After a few days on the Jersey Shore (see previous blog), we drove back to Newark and caught the train into New York City. This extraordinary city does not, or should not, disappoint. It is hard to define, despite the imprint of colonialism, immigration, opportunity, industrialisation, poverty, politics, and more. It occupies a space neither old or new. New York really is a place of ‘other’.
Since my last visit ten years ago, there are many differences: Time Square is louder, bigger, more brazen; homelessness more visible; there is open frustration and hostility towards Trump and a sadness about what could have been. And there remains hope. Hope is always part of New York’s unique personality. Hope fires the city’s creativeness and it’s resistance.
We soon absolved ourselves from the prescriptive tourist ‘must see’s, as wonderful as they are, and wandered from square to park, from gallery to coffee shop, meeting local residents, the ‘New Yorkers’. From the Patty Smith ‘look a likes’ in the Whitney Art Museum to the New York Giants supporters on the train to the big game, trying to steal kisses from their reluctant honeys. As different as they are unique.
Underneath the displays of capitalism and aspiration, the imprint of the generations who arrived in hope and determination can still be seen. Despite the spread of stronger communities adapting to the new America, Little Italy still survives (just) where Dino and Frank play over breakfast at the Grotta Azzurra on Mulberry Street. Elderly residents feed the squirrels in Zuccotti Park round the corner from Wall Street. Graffiti and wall murals shout opposition and kindness in Chelsea and beyond.
One thing I love about New York is it’s ‘liminality’. Whether underground on the subway or close to the shoreline, there is a feeling of ‘otherness’, of stuff going on, inaccessible. This is not my ‘place’, not my comfort zone. Yet I do feel reassuringly at ease in the restaurant in Little Italy where the Rat Pack and Robert de Niro once hung out. I eat my breakfast of blueberry pancakes as Audrey gazes back at me from across the road Later, I watch the dog walker calmly walking six happy dogs through the traffic in Brooklyn and I miss my own boy but know that he is safe.
We share words of concern and solidarity with Climate Activists in Washington Square where, five hundred years ago, there was a Native American village. This is now where people gather to protest and declare their non-conformity. Down the road in Union Square Green Market, providence leads us to the honey stall of the NYC rooftop beekeeper, Andrew Cote. Andrew was charming and interesting, happy to swap bee stories and we forgot that we were strangers in this vast city that never sleeps, surrounded by the New York bees attracted to Andrew’s beeswax and honey. I buy a jar from Rockaway Beach down on the shoreline in Queens. Rockaway Beach was once known as the Irish Riviera, devastated by Hurricane Sandy several years ago.
Resistance is never far away in New York: Love Locks bind passion to the Brooklyn Bridge despite warning signs of a $100 fine, Extinction Rebellion rally in Battery Park, their sadness and placards remembering relatives and friends lost to floods and fires and hurricanes. The NYPD, on foot, car and bicycle, watch the poignant lamentation of the Red Brigand as they wind their way up Wall Street. The press and police follow.
And there are also moments of great serenity: the rabbi intent in his reading as we ride the busy Staten Island ferry across the East river, the shoreline where bricks and stones of an older New York are gently worn and shaped by the passage of the river. The cafe at the Whitney Museum of American Art ripe with the rich syllables and consonants of Yiddish, unfamiliar to my ears. It was the day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and most holy in Judaism. It rained and rained and we sought refuge in it’s fabulous restaurant and amongst amazing works by 20th and 21st century artists such as Hopper, Pollock, Warhol, and importantly, younger living ones. And, Calder’s Circus with the infamous belly dancer, Fanni ! All a wonderful reflection of American culture, in all it’s glory, and loneliness.
There are other versions of New York beneath the Empire, the Statue and the Chrysler although these are rightly important monuments. There are New Yorks which shout, which sing out, which celebrate art, and kindness and books and tolerance. I guess a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to discover it all. And there are signs of resistance and protest. Many people , especially the young, are resisting the expected conformity and passivity of the current regime, leading with their hearts and their passion. I hope New York will continue to stand up for itself and for others.
It is unique.