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 regardless of 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 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. It fires it’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 trying to steal kisses from their honeys on the train to the big game, they are as different as they are unique. This is a city of great diversity and energy.
Underneath the vulgar displays of capitalism and greed, the imprint of the generations who arrived in hope and determination can still be seen. Despite the spread and adaptation of stronger communities Little Italy still survives and Dino and Frank still play over breakfast at the Grotta Azzurra on Mulberry Street, elderly residents still feed the squirrels in Zuccotti Park round the corner from Wall Street and 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, unknown to most. This is not my ‘place’, not my comfort zone. Yet I do feel reassured here as I eat my breakfast of blueberry pancakes in Little Italy with Audrey gazing back across the road at the bar where the Rat Pack and Robert de Niro once hung out. 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 a gathering place for protest and non-conformity. Down the road in Union Square Green Market, providence leads us to the honey stall belonging to the NYC rooftop beekeeper, Andrew Cote. Andrew was charming and interesting, happy to swap bee stories and we forget that we are strangers in this vast city that never sleeps, surrounded by the bees attracted to Andrew’s displays of beeswax and honey. I buy a jar of honey from Rockaway Beach down on the shoreline in Queens. Rockaway beach was once known as the Irish Riviera and was devastated by Hurricane Sandy several years ago.
Resistance is never far away in New York. Love Locks bind passion to the Brooklyn Bridge despite the warning signs of a $100 fine and Extinction Rebellion were rallying in Battery Park, desperate in the sadness of their placards remembering relatives and friends lost to floods and fires. The NYPD, on foot, car and bicycle, watched the poignant lamentation of the Red Brigand as they wind their way to Wall Street, the seat of the money men, a seat of power, with press and police behind them.
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 old 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 was 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 the museum with it’s wonderful restaurant and it’s celebration of such wonderful modern works of living, as well as passed, modern artists. A wonderful reflection of American culture, in all it’s glory and shame.
Scratching the service, there are other versions of New York beneath the Empire, the Statue and the Chrysler, although these monuments are important for their contributions. There also is a New York which sings out, in jazz and rap, which celebrates art, and kindness and books and tolerance. I guess a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to discover it all. And thank goodness for signs that many people , especially the young, want change, a change in regime, a different future, leading with their hearts of their passion that this great city can continue it’s unique journey in humanity’s history. So back to Blighty, to another now unknown….