Saturday, August 20, 2011

"The Great Rome of All Who Lost or Hated Home"

Manhattan with the Williamsburg Bridge in the foreground

This month marks 20 years that I've lived in New York. I've now lived here as long as I lived in Texas. I've joined the long long list of immigrants and emigrants who came here to make a new life and new home. The title of this post is from WH Auden who lived here for many years in a second story apartment above a bar in a 6 story walk-up on St. Mark's Place in the East Village. The walk-up is still there, but the ground floor bar and the apartment Auden once shared with Chester Kallman, where Hannah Arendt, Igor Stravinsky, and Paul Tillich used to visit him is now a split level restaurant. New York is thick with places associated with people I've admired all my life and whose work shaped the way I see the world. I love being in almost daily contact with their ghosts. I love walking by a certain unremarkable storefront on 10th street and looking up at the windows above and remembering that it was here that DeKooning painted the Women series, and Excavation.

I've always thought of New York as 2 cities inhabiting the same place; the Emigrant city and the Money city. The Emigrant city is infinitely fascinating, as varied, surprising, wondrous, and messy as all humanity. The Money city is unrelentingly horrible and brutal. And yet, both are inextricably joined together. One cannot exist without the other. That has been true since the city's beginnings. What the city is now it has always been. I think it's no accident that New York's founding myth is a real estate swindle (Peter Minuit "purchasing" Manhattan from its natives for trinkets and trade goods). The city's first settlers were hardly godly puritans seeking to build shining cities on hills, but hard-nosed Dutch merchants, Africans both free and slaves, and Sephardic Jewish refugees from Brazil fleeing the Inquisition. New York's ferociously pious Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant believed it was his Christian duty to prevent a ship full of Jews from landing. He was over-ruled by his Dutch employers who valued Jewish professional skills and trade connections. Thus began a pattern that continues to this day. The city's primary motivations are all mercenary, creating a peculiar tolerance for the odd and the misfit so long as they are profitable, or at least that they don't cost anything. Such was the tolerance of 17th century Amsterdam, the real mother city of New York (it certainly wasn't York).

New York is unique among the great historic cities of the world in that it was created out of the hopes and dreams of very poor people, for better and for worse. Paris, Rome, Beijing, London, Mexico City, Cairo, and most others were laid out by kings, princes, emperors, and high priests for their own benefit. New York alone was created from the dreams of the poor and displaced. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, the dream of the poor is not "to each according to his need," but "to each according to his desire." New York is the realization of the old medieval peasant dream of the Land of Cockaigne where ready-to-eat food sprang up everywhere and the sky rained beer. That dream gave hope for a better life of freedom and dignity to millions who previously weren't entitled to have hopes and dreams. It also created a place of glaring vulgarity and horrifying brutality. Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village is one of the oldest public parks in the USA, a generous open space for any and all. It was built on top of New York's first potters' field filled with the remains of thousands of destitute yellow fever victims from the beginning of the 19th century. All of those dead are still there underneath the trees, fountains, and playgrounds of the park, their resting place still unmarked and unnoticed except by those who know the park's history. The Lower East Side where I keep my studio was once the most densely inhabited spot on earth with thousands living on top of each other in "old law" tenements with no plumbing. Tenants had to use hand-pumps and outhouses. Most rooms in these tenement buildings had no windows. The inhabitants toiled in small industries, frequently at home, getting paid piecework wages. Fires and epidemics regularly cut through these neighborhoods. Crime and gang violence were so bad that the city was placed under martial law at times (even before the Draft Riots of 1863). Some gangs even kept artillery. Pigs regularly grazed in the uncollected garbage up Broadway in the early 19th century.
The ideas of the Old World and the New World met and clashed in New York. Refugee artists, writers, musicians, and scientists from the two World Wars met native intellectuals in New York. The two groups frequently fought with each other. The Europeans saw the Americans as bumpkins and the Americans saw the Europeans as parvenus. They clashed, and they also collaborated, and out of those encounters the modern culture of the last half of the 20th century was created. New York's creative sub-cultures are at least as old as Walt Whitman crossing the ferry from Brooklyn.

