What Made New York Great

There has been so much talk about what made America great lately – well, for well over 200 years the answer to that question was New York. I am talking about the mythological New York that belongs to everyone all over the world but which functioned in real time on this planet as a place that created culture, politics, and realities not possible in other parts of America or in the world or that matter. New York is like a stray mother cat which births litter after litter of realities and those realities make their way like dandelion fluff and settle in other places. From it’s earliest times New York was the place where new ideas, new politics, new sociology fomented and were distilled.

In the 20th Century NY took over from France as the place of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. After World War Two, with the intelligentsia of France, Germany, Austria, Belgium yea the whole of Europe, transported to New York, France ended it’s 300-year reign as the center of art and New York leapt at the nourishment provided by those émigrés and applied New York’s grit, edge and sharp sense of reality and from the 1940’s to the 1990’, NY s burned with a fierce light, unequaled anywhere else on the planet.

Of course that is less true now as New York style inquiry and culture have been seeded all over the world from Beijing to Tokyo, Paris to Buenos Aires, Seattle to Bangkok and while NY is far from dead it is the wounded warrior of urban centers as its geographic size, defined by being a very small island, has made the conquering of it, through the control of real estate interests, pitifully easy.

Even here in The East Village and Lower East Side, known since the days of Emma Goldman at the turn of the 20th century, as a socialist and anarchist stronghold,the strength of our politics has been no match for the strength of their checkbooks. Like petrified wood, authenticity, rebellion and individuality has been replaced with something that has a 100th part of its originality; like cheese flavor in Popcorn, it tastes similar to cheese but there is no cheese in it.

New York is a walker’s city. People who say they love NY have a personal relationships with it’s streets. You set out, your feet guide you, aided by the unseen, those ghosts of NY who are never far from you and who whisper, like wind in your ear, suggesting a turn here, a turn there, as you walk. The wonderful thinker and writer Luc Sante explained it by saying “New York has no truck with it’s dead, and they stay unburied, and lay their cold fingers on the present” Honestly, if you are truly interested in NY you need to read his book Low Life.

I managed to live in NY as if on holiday for over 40 years. Always feeling like I was on an adventure just walking around doing errands. Everywhere wild nature asserted herself, thru a crack in the sidewalk filled by a dandelion or on an abandoned street corner where the weedy Sumac trees grew high as if the island itself was trying to toss off it’s concrete sheeting and return to it’s wild pristine nature. As late as last year there was a tunnel of wisteria that hung low to the ground at the corner of Stanton St on Clinton St, half a block from my house.It funneled there for close to 40 years but now it has been cruelly cut back by people who apparently don’t want to have to bend over when they walk the 12 feet of it.

Certainly from its earliest days New York lured the unusual, the different, as well as the alienated and desperate to cross onto it’s island of sanctuary and possibility. They who yearned to breathe free, far from the confines of small town morality, found themselves mindlessly washed up here, often with no forethought.What kept most of us in NY despite the stench and crime, rats and cockroaches was the unparalleled freedom, the anonymity and the crackling electricity of the city itself which most of us who call ourselves New Yorkers ground to, like Walt Whitman before us, thru the bottoms of our feet.

To be honest it was a crap shoot to live NY through the 80’s, a kind of outdoor Wall of Death, where you took your chances with your life, your sanity, your morality and your equilibrium. Since the 1990’s that crap shoot has been largely economic, NY is expensive, competitive and still very unpredictable.Case in point: a few years ago I misplaced my keys and at 4 AM I had no choice but to ring my neighbor Barbara’s bell. At that point I had known Barbara for over35 years. In fact, I had introduced her to the man she would marry, which brought her to live in the small loft building I had lived in for 4 years before she came.She answered the buzzer, I apologized and said “Barbara, I have lost my keys and I am locked out of the building. Her response? “Shit, man! what are you going to do?” So as you can see nothing is certain in this town.

