NOVEMBER 5, 2013
IT’S EARLY JULY IN NEW YORK, my first week back for the summer, and I’m driving down the West Side Highway. We’ve just passed sailboats anchored in neat rows off the riverside; we’re gliding past a neatly landscaped pedestrian promenade filled with bikers and runners when I realize I don’t know where we are. I hunch forward to look out the window. We’re alongside the 10th Street pier.
The shock is visceral.
Zones of shadow characterized the New York of my childhood — a place of ungoverned spaces in which the social contract had thoroughly unraveled. The 10th Street pier was one of those zones. On the dilapidated dock that extended out into the murky Hudson, cross-dressers, junkies, hookers, after-hour club kids, and other transgressive tribes congregated at all hours of the night to enjoy the freedoms offered by a failed city.
Now in their place, young professionals and mid-career executives parade athletically by in the dappled light of the morning sun.
That New York could have reappropriated the unconquerable wasteland I remember leaves me stunned. That I don’t even recognize my city anymore leaves me disoriented. Both are feelings I’ve gotten used to during my periodic visits back to the City since I left for good in 1996. But somehow this time feels different.
The first time I came back in 1999, I sat in a small park in the Village basking idly in the mild fall sunlight, waiting for a friend. “That’s what I did wrong,” I thought to myself. “I lived here.”
New York was far better as a whirlwind visit than as a permanent residence: the endless grind became a brief moment of exhilaration; the constant refrain of friends who said, “I’ll call you” and never did was replaced by a dizzying round of bonding; the forbidding cost of keeping up with the City’s pace became the guilty pleasures of a vacation interlude.
It helped that I knew the City intimately. Like some crazed urban cartographer, I’d spent the better part of my youth and young adulthood chasing after the City’s tantalizing yet elusive promise, mapping its wild heart. That first time back, the City still felt like a former lover welcoming me back into her arms. But even then, at the height of the Giuliani years, my periodic returns were punctuated by jarring stories from friends: stories of zero tolerance and jay-walking tickets, of Tuesday nights spent in holding cells for minor pranks. On subsequent visits, I began to notice the familiar gritty landmarks of my past disappearing, replaced by restaurants and shops radiating a shiny but featureless affluence.
It wasn’t long before I found myself answering when asked if I missed New York, “Yes, but the New York I miss doesn’t exist anymore.”
What followed was a slow reckoning with the resulting feeling of injustice, the self-delusion common to most native New Yorkers that I had some sort of personal claim over the City. I finally made my peace with it in 2007, looking out with my son from the roof of the Empire State Building at the dozen or so high-rise apartment buildings at various stages of construction within eyeshot. One of them had yet to be walled out, and the honeycomb of soon-to-be dwellings lay exposed to our view. Before I even understood why, I found myself smiling, convinced — seduced, even — by the urgency of a new generation of New Yorkers who would soon come of age in those apartments, in a building that, though new to me, would be an integral part of the only New York they would know. Like me, like the countless generations of New Yorkers before me, they would think of the City as theirs, imagining its familiar features as being somehow permanent, when in fact the only permanent feature of New York is its constant reinvention.
The City I knew was no longer; my mourning of that fact grew into acceptance. Even so, the glittering metropolis that had replaced it seemed increasingly barren and antiseptic to me with every visit. Culture, in the biological sense, is a sort of controlled rot. It needs to feed on something that has passed its expiration date, and more often than not, it thrives in dark and unseemly places. New York in its new incarnation seemed too slick, too clean, too pasteurized for anything as messy as culture to take root.
That changed too, or at least my perception of it did, two years ago, during my last visit. For the first time in more than a decade, I once again felt a creative energy pulsing through the City. Granted, it is now a creativity that caters to the surrounding affluence, rather than a creativity that takes root in the interstices of a crumbling polis: food trucks, personal services, and parenting classes, as opposed to food co-ops, guerilla art collectives, and experimental schools. But there is once again a vibrancy that seems to breathe life into the City’s newly manicured landscape.
Later I tell an old high school friend, one of the few still around that I’m in touch with, “I never realized how great a city New York could be — the waterfront, the green spaces, the amenities.”
