New York, New York
A city so nice they had to name it twice
On the street – the walks of two street nomads in New York City
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South view of the Lower Manhattan skyline
No other name of a city in the world has had the alluring promise of that of New York City. The long period of being the world's biggest and leading city in terms of population and commerce as well as arts and entertainment will forever make New York City a must for tourists who want to experience first-hand the wonders of the industrialized world.
The statue on Liberty Island in the morning mist
However, in New York City extremes meet, in architecture and design, work and leisure: from the tallest and greatest to the lowest and meanest; from the sophisticated and refined to the kitsch and vulgar; from the most expensive lifestyle to the barest of existences - as if every phenomenon is shadowed by its antithesis . New York, New York - Gotham City, indeed.
From a previous, albeit short, visit of six hours when stopping over in 1994 we already knew some of the sights of Midtown Manhattan, and the initial awe at the skyline had thus settled. This time, the week before Easter 2001, instead of looking up (at) the architectural highlights, we focused on the more modest tenement buildings, e.g. in the (literally) Lower East Side of Manhattan, following in the footsteps of our renowned countryman Jacob A. Riis.
A doll's house among giants in Lower Manhattan
Apart from marveling at New York's architectural wonders (which can't be helped even if you try to be blasé), the thought that has always tickled our imagination is the one of the many immigrants who settled in New York City and never moved farther. Danes mostly went on to Chicago (or Racine, WI) and settled in the Midwest, but the bulk of often illiterate and skilled or unskilled immigrants alike who settled next to New York's harbor in newly built or redesigned tenement houses have always attracted our interest. These immigrants were not all persecuted in their home countries, but came out of economic necessity or lured by promises of a life of prosperity that never came to be. Where exactly did these immigrants live? What were their housing conditions? Just how many were they? Did they ever regret they came?
New York City may never sleep, but its citizens still need a place to stay although they don't seem to cook at home, but eat out even at rather exorbitant prices, at least compared to the rest of the US.
To eat out means more than just going to a nice restaurant. The many delis and coffee shops speak of busy people grabbing a bite in between work. Or they may buy a meal "to go" and eat it either on their (long) way home or when they get home but don't bother to cook, especially if they are single.
Do they serve anything besides caviar, I wonder?
The location of our hotel on Chambers and West Broadway just north of the World Trade Center turned out to be a perfect starting point for an exploration of Lower Manhattan including TriBeCa, SoHo, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, Little Italy, East Village, and the Lower East Side tenement buildings.
Picture right: Outside our hotel - West Broadway - the World Trade Center almost vanishing into the air
In addition to these districts we made excursions to Midtown Manhattan, Central Park, Riverside, Harlem, Upper East Side (Yorkville), and Brooklyn, plus, of course, Staten Island to see the New York skyline, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty (if only at a distance).
The tourist's New York is probably mainly concentrated between Midtown (34th St.) and Central Park (59th St.) with a few excursions south to the Financial District. We decided, however, that our angle was to be the differences between the various districts in terms of housing, population, businesses, and general street life.
However, the people tourists see in the street are for the most part either other tourists, peddlers, or recent immigrants working in storefronts. Statistically, New Yorkers either live in the suburb boroughs (the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island, Staten Island, etc.) or in New Jersey – not in Manhattan. And when in Manhattan many of them work in the high-rise office silos and only come out to smoke in designated areas.
Smoker's Station - a butt receptacle
But from the mid-1800s and some 80 years on things were different. Three in four New Yorkers lived in the Manhattan residential areas, most notably in what was called the Lower East Side. Around 1850 the tenements in this district alone housed half a million souls packed to a rate of 290,000 to a square mile. In comparison, the greatest crowding of Old London (in England) was at the rate of 175,816 per square mile.
(The New York 1880 census tells of a Manhattan population of 1,164,673. Thus, in 1888, in the single block between Park and Bayard Streets, there lived in Baxter and Mulberry Streets a total of 5,650 people, among them 944 children under five years.)
