Sunday, February 9, 2014

112. New York and the Vision Thing

                        Where there is no vision, the people perish.   Proverbs 29:18                                                   


     This post is about New York City and whether or not it has ever achieved, to use the memorable phrase of our forty-first President (Poppa Bush), “the vision thing.”  Certainly there was plenty of it in America once, since the New England colonies, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Georgia were all founded to create, here in the New World, an ideal community or sanctuary free from the intolerance and tyranny of the Old.  But not New York.  Right from the start it was a business town, a place to make money.  When the Dutch founded New Amsterdam in 1626, they meant it to be a trading post, a place where beaver skins and other pelts obtained from the native peoples of the interior could be loaded onto ships and sent to Europe, since beaver skins were in great demand for the hats of fashionable gentlemen.  And geography had predetermined that this was the spot for such a post, since it offered a large harbor at the mouth of a navigable river reaching far into the interior.

     And right from the start the settlement featured also a heady mix of people, a hodgepodge of races and nationalities: not just the Dutch, but also  Norwegians, Danes, Germans, Walloons, Bohemians, Italians, blacks both slave and free, Munsees, Montauks, Mohawks, and others, including refugees like Englishmen fleeing the oppressively sectarian colonies of New England and, in time, French Huguenots and Sephardic Jews.  Half the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam were non-Dutch, and business was conducted in half a dozen languages, the currencies employed being Dutch guilders, beaver skins, and wampum (belts of strung beads made of seashells). 

     And early on there developed a type of resident that would always characterize the city: worldly, brash, self-confident.  Then as now, New York was a magnet for hustlers and achievers, for all those eager to get ahead, make money, acquire power.  And that included not just fur traders, but also pirates, prostitutes, and sharpers of every stamp and breed. 

     Hardly a place, then, for vision.  Yes, there was prayer, but probably to many different gods, and not so much of it as to interfere with business.

     Fast-forward to the eighteenth century.  Renamed New York when the English took it over in 1664, the growing city was still a commercial hub, a significant port.  And a city with a large population of slaves – one resident in five was black -- their numbers second only to Charleston, South Carolina.  What did they do?  They fished, hauled water, cleaned privies, cooked for white people, split firewood, swept chimneys, peddled, worked in shipyards.  But slavery degrades the masters as well as the slaves.  A slave rebellion in 1712 killed 9 whites and wounded 6, and the retaliation was severe: 20 blacks were hanged, 3 burned at the stake, 1 broken on the wheel, and 1 roasted slowly for eight hours.  And in 1741, when several fires broke out, white citizens suspected black arson – probably erroneously – and burned 13 blacks at the stake and hanged 17.  I am no expert on eighteenth-century New York, but suggest that a city so involved in slavery, and the dread of a slave revolt that results, was hardly a fertile ground for vision.  During the Revolution the British promised their freedom to all slaves of rebels, and slaves from all over the colonies flocked to British-occupied New York.  When the British left the city in 1783, some 3,000 blacks went with them.

     Fast-forward again, this time deep into the nineteenth century.  As the leading port and financial center of an independent nation, New York, now a metropolis, could develop freely and express what I have termed its dark eros: the blind energy, ambition, and desire that characterize it to this day.  Flocking to it, along with immigrants from abroad, were all those locals bent on making it, on achieving wealth, success, and fame.  The city, like the nation, was drunk on Go Ahead, on material progress, on Bigger, Better, Faster, on More.  Confined to a long, narrow island, its growing population pushed steadily north, opening new streets and building new homes and stores and banks, even as it launched ships, cast marine engines, refined sugar, transshipped cotton from the South, and imported textiles and iron goods from Britain and silks and fancy goods from France.  In this frenzy of construction and commerce, was there room for vision?

     One could easily doubt it.  Literature and great ideas New York left to Boston.  Abolition didn’t tempt it; too many New York merchants had lucrative business ties with the South, and a few of them were secretly getting rich from the slave trade.  What great achievements did the city  accomplish, aside from making money?  I know of three: the completion of the Croton water supply system in 1842; the laying out of Central Park, which opened to the public on the eve of the Civil War; and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883.  But are these accomplishments the products of vision?

     The water supply system, bringing clean water from upstate into the homes of the affluent, who could now bathe themselves and flush away wastes with ease, transformed the daily life of citizens, but maybe doesn’t rate as the realization of a vision.  But the creation of the 843-acre park, a vast expanse of greenery in what, as the city expanded northward, would become the heart of the city, with separate pathways for pedestrians, horseback riders, and carriages, and sunken transverses to hide commercial traffic crossing the park, all this could indeed be seen as realizing the vision of its inspired creators, Olmsted and Vaux.  Nothing like it had ever been done in this nation.  It was meant to welcome all citizens, rich and poor alike, and provide them with an urban Eden free from the turbulence of a noise-ridden, congested metropolis.  If the poor found the trip uptown to this leafy paradise a bit long and burdensome, while the wealthy paraded on its drives in their thin-wheeled, sleek black carriages with a coachman and footmen in livery, that need not detract from the splendor of the vision.
The Drive in Central Park, a somewhat idealized view by Currier & Ives.

