American Impressions, Chapter 18: New York
An early boyhood memory: It’s Sunday morning, I’m bouncing on my parents’ bed, my father is reading the paper and pointing to a picture of New York. The caption under a nighttime skyline refers to the crime rate in “the City of Death.” “Good to be safe, far from the mayhem,” I hear my father say. We were living in Beirut at the time.
A few years later, mayhem far worse than “the City of Death” ever knew came to town and chased us out. Our escape route eventually took us to New York City, where I spent my high school and college years. The worst encounter I ever had with crime during that time was when an idiot asked me for my watch in the subway as I was going home from school. I refused to give it to him on the even more idiotic grounds that the watch had been a gift, as if mugging were gift-deductible. Oddly enough, it worked. When I got off the train at Grand Central I still had my watch, though my knees weren’t all there.
I thought of those memories the other day as I stood in the cold air of Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, pleasantly entertaining the few corny thoughts forced on me by the scenery: The Statue of Liberty’s green-gray frame rose in the distance from the grayer waters of New York Bay; Ellis Island, a seagull’s flight to the right, was preparing to welcome the next boatload of tourists in temporary self-exile from Manhattan; and the City of Death, which has been all life and luck to me, rose behind me with its Wall Street temples grabbing for the sky.
For all its immensity and the drizzly clouds above, the place just then felt cozy in a home-town sort of way. The setting didn’t have anything to do with it. I would have felt the same had I been standing at a thousand Manhattan street corners or along Skillman Avenue in my parents’ Queens neighborhood. New York commands that allegiance from its residents, permanent or ex, as if its 309 square miles were Earth’s third magnetic pole—which is, of course, the case.
From my starting point that morning at the Battery, the coziness was my faithful companion as I spent four days walking the length of Broadway, Manhattan’s longest and only diagonal avenue, from its southern tip to its end point in Washington Heights, 17 miles later (not counting many side-street detours along the way). It was not a particularly original way to revisit New York, but it was at least a systematic way to cross-section through the city’s infinite diversity and to get a measure of a town that eats the word “epic” for breakfast.
To begin walking away from the Battery, which is mostly landfill, and into Manhattan proper is like entering a geology of steel and glass stratified around churches and bars. Lower Manhattan is at the same time the oldest part of the city and the world’s newest capital. It is where the founders of the Republic tavern-hopped between revolutionary tea parties 225 years ago ( Boston didn’t have the corner on that market) and where brokers power-lunch between globalist acquisitions today. But it is all continuity, and not just back to revolutionary days. The narrow, asymmetrical streets of Lower Manhattan, darkened by the beefy hulks of corporate headquarters, are the world’s modern caves. They’re populated by hunters with powerbooks for sticks and cellular phones for smoke signals. And their pickings these days seem anything but slim.
When I reached Wall Street, the hunters were busy chasing after the Dow’s 10,000 mark. Outside the stock exchange, rows of idling satellite trucks, their antennae raised and their mufflers snoring, signaled the presence of CNN, NBC, FOX and many other hunters of a different sort waiting to catch the Big Moment. But it was already apparent that the Dow would not close above 10,000 just then (it eventually did on March 29). I tried to get into the Stock Exchange, but tourists, too, were bullish on the market. The tickets were sold out.
Big in heights, the Financial District is more compact length-wise, stretching not more than a mile. Lingerie shops with names like New York Stocking Exchange begin to yield to shoe stores, jewelers, hair, perfume, cosmetic and nail shops, “Evelyn’s hand-dipped chocolates,” and a varied retail life serving the government workers around City Hall and the surrounding courts and cop forts.
The City Hall neighborhood at the estuary of the Brooklyn Bridge is a Cineplex of law and order, and often disorder, especially on Monday mornings when coils of defendants line up for court outside a half-dozen buildings full of gavels. I stopped by the Manhattan District Attorney’s offices to visit a cousin serving an internship there, and to see whether the city’s government offices are as grimy as their reputation. They are, but only physically.
”It’s kind of drab. We’re going for the Civil Service look,” my cousin, Brendan Branon, tells me, after the 20 minutes it took me to cross all the building’s security hurdles. He’s sitting at a desk in a windowless antechamber he shares with another intern, next to two 18-by-20-foot offices shared by three attorneys each (the Manhattan DA has 500 attorneys). The walls are bare, the linoleum floors grow clumps of dust which from a distance look like shivering mice, and the computer still whirs on old floppy disks (although it’s networked to every criminal record in the city).
”We’re in the process of upgrading,” Brendan says sardonically, “but from what I understand it’s been a 10- to 12- year process. We’re always upgrading.” A 22-year-old graduate of Georgetown University (history major), Brendan was using his time at the DA’s office as an Outward Bound experience in reverse, immersing himself in the criminal guts of the city as a way of figuring out what to do next. And seemingly having quite a bit of fun in what appeared to be an environment that was more Ally McBeal than Al Pacino.