The first immigrants were mostly Irish and German, the latter in such great numbers that the district was known as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), but in later years many more nationalities joined them: Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians, etc., etc. – many of them Jews. As is the situation today the Chinese constituted a state within the state, and they lived separately, but under similar conditions.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Orchard St. offers a look inside these tenement buildings including authentic stories of the people who lived there (a must for tourists who want a taste of New York history and of something else besides the usual sights). This picture of a dismal America supposedly paved with gold is nothing but depressing, but since almost three in four New Yorkers lived in these tenements, many of which were in back-alleys, the facts are too gross to be easily overlooked.
Room in tenement building in Orchard Street
(from http://www.tenement.org )
Besides the tour of the sample house the museum offers ample materials to study immigrant life, including the famous essay from 1890 How The Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis, who as a newspaper police reporter ventured into the tenements at night and shot some 100 photos with the new invention of the flash light revealing utter poverty: people dying from tuberculosis or mere starvation in overcrowded, dark and damp rooms without running water. No wonder some of them wanted to go home again to sunny Sicily where the cooking could be done outside under better sanitary conditions. Several of the dwellings had been turned into sweatshops in which people worked for very low wages. Other rooms served as hostels for single men.
A tenement staircase in Orchard St. - this corridor was not lit for years
(from http://www.tenement.org )
Even if they were lucky to find work, the rent was too high for them to put anything aside and start saving up for better housing. The tenement buildings so familiar to Europe, but new to the US, were actually an 1833 "invention" by a savvy landlord who realized that he could make much more money from letting apartments instead of a whole house. Since the rent was too high for the immigrant families to pay, they in turn let part of the apartment to other immigrants – or the landlord simply let "space" per person. In 1890 the average number of persons in a New York dwelling (typically of three rooms) was 16 persons. The price to stay the night in a hostel was 5-7 cents, and the landlord would thus make a nice profit. In the hot summers some would sleep outside on the fire escapes and accidentally fall the many stories to the pavement and kill themselves. Some of the husbands would simply leave their families without warning; they may have been robbed and killed, or they simply left for the (promised) gold they didn't find in New York City.
Living in close contact with one's neighbors develops a close-knit relationship, so when in the 1930s some of the tenants of the Lower East Side were rehoused in the Yorkville project next to the stately private homes on the Upper East Side, the families of whole tenements moved out and in again together; and since many of them were German immigrants, the new residential area came to be known as Sauerkraut Avenue (86thSt.)
- note the fake half-timbered Heidelberg Restaurant on the right
The northern part of the Lower East Side came to be known as Little Italy because of the many Italian immigrants who settled there. Italians were considered "easier" tenants than the contentious Irish tramps or the order-loving Germans. This in turn meant that Italians were treated the worst, living in pig-sties. (In fact, it wasn't until 1867 that owners of swine were prohibited to let them run at large in the city.) Many Italians never learned English and had to rely on middle-men who took advantage of their situation thus keeping them in the slums, even when they were rehoused in Harlem.
Today Little Italy is but a few streets with a number of restaurants, but few shops. The Italian touch is almost gone, but during our visit in Easter the streets were decorated with huge festoons of Easter bunnies and eggs. The general picture is rather sedate, a striking contrast to what it once was, and certainly to its neighbor Chinatown which seems to be in the process of taking over its neighboring districts.
Easter festoons in Little Italy
The hustle and bustle of a Chinatown is probably the same the world over, but unlike the Chinese quarters in for instance San Francisco and London, the atmosphere in the New York Chinatown is rough and tough and not charming. Noisy, not melodious. Endless rows of huge freighter trucks carry goods, especially food, into Chinatown, and restaurants and food stores are the most conspicuous businesses.
Canal Street - Chinatown
Luckily for our conscience we didn't eat at any of these restaurants, for outside the New Silver Palace in Bowery St. a picket line were distributing leaflets telling the public about the conditions inside:
"The New Silver Palace tries to set a new low in working conditions by using threats, violence and blacklisting against workers who speak up against sweatshop conditions. We are organizing to fight the growing sweatshop economy which threatens many of our community. Other sweatshop bosses are watching this struggle very closely because they know that a victory for the workers at New Silver Palace, the area's second largest restaurant, could be a powerful example for the rest of the community." (extract from leaflet)
Picture left:Anybody read Chinese?