     Likewise the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the greatest suspension bridge built to date in the nation, can be seen as the product of vision.  To project such a span over an expanse of water and connect two great cities, New York and independent Brooklyn, thus eliminating the threat of winter ice jams and tides and wind and sleet – to sink two huge caissons through muck and clay and sand down to bedrock, then build on that bedrock two giant towers and bind them high over water with a harp of steel – to realize such a project was indeed the result of vision.  Even in this money-grubbing city, corrupt and dirty, where the rich got richer while the poor stayed poor, great dreams could be realized.  Secular dreams, material dreams, but dreams nonetheless.

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Ad Meskens

     Still, New York could inspire counter-visions, visions hostile to it.  In the 1890s the Populist movement flourished in this country, representing farmers and laborers in the South and West who resented the dominance of Eastern bankers and plutocrats, big corporations and railroads, and the high cost of money.  Populist leaders inveighed especially against that hub of greed and corruption, Wall Street, which meant that New York City seemed to embody all that they detested … and feared. 

     Fast-forward again into the twentieth century.  By the 1920s New York, whose thrusting of ever taller buildings had always dazzled and amazed visitors, was sprouting in abundance those truly American marvels, the skyscrapers.  Indeed, with Manhattan now all built up, where else could the city expand except high into the sky?  Even today, when those big glass boxes known as high-rises clutter up the scene, I still marvel at the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State, and salute their stark modernity, their secular – dare I say it? – vision.  

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New York City as seen from the Empire State Building, circa 1932.

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The Empire State Building today,
as seen from the east.

Beyond My Ken
Not to mention  Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, and the multiple creations of that master builder, Robert Moses, and the George Washington and Verrazano bridges.  I have walked the George Washington Bridge en route to or from the Palisades and, in spite of all the noisy traffic, have had that feeling of being projected into space, into sky, with my knees trembling at a glance at the abysms of space below that separated me from the river and the little toy boats on its surface: no ordinary experience, but one both exalting and frightening, made possible by what must be the most sublime of visions.

     That twentieth-century New York was a New Thing, all its own, struck any visitor coming from the Old World for the first time.  In a previous post I quoted Salvador Dali’s rapturous salute to the city when he first came in the 1930s:

The poetry of New York is an organ, Gothic neurosis, nostalgia of the Orient and the Occident, parchment lampshade in the form of a musical partition, smoked façade, artificial vampire, artificial armchair….  New York is not prismatic; New York is not white.  New York is all round; New York is vivid red.  New York is a round pyramid.  New York is a ball of flesh a little pointed toward the top, a ball of millennial and crystallized entrails; a monumental ruby in the rough – with the organ-point of its flashes directed toward heaven, somewhat like the form of an inverted heart – before being polished!

     Anything inspiring such Surrealist lyricism, such a hymn to the Modern,  surely points toward vision, not the vision of a single inspired architect or planner or engineer, or even a team of them, but a collective vision, a vision of the many.  I have defined New York City’s driving force as a dark eros, a combination of blind energy, ambition, and desire.  Cannot this force be considered visionary, and can we not attribute to such a vision these essentially material achievements?  Yes, then, there is vision in New York.

     But I will take it one step further.  The Gothic cathedrals of Europe are certainly the products of vision, but an essentially spiritual vision.  I marvel at their soaring vaults and towers, their sculpted Virgin and saints, their breathtaking stained glass windows, their every detail expressing a living, vibrant faith.  Can the structures and bridges of New York be in any way comparable?  Or is it folly to even attempt such a comparison?  Can one think of the Empire State Building and Notre Dame de Paris in the same breath?  Or the Prometheus of Rockefeller Center and any Gothic sculpture?  Surely the Prometheus and Atlas of Rockefeller Center are more related to the epic sculpture of the Renaissance.

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Notre Dame de Paris, illuminated at night.

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Virgin and Child, in front of the western rose window of Notre Dame.

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The Prometheus of Rockefeller Center, bringing fire to mortals.
Jorge Royan

     A nun of my acquaintance insists that there is no spirituality without sexuality, and no sexuality without spirituality.  So I wonder if, against all likelihood, the secular vision producing the monuments of New York can have a hidden spiritual component.  Behind this city’s and this country’s urge to dream, dare, do, is there some lofty purpose that surpasses the individual agents, that seeks to achieve some goal of which we are but dimly, if at all, aware?  




