Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it.
Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.
—Hegel, Preface to The Phenomenology of the Spirit, 1807
My city’s in ruins / My city’s in ruins
Come on rise up! / Come on rise up! / Rise up
—Bruce Springsteen, “My City of Ruins” from The Rising, 2002
WHEN I was a child, about sixty years ago, the city’s publicly owned radio station, WNYC, had a wonderful announcement that it would transmit every hour on the hour: “This is Station WNYC, New York City, where seven million people”—at some point in the early 1960s it became eight million—“live in peace and harmony, and enjoy the benefits of democracy.” I was thrilled by this language; I can see now that it formed my first idea of New York.
My parents were too poor to have gone to college, but their talk was rich in ideas. We spent many weekends exploring New York’s grand material structures—the Harbor (still thriving all through my childhood), the Statue of Liberty, great buildings, Times Square, Penn and Grand Central Stations, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge. We learned to love them, but also to see their human costs. From the deck of a ferry or a skyscraper, we would exclaim, “Wow!” Then my mother would say something like, “Isn’t it beautiful? And don’t forget, you can get here on the subway.” And my father would say something like, “And don’t forget who built this.” Who? I would ask. Before long I knew the answer: “People we never heard of, who worked themselves to death.” It was only later on that I realized they meant people like them, who worked themselves to death. But they were proud of the city that anonymous, exploited people like them had built. The bad deals they had got in their lives were mitigated by their pride in being part of “the greatest city in the world.” The message on the air was a melody they could dance to. The New York they hoped to pass on to us was a real community, a place where the sadness of individual lives—and there was plenty—could be overcome by the glory and harmony of the whole.
When I left New York at the start of the 1960s to go to graduate school in England, I could hear the message till my ship, the S.S. United States, was well out on the sea. When I came back at the end of the 1960s to teach at City College and the City University of New York Graduate School, my message was gone. No one could remember when it went, or why. Nothing could bring it back.
I had no idea then how far my city of dreams had unraveled, and how much more it was still going to come apart. But in fact, day after day, year after year, for thirty years and more, we were bombarded by visions of our city coming apart and falling down. “The disintegration of New York” became a media cliché, but it was rooted in real life. From 1968 till the early 1980s, literally thousands of buildings were burned down every year, and dense, lively neighborhoods all over the city morphed into enormous ruins. From the early sixties to the early nineties, the number of people killed almost quintupled, from around 500 homicides a year to more than 2,400 at the height of the crack wars. Nobody kept records of how many kids came apart, but anyone who worked with children could see. Sometime in the middle of the eighties I invented a word, Urbicide, “the murder of a city.” Did I hope, then, that naming it would stop it? But it went on and on. The attacks on September 11, 2001, were the climax of a long wave—that’s what historians call these things—that had been breaking and crashing against us for years.
For a generation, New York’s ruins were its greatest spectacles. As many old, shabby buildings began to crumble, they were being redlined by banks—“redline,” a crucial word in the self-awareness of the 1970s—so that landlords on the wrong side of the line, as most were, couldn’t get bank loans to fix them up. As a result, the buildings fell apart faster, landlords lost hope, and more and more came to feel that their buildings were worth more dead than alive. The result was a tremendous, protracted boom in arson, with many people—especially kids and old people—killed in the crossfire. All through the 1970s it happened in dozens of neighborhoods. But the biggest firestorm was in the South Bronx, not far from where I grew up. At the start of the 1980s, I was finishing a book on what it means to be modern. But I couldn’t finish till I had gone back to where I started. So I went back—the house I grew up in was still there and still lived in, but the whole block across the street had burned and crumbled and finally sunk into the swamp that the whole neighborhood was built on. I spent many lonely afternoons wandering through the ruins. What was I looking for? I met fellow wanderers (and camera crews) from countries that not so long ago had had formidable ruins of their own: Germany, Poland, Japan. I met American photographers and filmmakers, as obsessed as I.
These ruins went on and on, block after block, mile after mile, year after year. Some blocks seemed almost intact, with live people—but then look around the corner, and there was no corner. The fire years created a new vocabulary and iconography. Urban fires make great visuals—from horizons lit by lurid flames, montages of buildings in different stages of disintegration, shards of beds, tables, television sets, fragments of clothes (especially children’s clothes), the rubble and debris of people’s lives. For several years the New York Times carried a box that contained addresses of buildings destroyed the previous day or night. I and many people I knew always turned to the Building Box first, even before the box scores: would our old homes be there?