The picketing has been going on since August 1997, and apart from sweatshop conditions and blacklisting, the workers complain about having to pay kick back compensation to the proprietor; about managers stealing tips from waiters and busboys; and about organized violent attacks on the picketers.
So, the overall picture of this overcrowded part of New York is that some things never change. Whenever and wherever supply exceeds demand, only the fittest survive. Whereas other immigrants such as the Germans started learning English from the very first day as a matter of duty or investment, the Chinese tended to keep to themselves in closed communities with their own banks, own suppliers, own everything. As long as the going is good it works, but the instant Chinese workers claim citizen's rights in American terms, the inbred system has to fight to survive on its preferred terms.
Picture right: Bowery St.
Across from the New Silver Palace is the monumental marble arch to Manhattan Bridge like a frontispiece of a classical building, and right next to it a typically sloping Chinese pagoda roof top, and next to that a dilapidated, half burned out tenement building. A strange juxtaposition like numerous others in New York City.
Entrance to Manhattan Bridge
Just a brisk walk south of Chinatown is the oldest part of New York, which also holds the impressive skyline of the Financial District facing south toward Liberty Island's Statue of Liberty. The narrow crooked streets, some of them cobblestone; the mix of old and new houses and buildings, private and official (including City Hall and the first churches of the city); people walking instead of driving (some streets are even car free) - all of this reminds the visitor of the European beginnings of the city.
What is American are not so much the buildings as it is the people in the street. The conservative uniform of the American business man (or –woman, sometimes the difference is hard to tell) in the financial district isn't exactly elegant. Wearing a suit of any kind seems to be the thing and a must, preferred to other, but perhaps nicer looking clothing.
An oasis in the oldest part of town
(Lower Manhattan) - a mix of old and new
Today the former US Custom House holds the Museum of the American Indian, an impressive and comprehensive exhibition of native crafts and archeology. Among other things we saw two special exhibits of Native American shirts and cradle boards. The building itself is an architectural gem with a kiva-like, oval interior under a magnificently decorated roof; a fine place to exhibit previously discarded native art.
Across the East River is the borough of Brooklyn, which with its 3.5 million inhabitants is the primary residential area today. From Wall St. we took the subway to Prospect Park in Brooklyn and walked back via Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue to Brooklyn Heights.
Brooklyn (from the Dutch: Breukelen) is a city in its own right with its share of high rises and residential brownstones in a good mix. We enjoyed our walk through the streets of Brooklyn with trees lining the pavements, children playing ball, or people shooting the breeze on the front stairs – exactly the way we've seen New York so often in the movies.
A typical Brooklyn street
Near the river is the affluent part of Brooklyn with some very fine houses where several eminent writers used to live. If we are ever to come back to New York, I think that we'd like to explore Brooklyn some more. The borough has also got one of the finest museums in the world (with exhibits ranging from Egyptian mummies and Native American crafts to modern design in artifacts).
Atlantic Avenue is populated by a strange mix of immigrants from many countries, especially the Middle East. Among the shops are several neglected businesses, or they have simply been closed down.
Brooklyn shop on Atlantic Avenue
In between the stores are several churches of South American or Eastern denominations:
Templo Christiano de Brooklyn &All Good Things (now closed)
Any house may be turned into a church:
Iglesia de Dios Pentecosta
Heaven Way Buddha Church
In contrast, the walk back on Brooklyn Bridge was a sheer joy, not only because of the fine view of the Manhattan skyline from the Financial District to Midtown, but also because of the fine weather which reached a high of 89 F (30+ C) on that particular day. Later that night we experienced one of the famous thunderstorms with lightnings and pouring rain.
On Brooklyn Bridge - my proof of having been to New York City - Manhattan Bridge in the back
The famous view of Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights
Our walks north from our hotel took us through TriBeCa and SoHo, busy districts which exhibit a great number of houses from the 1800s, most of them adorned with the typical New York outward fire escape. In SoHo (i.e. South of Houston St.) are several cast iron buildings. The fronts of the buildings are not brick but cast iron, a cheaper material and an innovative method which was quite popular in the last half of the 1800s (cp. the Eiffel Tower in Paris). Apparently, the often neatly painted iron surfaces of the buildings have withstood time as well as brick would have done.