     Hasn’t this always been the nation’s credo, and by extension now, the city’s?  So here we tread upon the thorny question of American exceptionalism, the belief that we are somehow different, special, unique, created by God or some Unseen Power to realize a Great Purpose on this earth.  Which brings to mind a refrain from a poem by Carl Sandburg:

                                    We are the greatest city,
                                    the greatest nation:
                                    nothing like us ever was.

Isn’t this the credo of America?  But Sandburg isn’t celebrating New York and America (he preferred Chicago anyway).  This refrain is from his poem “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” which begins with an epigraph: “The past is a bucket of ashes.”  Like Shelley in his poem “Ozymandias,” Sandburg is really expressing the folly of such exceptionalism, the fragility of grandiose human achievement.  A sobering thought, when one contemplates soaring bridges and towers, epic statuary, wondrous parks.  Visions too are fragile and probably, in the long run, doomed.  Maybe the Twin Towers – which I never quite managed to like – were our Babel, our crowning hubris, and destined for destruction.  Maybe we should think small for a change.  But has New York ever thought small, and would it still be New York, if it did?  Surely not.  But maybe we should.  Think small, that is.  Maybe.  And maybe not.

  Our crowning hubris?

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September 15, 2001.  A New York City fireman calls for ten more rescue workers
to enter the rubble of the World Trade Center.

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Kris Krug
      Note:  Me and fashion, and will our mayor be seduced?  Fashion is big in New York and always has been.  Next Thursday is the beginning of Fashion Week, so I’m told.  Not that it means anything to me.  Even though designer clothing stores have invaded my neighborhood, I know nothing of fashion, am totally and contentedly ignorant about it, don’t even window-shop along Bleecker Street.  The fashion industry involves lots of money, I gather, but that’s the extent of my knowledge.  Yes, in the window of the Marc Jacobs store across the street I’ve seen films of expressionless young models, male and female, parading clothes past multitudes of seated buyers (at least, I assume they are buyers), the models’ faces completely deadpan, making of them an endless chain of well-dressed clothespins.  And the clothes they model are stuff I wouldn’t be caught dead in.  To which the fashion world would probably retort, “And we wouldn’t be caught dead trying to outfit you!”  Touché!  Because I’m not the least bit elegant, wear clothes until they’re fearfully worn out, am always the last to adopt a new fashion.  In the 1960s – or was it even the 1970s? – I was the last male in the country to wear bellbottoms.  (A snug, low-rise pair, deliciously blue, that I actually fell in love with and clung to long after bells went out of fashion.)  All of which says nothing about our new mayor being seduced.

     What brought me to this subject was an article in a recent New York Times inspired by the imminence of Fashion Week.  It seems that our previous mayor, Mr. Bloomberg, though no fashion icon himself, had a close  relationship with the fashion world, attending their shows, speaking at their award ceremonies, showing up at their store openings, and walking the red carpet at their galas.  “I am a fashionista!” he on one occasion jokingly announced.  “Our mayor, our father, our caretaker,” one designer gushed.  Said another, “He realizes that fashion is the heartbeat of this city.”  (All these years in New York, and I never detected its heartbeat!)  So in love was the fashion world with Hizzoner, they gave him a private farewell dinner last December at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

     But the old order changeth, giving way to the new.  Enter a new mayor named de Blasio, all six feet five of him.  “Nobody in fashion knows this guy,” one fashion exec has observed.  “I am sure we will seduce the new mayor, too,” says designer Diane von Furstenberg.  Which may not be so easy.  De Blasio’s “tale of two cities,” contrasting the ultra rich 1% with the other 99%, didn’t resonate with fashion, an industry that doesn’t exactly cater to the hoi polloi, least of all those at the very bottom of the heap.  Bloomberg and his partner Diane Taylor were very social creatures, hobnobbing easily with the fashion world at its frequent dinners, parties, and events.  But the new mayor, with two teen-age children, may be more homebound and less socially inclined.  And it doesn’t help that in the last primary the fashion crowd bet on the wrong horse, Christine Quinn, and not on that unknown who came from behind, Bill de Blasio.  But the fashionistas are hopeful, insisting that anyone with two “with-it” children like Dante and Chiara has to have a secret fashion bent.  So will the new mayor be seduced?  We’ll soon get a hint, since he’ll be expected to attend the imminent opening of New York Fashion Week.  And this is one seduction of a politician that we can all witness at least without dismay.  Suspense is building.  Can progressives and fashion march in step together?  Or even dance?  Time will tell.

     Coming soon:  The Sacred in Secular New York.  (Is it even conceivable?  The sacredness of water, Pete Seeger, and GE.  The role of silence and my five secret spots.  Greek gods and dancing Shiva.) 

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder