Manhattan, Floating World
Manhattan is shaped like an ocean liner or like a lozenge or like a paramecium (the protruding piers its cilia) or like a gourd or like some kind of fish, a striped bass, say, but most of all like a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere.
The Japanese of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had a word, ukiyo, for the “floating world” of courtesans, actors, rich merchants and their spoiled sons and daughters who made up the town’s most visible element. Manhattan is a floating world, too: buoyant as balsa, heavy as granite. The reason skyscrapers developed so readily on this spit of earth, I once heard, is that its foundation stone was strong enough to take any amount of drilling. You can still bruise your ego against Manhattan’s rocky cheek. Like other island states, Crete, Rhodes, Venice, or Hong Kong, it has a brash, arrogant energy far disproportionate to its size, and an uneasiness about domination by larger forces which it always tries to conceal.
Lewis Mumford has written tenderly about the approach to Manhattan from the water: “Those wonderful long ferry rides! Alas for the later generation that cannot guess how they opened the city up, or how the change of pace and place, from swift to slow, from land to water, had a specially stimulating effect upon the mind.”
Myself, I first began coming to Manhattan on foot from Brooklyn. My whole family would walk across the Williamsburg Bridge at sundown on a Saturday night, to mark the Sabbath’s end with a meal at a Manhattan dairy restaurant, usually Ratner’s or Rappaport’s. Not that my parents were such observant Jews; but, living in a Hasidic area, they adapted somewhat to their neighbor’s customs. Later, I took to walking across the bridge myself, a poeticizing adolescent mesmerized by motes in air. These motes, which only I could see, thanks to my precocious genius, floating before the solid brick housing projects that already walled off the Lower East Side’s edge from the river’s beauty, represented to me the possibility of a transcendent escape from the ghetto and the manure pile I took to be my life. Not motes but money, I came to see later, was the ticket out.
The look of Manhattan, its aesthetic destiny, was sealed in 1811 with the approval of the grid plan. This arrangement set forth “a basis for the orderly sale and development of land in Manhattan between 14th Street and Washington Heights by establishing a rectangular grid of streets and property lines without regard to topography,” notes The Encyclopedia of New York City. The prevailing wisdom today among planners and architects is that it is important to honor the land’s contours, which just goes to show how visionary New York’s city fathers were. They created an “intentional city,” like St. Petersburg, a “madly rational scheme imposed on nature.” Convinced that simple rectangular houses and lots were best, the commisioners avoided the addition of “circles, ovals, and other features” popular in European capitals, adds the encylopediast. The city fathers loved the ninety-degree angle, the forthright, manly plod of the rectangle extended indefinitely. They would have gridded the stars if given a chance.
The Manhattan grid is a mighty device, existential metaphor, Procrustean bed, call it what you will, a thing impossible to overpraise. I realize it is fashionable in left-wing academic circles to speak of the grid disparagingly as merely a capitalist scheme for real estate speculation. For instance, Richad Sennet wrote about Manhattan in his book, The Conscience of the Eye, “The grid has been used in modern times as a plan that neutralizes the environment. It is a Protestant sign for the neutral city.” This glib semiotic reading fails to account for the famous vitality of Manhattan’s streets; overlooks the power of this particular grid to generate meaning, clarity, resonance, and joy through its very repetitions; ignores the role of Broadway as a diagonal “rogue” street creating event and drama with its triangulations wherever it intersects an avenue (such as at 72nd Street, 59th Street, 42nd Street, 34th Street, 23rd Street); and omits the variations in street size within the grid, which differentiate the petite, elegantly trifling blocks of the Upper East Side, say, from the long dour treks between avenues on the Upper West Side.
“Before him, then, the slope stretched upward, and above it the brilliant sky, and beyond it, cloudy and far away, he saw the skyline of New York. He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him.”