Just north of SoHo is Greenwich Village, the east corner of which district is Washington Square Park with an arc of triumph facing north, another example of Roman inspiration in national monuments or when national heroes are to be honored.
The park is peaceful and spacious with doves and squirrels galore, but what attracted our imagination the most was the old hangmen's tree in the northwest corner.
Hangings have always been a popular event, and it gave us a creepy feeling to stand beside the hangmen's tree thinking of past times.
Washington Square Park
The Village was probably one of the districts we'd been looking forward to the most, and we weren't disappointed even if it's no longer the home of artists and hippies. But we were taken aback when faced with a sign in a window saying: "ecstasy cigarettes available here". It could be a joke, however, as ecstasy may not be smoked (we're not that worldly.)
Ecstasy - spelled "ecstacy" (could be a joke, though)
In the district's many small and quiet streets were some very fine houses which reminded us of the British TV-serial "Upstairs–Downstairs", complete with railings and downstairs kitchen entrances. Today the neighborhood is definitely far too affluent to house experimenting artists.
The narrowest house in New York City - Greenwich Village
East of Greenwich Village is the East Village, a dilapidated area (north of the Lower East Side) with open spaces where burned out or knocked down houses have been. The unimaginative naming of the avenues (A, B, C, and D) corresponds to the drab appearance of the neighborhood which still holds a good many old Jewish shops near 8th St.
To commemorate the work of Jacob A. Riis a new East Village neighborhood project was named after him: the Jacob A. Riis Houses; the project mainly houses immigrants from the Third World. But there are brighter spots in the drab district:
Fantasy tower in East Village - a rare display of imagination in this part of town
One other thing was of particular interest: Tompkins Park, another of the many small parks in New York. The park was where the Tompkins Square Riot took place on 13 January 1874: as unemployed workers demonstrated in the park, a detachment of mounted police charged into the crowd, beating men, women and children indiscriminately with billy clubs and leaving hundreds of casualties in their wake. Commented Abram Duryee, the Commissioner of Police: "It was the most glorious sight I ever saw..." - the American equivalent to the Danish "Slaget på fælleden" in 1872.
Most of the parks in New York City have a sheltered playground to which are admitted only parents and guardians of the children at play. An unmistakable sign of what might happen to the children if high railings didn't surround the playground.
At the southern end of the park is Charlie Parker Place. The fact that the great and innovative jazz (bop) musician Charlie Parker has a place named after him is a comforting thought if only it had been next to W.C. Handy and Gershwin Streets in Midtown Manhattan. The East Village hardly does justice to his sensitive and modern art, and the name of the place seems to be have been put up as a token, not as a tribute.
Corner of Charlie Parker Place and Avenue D
From GreenwichVillage we took the subway north to first Columbia University and Morningside Park, then farther north to Riverside Park (125th St., northwest of Central Park). Like so many other official American buildings the university is classical in style, an impressive campus, but without the huge lawns that in other American universities may inspire students to quiet and deep discussions. From the outer looks of it with its symmetrical layout Columbia might as well be a garrison, but a closer look revealed that the atmosphere is much more relaxed. We enjoyed our coffee in one of the coffee shops that serve as an oasis and waterhole between classes.
A little north of Columbia University is the Ulysses E. Grant Memorial Tomb, another strange mix of styles. After winning the Civil War as Commander in Chief for the Union side Grant was elected president (1869-77); and although his administration was tainted with accusations of negligence and fraud, he was still a popular president, so when he died, public funding was raised to build him a tomb modeled after one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the mausoleum in Halicarnassus, no less. In the shrine he rests in a vault alongside his wife in the manner of Napoleon in the Eglise d’Invalides in Paris. That should square the score between the two generals (the whole setup seems to say).
However, all the way around this exceptional monument in white marble are placed a circle of concrete benches all covered in predominantly pastel blue mosaics picturing birds and animals in between portraits of the generals of the Civil War in the most naive fashion. A strange mix, indeed, which strongly contradicts the sought magnitude of the mausoleum.
