New York: The Writer in the Powerhouse


From my windows on the Upper West Side I look out on buildings that clash so violently in age, style, size, shape, color, and purpose that I must locate myself within this mad geometry. Upright parallelograms run into one another and finally absorb one another into a dizzying urban mix. When young I studied the city from the family fire escape, the neighboring roof, from the Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenue El passing between open windows of ancient tenements in which people showed their lives, like their bedding, on the windowsill. Now the heavens are as crowded as the earth. Bridges travel between buildings; police helicopters patrolling the unending highway stream will soon swoop down on the errant driver; satellities already rusted and outworn impinge on fresh ones no doubt already capable of hearing conversations in the bedroom. The twentieth century is finally here. Exactly as previsioned in the “Amazing Stories” I used to read as a boy. But what the utopian fantasists of the early century did not guess was that the nineteenth century would still be with us. Up on Amsterdam Avenue, not yet “gentrified,” there are old German Lutheran old-age homes, green with decay and surrounded by the leftovers of Hispanic poverty, that remind us of the many discarded churches that serve only as obstructions to the real-estate lobby.

Henry James on his return to his birth-place in 1905 noted the “increasing invisibility of New York churches.” The end-of-century scene on the Upper West Side is a picture now so crammed that the crowdedness itself is the fact most omnipresent and therefore hardest to describe, and certainly to love. I can take in only the outline of the daily friction and threatfulness of New York, the undeclared state of war that will suddenly flash out in the subway over a dropped newspaper and leave behind bodies broken, dead, while the spectators flee the police.

Strange how little of this mad crowdedness, the very fever of our daily lives, gets into the best writing about the city. Loneliness, secrecy, introspection are the understandable response to so much mass in friction. As opposed to the daily death headline in the New York Post—RAPIST KILLED BY MOM AS KIDS WATCH—the most sensitive writing naturally describes a writer’s vulnerability rather than the weight of all these opposed races, classes, theologies, and social habits. Photography can aim at this crowd as the writer may be afraid to. The news photographer Weegee did a famous shot, July 28, 1940, 4 PM, as he proudly noted, of a million people at Coney Island. There is no sand to be seen. But photography can earn its short-lived triumph at too emphatic a price of professional indifference and even malice. Journalistic photography must glide over what it attempts to “reproduce.”

Unsere ist eine optische Zeit read the sign over the ruins of postwar Cologne. “Ours is a visual period.” The irony was not intentional. At the same time in New York, abstract expressionism made…

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