This passage, taken from James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” epitomizes a whole literature about sensitive provincials from the outer boroughs or Harlem approaching midtown Manhattan with a lump in their throats. I do not propose to add my own lump. Rather, let me fast-forward through adolescence, Columbia, a premature first marriage at twenty, conjugal cocooning in Washington Heights, divorce at twenty-five, a California-runaway period; skip ahead to my late twenties, when I returned to live on the Upper East Side, and to search out, as an avid bachelor this time, Mannahattan, Whitman’s “City of orgies, walks and joys.”
I walked. How I walked! In midtown Manhattan you walk as though on a conveyor belt, the grid pulling you along. It is not a restful sensation true. There are none of those piazzas as in Rome were you can cool your feet in a sidewalk cafe and stare across at a fountain. You keep moving, you feel purposeful, wary, pointed, athletic. You can gauge your progress to an appointment (a block takes roughly a minute on foot), and given the vagaries of the subway system and traffic jams, walking is often the most reliable as well most economical transportation option. Meanwhile, the grid is a reassuring compass always orienting you. It pulls your eye straight up the street, to long, unimpeded vistas; left or right, if you are anywhere near the waterfront, you can catch a peripheral glimpse of river or sunset (made more beautiful by the atmosphere’s pollutants); and so your eye keeps adjusting astigmatically between long distance and middle range. And all the time there is so much coming at you that you have to attend to the immediate surround, dodging bodies and seizing opportunities. You take in the street by layers: this guy with the hat stepping too close to your shoulder; the storefront signs and displays, prompting impulse purchases; the stone-cut ornaments just above your head (cornices, cherubs, lions) and sometimes a whole second-story tier or retail; the wall posters selling moviews, politicians, rock shows; and finally, the tops of buildings, for which the best touches are often saved – Babylonian roof gardens, green copper domes, castle turrets, greek columns, Mayan setback fantasias, and all sorts of pointy symbols for the heavenward needle of commerce.
I love the ability of Manhattan’s public spaces to absord without fuss a mix of classes, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations. For the moment, at least, everyone in the pedestrian swirl is assigned the same human value: You are either in my way or not.
Here I begin to appreciate the performance art of pedestrianism. Each New Yorker is like a minor character actor who has honed his or her persona into a sharp, three-second cameo. I would have only an instant to catch the passer-by’s unique gesture or telltale accessory: a cough, an insouciant drawing on a cigarette, hair primped, a nubby scarf, some words muttered under the breath, an eyebrow squinched in doubt, the sigh-filled lifting of the shopping cart. Diane Arbus used to say that in split-second she looked for the flaw. I would say I look for the self-dramatizing element. On the one hand, the streets bring out a pure solipsism in New yorkers, a self-absorption unembarrassed by myriad witnesses; on the other hand, their furrowed brows bespeak a secret religious conviction that they are being watched by higher powers, and their anxious eyes all seem to ask: My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
It so happens that I was then under the tutelage of a Jungian shrink who tried to get me to attend the present momen – a hopeless proposition, in the long run; but for awhile, I schooled myself to the concrete (the opposite of motes), to the one-thing-after-another world of the streets. A therapist alone, could not have gotten me attend to the present, but this was also a general recipe among poets, and I wanted to be a poet. I had in mind writing a proudly urban verse, inspired by Frank O’hara’s Lunch Poems, which captured the ironic, jolie-laide simultaneities of Manhattan sidewalks. My other urban gurus were Jane Jacobs, with her wisdom about everyday life and mixed uses in city neighborhood; Walter Benjamin, wih his anayses of flaneurs and his approach to the city as a cabbalistic text; and Charles Reznikoff, with his eavesdropping, anecdotal poems about chance street encounters.
A few entries from my past diaries should convey the spirit of that experiment, when I told myself: “You need not seek, the streets deliver all in due time.”
In front of Carnegie Hall near the Russian Tea Room, there was crazy man screaming his lungs out, something about “Man is an animal” in any case, not very interesting from the viewpoint of language or ideas. People were swerving away from him, but he was tyrannizing the whole street with his insane yelling. Finally I had had enough: I said, “Oh, shut up! Straightaway he got a happy gleam in his eye. I made a beeline for the coffee shop across the street and sat down at a table, but he came in after me, and in front of the cash register man and a dozen customers on stools, he began poking his finger at me. I realized now that he was much taller than I had thought. I strated making the motion with my hand of patting the waves, the now-wait-a-minute-buddy-calm-down-gesture. “You want me on your back?” he yelled with satisfaction. “Huh? You want ME ON YOUR BACK, Mister?!” I had to admit he had a point.