Benches around Grant's Tomb - presidents on the left
One may wonder why so many 18th and 19th-century American public buildings are classical, and the obvious, but not necessarily true answer would be that the young America wanted to emulate ancient Greece and especially Rome in its public buildings such as government houses (the capitols in each state) and court houses.
But at the time of the emergence of these buildings the whole world was inspired by the ancient world (cp. the contemporary excavations in Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy), and architects borrowed selectively from their Greek and Roman colleagues. Thus Grant's Tomb is as much a time piece as it is a mausoleum trying to rival it's predecessor, but it still seems a bit pompous to emulate one of the wonders of the ancient world.
From Grant's Tomb it's only a few steps across the street to Riverside Church which is much more serene in its dignified design with beautiful leaded lights:
Altar - Riverside Church
Harlem is only a stone's throw away from Riverside Park, and we ventured on along the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (125 th St.) toward the heart of Harlem. Although the policing in New York City have improved considerably during the reign of Mayor Giuliani, the neighborhood still looked a little too shabby for comfort, so we didn't continue for long. The fact that Giuliani put 366,288 New Yorkers in jail in 1999 isn't really encouraging; for whatever might have been the reason for their arrest, the number is still far too high for comfort. But we did stay on MLK Blvd. long enough to feel "alone" being the only whites in sight, and we did pass a soup line. The ghetto is still there (see Urbanism below).
Harlem soup line outside mission center
(On our way to the airport our (black) driver told us that in his opinion Black people were responsible for about 80% of the world's technical progress in the sense that Blacks were the ones that had made most of the great inventions, only they hadn't been credited for them. He also explained to us how Martin Luther King Jr. had formed the UN out of a wish for co-operation between the peoples of the earth. I mention this without any prejudice or patronization; it's just another example of how ethnic prejudice works – both ways.)
In the subway going south towards Central Park a woman from a New York welfare organization asked if there were any homeless people in the car. One person came forward, and he was given an improvised packed meal. She also asked for donations to the committee, but besides us, the hobo was the only one to contribute. Thus he paid for his own meal.
Although the subway is swift, people may ride it for so long that they feel they need to eat on their way. As a result odors from spicy foods were often filling the cars, at least in some of the cars we rode. Most people kept to themselves unless they were in a group, but only a few were reading (the usual alibi for averting one's eyes - see Urbanism below).
The contrast between the incident described above and the architectural wonders on 8th Ave. - the western border line of Central Park - is quite striking. Some of the most impressive apartment buildings are situated across from the park with a wonderful view of the park. The park itself is more than a huge lawn. Elaborately planned it offers lakes and botanical areas as well as paths for strollers (i.e. walkers, not prams which are forbidden on the pathways), horse back riders, and joggers. Occasional pieces of rock and old settlement houses remind the visitor of what Manhattan used to look like before the city began to grow. We walked a good third of the park until the Dakota Building on 8th Ave. (where John Lennon was killed in 1980 and where Rosemary's Baby was conceived) before taking the subway once again to Midtown.
The subway is a swift system of transport in a city whose streets are full of cars, but unlike for instance London, Paris, or Moscow, the New York subway doesn't post the stops on the line before you enter. You have to know your bearings and the direction you want to go as the only thing posted is the number or name (color) of the line and the direction (downtown/south or uptown/north). Furthermore, the street entrance to the subway is often a very small and modest staircase, which may be hard to find as the subway is not marked very conspicuously. But once you're on the right train the service is swift and unproblematic. Getting off the train, however, is not always easy as New Yorkers (or tourists?) crowd in front of the doors and obstruct passengers from getting off the train, perhaps for fear of not catching the train themselves.
We had hoped to see New York from above from the viewing platform in the Empire State Building, but unfortunately for us several thousand other tourists had come upon the very same idea; so when we heard that there was more than two hours of waiting before we could get to the platform, we decided to stay on the ground.