Suddenly it dawns on me that ours was the only generation that New York, as a functioning city, skipped; we are the generation that came of age as the City fell headlong into its long and troubled night. And I realize, too, that though I’ve long since made peace with the folding of my memories into the archeological layers of the City’s past, the grainy shadows of that night still inhabit these streets, haunt them even — they linger just past my field of vision and show up like ghost images on the film negatives of my mind’s eye.
Walking down 75th between Amsterdam and Columbus several days later, I try to explain to my son, now 12, how it’s possible to know a place in your marrow, to recognize it like a long-lost friend, but still come up empty when you try to grasp hold of even a single concrete memory. He looks hard at the brownstone and limestone row houses across the street, and I suspect he is trying to see them, and me, as we were 30 years ago; as am I, sifting through the loamy strata to try to piece together the memories that lie buried there like artifacts and bones.
2. Glass Onion
It’s late July, and I’ve been in New York three weeks now. I’ve been out to Brooklyn — Dumbo for work, Fort Greene to see some old friends — but a nasty calf muscle injury has got me on crutches, so I’m mainly keeping to the Upper West Side. It’s a neighborhood that evokes the past for me, but the past of my teenage years. I’ve yet to make my obligatory pilgrimage to Park Slope, to walk down the streets that shaped not only my earliest memories, but my very stride.
Still, everywhere I go, I’m seeing layers of transparencies that shift the focus of my vision like a camera lens that can toggle through time, a living, breathing, and circulating edition of those New York, Then and Now books that never go out of style. So when I take my son and two nieces to the Tenement Museum down on Orchard and Houston, I’m primed.
We get there in time to see the half-hour documentary before our visit, and watching the accounts of arrival, how each immigrant wave washed over and at times covered the traces of the previous ones, I sense I’ve hit paydirt. It’s a narrative I’m glad to offer to the girls, whom my sister took into the shelter of our family two years ago: a way of letting them know that none of us has ever really been here from the start, that we all arrived at one moment or another, and that our very arrival bestows belonging.
We enter the apartment exhibit, and there again, everywhere I look in the dilapidated room — preserved in the pre-war condition in which it was found — all I see are layers: of wallpaper and linoleum, eroding in pockets to reveal the previous layers below; of dirt and soot, covering the hallway frescos; of meaning, as one generation after another passed through these rooms, the first steps of the journey that has always been New York.
Afterward, in the bookstore, I buy Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning on a hunch. I remember years ago, after finishing The Fortress of Solitude, thinking that Jonathan Lethem must have read my diaries. After devouring The Bronx Is Burning in a day, I suspect that Mahler must have been mining my dreams. I was 9 years old in 1977, and many of the events he writes about lie on that distant frontier that is my early conscious awareness of the world around me — an awareness that, given the troubled times, was infused with the sense that the adult world did not quite correspond to my child’s expectations of it.
Intellectually, most of my adult life before becoming a father had been an effort to understand, on one hand, the broadest historical trends of humanity’s evolution from bands of hunter-gatherers to an advanced, post-industrial society; on the other, the personal trajectory of my own life. In other words, history on its very biggest and very smallest scales. Mahler’s book adds a middle layer to that account, anchoring on one end my own life into the life of the City and on the other, though not explicitly in his book, the life of the City into the broader political currents that have determined America’s — and the world’s — recent evolution.
The transparencies now fall into place — instead of each one blurring those beneath it, to say nothing of the reality of today’s New York, they combine to form a complete and more comprehensible image.
The George Zimmerman verdict drops while I’m in New York, and I can’t help but hear echoes of Bernie Goetz, but also of Edmund Perry and Yusuf Hawkins, Howard Beach and Crown Heights. Because while Mahler brilliantly identifies 1977 as the symbolic moment when New York hit rock bottom and began its return to fiscal health, things did not get all that much better in terms of the unraveling social contract until the late 1990s.
