Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When We Remembered Zion

I have been thinking about New York lately. I was standing on the asphalt at the playground on a recent sunny day when I saw the silver-lit arc in the sky made by a flock of pigeons in synchronized flight with the sun glancing off their wings: a beautiful sight, one frequently seen in the New York of my youth, and an image that is, for me, a sort of personal leitmotif. I've had bizarre dreams about the city lately, too, geographically incorrect dreams in which the Hudson River runs right through the center of it, separating East from West, and I have a gig singing Piaf songs in a neglected hole-in-the-wall café, and the denizens of Zuccotti Park storm the bastions of Park Avenue. I've thought a lot lately about my family, friends, and semblables still living there (their numbers are smaller now than they once were), and have contrasted their lives with my own (right now it seems there's nothing but contrast). I think of the holiday season in the city, and the happy-inducing sight of streets thronged with life. I know there are people in this world who prefer to live in the country and never see another living soul, but I can't quite believe it somehow.

I wonder how many marriages and other relationships, if taken out of New York, would fail. My unscientific guess is quite a few. The city is itself a massive safety valve; no matter how cramped your quarters, you can leave them at any time and actually go somewhere else and still return home in ten minutes. The teeming, rushing life all around buoys the spirits; aesthetic pleasures of all kinds abound. One can have myriads of secret lives there -- I don't mean affairs or other insidious secrets, but, rather, tiny, mundane ones:  favorite places, favorite trees on favorite streets, favorite cups of coffee at favorite diners.  It seems to me that in small towns, or in the suburbs, one has fewer means of release, fewer tiny secrets to maintain, and one is therefore much more exposed.  I'm not sure whether total exposure to the other is ultimately good for relationships, but I'm far from an expert on these things.

I started reading this article, but it seemed like every other paean to the city by a young transplant that I've ever read, and I got bored and stopped. I did like this quote, though:

Jeremiah Moss, the writer behind Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, expresses a frequent complaint: "Newcomers to New York want backyards, bicycles, and barbecues. They want Greenwich Village to be like their hometowns in Wisconsin," he says. "Underneath this—and not very far underneath—there's a seething hatred of urban life. They don't like the dirt or the smells. They don't like the kvetching and the neuroticism. They don't like the layers of history. They want to tear it all down and make it clean and new."

And some of the comments are interesting, like this one [all sic]:

Anyone who calls themselves a New Yorker that was not born here is not a New Yorker in mind and thus we are left with the high-line, cup cakes etc and yes Wisconsin. I have been here for 35 yrs. and still a hick from the Midwest but I hated the mid west and do love NY but it is so hard to see now. New York City just seems to exit in photos and it is not in Brooklyn either but perhaps in Queens were no trend loving person would dare go to without the ok from fill in the blanks...of bourgeoisie papers or blog. I lived in the days of the Robert Christgau and Sylvia Plachy and the art for art sake of a seemly bygone era. Now it is just to much like all the other crap cities it is a cartoon version of some city has little substance to back it up.

(The High Line is a new park built on the old elevated freight rail lines on the far West Side of Manhattan.)

All in all, I suppose that everyone who loves New York is a nostalgist. If I moved back, it would be to a different city than the one that is branded not only upon my memory, but also, so it feels, upon the molecular structure of my being.

23 comments:

Rodak said...

Yes. The last part of that second quote sums up what would be the problem for me: my New York is long gone. If I went back there to live, it would be as a stranger, wracked by nostalgia.
I honestly feel like a man without of country. I feel as though I might be most content if I could just jump into a reliable vehicle and drive the highways for the rest of my time. Preferably with a good companion.

ex-new yorker said...

Sigh.

ElizabethK said...

"One can have myriads of secret lives there -- I don't mean affairs or other insidious secrets, but, rather, tiny, mundane ones: favorite places, favorite trees on favorite streets, favorite cups of coffee at favorite diners."

This is so lovely, and so true. I think it can be true of suburban places, actually, having lived in one for a fair amount of time, but the secrets are harder to find. Dense cities lend themselves to exactly what you've described.

Pentimento said...

Maybe I'm too secretive a person, but I think those little secrets are essential somehow.

Mac said...