Picture left: 42nd Street - looking east
Instead we went to see the Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library, two very fine classical buildings that are exemplary of the care put into public buildings, which besides serving the public also signal the city's means and prowess on a very grand scale. In the library we asked to be shown to the Declaration of Independence, but were told that it's kept in cool stores. Instead we sent an e-mail home from one of the many computers that are installed in a former reading room. Today the Internet has taken a permanent place alongside books, even in libraries, and that's also the way it should be to ensure equal opportunity.
Many of the people working the counters in the museums and other public buildings are seniors, especially women who see an opportunity to work part time and still be active. And because their work is often mixed with interest and care for the visiting clients, the service is always given in the most hospitable and friendly way.
New York City is indeed an interesting city of contrasts, outside as well as inside, for good or for worse, even with a touch of relaxation in the many parks and definitely worth a visit.
Times Square from an unusual angle - note the old water tower
In his famous pioneer essay Urbanism as a Way of Life (1938) Louis Wirth classifies the societal characteristics that urbanites develop. Not surprisingly, his conclusion is that contacts in the city are mostly impersonal, superficial, transitory, and segmental. Because of the density of the urban milieu physical contacts are close, but social contacts are distant. Visual recognition is important, hence the "uniforms" which denote the role of the functionaries, and a world of artifacts remove the city dweller from the world of nature. All of this and more leads to a "life in the fast lane" and develops a glib smartness to help immunize urbanites against personal claims such as bonds of kinship. Competition replaces participation. The clock and the traffic signal are symbolic of the basis of the city's social order.
The reason why immigrants tend to stay in ghettos may thus be that they consciously select an area in which they hope to feel part of a homogenous society. A metropolis like New York City is thus many different cities.
No talking in the streets
New Yorkers are used to being accosted by beggars, and that's probably why they walk briskly past you as if in deep thought. To avoid eye contact is the thing, especially in the subway, and the result is that the famous saying of being lonely in a crowd has all the more meaning in New York City. The few times we asked people for directions they reacted by stepping vehemently aside without answering us, so we adapted a style of notifying people in advance from a distance by the slight waving of a hand. This way we thought that they would have a chance of "taking us in" at a distance and be ready for our question when we passed. The system worked.
When we did make contact, people were often extremely helpful, nice, and good-humored, including the guards and other people working the desks in public places. Nobody seemed to be in the usual hurry, at least not so busy that they couldn't take time out for a joking remark.
Our being unaccustomed with the practice of distinguishing beggars and freaks from the regular people also cut us off from a few interesting conversations. On our walks I was wearing a red beret, and one of the first times we were accosted on the street, I didn't answer and walked away the way we'd been taught by previous incidents. A few paces later I realized that the person had just said, "I like your beret". Later another man called after me, "Were you a beret, Sir?" which I didn't realize until after we had passed.
I wonder what the rest of the comments may have been; my wife tells me that whenever she was alone, for instance when waiting for me outside a shop, several passers-by would accost her, often in a disrespectful way.
For centuries the garment business has been important to New York City. One wave of unemployed immigrants gave way to the next thus furnishing the human capital for badly paid work in overcrowded sewing factories called "sweat shops".
On Saturday 25 March 1911 a fire broke on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a building in Lower Manhattan. Hundreds of workers stormed towards the stairs only to find the doors locked - the employers had wanted to make sure that nobody was loafing on the job. One hundred and forty-six people were killed on that Saturday, several of them from jumping out the windows.
The incident put public focus on the conditions in sweat shops, and new laws were implemented to ensure workers' safety and minimum wages. But the general conditions weren't changed until the 1970s when the last of the sweat shops were closed down.
But now they seem to be back, only the general spread is not limited to the garment industry, but encompasses many more businesses. In 1992 New York inspectors estimated that 4,500 out of 5,000 garment factories were sweat shops; to this number must be added thousands of other businesses employing illegal Chinese immigrants who work 14 hours a day at wages of just $1-$1.50 per hour.
The wages can barely cover the immigrants' needs for bread and board, and most of them work up a debt to the Chinatown mob (the Snake Heads) who thus rule this enclave as a sovereign state.