A New York snow turns to slush in the rain, and every pedestrian navigates to find some footing, as a river opens at each crossing. They wactch a pioneer test the snow, to see if it is good for footing or has a false crust. I see a beautiful young woman in a mouton coat and elegant reddish-brown, ringletted hairdo hesitate at the corner, then plunge in with their black leather shoes, like ballet slippers, resigned to getting wet. An old black woman seems to be remembering country skills as she attempts a crossing.
I was in Fairway Supermarket on the Upper West Side, which is always crowded like mad, and I wanted to buy a few rolls, but an elderly, well-combed woman was pausing interminably before the bagels and bialy section with the customer prongs in her hand.
“Excuse me for taking so long,” she said. ” My eyes aren’t good, I have cataracts.”
I nodded. We all have our problems.
“I really can’t see very well, they tell me I have cataracts,” she continued, ” and I don’t want the ordinary bagels, I want the brown pumpernickel ones.”
Lady, I thought to myself, if you have cataracts maybe you shouldn’t be so picky.
She knocked her prongs through the bin a while without much conviction, then said, like someone used to ordering servants, “Could you find them for them me?”
I had lost the duel of wills. “Sure.” “You know, those pumpernickel ones with the seeds,” she added, as though I were the grocery boy. I snapped to it, just to see what it felt like, imagining myself in a white apron, all eyes on me. I must have done a realistic job, because afterwards someone came up to me to ask where she could find the tomato paste.
Today I am walking down Broadway and 72nd Street and a police car screams by. I pay it no attention. Two more police cars pull up. Must be a shootout, I think. Another squad car; cops are yelling, “Get back! Clear the streets!” Must be a big shootout; burglars trapped in a holdup? Hostages? Now I’m tempted to backtrack just to find out. Ah well ( I walk on, thinking), can’t interuppt my life for every crime. This is the exaggerated picture of New York that the rest of the world takes from Hollywood movies – police sirens running, cars converging. It’s actuality today. I ask some people what’s going on: they don’t know. Suddenly a dozen motorcycle cops roar down the streets. “It’s the President!” I hear people say around me. “It’s Carter!” The motorcycle squad is followed by one black limousine after another, bing bing bing. Which one’s the Prez? They’re driving by too fast to see. In the fifth or sixth limo I see a white hand on the bulletproof windowpane, palm up in a greeting. the crowd murmurs, That must be him! That’s all, just a little white hand. Our President.
The truncated anecdote: so often this is what I brought home from my walks and tried to work up into something literary. I was trying to squeeze the sidewalks for free entertainment. Often enough, they obliged. Urbanists are fond of comparing the streets of a metropolis to a theater set, this turns out to be a tricky metaphor and, by now, a tiresome one. The American theater being what it is today, the streets are probably more reliable as a source of diversion. But what they give you, for the most part, are curtain raisers.
In addition to spending hours each day walking and observing, I began reading more about town planning and New York hostory. I tried to understand the aesthetic secrets behind the pleasure I got from the streets. The Manhattan skyline, I came to discover, is unique in its juxtaposition of so many diaparate architectural styles and eras, unapologetically cheek by jowl – and the fact that someow they all work together. What makes them cohere visually is the Manhattan tradition of the unbroken street-wall, which democratizes every building by keeping it in its place, starting as far back from the sidewalk as its neighbors. The continuous street-wall, a by-product of the grid plan, has become as important as the grid itself in maintaining the dense, vertical look of Manhattan.