Sometimes these images helped generate empathy and solidarity: these shattered fragments of people’s lives could have been ours. Sometimes they were used to support one of the great media clichés of the 1970s: that the poor people of New York were inflicting this destruction on themselves. Many elected officials insisted that the victims of the fires were also their perpetrators; hence they deserved no sympathy or emergency aid. A typical metaphor: the victims of fires are “fouling their own nests.” The saddest thing about those “Blame the Victim” tirades was that so many victims—including many of my students and their parents—did blame themselves. Yet the one thing, the only thing they were to blame for, was being there.
AFTER SEEING life in New York unravel for years and years, I wasn’t surprised by the near bankruptcy of 1975–1976. But the fact that I had felt it coming didn’t make it any easier to be a hostage to people who prided themselves on their hate for us. For the first time since the heyday of the Vietnam War, I started watching the national news. One standard news clip then was a congressman going back to his home district, and asking his constituents what should be done about New York. There was a standard tirade, and the news people were able to find plenty of people to deliver it, often while shaking their fists and grimacing for the camera: New York is a parasite, it contributes nothing to America, it is noisy and dirty, it is full of foreigners and disgusting sex, every kind of sinfulness, hippies and homos and commie degenerates, a blot upon America, and now God has given America the chance to rise up and destroy New York forever, wash it down the drain! One clip featured a congressman from a district that lived totally on federal money, with a naval base and a shipyard. He asked his constituents, “Should New York live or die?” They jumped to their feet, grinned obscenely at each other like the people in a classic lynch mob photo, and screamed “Die! Die! Die! Die!”
Thirty years on, those screams still cut through me. Their primal power makes me wonder, did this really happen, or did I imagine or dream it? Maybe both.
That was the year of Gerald Ford’s “drop dead” speech. He didn’t actually say anything as honest as that. He merely said he would veto any congressional plan for aid, because “the American people” had no concern with the fate of New York. “Ford to City: Drop Dead” was the excellent paraphrase in the next day’s New York Daily News. A photo showed Mayor Abe Beame reading the headline on the steps of City Hall. Beame displayed the page, looking both wounded and defiant. Whatever the federal government may do to us, he was telling the world, we won’t go quietly. It was Beame’s moment of glory: for just an instant he looked like John Garfield at the end of Body and Soul—or the way Garfield might have looked, had he lived—surrounded by creeps poised to crush him, blowing them off: “What are you gonna do, kill me? Everybody dies.”
FORD TO City: Drop Dead” is one of the all-time great newspaper headlines. It turned out to be also a superb consciousness-raiser. And it helped the city get the aid it needed. I figured that would happen: the billionaires in the GOP would get the word to the party’s Sunbelt that all markets were integrated—the key word today would be “global”—and that crushing the biggest city in the country, and the biggest economy, could easily recoil against them. Those billionaires owned the GOP as well as the world, and I knew the White House would cave, and sign on to the federal loans (at extortionate interest, of course) that New York needed to pay off its creditors; I knew the city would get something like what it got, an Emergency Financial Control Board, and the Board would get it back into the credit markets soon. (In fact, the Board turned out better than I thought: it was run by Felix Rohatyn, a financier who was also a liberal Democrat, and who had the candor to admit, “We have balanced the budget on the backs of the poor.”) I knew we would go back to something like business as usual. I even knew that Ford’s “Drop Dead” speech would hurt him in the 1976 elections: there were plenty of people who shared his overall view of the world, yet who thought his nonchalance about wiping out New York showed a dangerous lack of judgment. I did my best to get this across to my students, so they could see the sky wasn’t falling, and relax a little. Still, it hurt to feel all that hate out there.