I fancied a New York haircut and went to a hairdresser's on West Broadway. At home my hairdresser is an Iraqi man working in a salon owned by an Egyptian, and although he does a fine job, I'm always a little anxious as to how the result will be as he doesn't understand much Danish (the little he speaks actually accentuates the danger: in his ears "not too much" is reduced to "much").
In other words, I was looking forward to having a proper haircut by a sophisticated New York hairdresser, but what did I get? It turned out that he had recently immigrated from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and didn't speak any English. Used to avoiding scalpings by being alert I managed to keep as much hair as I wanted; if not, my boys would probably have been cheering a skinhead when I returned to Denmark. In the middle of his work he paused to say, "Stalin". I guess he meant to say that I look a lot like Stalin, which I've often noticed myself, only nobody has said so before. Interesting I had to go to New York to hear the truth.
New York City is often referred to as "Gotham". First used by Washington Irving in 1807, the epithet goes further back, to England. The legend attached to it tells the story of the English King John who in the 1200s wanted to build himself a nice hunting lodge in the village of Gotham near Nottingham. The villagers, however, had no interest in becoming subjects to severe taxation, and when inspected by the king's emissaries they pretended to be semi-morons, running wildly around in circles, and the king decided to build elsewhere.
Thus Gotham came to mean a city of wise fools, a combination of demented behavior and cunning, a very appropriate moniker for New York City.
Below are a few of the many other things said and written about New York City:
A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe . . . it is a beautiful catastrophe.
Le Corbusier (1887-1965), French architect
Everybody ought to have a Lower East Side in their life.
Irving Berlin (1888-1989), U.S. songwriter (originally Israel Baline).
I like it here in New York. I like the idea of having to keep eyes in the back of your head all the time.
John Cale (b. 1940), British rock musician
I think that New York is not the cultural center of America, but the business and administrative center of American culture.
Saul Bellow (b. 1915), U.S. author.
In Africa I had indeed found a sufficiently frightful kind of loneliness but the isolation of this American ant heap was even more shattering.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961), French author.
In Manhattan, every flat surface is a potential stage and every inattentive waiter an unemployed, possibly unemployable, actor.
Quentin Crisp (b. 1908), British author.
It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe.
Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929), French semiologist.
It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.
Joan Didion (b. 1934), U.S. essayist.
It was a cruel city, but it was a lovely one, a savage city, yet it had such tenderness, a bitter, harsh, and violent catacomb of stone and steel and tunneled rock, slashed savagely with light, and roaring, fighting a constant ceaseless warfare of men and of machinery; and yet it was so sweetly and so delicately pulsed, as full of warmth, of passion, and of love, as it was full of hate.
Thomas Clayton Wolfe (1900-1938), U.S. author.
New York has a trip-hammer vitality which drives you insane with restlessness, if you have no inner stabilizer. . . . In New York I have always felt lonely, the loneliness of the caged animal, which brings on crime, sex, alcohol and other madnesses.
Henry Miller (1891-1980), U.S. author.
New York has never learnt the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future. A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs.
Michel de Certeau (1925-86), French author, critic.
New York is a field of tireless and antagonistic interests - undoubtedly fascinating but horribly unreal. Everybody is looking at everybody else - a foolish crowd walking on mirrors.
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), U.S. poet.
New York is a meeting place for every race in the world, but the Chinese, Armenians, Russians, and Germans remain foreigners. So does everyone except the blacks. There is no doubt but that the blacks exercise great influence in North America, and, no matter what anyone says, they are the most delicate, spiritual element in that world.
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), Spanish poet, playwright.
New York is a sucked orange.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher.
New York is more now than the sum of its people and buildings. It makes sense only as a mechanical intelligence, a transporter system for the daily absorbing and nightly redeploying of the human multitudes whose services it requires.
Peter Conrad (b. 1948), Australian critic, author.
New York is something awful, something monstrous. I like to walk the streets, lost, but I recognize that New York is the world's greatest lie. New York is Senegal with machines.
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), Spanish poet, playwright.
New York is the biggest mouth in the world. It appears to be prime example of the herd instinct, leading the universal urban conspiracy to beguile man from his birthright (the good ground), to hang him by his eyebrows from skyhooks above hard pavement, to crucify him, sell him, or be sold by him.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959), U.S. architect.
