Friday, January 21, 2011

The Third City

For the past 3 weeks, I've been a tourist. Seeing NY alongside my peers from Abu Dhabi has been an incredible experience. We climbed to the top of 30 Rock today and looked out on the city- I couldn't help but think that there's something great about being a tourist. The New York hustle can be overwhelming. We forget to frame our urban surroundings as an intricate, amazingly designed system for organizing these millions of people.

E.B. White found there to be three New Yorks: "the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter-the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night, Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last-the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from Italy to set up a small grocery store in a slum, or a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love"

Well, I was born here. I guess I'm the first type. But my family moved to the suburbs when I was younger, so I guess I'm number two. However, I've been studying and living in lower Manhattan for the past 3 years. Am I back to the first NY? Seeing my city with my friends from Abu Dhabi has shown me the third New York. This New York only peeks out at us "New Yorkers" every once in a while. We get so wrapped up in the incessant pace of the city that we forget how splendid it really is. Hopefully, I'll be able to see the "third city" of Abu Dhabi some time. Getting comfortable somewhere can make you forget what brought you there in the first place. Consider this my resolution to be more of a tourist in the city I can only begin to scratch the surface of.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cynthia v. Vera

The Atlantic Theater Company's staging of the New York Idea left me with a far different impression of the characters than the reading we did in class. After reading the original -complete with its overbearing stage directions- I was pushed to favor Cynthia (the woman, not the horse) as the protagonist and eventual 'winner' in the play. As capricious and spritely as Cynthia was in the original Mitchell text, ATC played her equally flaky and childish. I found Vera to be much more appealing in the staging than in the original text, and found her to be the closest thing to a winner in the end.

The implication of the differing staging is that the ATC chose to redefine the "New York Idea".  When we are led to empathize with Cynthia, the message is a conservative one: Although Cynthia commits an indiscretion and attempts to dissolve her marriage, she eventually realizes her error and returns to the throes of her one and only, Jack. How does this change when Vera is favored? Is this to be taken as an endorsement of marriages as temporary, non-binding agreements? The social culture of this city holds a long tradition of defying tradition. As a setting, this city is the best hope for a character like Vera to be the unlikely hero, given the staid customs of the time period.

As hotbeds of cultural non-traditionalism, cities like NYC serve a critical role in the formation of a national culture. While the liberalism characteristic of NY may not permeate to the rural parts of the country, cities are able to experiment with breaking social norms in a way that rural areas cannot. As Philip and the older women are left alone as the curtain drops, it is not their unwillingness to accept a change in marriage, but rather an overall resistance to change that positions them as the left behind.

Despite his lack of citizenship, Cates-Darby appears more of a New Yorker than Phillimore (E.B. White would agree...). Perhaps this idea - that membership to the idea of the city is not a question of residence but rather of social attitude - can considered the New York Idea. Social pragmatism trumps loyalty to tradition.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

“The 41-story former Deutsche Bank building is now the former 41-story Deutsche Bank building."

As today’s New York Times Metro Section asserts “The 41-story former Deutsche Bank building is now the former 41-story Deutsche Bank building. Within a month, it should be cleared away completely.” I think I’m the first person to mention 9-11 on this blog. I, like any other New Yorker, find the topic jarring and personal and can tell you exactly what I was doing that day. What I’m more interested in right now is what the project says about New York.

Throughout our tumultuous history, New Yorkers have demonstrated an inspiring ability to solve problems with a remarkable innovation that can only stem from the diversity of its inhabitants. Our thriving immigrant culture brings new perspectives, expertise, and methodology.

In the construction of the subway system, engineers faced challenges of terrain and water. 
Driven by necessity, they persevered and constructed a system that ushered the city into what I find to be its peak era of modernity.

The Depression hit. 
We built skyscrapers that remain today.

The Bronx was burning.
We rebuilt it and brought economic growth to a struggling city.

Not only is my city able to address its challenges, it responds in ways that push the city ever forward. The demolition of the Deutsche Bank building will mean a new period for Ground Zero and Lower Manhattan. Only time will tell as to what the construction will impact the community, but I’m certain that the construction will (as is only fitting in tribute to those lost) continue to push the city forward. 