Sometimes, in the midst of the 1970s horror show, there were surprise happy endings. All through the 1970s, New York lost something like 2,000 buildings a year to fires; the biggest losses were in the Bronx. The fires felt like an inexorable force; year by year, they enveloped more and more respectable neighborhoods. Why would these people destroy their world? There was endless speculation, foundation grants, conferences. Nobody could quite get it right. The left’s explanation was brutally simple: the landlords did it (arson) and they did it for the money (fire insurance). An unusual alliance came into being to get this story out: the Fire Department, the insurance industry, and the New Left. The Mayor’s Arson Task Force, established by John Lindsay, was the most radical agency in city government. Its reports dramatized ideas like “fire accelerants” (chemicals that New York Fire Department chemists found in about 90 percent of tenement fires) and “the ecology of fire” (which limited the damage if somebody came in ten minutes, but could wipe out a whole block if nobody came for half an hour); it made arson clear. Meanwhile, after suffering staggering losses, the insurance industry decided it had had enough, and all the major insurers resolved to stop paying claims on tenement fires. As if by magic, the fires stopped. In the last year of fire insurance, the Bronx lost about 1,300 buildings; in the first year of no fire insurance, it lost twelve. No money, no fires—the simple, crude explanation was totally right. Amazing! Moreover, the New York left had won something. True, it was a limited, defensive victory, stopping something horrible from happening rather than starting something new. But putting fires out made real differences in many people’s lives, and indeed made it possible for their lives to go on.
Meanwhile, the South Bronx, at its moment of greatest misery and anguish, and in some sense because of its misery and anguish, created the mass culture called Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop today envelops the whole world. I knew of no one in the 1970s who imagined that anything like this could happen. The kids of those neighborhoods in those days created because they had to; they couldn’t help themselves, they couldn’t stop. The Bronx above all became more culturally creative than it had ever been in its life. In the midst of dying, it went through rebirth.
YOU COULD say it started on the subways. The subways were probably drearier and scarier in the 1970s than at any time in their history. The stations were full of broken benches impossible to sit on, unfilled light sockets, long, dark shadows. The cars were old, painted battleship gray, and flaking away; many had been recalled from deep storage when a shipment of new cars had turned out to be dangerous and had to be withdrawn right away. Suddenly, hundreds of trains were drenched with aerosol-sprayed graffiti, saturated with luminous primary colors and exuberantly bold designs. Their graffitists, who worked mostly in crews, were happy to identify themselves and to be recognized. Most were black and Latin teenagers; most were boys, though a few of the best were girls; they came from all over the city, but from the South Bronx most of all. They were endlessly denounced by politicians and in the mass media, and repeatedly arrested. I even heard a neoconservative sociologist, a militant cold warrior, say he envied the USSR, where there was “no nonsense about the First Amendment,” and where the state could simply arrest kids like these en masse and pack them off to labor camps. Thanks to America’s nonsense about the First Amendment, New York’s graffitists had room to breathe and to create an exuberant new visual language.
Two of the best died young: the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), initially known for his street art under the tag SAMO, and the muralist Keith Haring (1956–1990), whose early work was done in the cavernous spaces of the Times Square subway station. But the great majority survived; they’re still here. Many succeeded as serious painters, animators, theatrical, fashion, and video designers. Looking at their life stories, we can see their graffiti years as first steps on a ladder upward and admire their resourcefulness in finding markets for themselves. But when the Bronx’s graffitists began, they had more than self-marketing in mind: they saw themselves as citizens and insisted on the civic and public meaning of their work. Indeed, it was a shared desire to get out of their neighborhoods (in which many were already doing well) and to communicate with a larger public that made public transit so alluring. Civic spirit plunged them into a brutal, grueling, materially and humanly destructive conflict with an arrogant and unresponsive Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Later on, some of these kids had a chance to make money, and they made it. Within the private sector, they did fine. But it’s crucial to remember that behind the private success, there was a public failure. And it wasn’t the kids who failed.
Alongside New York’s graffitists, and sometimes the same people, were the first generation of rappers. In the poorest congressional districts in the United States, rap was an exemplary musica povera. Like so much else, it started in the subway, with a single ragged and scrawny kid, backed by small speakers with a drum track, telling the story of his life. In the late seventies, at my school, City College of New York, during Club Hour on Thursday, somebody would bring out turntables, and a DJ would scratch and collage dozens of records together, while kids in the audience took turns playing MC, rapping over an open mike. (Some teachers rapped, too; I would have loved to, but I just couldn’t rhyme.) I was delighted. What it meant for me was the power of the word, which was what I had been trying to teach all along. By the end of the seventies, rap was busting out all over. But a concentration of great DJs came from the South Bronx. They vied with each other in dozens of small clubs, parks, high school gyms and auditoriums, with thousands of active and participant young listeners. Together, they created a distinctive rap sound of samples, beats, and rhymes. That sound pervades, and maybe even defines, the globe today.
There will be more to say about rap as time goes by. I only want to say one thing now. “The Message” (1982), the first international rap hit, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, has a provocative quatrain that’s in tune with my overall theme. People often miss this quatrain, which seems to drop from the sky:They pushed a girl in front of a train, / Took her to the doctor, sewed her arm on again. / Stabbed a man right through the heart, / Gave him a transplant and a brand new start.
