movies in Bryant Park, which begin around 9:00 p.m., speculators start as early as 4:00 staking claims, which they then spend the rest of the afternoon and evening viciously defending. As you move up the retail ladder, the selling point becomes not the quality of clothing but the floor space per item, until warehouse-sized stores in SoHo hold a single rack of perhaps a dozen dresses. The skyscraper magically transforms a single square foot into seventy, while the sublet magically transforms a single apartment into four.
As with most things here, it's a question of haves and have-nots. When you're on the subway train, there's no way another person could fit, but when you're on the platform, there's always plenty of room for one more. Thus, a lot of what outsiders see as rudeness is really just the battle between those trying to preserve their personal space and those trying to claim some for themselves. Well, O.K., it is rudeness, no matter how you slice it. But it's explicable, if not forgivable, as a weird sort of natural selection that the city collectively believes in, whether it's true or not.
B efore I came here, I had a conversation about New York with a graduate-school professor who had done his doctoral work at Columbia University. With a certain amount of wonder in his voice, he compared the city to London a hundred years ago: "If you turn down the chance to live in New York at the end of the twentieth century," he said, "you're passing up a privilege that's been handed to you."
At the time, I heard mostly a reference to Capital of the Worldness, museums and operas and nightclubs and massive buildings and coffeehouses and the collection of artists and writers and businesspeople and simple personalities who inhabit them. He meant that, I think. But I've since considered that the "privilege" is really the opportunity to experience the totalityat times the enormityof a place like this. It's all the things that inspire wonder, like the Empire State Building and a mayor who has never been wrong in his life, but it's also the daily residue of the place: silly political squabbles; the impossibility of getting a cab on a Friday afternoon; a police department that can be as menacing as the criminals it's meant to stop; an A-train conductor who sings station announcements as if they were psalms. The way the Times uses Sprechtstimme in the last graph of a rap review, or Post headlines like "THE BIG CREEP LIED TO ME!" It's getting stuck holding the door while fifty people walk out, spending way too much for the worst sandwich you've ever eaten, getting suddenly lost in Central Park, spending the afternoon discovering a new neighborhood. The exhilarating, terrifying feeling of standing in a crowd and realizing that nobody there knows you or cares, and then meeting a classmate by chance because you happened to cross on 35th Street instead of 34th.
It isn't the world's largest or fastest or newest city, and it probably never really was. But maybe that's not the point so much as the way it's always been determined to be newer and faster and everything all at once, and that force of will alone sets the city apart.
From the fire escape outside my window in Washington Heights, I get a clear view of the George Washington Bridge, the steel lace of its towers rising above the neighborhood. Depending on the light and the weather, the bridge is awesome, gossamer, muscular, exuberant, forbidding, breathtaking, or indifferent, in almost any combination. It's the self-consciously utilitarian work of an age that believed in worksas one observer has noted, "a bridge that is not ashamed of being a bridge." It's the perfect gateway to a city that, for better or worse and more than any other, is not ashamed of being a city.
Chris Hammett, a Bulletin contributing writer, lives in New York City's Washington Heights and works in the banking industry in midtown Manhattan.
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