Sunday, September 27, 2009

New York missive no 60 - City limits

The end of episode 5 of Ric Burns’ epic “New York” documentary is about the skyscraper wars during the early 20th Century. The goal, it seemed, was to prove the "sky is not the limit". Higher and higher they built – the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler which sneakily outdid the Woolworth by erecting a tall spike on top at the last minute, and then the towering Empire State whose plans were approved just before Black Tuesday and whose construction continued regardless.

The documentary includes awe-inspiring footage of the steel-workers, welders and carpenters building the skyscraper, their overalled figures silhouetted against clouds. The 102-storey construction took 14 months to build. When finished it was a monument in spite of the depression – "hey, look, New York can still build the tallest building in the world". It was also a monument to the depression, as the majority of its office space proved impossible to fill and most of its revenue came from tourists climbing to see the view.

What struck me about the sweeping views of the city during these scenes were not its buildings, but its rivers. There they are always. Changeless while the city they embrace transforms. The Hudson and East River flow continuously but they are the most solid part of the city. They hold its shape while people pile the land high with roads, rails and buildings, leaving what they think are significant marks.

The end of the episode echoed my thoughts, with this quote from Scott FitzGerald’s "My Lost City" in which he describes his reactions to the view from the top of the Empire State Building:

"Then I understood – everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora's box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits – from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground."

Not such an awful realization. Without its limits the city couldn’t be lovable.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New York missive no 59 - Teddy Kennedy, leadership, Diane Wilson, dragon boats

On a Friday evening, after dark, C and I found ourselves overlooking East River straight at the abandoned smallpox hospital on Roosevelt island. It looked back at us with its black, hollow eyes set in a ghostly rectangular face of pale bricks.


In death, compassion is recognized as heroic. If only that was the case in life.

The press and commentaries on Teddy Kennedy’s death were quick to praise his championing of the underdog. They described the ways in which he steadfastly supported workers, the uninsured, the sick, the immigrant, and how he saw his privilege as a responsibility to help others.

The one time I ever saw him in person was at a congressional hearing held by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, about the working conditions of Florida’s mainly-immigrant tomato-pickers.

Yet I cannot help feeling that in life those qualities of compassion and a steadfast commitment to justice are not given the credit they deserve. Despite the shift in tone here in the US that has followed Obama’s election (currently soured anyway by divisive, smeary debates on health care reform), they are sidelined as idealistic, rather than recognized as the qualities of leadership that can bring about real “progress”.


A few years back, JN walked into the office and asked, in her enthusiastic school-teachery way, “Can you name an inspiring global leader? One who’s alive today?” Ummmm…there was an awkward pause. "Mandela?" ventured some. And that was about it.

Now, many would say Obama as well. A global leader in the sense that (among other things), he can navigate the complexities of globalization, resist seeing things in black and white however much pressure there is to do so, while at the same time never losing a sense of direction. He keeps sight of the bigger picture that underlies every decision, one that has fairness at its core. I was surprised that Michael Moore, in a recent Rolling Stone interview about Obama’s first six months, was still overwhelmingly supportive – his theory being that any perceived over-compromises he has made are part of a broader strategy to keep things moving in the right direction.

But more than ever, leadership is as much about pushing up from the bottom as it is inspiring from the top. I recently read "An Unreasonable Woman" the autobiography of Diane Wilson about her persistent, painstaking campaign to combat pollution by Formosa’s plastic factory and other industrial projects by Seadrift in Texas, where she had worked for years as a shrimper. She new nothing, at first, about environmental campaign strategies, litigation, the regulation of toxic pollutants and the dirty tactics business would employ to evade that regulation. But that didn’t matter. She did know that the damage being done to her bay, her sea – in her eyes a physical creature who "still talks even though she's got a mercury Superfund on her left breast and vinyl chloride and phthalates on her right breast” – was wrong. She knew that however many people called her crazy, she wasn’t going to rest until she stopped it.


Apparently in the UK – and I guess elsewhere as well – companies perceive criticism printed in a newspaper as more libelous than criticism that only appears on the internet, even though defamation laws apply equally to both. Something about the fact of printing and producing a paper gives the impression the words have more weight, are harder to remove and can do more damage. That’s a little illogical. Words online can reach a far wider audience than printed words, and they have a tendency to self-propagate, appearing on two, four, twenty, a hundred different websites and blogs making them all but impossible to erase.

That attitude implies electronic words have less ‘value’ than printed words. So what does that mean for the shift from printed books to e-books – for the rise of Kindle? Of course, the phasing out of printed books is inevitable, though I’ll lamenting along with others the loss of the smell of pages, of pen-scribbles in margins, of sagging bookshelves. But will words really mean less when they appear on screens from which they can come and go, be uploaded and downloaded? Burning books is seen as sacrilege. Wiping an electronic book off your hard drive isn’t.


, the Rockfellers' estate up the Hudson River at Sleepy Hollow is staggeringly beautiful. It inspires conflicting emotions of delight, envy and queasiness at the sight of so much wealth concentrated in one family. Wealth built on the back of Standard Oil –via large-scale exploitation, or wealth-generation for others, or both, whichever way you want to look at it.

“Money can buy you anything” is epitomized there. You like Picasso? Then commission a series of gigantic tapestries of his paintings to hang in your basement art gallery. How about the sculptors Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, David Smith? Fill your landscaped gardens with their work. And want to protect the view of rolling forested hills from your living room window? Get the government to designate it a national park (and thank god they did otherwise that stretch of the Hudson would no doubt by now be smothered in identikit condo blocks).

C and I went up there by train a few weekends ago. The train tracks run alongside the river, which inspired me to get kayaking (one day!). And despite the crazy opulence of Kykuit itself our day was characterized by magical moments that money could never buy. We sat under a tree eating tomatoes and strong cheese on a hunk of bread (actually money did have to buy us that – from a pricey Tarrytown farmers’ market). We encountered two inquisitive deer when we set out on a walk down the Croton aqueduct. We snuck through back gardens when the aqueduct path disappeared on us. I got the giggles at something C said and spat the water I’d just sipped all over the place. From a river wall in Irvington we glimpsed the shadowy forms of the Manhattan skyline, way downstream. We felt sleepy and content on the train on the way home, me gazing at sunsetted scenery flicking past the window, C scribbling bits of a poem on yellow postit notes.


Labour-day weekend involved jumping in and out of a swimming pool at a big house in the middle of nowhere in Rhode island with a bunch of C’s university friends.

One morning, while I was lying on my belly reading Frank Norris’ "Octopus - A California Story", a small rust-coloured butterfly settled just in front of my nose. It opened and closed its wings, like it was hesitantly applauding the day’s performance.


We took a break from the dragon boat festival at Flushing in Queens to go and see the "Panorama of the City of New York", the scale architectural model of the city built by Robert Moses for the 1964 World's Fair. The one I’d seen on my Queens exploration very soon after I moved to the city, almost two years ago. How wonderful to walk around the map again and for it to feel so much more familiar, alive. It had sprouted memories.

I’m giving my love of the city an extra stoke by watching Ric Burn’s mammoth documentary series “New York” – in bits, taken out of an old-school DVD shop on Greenwich Avenue.