For weeks before the Zimmerman trial, I’d been thinking a lot about the loaded subtext of any first encounter between a white and black person in America, and in particular the metadialogue that goes on, particularly from the white person’s perspective, to communicate just what kind of white person one is. How can I get across the fact that I’m not racist without making race the central issue of our encounter? How can I avoid making race the central issue without seeming to ignore or minimize its importance in our American past and personal present?
My own experience of race in America was complicated from the start. My family narrative includes my father’s years as a hidden child in Belgium during World War II and the loss of most of his extended family to the Nazi death camps and massacres. On my mother’s side, it includes a pre-revolution flight from Czarist Russia and McCarthy-era blacklists for my grandfather’s political leanings. In other words, a narrative so filled with victimhood and persecution that my parents’ sympathies and support for the civil rights movement felt more like a family reunion than a crossing of boundaries. The Bull Connors and James Earl Rays of American Blacks’ recent past, when I learned of them, were easily assimilable to the Himmlers and Eichmanns of my own people’s, and the dividing lines they all sought to enforce seemed just as arbitrary and absurd.
Exacerbating this confusion was the fact that I grew up in pre-gentrified Park Slope, where each block had its own particular weighted blend of Italian, Irish, West Indian, Black, and Hispanic families. Difference for me was a starting point, not an ending — the first word of a sentence yet to be written rather than a final period that seals off dialogue. Navigating that difference, both its rewards and its potential dangers, came easily in large part because it was unavoidable. Later, when I was old enough to explore the City beyond Park Slope, I was too intoxicated by the thrill of discovering new territories and, more importantly, new tribes to ever understand the urge to stake out one of my own to wall off.
Not long after the Zimmerman verdict, a friend of mine spending the summer in Paris, and blogging about his experiences discovering that city and learning the French language, writes of his surprise that Black Parisians do not exchange what he calls “the patented head-nod […] black-speak for: ‘If a Klan rally breaks out, I have your back.’”
I read his words at the very moment I am becoming conscious of re-experiencing the old school New York head-nod here in the City, a nod that expresses a solidarity and recognition, but one that cuts across racial and class lines. These two reflections collide, and I realize that there is no Black man’s nod in Paris because there is no nod, period, in Paris. Eye contact and mutual recognition are scarce in that city — in France in general for that matter — and solidarity scarcer.
In the New York of my youth, by contrast, the streets were filled with those nods, as well as other gestures of solidarity that could easily go unnoticed by someone who wasn’t keyed in to spot them. To exchange them with strangers over the past few months was like hearing distant echoes of an almost forgotten language, a secret code shared by survivors of the City as battleground.
It’s hard for someone, like me, who has lived through New York’s darker days not to feel as if the City is now peopled with a newly arrived and fresh-scrubbed generation that would have been unequipped to navigate these same streets two decades ago. There is some satisfaction, but no justice, in that thought.
The Zimmerman verdict focused our attention, and our dialogue regarding race, on the “stand your ground” laws that were at the origins of that night’s tragic outcome. Repealing those laws will do little, however, if the defensive posture that is at the heart of them is not replaced by one of solidarity and a desire to actively transcend boundaries — to complete the sentence that begins with our mutual difference.
“Take your time,” I’ve been told on more than one occasion as I struggle along with my crutches, almost always by black men of my generation whose faces bear the traces of having scratched out survival the hard way. They are faces that bear witness to New York’s troubled past, which continues to linger beneath the renovated façade of its newly polished affluence. They speak of the disenfranchisement that comes of being caught up in and ground up, rather than advanced, by the gears of history.
“Time is what I’ve got the most of,” I answer. But I wonder if that’s true for the City.
4. The Accidental Private-Sector Tourist
When I left New York in 1996, I was convinced the world was coming to an end. Global warming, environmental degradation, and the other consequences of industrial society, combined with the social atomization and commodification brought about by post-industrial society, posed an imminent threat to our survival. The triumph of neoliberalism would only accelerate the process. I headed out to Northern California in what I thought would be a journey back to the land and a sustainable way of living.
Needless to say I was a bit off on the timing of the apocalypse. I also ended up being wildly off the mark as to my own trajectory. After a few bounces — some lucky, others less so — I ended up in France, first in the south, later in Paris, where I now raise my son.