New York is the meeting place of the peoples, the only city where you can hardly find a typical American.
Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), U.S. author, poet, columnist.
New York is what Paris was in the twenties . . . the center of the art world. And we want to be in the center. It's the greatest place on earth . . . I've got a lot of friends here and I even brought my own cash.
John Lennon (1940-80), British rock musician
New York will be a great place when they finish it.
New York Saying.
New York, you are an Egypt! But an Egypt turned inside out. For she erected pyramids of slavery to death, and you erect pyramids of democracy with the vertical organ-pipes of your skyscrapers all meeting at the point of infinity of liberty!
Salvador Dali (1904-89), Spanish painter.
The City of New York is like an enormous citadel, a modern Carcassonne. Walking between the magnificent skyscrapers one feels the presence on the fringe of a howling, raging mob, a mob with empty bellies, a mob unshaven and in rags.
Henry Miller (1891-1980), U.S. author
The City of New York is currently undergoing a grave experiment that affects the comfort and, on occasion, the safety of even the most casual visitor. The experiment consists in seeing whether a city of that size can be operated on a far smaller amount of money than would make its life tolerable and a still smaller amount than would make it agreeable. The richer New Yorkers . . . are cooperating with an enthusiasm that the affluent rarely show for social experiment, and at great personal expense. They are paying for private security guards in unprecedented numbers and costly private schooling for their children . . . and they are accepting numerous other costs and inconveniences in order to show that private affluence is consistent with public squalor.
John Kenneth Galbraith (b. 1908), U.S. economist.
There is no human reason to be here, except for the sheer ecstasy of being crowded together.
Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929), French semiologist.
There was a time when all these things would have passed me by, like the flitting figures of a theatre, sufficient for the amusement of an hour. But now, I have lost the power of looking merely on the surface. Everything seems to me to come from the Infinite, to be filled with the Infinite, to be tending toward the Infinite. Do I see crowds of men hastening to extinguish a fire? I see not merely uncouth garbs, and fantastic, flickering lights, of lurid hue, like a trampling troop of gnomes - but straightway my mind is filled with thoughts about mutual helpfulness, human sympathy, the common bond of brotherhood, and the mysteriously deep foundations on which society rests; or rather, on which it now reels and totters.
Lydia M. Child (1802-80), U.S. abolitionist, writer, editor (in letter on street life).
This city is neither a jungle nor the moon. . . . In long shot: a cosmic smudge, a conglomerate of bleeding energies. Close up, it is a fairly legible printed circuit, a transistorized labyrinth of beastly tracks, a data bank for asthmatic voice-prints.
Susan Sontag (b. 1933), U.S. essayist.
Though one can dine in New York, one could not dwell there.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Anglo-Irish playwright, author.
We New Yorkers see more death and violence than most soldiers do, grow a thick chitin on our backs, grimace like a rat and learn to do a disappearing act. Long ago we outgrew the need to be blowhards about our masculinity; we leave that to the Alaskans and Texans, who have more time for it.
Edward Hoagland (b. 1932), U.S. novelist, essayist.
On the SAS flight to New York and back we couldn't help noticing and discussing the sometimes antic gestures expressed by the stewards, which we found totally out of place in a modern society. Their servitude was probably in its place in the 1950s when flying was a luxury, but today such measures hardly seem necessary. Today you can hardly fly for 30 minutes without being offered something to drink and eat, and the former rather glamorous position as a steward(ess) with a supposed long training has been degraded to a hardworking, but extremely polite kitchen hand. If such exaggerated courtesy is the distinguishing means to attract customers, the airlines should focus more on their meals which are often either tasteless or simply badly cooked, in fact, I think that on our next trip we'll ask for kosher to see if that makes any difference. Anyway, we don't fly because of the meals and the service - therefore the exaggerated servitude seems all the more overdone. What's the use of a distributing a menu if all the food is bad? And because the staff is so busy serving meals, there's no room for other questions, nor room for a glimpse of genuine friendliness, thus the very professional smiles end up meaning the opposite.
Revised 3 June 2001