"I know there are people in this world who prefer to live in the country and never see another living soul, but I can't quite believe it somehow."

I chuckled when I read this, because I had a blog post a couple of months ago in which I talked about how I would dislike living in a big city, and I contrasted myself with you. It's not because I want to avoid people (though I don't especially want to encounter them, either), but because I prefer, even need, a different sort of physical environment:

"And I really don’t care much at all for big cities. I recognize their importance as centers of culture and civilization, but I don’t like spending much time in them. I grew up in the country and am never comfortable without a certain amount of space around me, and, more importantly, plenty of green growing things. The blogger who calls herself Pentimento is a native New Yorker, now in exile (as she sees it) and writes movingly of her love for the city. I can appreciate that and enter into the spirit of it, but I don’t think I could ever feel that way. When I think of being surrounded entirely by tall buildings, I feel constricted, confined, cut off, alienated."

Pentimento said...

It's a real paradox, Mac. The city seems so liberating to me, and the country so lonely!

Mac said...

To each his own, de gustibus, etc...

But..you don't mean you consider where you live now to be "the country," do you? :-)

Btw, Rodak: "...drive the highways for the rest of my time..." I could very happily do that. In fact a months-long tour of the western USA is my retirement dream.

Pentimento said...

You're right, where I live is not the country. I actually live within city limits, though my neighborhood is quite suburban. But if you drive ten minutes you really are in the country.

ex-new yorker said...

My mother (who still lives in Brooklyn) has been known to call where we now live the country and also "the boondocks," which is, of course, absurd. I'm ex-New Yorker enough to realize that we're quite close to our neighbors in these 1/4 acre lot subdivisions (I do kind of miss being like, "Wow, all this land is ours!" after growing up on a lot about a quarter the size even in a fully detached house.)

Otepoti said...

I'm not sure whether total exposure to the other is ultimately good for relationships

This is why, when the Google Streetview Car passed our house, I was out in the garden.

Mac said...

Preferences are personal and subjective, obviously, but I think, Pentimento, that your sense of isolation in the suburbs is objective, so to speak. I mean, I think they really do tend to be isolating. It's the automobile-oriented way of life, I think. I'm pretty much of a loner and it doesn't bother me, but I can well imagine that if one were used to frequent casual contact with kindred spirits it could be hard to bear. ("casual" meaning you don't have to plan, drive somewhere, etc.) I live in a small town but the specific location of my house as well as the nature of the culture make it more like a suburb, and almost like the country, because there's an undeveloped tract of woods across the street, and half of our lot is woods. Until a few years ago, when somebody cleared the lot next door and built an overbearing house, we really couldn't see another house from ours, and we liked it that way. There's not the small-town everybody-knows-everybody wave-from-the-front-porch culture that I think is probably pretty rare now. Maybe in *really* small towns.

JMB said...

I'll never forget the first time I visited my cousins in New Mexico and I was very uneasy about all that land. I had never seen so much in my life; I realized back then that I feel much more comfortable around a lot of humanity and buildings, roads, cars and houses. That's was growing up in Jersey did to me.

Pentimento said...

It seems natural, from all of this, that people who live in the country should tend toward libertarianism, and that the cities should be the hothouses of democracy. In the city everyone has to learn to live together. E.B. White wrote an essay in the 1940s called "Here is New York," and, if I had more time, I could probably find the quote I'm thinking of, in which he notes that in New York, millions of people of disparate races and creeds live together with a minimum of tension. Essentially people have to put aside their differences to the extent that it's possible to get along. I doubt there's as much impetus to do so in the country, which is why that ethos of rugged individualism seems so much a country thing to my mind.

ex-new yorker said...

In my experience people in NY learned to live together by ignoring each other, though. We gave each other a lot of space within our closely-packed neighborhoods, buses, subways, etc.

Pentimento said...

That's largely true. Hey, it works.

Tertium Quid said...

Great reflections by "country mice" and "city mice." I grew up in the suburbia of a declining Southern industrial city. In our suburbia, the attitude was that we had the best chance of saving civilization because we were neither ignorant bumpkins nor city creatures devoid of light, earth, and good air.

