Saturday, May 23, 2020

New York City in Shades of Black

Andreas Feininger

Living in New York in the epicenter of the worst pandemic the world has seen in more than a century is sorrowful, tense, and frightening.  Even now, as things get "better," the death toll today is 84, below 100 per day for the first time since March.  In April sometimes 800 people died in a day.  We could hear the wail of ambulance sirens near and far, day and night for days.
While the press focuses so much attention on the non-stop freak show in Washington DC, people in New York City and elsewhere die like flies.

Daily on my Facebook page every morning, I proclaim my solidarity with this great cosmopolitan city in its dark days of disease and death.  I claim the designation "cosmopolitan" proudly in a world riven by tribal conflicts and gone mad with vindictive hatred and bigotry.  This city of abounding and irrepressible life is having a long paralyzing seizure.  It stands stopped.  Streets and avenues normally packed with traffic proceeding at a crawl are empty.  Great public places are empty of people.  For the first time that I can remember since moving here almost 30 years ago, I can hear birds singing over the traffic noise.  I've endured terrorist attacks, black-outs, and a hurricane in New York, but I've never seen anything like this.

New York will emerge from this profoundly changed -- into what is anyone's guess.  It will certainly be much poorer.  Bereaved, grief-stricken, and traumatized people fill the city -- thousands upon thousands -- whose suffering is yet to be acknowledged publicly and officially.  Who knows if people will ever get a chance to mourn their dead.  Right now, our rulers want nothing more than to sweep all the corpses under the rug, pretend this never happened, and go back to making money.

In the absence of any meaningful leadership, people are left to their own resources.  The disillusionment with government and corporate indifference grows into a quiet rage.  There's anger at the deluded and selfish people who claim that this is all a hoax.  Conviction grows that the city was abandoned, that the great white daddies in charge saw a way to get rid of minorities and other inconvenient populations without getting their hands dirty.  Like AIDS, this is another deliberate abandonment of unwanted people to disease and death -- genocide by epidemic.  Anger grows over all the cruelties, injustices, and sharp divisions of class and caste exposed by the epidemic.  A virus mocks the hypocrisy of our claims to "Liberty and Justice for All."

I always post a photo of New York, usually by noted photographers of the past; and there are a lot of them.  My favorite ones that speak most to me are the stark architectural vistas of the 1930s and '40s from the depths of the Great Depression, and at the summit of one of the city's greatest building booms.  Their views are dramas of light and dark that are inspiring and yet haunted and strangely sepulchral.  The great buildings take on a monstrous and thrilling quality in their photographs.  The mighty city of the early 20th century rose on hope and ambition, but also cruelty and brutality.  A combination of exhilaration, remorse, and loneliness fills these photographs.

Irving Browning

The new and still mostly empty Empire State Building in about 1932.

A view from a window in the empty Empire State Building, about 1931.

Berenice Abbott

The New York Stock Exchange views from the great bronze statue of George Washington 
on the steps of the Federal Hall Memorial, Wall Street and Nassau, 1936

Pike and Henry Streets, 1936

Samuel Gottscho

The Empire State Building and Downtown Manhattan 
viewed from the Lincoln Building on 42nd Street, 1933.

Rockefeller Center at Night, 1933

Ilse Bing

The Empire State Building, 1930s

Manhattan from the stern of the Staten Island Ferry, 1930s

Alfred Stieglitz

Rockefeller Center

A view toward the 59th Street Bridge

Andreas Feininger

The Brooklyn Bridge in fog

The Empire State Building and Lower Manhattan during wartime "dim-out," 1942

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