Hegel says that “spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it.” “Living with it is the magical power that converts the negative into being.” Well, that’s the message. In New York in the 1970s, this meant that social disintegration and existential desperation could be sources of life and creative renewal. A whole generation of kids from America’s worst neighborhoods broke out of poverty, violence, and ghetto isolation, and became sophisticated New Yorkers with horizons as wide as the world. As the Clash in “London Calling” in 1979 affirmed that “London is drowning, I live by the river,” these kids from the Bronx could tell the world not only that “We come from ruins, but we are not ruined,” but that “We shall overcome.” Their voices became the voice of New York Calling. Their capacity for soul-making in the midst of horror gave the whole city a brand new aura.
New York feels like a very different place today. It has gone through spectacular population growth: it could reach nine million by 2010. It is more saturated with immigrants, more ethnically diverse, and multicultural than it has ever been, more like a microcosm of the whole world—and thanks to New York’s distinctively configured public space, you can see the whole world right out there on the street. Its mode of multiculturalism is sexy, and threatening to the ultra-orthodox in every religion. Summer in New York is hot and humid—it is summer as I write—but great for bringing people together, and for looking at them. Look at the colors and complexions of the men and women holding hands along Upper Broadway, on Queens Boulevard, at King’s Plaza, and of the children they are pushing in their strollers: colors never seen under the sun. And today’s sexiness coexists with safety. Over the last decade, not only homicide but all violent crimes have plummeted. The tremendous increase in violence that began in the late 1950s, and that for decades seemed inexorable, has been reversed. Our shared anxiety about world politics coexists with a remarkable sense of greater safety in our everyday lives. We are back to about 600 homicides a year, one-quarter of what it was in the crack-war early nineties. Who knows what made it happen or how long it will last? Nobody knows. But something is happening that I never imagined: we have a metropolitan life with a level of dread that is subsiding. Some people say they fear that a life without dread will lose its savor. I tell them not to worry. If they scrutinize their lives in any depth, they will find grounds for more than enough to keep them awake. While they’re up, they should take a midnight walk.
Meanwhile, that immense expressionist dreamscape of ruin is nearly gone. I love the Bronx Zoo, but for years I didn’t go, because I couldn’t bear to ride the El through the wreckage. Finally, early in the 2000s, I bit the bullet. My son Danny’s class at P.S. 75 was making a class trip; they desperately needed parents; I wasn’t teaching that spring day; and how could I say No. As we came into the Bronx, I prepared myself for the worst. I stood up, craned my neck, and—the ruins weren’t there. In their place were ordinary buildings, parked cars, kids on bikes, trucks unloading, mothers with babies, people getting on and off buses, old people playing cards—the whole shmeer of modern city life. I turned to the teachers on the train with me, “Look, it looks like an ordinary city!” They said. “Well, isn’t the Bronx an ordinary city?” They were young, still in their twenties; when the Bronx was burning, they weren’t even born. Now, it looked like nothing much—and yet, a miracle.
WHAT ABOUT the rest of the city? Downtown is more crowded, also more multinational and multicultural, more a real microcosm of the world. The big office buildings are full of workers from India, Russia, China, Japan. There is a tremendous overflow of tourists, staying in dozens of new hotels. Many New Yorkers resent their presence, but this is the greatest city in the world, so why shouldn’t people want to come?
For most of my life I’ve enjoyed getting into conversations with strangers on the streets, especially around Times Square. I ask people where they are going and if they need help. One thing I’ve heard from many people recently is that they aren’t going anywhere special, they’re just walking around the streets—often they say they want to show the streets to their kids—and that they love the New York streets “because they’re so real.” I agree with them, and I’m glad they can see this and appreciate it. They are like all the Americans who after September 11, 2001, expressed such generous feeling, and let their congressional representatives know they cared. But all this appreciation and friendliness are so different from the bad vibes that surrounded us only thirty years ago. Have we changed? I don’t think so. Have they changed? I think they’ve changed a lot more. America has been steadily filling up with immigrants for the last forty years (after being closed for the forty years before), and people around the country are far less frightened than they used to be by human diversity: demographically, the rest of America has become more and more like New York. At the same time, environmentally, America has become more and more of a suburban car culture, without streets, without places where people can walk around and have random experiences and interact with strangers. New York is a different environment: if you look up to the top of the buildings, it is brand new, but at the level of the street, it is a couple of hundred years old, rooted in the Paris and London of the Enlightenment. It keeps alive and nourishes the intensely interactive aura of the modern street—a place where people could experiment with their being, being both themselves and each other, and where a walk around the block could feel like both a brothel and a holy communion. Even the rich and famous today are likely to go through their lives starved of vital energies that any ordinary New Yorker on the street can enjoy. Compared with New York, the environments where most Americans grow up feel unreal. In the past generation, many more Americans have come to feel this, and to love our city for what it is and what their suburbs are not. Do New Yorkers know how rare and precious it is to be loved for what you are? We should enjoy it while it lasts.