When I came back to New York for the summer in early July, it was to find that the City, if not the world, once again faced an end, this one real, not feverishly imagined: that of the Bloomberg era, in which, wherever possible and whenever necessary, philanthropy replaced politics as the preferred method of solving the City’s problems. But public-private partnerships as a model of governance are inherently difficult to sustain, and they always work best when the hyphen connecting the public and the private is a man like Mike Bloomberg: an accidental private-sector tourist in the public sphere. As a result, the successes of the past decade’s imperial mayoralty might very well leave office with the mayor himself. Its failures, in particular those problems that the Bloomberg formula by nature could not address, will remain.
Of course, a revitalized waterfront and wonderfully kept parks are not insignificant enhancements to the life of the City — indeed, they are the kinds of things that my generation lacked while growing up here and which have made the biggest impression on me during my periodic visits back. But in the zero-sum battles that Bloomberg has seen fit to fight over his 12 years in office, it has invariably been the less fortunate who came out on the zero end of the stick.
That underscores how New York, at its heart, is and has always been a turf war. Reminders of that fact litter the City, from Prospect Park’s monument to the Maryland 400 (“What brave fellows I must this day lose!” – G. Washington) to Umberto’s Clam House (“What made them want to come and blow you away?” – B. Dylan). The question in its most succinct form boils down to, “Who does the City belong to?”
As an adolescent coming of age in the yuppifying New York of the 1980s, my answer to that question was clear: to the “real” New Yorkers, which I understood to mean the authentic ones who had earned and not bought that title. Bloomberg’s formula clearly reverses that standard. New York is for sale, as ever it was; in a sanitized, pasteurized City, there is no longer any way to earn the status of being a New Yorker.
Of course there are still surviving outposts — gritty neighborhoods yet to be gentrified, others where crime continues to make street sense a valuable commodity. The vital energy the City needs to reinvent itself, should its current affluent balance prove more fragile than it seems, will certainly originate there, more likely than not from the immigrant waves that continue to stream into the outlying boroughs. But for now, this only serves to accentuate the impression that New York resembles less a city than a colonial enclave, its affluent center surrounded — and served — by an indigenous periphery.
The inequalities inherent in such a system can usually be managed so long as the money continues to circulate. In New York’s case, the source of that money in the Bloomberg years has been a certain noblesse oblige — the membership dues paid to the country club the City has become. Should that arrangement end under the City’s next mayor — which, given Bill de Blasio’s platform, looks increasingly likely — I wonder what might replace it. And if no replacement is found, I wonder if the City’s restoration might turn out to be simply a facelift that fades with time.
5. Begin Again
When I left New York more than 15 years ago, I was convinced the world was coming to an end. What I later understood is that, for a variety of reasons, it was not the world, but my own world that was coming to an end. The same is probably true here: it is not New York that faces an imminent threat, but my own attachment to it. I have long known that the City I miss no longer exists, but still I felt anchored to that distant place, and never more so than when I was here walking the streets that now only impersonate the New York of my childhood.
I’m no longer so sure. I finally make the pilgrimage to Park Slope, to the two brownstones where I lived from my infancy until young adulthood. The dimensions and colors seem all wrong, though, and on both streets, I could easily pass by my childhood homes were it not for the street addresses on their doors. More importantly, when I wait for the emotions and memories that the sightlines used to conjure on previous visits, nothing surfaces.
If this past summer has taught me anything, it is that if the City is indeed still a turf war, I just don’t have a dog in this fight anymore. Whatever piece of ground I might have defended here lies buried deep beneath the surface. The list of people to call on my return has dwindled, as has the list of places with which to reconnect. At the same time that my friend has been in Paris learning a new language, I have been in New York, shocked by the small ways in which I’ve lost the mastery of my native tongue. While he has been in Paris creating new memories, I have been in New York chasing old ones. But memories, like language, fade.
What remains when they’re gone, I’m not really sure. Certainly New York will still be here. How long I’ll keep coming back, I no longer know.