However, when I was a teenager, I read Peter Jenkins' long article in National Geographic about his walk across America. He said every small town and city is different and interesting in its own way, but the suburbs from New York to New Orleans contain the same sorts of people, architecture, and aspirations. I knew he was right.

My nostalgia is for lost small towns, and it is close to hopeless. The jobs are in suburbia near highways, airports, colleges, and capital. You could drive from Nag's Head to Dallas and scarcely find any place suitable for Atticus Finch and Scout. So I must retreat to my library and read Faulkner with a glass of bourbon and branch. Walker Percy, pray for us.

Mac said...

TQ, I think I can guess the city, and possibly the suburb. An aunt of mine grew up there. While most of the South was still agricultural, and most of her city was working in the steel mills, she was spending her summers playing bridge by the pool (1930s and '40s). You're right, unfortunately, about those small towns. My parents were born in the '20s and grew up in a town of under 10,000 population. They are pretty adamant that the sense of community there is nothing like it was pre-1970 or so. The great flaw was that half the population--the African-American--had only a partial and oppressed membership in the community. But I think that within itself the black community was stronger then.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s the town square was still the center of economic activity. Now the "center" is a WalMart on the outskirts--but of course there really is no center. The old square is mostly restaurants and boutique-y businesses that don't represent the basic stuff of economic life. And this town is fairly prosperous--others like it are just dying.

Country libertarians and city democrats? That seems like an odd opposition. I would have said those tend to have more in common than not. And people in the country and in small towns tend to depend on each other, and, I would say, tend to be more conservative than libertarian. Maybe the libertarian thing holds true more in the West, where the frontier mentality seems to have had a bigger influence. It seems to me that the metropolis seems as likely to breed authoritarian mass movements as healthy democracy.

Though in a way almost everybody is a libertarian nowadays--a sort of debased libertarianism, all rights and no responsibilities.

ex-new yorker said...

Mac wrote:The old square is mostly restaurants and boutique-y businesses that don't represent the basic stuff of economic life.

That's what the "old town" in our municipality (she typed in a likely pointless attempt not to give too much identifying info) is like, pretty much. Though the public library is around there, and a seasonal farmer's market. (I think I read that "farmers market" has been deemed proper but I just can't do it without the apostrophe.)

A friend of my husband's once told him they were "building an Old Town" somewhere. Heh. This guy lives in Phoenix, AZ, or maybe a suburb of Phoenix, so it was probably somewhere out there. I don't think he was talking about a replica ghost town or anything.

Pentimento said...

I wouldn't mind a bit of an "Old Town" around here, but that probably just shows what a bourgeois bohemian I am.

JMB said...

I live in a bedroom community with train lines into Manhattan and we have a fully functioning, walkable downtown with a post office, library, grocery store, bar, restaurants, barber & hair salons, hardward store and pharmacies. These places do still exist, and many of them are commuting towns in Long Island, Westchester, NJ and CT. I didn't grow up in a town like mine and I say to people that my children are having a much better childhood than I did - they walk to school, they bike all the over the place, they swim in the town pool. It's great.

Pentimento said...

Interesting though that these places seem to be in suburbs of New York City, though. Do they have their own cultural lives, too? Or are they just sort of contrived satellites to the big city?

ex-new yorker said...

A nearby DC-area community was designed to be walkable, but I don't think it really succeeded. It was also supposed to be integrated along socioeconomic lines and I really don't think it succeeded at creating that sort of community either. It has a town center that seems to be meant as a little New York, and which is probably the most walkable part especially if you're well-off enough to live very nearby, but the whole place (especially that town center) doesn't seem to me have many of the aspects of New York that people who are not financially comfortable can still enjoy. (Then again, I was a lot more financially comfortable when I lived in and enjoyed NY, even though I had no income of my own.)

Oh, except the town center does have pigeons. We've driven through a few times just to see pigeons. I guess expensive dining still produces crumbs ordinary pigeons find tasty. (Darn your blog, making me nostalgic. I really haven't enjoyed NYC itself much the last couple times I went back with scores of children in tow. But there are still so many memories.)

Pentimento said...

Ex-New Yorker, I've actually seen a pigeon here once or twice in the past three years. I was crestfallen that my son didn't know that it was, in fact, a pigeon.