Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Reflections On New York

New York is and always has 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 Bar ("What made them want to come and blow you away?" -- B. Dylan).

The question -- which at its most succinct boils down to, "Who does the City belong to?" -- is one that I've been contemplating since at least adolescence. Back then, in the mid-1980's, the battle lines were clearly drawn, with Yuppies, the Bridge & Tunnel crowd and tourists on one side, and "New Yorkers" on the other. And while Mayor Koch may have famously declared that anyone who'd been here for six years could consider themselves a New Yorker, my standards were considerably more restrictive.

Later, on my first visit home after leaving to attend Stanford University, I did a photojournalism assignment on the changes my neighborhood -- Park Slope -- had undergone in the previous five years. With all the clarity of an innocent eye, I identified the proliferation of real estate offices along Seventh Avenue as a key indicator of the neighborhood's changing identity. The changes were perhaps even more dramatic in SoHo and the Lower East Side, where friends of mine had grown up in barren wastelands now transformed, as if by magic, into affluent enclaves.

Later still, I came to realize that it's a question confronted by each successive generation of New Yorkers, whose identity is inextricably bound up with that of a City constantly reinvented by its new arrivals. To lay claim to the City is to place one's memories above others' aspirations. And yet, who has ever grown up in New York without in some way laying claim to it?

For my generation, though, the question resonates perhaps more than for others. After all, we grew up at a time when the City's very viability was very much in doubt. I remember mountains of garbage lining the streets during the Sanitation workers strike, and biking to school a half-hour away during the Transit workers strike. Then there were the blackouts, and the looting, which served as an apt metaphor for the opportunistic lawlessness that seemed to permeate the City at the time. 

But there was also a sharper edge to the violence. The emptying of the state's psychiatric institutions turned the City's streets into a diagnostic manual of mental illness. There was my boyhood neighbor, disfigured by a jar of acid tossed into his face by a stranger at the door. There were razor blades in Halloween apples, and mean-spirited eggings that quickly evolved into lightbulbs being tossed into crowds.

For the first time, more people were leaving New York than arriving, and no one knew for sure if the City itself, as an entity and a social experiment, was going to survive. The process of Urban Blight had been documented and confirmed. That of Urban Renewal hadn't. The artists squatting SoHo's industrial lofts were considered nuts, not only because no one had ever tried to "recycle" the City's obsolete architecture before, but also because they were going to such lengths to stay in the City. It's one thing to transform a ship's boiler room into a stateroom. It's quite another to do it on the Titanic while everyone else is busy launching lifeboats.

Even if things looked less uncertain by the 1980's, it was still the decade of wildings, the Crown Heights riots, Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, to say nothing of the crack vials by the thousands that littered the gutters. So if our generation felt that you had to earn the right to call yourself a New Yorker, we had our reasons.

That time is long gone, and thankfully so. But still the question lingers. Yesterday morning I brought my son to Central Park early to try to find a place to fly his new radio-controlled plane. For whatever reason, I'd never dream of jumping the gate at Sheep's Meadow, which doesn't open til 11 am. The Meadow, as we called it, was the only section of the park that was truly maintained during my childhood. It was also the only section that ever closed. One was directly related to the other, and it was a point of honor to respect the off-hours.

The Heckscher ballfields, however, were another story. My son and I had watched a couple of softball league games there this past weekend, and I was surprised to find them fenced off yesterday, since I can't ever remember them being closed. Throw in the fact that there was no sign posted that clearly stated they were actually closed, and that the chicken wire barrier across the entrance was attached by a plastic fastener that was very easily unfastened. Needless to say, I did what any New Yorker of my generation would do: I slipped my son through the gap in the barrier and started flying the plane.

We went through most of the plane's battery charge under the watchful eye of a NYPD cruiser which eventually pulled off once it became clear that we weren't going to tear up the lawn anytime soon. Just after the plane gave out, a Parks Dept. groundskeeper approached us and politely told me that we'd have to leave. The fields were off-limits and the plane wasn't allowed. 

I wasn't going to make his life difficult so we left. But the episode served as a punctuation mark to the question that's been dogging me for so long. Thirty years ago, anyone could use the fields at any time, and they were a mess. Now, only registered leagues can use them and they're immaculate. Who does the City belong to?

Not to me, that's for sure. At least, not any longer. And not to my son, who's growing up in France. The page has turned, not only on the streets, but above them, too, where tower after tower of high-rise buildings are being built at a pace that makes the mind reel. Mine was the first generation of New Yorkers to have no memory of the City skyline without the Twin Towers. Yesterday, from atop the Empire State Building (once again the City's pre-eminent skyscraper), I saw tomorrow's skyline, the massive shells that will soon house the next generation of New Yorkers.

The kids who grow up in them will make the City their own, navigating its streets until every slate of pavement is indelibly mapped onto their very identity, just like we did. Like us, they might think the City belongs to them. And they'll be right. At least for a moment, anyway.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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