Nothing was too pressing, let alone depressing. The lawyers and their help on Brendan’s floor had spent the afternoon watching March Madness on TV. A basketball shared an armchair with a law dictionary. Lawyers were mingling, not conferencing. Then there are all those enticing hallways next to the elevators, mounted back in 1987 with the photographic history of the office to commemorate the 50 th anniversary of Thomas Dewey’s swearing in as the DA. The photographs show their age, but they also provide “a nostalgic stroll down felony lane,” as one headline put it. Included in the picture-gallery of star convictions: Lucky Luciano (prostitution ring), Rocky Graziano (sports-fixing), Charles Van Doren (quiz show fixing), Jack Murphy (sapphire lover), and Mark David Chapman (John Lennon murderer).
The government’s day being over promptly at 5, Brendan and I left for a walk across the more memorable lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge. Half-way across we could look back and see Manhattan’s skyline begin to light up the early dusk, an urban sprawl unique in America for being, above all, awesome.
I began the second day’s walk in the same neighborhood, but too late for the morning’s Main Event at One Police Plaza. The demonstration had broken up, ex-mayor David Dinkins, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and 12 others had been arrested and driven off in handcuffs, and only an excess of blue police barricades remained to impede foot traffic. Removing them would be silly because the demonstrators would be back for many days after that, getting arrested in the city’s largest act of civil disobedience this decade. It’s a response to the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant killed Feb. 4 when four white officers fired 41 bullets at him as he stood at the entrance of his Bronx building. Nineteen bullets hit him. He was unarmed. The officers had claimed he was reaching for a gun. They were charged in March with second-degree murder.
I hadn’t planned to visit the demonstration. I’d noticed it previewed while reading the Daily Mail over the shoulder of another passenger on the subway, so missing it was more relief than disappointment. I chatted with an idling cop in front of police headquarters. He seemed amused by the demonstrators, the cuffing of the ex-mayor, and not really offended by their daily routine. It was simply another day on the job. “Come back tomorrow,” he said invitingly.
Past ever-enlarging Chinatown and ever-shrinking Little Italy, I spent the next several hours walking the galleries of SoHo, a run of free exhibits of major art’s minor leagues. Still stuck on the shock-art of the 1980s, my pre-conceptions had run ahead of me. I imagined that I’d be facing the usual dares and enigmas of modern art. I wasn’t prepared for the imitation-impressionists, the conventional cafe scenes, the landscapes, the kindergarten colors everywhere. Aside from a rare breast or a suggestive post-something pose, the material could hang at the next Republican National Convention and make everyone feel good. Ralph Olsen, the art consultant at Galerie Vendome, explained it all: This is the not-so-flip side of the economic good times. Wealth is taming.
It was left up to Evolution, a delicious store of “Natural History in SoHo,” to pick up the slack with its displays of worm snacks and cheddar cheese larvets ($2), apple candy with cricket ($2), sugar-free scorpion candy ($6), freeze dried bats ($49), python ribs ($1), coyote skulls ($19) and raccoon penis bones ($5).
But it’s true: wealth and Mayor Giuliani have tamed New York. Just north of SoHo, the real estate empire of New York University begins and shows exactly why it costs $23,500 a year to attend today (plus $9,000 for room and board). It cost less than $7,000 a year when I started there in 1982. At the time, of course, NYU didn’t have its own trolley service, Washington Square Park wasn’t called a “Quiet Zone,” the School of Business didn’t have the slickest building on campus, and the glass box that housed student activities and the Washington Square News, where I got my start as a reporter, had no inkling that it would be replaced, by 2001, with a $70 million “student complex” (with roof-top skydeck.) NYU is gentrifying, and locking out a good portion of city students who can no longer afford it.
It’s not just NYU. The prostitution hotels are going upscale, too, finding wholesome gold in the 42 million visitors who come to town every year. The Herald Square Hotel across from the tennis club where I worked while in college, on 31 st Street off Broadway, was a busy home port for the many women that competed for the street’s business at night. The women are gone, the hotel has been retooled, its golden doorway sculptures buffed, its name prominently restored to fit in with the tourist crowd attracted to the Mall of Manhattan at Herald Square.
Playing tennis at the club across the street costs $88 an hour. It was $63 in my day.