But the ironies keep on rising with the buildings. There is the price of love—just because the whole world wants to be in New York, New York has become impossibly expensive to be in. This seems to go with being a “global city,” along with London, Paris, Tokyo, Rio, L.A., D.C., and a few more—it’s a small club; and for a global city, the word is that New York is cheap. The papers feature articles on the frantic construction of luxury housing in Manhattan: so many churches have generated modern miracles, transforming “air rights” into goldmines. Twice as many corporate headquarters are here today as were here in 1990. So many neighborhoods have accelerated from abandonment to gentrification in what feels like ten seconds or less. People who worked through the darkest years are crushed by their own success. As they see their streets on the front page of the real estate section, they feel both swollen with pride and stabbed with dread.
ONE OF New York’s primary sources of pride, for at least a century, has been its superabundance of small book, music, and art shops, which have done so much to keep the city’s cultural life close to the street. These little palaces of culture have nourished and enriched the city’s sense of place, empowered New Yorkers to feel like citizens of both the street and the world. But in a rising real estate market, they are all under fire. Their very success in bringing people together often encourages landlords to demand rent increases that will doom them. Every month, it seems, another beloved culture shop is forced to close, and thousands of New Yorkers feel more vulnerable and alone. You could even argue that, for any New Yorker in the 2000s, the sense of being under fire is central to the sense of being at home.
Two or three years ago I saw the headline, “The Bowery Lives Again,” and I knew at once that my favorite Bowery life sign, the punk rock club CBGB, was doomed. CBs was one of New York’s freest voices in the city’s worst days. It had nurtured a great generation of rockers and a great audience. It had come proudly through the crash; but could it survive the boom? On October 16, 2006, the news said it was gone. The landlord was no real estate shark, but an agency that helped homeless people. Patti Smith played its last set. She said the closing was “a symptom of our city’s empty new prosperity.” But she added, “There’s new kids with new ideas all over the world. They’ll make their own places, here or wherever” She told the New York Times, “The Internet will be their CBGB.” Is Smith ready to resign from real places, in favor of cyberspace? Can she, or anybody, make the Net “their own”? We’ll have to see.
If I were forty years younger and yearning to come to New York, high on brains and imagination but low on capital, could I come here? Well, yes and no. There would be no way I could afford the Upper West Side—or anywhere else in Manhattan. Very few of us could afford the West Side if we had to pay market prices to be here now. That’s the bad news. The good news is that today’s younger generation has learned to explore the city as a whole with a zeal and energy and resourcefulness that my generation, obsessed with Manhattan alone, never even dreamed of. They’ve missed the delightful experience of living in Manhattan in their youth, and I can’t blame them if they are mad; I’d be mad in their place. Still, they can get here on the subway, and they do. Meanwhile, their New York is a lot fuller than ours; they have opened up a city horizon far wider than anything we could imagine. It’s amazing, in their New York, there’s so much more there there.
In the spring of 2006, I gave a reading at a Hispanic Cultural Center in Mott Haven, in the south South Bronx, in a small, brownstone, just behind the giant neon “H” sign of the History Channel. In the 1970s and 1980s, this house had been just about reduced to rubble; in the 2000s, it was still in the midst of rebuilding. The generation of kids who create new centers like this is making small-“h” history, and making the city’s post-1898 official name, “Greater New York,” mean something real. They are reinventing New York’s immense horizon, its capacity to include the whole world. But they are also facing the city’s vulnerability and inner destructiveness. They are “looking the negative in the face and living with it.” They are converting the negative into being. By affirming the ruins, they are making the rising possible. Theirs is the most authentic voice of “New York Calling” now.
viernes, 23 de mayo de 2008
Publicado por DARÍO YANCÁN en 4:17