It was also Manhattan’s good fortune to have been built up, for the most part, before the present era of jumbo tower technology, with its ugly one-building-per-block sprawl. Earlier skyscrapers were more svelte; even the Empire State Building, built as the tallest in the world, had to take its place like a good citizen aongside the other edifices along 34th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
While undergoing this unsystematic education in the urban landscape, I discovered I was not alone in my preoccupation. From the late seventies onward, almost every Manhattanite seemed to be developing into an amateur urbanologist. This fad may have been triggered by a sense of impending loss attendant the city’s 1975 brush with bankruptcy. The default scare made New Yorkers acutely worried – and self-conscious – about the preservation of a way of life they had been taking for granted.
This facination with the city’s web continued in the gentrifying eighties, when we came to see how any architectural grace note from the past could be framed and exploited for maximum commercial value. The eighties’ resurgence in the city’s fortunes – a foreign investment-driven, artificial boom – paradoxically led to a housing shortage, and a sharp increase in homelessness and street begging. it was no longer easy to write humorous sketches about loonies encountered on walks, now that their plight was revealed as part of a wider socioeconomic misery.
Gentrification produced a whole generation savvy about restoration, land use, city history. This was particularly true in Manhattan, with its extremely finite boundries. Manhattan is a chessboard whereon everyone knows the value and provenance of each square. It can’t expand (except through landfill), so it cannibalizes itself and reinvents iself in place. At prime locations, such as Times Square, Columbus Circle, Batery Park, nothing new can transpire without controversy and the screaming of ghosts.
Take the example of Madison Square Garden. the first arena was built, appropraitely enough, on Madison Square, as a sucesor to P.T. Barnum’s Hippodrome. This was knocked down and replaced by a much more distinguished version – a lavish, minareted affair designed by Stanford White, of the great New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. When the New York Life Insurance Company bought the property and decided to raze the arena to build its own headquarters, Madison Square Garden trudged off to 50th Street and Eighth Avenue. There it lumbered through countless circuses and prizefights and Knicks games, until the early eighties, when the arena was moved again, this time as an anchor to a huge speulative development on Seventh Avenue between 31st and 34th Streets, This was certainly a prime location, housing at it did that pricelss architcetural masterpiece, Pennsylvania Station, also by McKim, Mead & White. We know the rest: Penn Station was torn down, replaced by a tacky madison square Garden and a squalid underground railway juncture. The destruction of Pennsylvania Station changed the mentality of New Yorkers forever, from an amnesiac populace confidently, if blindly, embracing Progress, to a haunted band of nostalgics evicted from Eden, haunted by the corpse they could never revive.
Try telling Manhattanites about any proposed neighborhood change; they already know it. They know it because information is the plasma of New York, and because real estate ventures are well reported in the local press, and because they can see the transformations at street level. There is somethng particularly frustrating about this high degree of sophistication, combined as it is with a powerlessness to disarm evil or promote the civic good. Unless you are a “player” – a powerful developer, politician, union leader, community, activist, realty lawyer – you are reduced to the role of spectator, elegiac in advance.
I was no player, but an increasingly elegiac spectator. I walked, I walked. In cold weather I appreciated the chestnut sellers, The Christmas trees in Rockerfeller Center. Various tall buildings were suddenly competeing to illuminate their crowns; I appreciated the chalky elephant gray lighting of Radio City and the NBC Building. In hot weather I became a connoisseur of halter tops and sidewalk book vendors.
There is about this vanity of walking, in cases like mine, the insular smell of maleness unable to break out of itself: solitary, literary, onanistic, cerebral, boastful, defensive, and melancholy (like most flirtations with the infinite). I walked as though hunting for erotic adventure. Though I never actually picked up anyone on the peregrinations, they were all taken under the sign of Venus. The Manhattan street, with its ethnic variety, purveys a succesion of women whose beauty is heartstopping in different ways: this one because of her elegant legs, that one because of her eloquent, ferocious face, the next, her bright red hair, or somethng indefinably pleasing in the ensemble…I was not looking to find romance so much as to be invaded by sharp, fleeting glimpses of femine grace, to take back home with me and muse over in bitersweet solitude. It seemd to me I could achieve happiness with so many of these women, that such naive optimism was contradicted by my extensive experience as a bachelor never succeeded in rooting out the utopian dream of hedonism which the street proffered.