By the time I reached Herald Square I was on the third leg of the journey up Broadway, and accompanied by Alice Herrin, a Texan turned Mary Richards. She is chronicling her attempt to make it in New York in a weekly column for the Houston Chronicle’s Web site. (“A friend of mine wanted me to stand in the street and actually throw my hat up,” she said. “I haven’t done it yet.”) We teamed up for the next hundred blocks, she taking me to places I couldn’t stomach by myself—Macy’s and that mall on Herald Square that looked like a suburban biosphere—me dragging her along on minor expeditions I shouldn’t have, like finding the whereabouts of the last Times Square porn shops chased out by Disney’s redevelopment and “The Lion King.”
Times Square, named for the company that owns this newspaper when The New York Times built its offices on 43 rd Street at the turn of the century, had once been Long Acre Square, an exclusive enclave built by the Astor family in the second half of the 19 th century. The Times and “silk hat” brothels (customers by carriage and cab only, please) took over the neighborhood simultaneously, followed by the theater district, which moved up from the Bowery on East 14 th Street around World War I. From then on, vaudeville, cabarets, Tin Pan Alley’s music-men, hotels, clubs, dance halls, Coca Cola’s headquarters and tourism turned Times Square into Manhattan’s new center (moving it up from downtown). In 1927-28, Broadway’s 76 theaters staged a record 264 shows, a far cry from today’s few dozen.
But it was only around World War II that Times Square slouched indiscriminately, and indiscreetly, toward vice. It became, for local people, “just a street to pass through,” as The Times wrote from experience, “as Lenin passed through Germany in a sealed train on his way to Russia.” Finally, on April Fool’s Day, 1996, the last seven porn shops on “The Block”—Nimble Video, Nugget Video and Courageous Books among them—closed for good. Disney’s in charge now, its lion towering benignly over Times Square. Even at midnight, the place is a hub of families and lemonade. It is safe, it is bright, it is clean, but it is no longer New York. It is a detached suburb of Orlando.
”You just kind of long to be away from the crowds, concrete and gray, and find a piece of grass to just sit on,” Alice said at one point, explaining her one disaffection with the city. So we hurried through the rest of mid-town (too well-known from its nightly appearances on Letterman and those morning network shows to rehash here) and branched off Broadway at 60 th Street for a brief excursion through Central Park.
If the Brooklyn Bridge is New York’s greatest structure, Central Park is its greatest anti-structure. Its 843 acres stretch 2 ½ miles rectangularly between 59 th and 110 th streets, the result of a design competition and a willful act of landscaping that entailed the removal of 3 million cubic yards of dirt and the planting of 270,000 trees and shrubs. Opened in 1859, it was the creation of Frederick Law Olmstead, until then a famous reporter and a passionate Democrat. He resisted attempts to make Central Park into a stately European garden with a patriarchal “center.” He didn’t want a landscape of hierarchies, not even of play areas separate from park areas. And he succeeded.
We can see it to this day. Rollerbladers and joggers and strollers share the space with puppet shows and street entertainers and weirdos and sun-worshippers, with teens and their boom boxes or old Frenchmen and their games of boulles. Central Park is where New Yorkers learn to play together, where tolerance is bred, where the pressures of the city release like chlorophyll. Olmstead created, in sum, the first level playing field in America. It was only about 1995 that a more unsettling aspect of the leveling came to light as historians pieced together the story of Seneca Village, a settlement of 250 working-class black residents, many of them property owners. Seneca Village was razed to make way for the park, its inhabitants scattered and never compensated. The story is New York’s Rosewood, the massacre of blacks in the Florida city of the same name (minus the massacre).
Ellis Marsalis, an old friend from NYU, joined me for the fourth and final leg of the walk. We met at 110 th Street on Broadway, the Upper West Side neighborhood of the Seinfeld gang and also of Columbia University. We headed straight to Harlem, which begins exactly where Columbia’s boundaries end. The switch is radical: from domes, columns and portals to tenements. So, too, is the racial switch. I immediately became a minority, and Ellis, who is black, a snide: “When you go back to Florida,” he said, “tell them how when you walked through this all-black area, how threatened you felt, how everybody was staring at you, how they told you you don’t belong here.”
The kind of notions that elicited the fears and prejudices Ellis was alluding to are being crowded out by a homogenizing wave along the more familiar suburban themes of varied foods and entertainments and shopping outlets. People are flocking in. Showmans, the Apollo Theater, the Cotton Club, Sylvia’s Restaurant and the Lenox Lounge are raking in the tourists, although the locals don’t seem fooled. Today’s Harlem Nights may be trading authenticity for chic, as good a proof that the neighborhood is going mainstream, with 125 th Street as Uptown’s Times Square.
Then small details begin to make a difference. The bullet-proof glass at a sandwich store. The emptiness of many streets as we walk up Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The burned-out and shuttered building right around the corner from an elegant row of brand new brick homes. The idling men on so many corners. And most conspicuously, most unnervingly, the patrol cars idling on many other corners, or crawling down an avenue, or slowly chasing nothing, their sirens contradicting their speed. Ellis couldn’t see a cop, black or white, without cracking wry. His punch lines usually ended on the number 41, a reference to the number of bullets fired at Diallo.
