Reading New York (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
Another school year has passed, the most unusual I can remember. Forced into remote learning by the pandemic, I never actually met any of my students. All I could see were twenty-four curious and anxious faces in small squares across the computer screen. They were there, nevertheless, fully engaged in our journey through New York City history, politics, and government, trying to get a better grip on the city that has been a destination for generations in pursuit of the American Dream.
My Hunter College students bring their own distinct life experiences to our conversations: immigrant, migrant, and native born; Black, brown and white; LBGTQ and not; often challenged economically, rarely privileged. They know New York; they are New York. This is CUNY.
So where might we begin this conversation? Is New York a place or an idea? A destination or an illusion? Does it have a special meaning or purpose? Or is it different things to different people? How does this complex metropolis add up? Does this creature called Gotham have a soul? If so, is it a kind and generous soul that cares for those who are struggling? Or has it a mean and competitive disposition, accepting the harsh notion that only the “fittest” will survive?
All were relevant questions as the city approached one of the most consequential elections in history. Might the outcome of that election tell us something about the soul of New York? Whether its instincts are kinder or meaner?
Before digging into the usual academic material, we began our journey by taking a literary route. New York has drawn the attention of many great writers. Through their special gifts they see things more keenly than the rest of us do, often sooner, and then explain them in ways that become memorable.
We began with Italo Calvino. Calvino (1972) draws pictures with words. He presents the idea of the city in multiple dimensions: as physical structures composed of bricks and mortar, as webs of intricate relationships among people, as storehouses of traditions and memories that carry us forward. Each individual, he reminds us, is only a temporary visitor. While one might hope to influence the direction it takes, the city is a complex organism that has an ever-changing mind and a momentum of its own. How humbling!
Writing in 1968, Joan Didion recalls life as a twenty-two-year-old arriving from California in a city of endless possibility, certain that “something extraordinary would happen,” seeming confident it would happen to her. Full of youthful energy, she is determined to engage the city all on her own, without reaching out to her father, who would surely mail her a check to help out when things got tough. Junot Diaz (2000) never would have contemplated doing that with his dad. The elder Diaz had arrived in Nuova York from the Dominican Republic only to discover that he could not afford to live here, settling instead in a Section 8 apartment in New Jersey, taking on “crap jobs” to eke out a meager living for his family. When college-educated Junot arrived at the age of twenty-six, he had no choice but to take on the city, whose skyline looked like “science fiction,” with only his own limited resources.
An upbeat E.B. White (1949) insisted that it is the “settlers” who give New York its passion, for “each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer.” He goes on: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” White described city neighborhoods, with their grocery stores, saloons, and barbershops as “self-sufficient” communities that give meaning to daily life, cocoons of comfort that shelter one from the cold anonymity of a big city existence. Perhaps he had never met the likes of a Diaz.
Nor a Jean Kwok (2012), who tells the story of a Chinese immigrant mother who spends long days working in a sweatshop as she unsuccessfully struggles to navigate New York’s cultural landscape for her talented daughter. The more her daughter assimilates through the world of dance, the more she distances herself from her loving mother. Can there be a bigger price to pay to become a full-fledged New Yorker? Such pain is out of sight for those who have never made that long immigrant passage.
John Steinbeck (1943) recalls two entries into the city. The first time here, after graduating from Stanford, he made decent money “wheeling cement” in a construction job he found through a family contact before another relative got him a spot on a local newspaper covering stories in Brooklyn and Queens. Journalism didn’t pan out for him. He knew little about newspaper writing and was fired. After his girlfriend dumped him for a banker, he left the “cold and heartless” city returning to California a defeated young man. As he put it, the city had “beat the pants off me.”
Steinbeck’s “second assault on New York” was “different but just as ridiculous as the first.” He had just won a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and was under contract with Paramount Pictures for Tortilla Flat. He was now living in an Upper East Side townhouse with a private garden. As he got to know the local butcher, news dealer, and liquor man, “Everything fell into place.” His neighborhood became his village, just as White imagined, and things that might have annoyed him the first time around suddenly became part of New York’s charm.
James Baldwin (1960) also recalls the role of storekeepers in the Harlem of his childhood. Those who survived economically extended credit to their customers when people had no money – not that the grocers had much of a choice. Rather than a source of comfort, Baldwin writes with bitterness about his segregated community where residents felt trapped. He describes the “hideous projects” as “colorless, bleak, high and revolting.” For him, they “provide proof of how thoroughly the white world despises” their Black residents. No signs of privilege here. No family with money or connections. As he put it, being Black, gay, and poor, he had hit the “trifecta.” Baldwin writes with conviction and does not resort to hyperbole because he knows it is not needed. He recounts incidences of police violence and the animosity between citizens and officers as if he were writing today.
Baldwin’s fellow Harlem resident, Langston Hughes (1951), foresaw how the tension would eventually explode “like a raisin in the sun.” In the mid-1960s that collective frustration exploded with rioting in cities throughout the country, as it did last summer in less violent forms after the murder of George Floyd.
Were these authors all writing about the same city? Well, yes and no. They all lived in New York, but in very different places. While writing at different points in time, their observations are timeless. New York is full of conflicts, tensions, and inequities. Depending on which piece of it is yours, life in New York can be an adventure or a struggle. But, which piece of it reveals the true soul of the city?
Well versed in the wisdom of Jane Jacobs, many of my students find the soul of the city on the neighborhood sidewalks where people interact. They will tell you that the physical city, with its corporate offices, luxury high rises, and dilapidated walk-ups all reveal the essence of New York. They are well aware of the contradictions. They want to believe that kinder instincts will eventually govern, but are not sure that will happen.
In search of more answers, we turned our attention to politics as an indication of the instincts that can prevail. Over the years, New York City has had some formidable personalities to assume the role as its chief executive. At different points in time they have represented a collective spirit of the city, along with its anxieties and aspirations – or at least the sentiment of those who vote or partake in its voluble political life. That is where the priorities are set. That is where decisions are made regarding who wins and who loses.
This is part one of a two-part reflection. Read part two, on politics, leadership and New York City mayors, here.
Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College. His more recent books on New York include, The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York and Summer in the City: John Lindsay, New York and the American Dream.