Then I fell in love in my late forties, and remarried. I wondered, worried, since the aesthetic response to beauty never dies, if the streets of Manhattan might pose a continuous challenge to my fidelity, mentally if not physically. Of course I still look, but the main result of mariage was that I found myself walking less. Manhatan, that mecca for singles, became less fascinating to me now that the hunt was over. It was also perhaps that, at fifty, age had finally caught up with me, wearing out the enthusiasm, driven by longing, of my earlier, street-besotted self.
These days, most of the time, I do not really see the city. I walk around Manhattan in a muted blur, taking in only what I need to navigate its streets. At times I’ll even read a book as I walk, espying only as much of the streetscape as peripheral vision around the page’s borders will allow. I resent the pressure (which I’ve put on myself – nobody asked me to! to find grace in the old gargoyles and brickwork and water towers, the physiognomies of my fellow citizens. Yes, New York is amazing, but must I always pay it homage? So often in my youth I conned myself into being programmatically astounded by this, my native city, even pretending it was someplace foreign and exotic, like Budapest or Buenos Aries or Prague, and making believe I was a tourist seeing it for the first time when I looked up at, say, the turn-of-the-century buildings in the Flatiron district. No more. If it is going to astonish me, it had better do so without my lifting a finger.
It still does, even if the astonishment is milder. In late May, I love to walk around Greenwich Village in the afternon and see the three o’clock sun on the facades of town houses, red brick or painted white. I think there’s some mystery to the light at this time of year, but then I realize it’s only that the trees are in bloom, and I’m seeing the light filtered through and softened by erose leaves, which cast delicate shadows against the building walls. Also, theres’ a perfect correspondence in scale: one tree, one town house. An equivalence, a relationship. You can only get that in a few Manhattan neighborhoods, like the Village or parts of Chelsea, where the buildings are smaller. By July, you are so used to the fullness of the trees that you don’t notice the light any more – you notice the heat. But there really is somethig miraculous about the sun-licked facades of Federal-style town houses at that time of year. And your energy is higher, because it’s fun to walk around in the sun with a nip still in the air.
Built into literary discourse about Manhatan, it seems, is a movement from object of desire to disenchantement. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “My Lost City,” remembers his feelings as a young man that “New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world,” and later, his dyspeptic conviction that “Whole sections of the city had grown rather poisonous…The city was bloated, glutted, stupid with cake and circuses…And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice…came crashing to the ground.” He concluded:”…I have lost my splendid mirage. Come back, come back, O glittering and white!”
Joan Didion echoes his sentiments in her essay “Goodbye to All That.” Initially, she writes, ” New York was no mere city. It was instead an infintely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself…I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” In the end she leaves, of course: “the golden dream was broken, and I am not that young anymore. The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired.”
American writers seem to associate New York with a good place to be young, and then blame it for the fact that it is not elixir enough for them to hold on to their youth. they project their own awareness of mortality onto it: hence, they always see New York as dying. French writers are fond of personifying Paris as faithless trollop. In a sense, Manhattan has always remained true, faithful to its nature, and it is the writers who have proved faithless. I am no exception: true, in my twenties I hardly shared the cocktail party life of new-comers like Fitzgerald and Didion, and my journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan was shorter and more mundane. But I, too, romanticized the place, falsely identitying my own youthful, Whitmanesque, lyrically colonizing energy with the island’s, then turned on it when I began to slow down.
If growing older means losing Manhattan – or the El Dorado it has sigified – that loss of innocence may be more than compensated for a by a gain in worldy stoicism. It would do well for wriers like myself to follow the advice Cavafy gives in his great poem ” The God Abandons Antony”:
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria who is leaving. Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these. As one long prepared, and full of courage, as is right for you who were given this kind of city, go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotion, but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward; listen – your final pleasure – to the voices, to the exquisite music of the strange procession, and say goodyby to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
Meantime, I have moved back to Brooklyn.