At 150 th Street, we hear the first strains of Salsa. Spanish Harlem. And north of 157 th, we cross into Washington Heights and Manhattan’s version of the Dominican Republic, where Dominicans represent the most recent and rapid immigrant imprint on the island. There, both Ellis and I are minorities. But according to what definition? None that either of us ascribes to, none that anyone ought to. The grocery stores of Washington Heights are all papaya and pineapple and plantains, just as, miles before in Chinatown, they were all dried seaweed and anchovies and ginger. Along Broadway’s food chain, none of it is anymore “ethnic” than the Dannon and pastrami of whitish Midtown.
This insistence on identifying certain foods as “ethnic” or certain people as “minorities” is an invention of convenience, a shortcut to identity, sometimes a weapon. But New York reveals it to be not anymore rational than dogma, which is probably just why divisions persist. The east side of Broadway is all Caribbean. When we go west to Fort Washington Avenue on 178 th Street, the models in the windows are again white, the dialects Russian or East Eurepoean, the names on apartment building intercom panels heavily Jewish. By then, Ellis and I have been talking race all afternoon. It gets tiresome. But unencumbered by the routine of a commute or the demands of an errand, a walk through the city is mostly pleasure and epiphanies. Just north of 193 rd Street, it is as if the city suddenly stops, and with it our banter about the future of the races.
We find ourselves in the lush calm of Fort Tryon Park, with the Hudson River sparkling under the afternoon sun on one side and the tower of the Cloisters beckoning ahead. We have traveled back in time, to this medieval ghetto assembled from five French monasteries and preserved with John D. Rockefeller’s money. He even bought acres and acres of the Palisades across the river to make sure that nothing would get built there, and nothing has, preserving the time-warp feel of the place.
There are actually a few blocks left to Broadway, up to 220 th Street. The avenue even carries on through The Bronx and into Yonkers. But I cheat. The Cloisters is the end, or rather the forgotten beginning. It is Manhattan’s memory of an old world that has been so surpassed that, like the unicorn tapestries than hang in the monastery, it is more legend than history. Yet the Cloisters’ thousand-year distance from the temples of the Financial District are really a half-hour subway ride away. The mockery of time is pure New York, just as New York is pure America—not a fringe, not an exception, but a heartland.
Broadway runs through it.
NEW YORK IN BRIEF
Total area: 53,989 sq. miles (rank: 27).
Population (1997): 18,137,226 (rank: 3).
State capital: Albany.
Economy: Manufacturing, finance, communications, transportation, tourism.
Nickname & Motto: Empire State; Excelsior (Ever upward).
Entered union: Eleventh of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution (July 26, 1788).
Notable fact: New York City has not been eviscerated by population loss like most major American cities in the last decades, but only because the 1.07 million inhabitants who left in the 1980s and ‘90s have been replaced by an almost equally numerous influx of immigrants. City Hall’s immigrant affairs office in 1997 dealt with 143 newspapers and magazines, 22 television stations and 12 radio stations disseminating 30 languages.
New York City in quotes: “The city 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 illusive. At the feet of the tallest and plushest offices lie the crummiest slums. The genteel mysteries housed in the Riverside Church are only a few blocks from the voodoo charms of Harlem. The merchant princes, riding to Wall Street in their limousines down the East River Drive, pass within a few hundred yards of the gypsy kings; but the princes do not know they are passing kings, and the kings are not up yet anyway—they live a more leisurely life than the princes and get drunk more consistently.”—From “Here Is New York” (1949) by E.B. White.
* To celebrate New York City’s 100 th anniversary in 1998, the Library of America released a magnificent anthology, “Writing New York,” collecting 100 of the greatest stories, essays and novel excerpts on the city from Washington Irving to Ralph Ellison. (1,050 pages, $40).
* Published in 1995, “The Encyclopedia of New York City” has 4,300 entries and 1,350 pages, with illustrations, that should whet the appetite of the most demanding New Yorkophile.
* And while slightly out of date (it was first published in 1966), “The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History” (Old Town Books) is still a valuable and readable reference.
* 100 Years of New York History, a New York Times web special: www.nytimes.com/specials/nyc100/
* 19 th century views of the city, a New York Public Library retrospective: The Cloisters: www.fordham.edu/halsall/medny/cloister1.html
* Alice Herrin’s “New York Newbie” column appears weekly on the Houston Chronicle’s site at www.chron.com/content/voyager/alice/index.html
* New York State tourism: www.iloveny.state.ny.us