I've now lived here for 20 years, and I've had a wonderful time. It's crowded, out of scale, way over priced, it's still dirty (though not as bad as it was), people can be remarkably rude, and yet it's a city of abounding and irrepressible life. Despite the best efforts of the real estate industry to price it out of existence and pave it over, New York's creative life continues to thrive as an incubator of new talents in art, music, drama, literature, etc. Little bohemias and alternative sub-cultures still thrive, though they are now scattered throughout the city. The age of globalization and the internet makes New York a lot less of a capital than it used to be, but people still come here for the same reasons that they've always come. Now, just as in the past, groups fight each other for space and for power. People still come to make a new start, as did I. I've had some adventures here that I don't think I could have had anywhere else. I've met lots of remarkable and amazing people here. Despite the popular conception, the city is far from vast and anonymous. I've experienced this place as a series of frequently very close fellowships in small intimate places from East Village bars to ad hoc protest meetings in odd places, to parties in tiny apartments and on rooftops, to small church congregations. It's only when I look down on the city from tall buildings or from planes that I realize just how big it really is.

I've heard two descriptions of the city that I think are both accurate, though they don't quite agree. One friend described New York as not a single city, but hundreds of smaller cities and towns crammed together. Another friend describes the city as a vast college dorm. Indeed, it is.

Me on the roof of my building, 256 East 10th Street in 1994

A fond souvenir of my first trip ever to New York in 1982; I took this in a photo-booth in the Empire State Building; I was a mess; I just finished a fine meal of sidewalk hotdog with half of the mustard going down the front of my coat; I fit right in.

Together with my friend and former room mate Ian Stewart (wearing the remarkable tee shirt who now lives in London) at an ACT-UP march in 1994

With all of my Borders' Union friends in 1998; Jason Chapell is to my left, and David Kaplan is the last on the right.

With the great Tina Benez at A Different Light Bookstore in 1998

In my Lower East Side Studio in 2000

With my favorite New Yorker of all, Michael Bradley about 2006

The Williamsburg Bridge in the movies, the climactic shootout from Jules Dassin's 1948 movie The Naked City, one of the few about New York from that era filmed in New York instead of in a Hollywood backlot. Great fun to see landmarks and neighborhoods so familiar to me as they looked over 60 years ago.

The Williamsburg Bridge in art, a painting of some tenements viewed from the Bridge by Edward Hopper; I think those buildings are still there.

Woody Allen always said that Gershwin was the music he associated with New York. For me, it's Duke Ellington, with some others.

And still more music, some Fats Waller:

How could I forget this one? One, Two, Tree, Foah! ....


June Butler said...

Happy Anniversary, Doug. Yours is a fine tribute to a great city, a city I love, too.

I like the picture of you on your first visit to NY. Your friend Ian's tee shirt is something else.

So. You're a New Yorker now?

Counterlight said...

Thanks Grandmere.

I'm afraid I'll be stuck between two worlds forever.

People here still ask where in the South I'm from, and in Texas they look at me as if I'm a hostile alien from "War of the Worlds."

June Butler said...

I never hated my home town (New Orleans), and I still love it, warts and all. I wanted to experience living in a distant place, but I always thought I would return to the old home town.

I've lived in different places; I still do, but not places of my choosing, and it seems quite likely that I will never live in New Orleans again, though one should never say never.

Tom and I were both offered interviews for jobs in Jamaica in Queens, but he was not so inclined, so we took jobs in Mobile, Alabama.

I don't remember taking note of your accent, so it must not have seemed too strange to me. Too much like my own? A mish-mash?

JCF said...

Gah, you're making me miss the Big Apple (that top pic of you, on the roof in 1994? Looks like summer? That's when I left---after 4 years there)

I can't...quite imagine living there again (but damn if I wouldn't like to visit! Often!)

JCF said...

I admit, I first looked at the T-shirt and thought "'UNCU'? I don't get it."

Um, did Ian's t-shirt help him score? (I imagine that's why he wore it!)

Counterlight said...


my accent probably is definitely a mishmash now, or to be echt New York about it, a mishegoss.


I don't remember Ian's shirt helping him to score that day, but I wouldn't rule it out.

it's margaret said...

My mother's family is descendant from those hard-nosed Dutch traders/settlers of New Amsterdam, the Op den Dycke's and the Wightman's --after the war with the pesky anglos they went to Rhode Island and became Updikes and Whitmans (not to be confused with the Massachusetts family of Whitmans, as in Walt). I have always been ashamed of their mercenary habits --but today you have painted that with a brush that gives me new food for thought. Thank you Doug.

Paul said...

What a wonderful post. (I so would have fallen for you with the soul patch.)

tina benez said...

Doug!!! I am giving Stonewall Tranny Realness Daytime Look in this photo!;> Ur Handsome as Always! <3