New York is a place where you eat in the street. You eat as you walk because in NY you always walk and you feel the freedom to eat; a hot dog, a buttered roll, a pizza, a doughnut, a bagel with a smear of cream cheese, a Knish. EB White said that to live in NY you need to be willing to be lucky but many of us felt we were lucky just to live in NY. NY has a way of caressing those to whom it calls, to others who see NY as alien, harsh or cold, the comfort some find here will remain forever a mystery. In some ways it is like being loved by monster.; hard to explain to other people.

Ten years ago I spent ten days in Paris and returned to New York and was shocked when I experienced New York, for the first time, as ugly. After the fluidity, and curves of the Seine and its languid Parisian streets, New York looked like a grey grid, sullen and stiff compared to Paris. I was shocked, embarrassed. I felt like a child who had gone to their first day of school and who among the prettier mothers of his schoolmates, discovered for the first time that his mother was not beautiful.

I believe this “ugliness” had to do with the loss of mystery that New York was always shrouded in prior to gentrification and which was almost totally erased by hyper gentrification. Certainly as far back as my first years in NY in the late 1960’s, people asked me why I lived in NY , how could I stand it. Yet I never saw what they saw and I was glad they found it ugly and unlivable and I longed for them to go because I found them boring, with their whining about NY’s harshness, a harshness I found intoxicating.

I had lived in NY for almost 40 years at that point, and had always ‘seen’ NY as sexy, glamourous, in a word – beautiful. But it had been the stark urban edginess and tumultuous energy that gave NY that beauty. Stripped of it’s authenticity, of it’s hovels, of it’s wind blown alleys, it’s no mans land streets, its 24 hour diners, it’s dive bars, it’s all night nite clubs, it’s bathouses and sex clubs,
it ‘s whore strolls and midnight hustlers, I was left seeing just the bones of the place. Like a field of tombstones to a by gone era.

Yes, once this urban beast without pity offered peace and sanctuary to millions who in the shadow of tenements and skyscrapers found grounding and acceptance thru they’re place in this landscape.

Real New Yorkers love nothing better than when other people who live in NY go away. Summer, Christmas, 4 and 3 day holidays, where others make their escape are the very times we long for, like a jealous lover who wants their beloved all to themselves. Extreme weather too makes one feel close to the heart of this city; Blizzards, fog, heat waves, downpours; for NY is an island with island weather, with it’s emotional changeability.

There are many New York’s – there is New York at dawn, New York in the middle of the night and by that I mean 3am. There is New York at dusk and New York at high noon and New York at rush hour. New York at dawn with it’s pink sky and stillness fills one with a sense of possibility. New York between 3AM and 5 AM brings a pondering solemnity with a tearing edge of giddiness, it is the philosophers Stone, the birth canal of wit.

New York at dusk with great clouds afloat in a cerulean sky is the hour where time stops, the sky stays blue, even in winter for many, many hours. New York during rush hour, both morning and evening, is the stream that ferries the commuters in and out of the city. The are daily visitors and for them New York is a paycheck and maybe a night out. They spend their leisure time living elsewhere.

People ask me why I live in NY if I can admit to all of this. My answer is always the same: Cheap rent. A community of sorts. The fact that everywhere else in the world is wracked by the very same gentrification and hyper gentrification which has hollowed NY out. In 2002 in my play New York Values I said “New York is not going to become the most boring place in the world in the next 15 years.”

And I find that that is true. NY is not the most boring place in the world. However, neither is it that fountain of culture and creativity that it once was. New York has gone from being a cultural capitol to being a marketing capitol. Full disclosure: I first said that in my play Sisi Sings The Blues 1996.

That said, the role that New York played for so many decades, indeed, perhaps for close to three centuries, has not been taken over by anywhere else. Not by Berlin or Prague, or Beijing or Shanghai or Portland or Mexico City, or Buenos Aires or Montreal. No matter what you read in travel blogs and hipper than thou magazine articles. The truth is that what made New York great and vital and generative was that the fruit of it lay so close to it’s thorns. You can’t just create a funky environment and think that is the same thing.

The echo of that thrilling New York is still resounding in these sky scraper canyons

All you need to do is walk and listen and remember what Walt Whitman said

“If you are looking for me; you will find me under your footfalls.”

Penny Arcade New York 2017