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nor'Easters and Bulldozers


I grew up in a village on the north shore of Long Island called Eaton’s Neck, which is connected to the mainland (or so we call the rest of Long Island) by a narrow strip of land known as Asharoken. Asharoken Avenue is the only way into Eaton’s Neck as well as the only way out; we call this 3-mile, 2-lane stretch of road with a lot on either side of it “the strip”. The zealous police force tickets anyone going over 31 mph. It takes 15 minutes to get to civilization/commercial activity by car and 20 by boat. It’s not for everyone…


My house looks across Duck Island Harbor to parts of the strip. I see these houses every day as I drive at a pulse-racing 31 miles per house down Asharoken. Ever since I can remember, houses have been being taken down and replaced with brand new ones. Some fit the neighborhood. Altering the character of the neighborhood is a sneaky process. When Robert Moses cleared blocks and blocks of Manhattan, it was easy to know when to protest. How do you address the changing face of a neighborhood when it happens one-by-one?

The strip, as well as the larger neighborhood, is changing. Less of the business is local and almost everyone commutes into the city. What I find lamentable is the northern end of the strip. It was always my favorite part of the drive. The strip narrows, so there’s not room for a lot- 10 feet of beach to the east and enough for a dirt parking space to the west. The owners of these lots built wooden staircases (usually decorated with buoys or old lobster traps) that served as their entry to the LI sound beach across the road. Developers have bought up the lots and are constructing cookie-cutter homes that fill up every square yard of the narrow lots. 

To compound matters, changing tides and several severe nor'easter storms--
in the past year have wiped away the beaches to the east. It seems as if nature and commercialism are pushing my village to modernity. Change surely isn't all bad- I deeply care about my community and look froward to watching it grow over the years- but I hope it doesn't permeate to the spirit of my community of fishermen, lobster eaters, boaters, and good old fashioned beach bums. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New York is where I'd rather stay..

City and country are often positioned in contrast to each other. In popular culture, the city presents intelligentsia, culture, fashion, the arts and the countryside offers nature, farming, and “salt-of-the-earth” people. Drawing from the frontier myth and founding of our country, the American narrative romanticizes the countryside (the not city). Urbanity aside, we claim ownership over this idea of a country town where folks are hard-working and honest and nobody needs to lock their door. We know what “country” means. Cities don’t fit into the same neat boxes. They’re modern.
While freezing rural living in time may not be wholly accurate or fair, it is established in contrast to the rapidly evolving city. There’s not really a place for abstraction in our conceived notion of the country. But in New York?
With its masses of people, there’s no  unifying narrative of what New York has always been/is/should be. It’s about the personal experience – coming here with $10 in your pocket and one day owning your own business, going to Times Square, seeing a Broadway show. Art about New York reflects this idea of experience.

Hedda Sterne’s fittingly titled New York, VII exemplifies the unique nature of the New York experience. I was struck by the activity of the piece. Without a wide use of color, the painting exudes vibrancy and almost glows. Or perhaps that’s just how I feel about New York (sans italics). The beauty of New York, VII as well as New York lies in the daily renewal that the at times frenetic activity of the city provides.
City settings are so conducive to modernity because they remove us from nature. Lacking the waving wheat that sure smells sweet (when the wind come right behind the rain)  and the rolling fields of country life, the city offers looming skyscrapers that serves as hotbeds of innovation. Artists like Sterne are able to represent the city in non-conventional ways because living in the city requires a social contract of agreeing to break with tradition. It feels revolutionary in and of itself. Abstract Expressionism translates this social freedom into nontraditional visual art, facilitated by city life.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

Una buona giornata per Wells Fargo!

Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West is definitively modern in its fusion of two theatrical styles, one steeped in tradition and the other modern for its time- opera and country western. The story revolves around a mining camp at the foot of the Cloudy Mountains (California) and a girl with whom the entire camp is smitten with- the girl of the golden west, Minnie.

While complicated love triangles hardly push the boundaries of operatic tradition, doing so in cowboy boots certainly does. Throughout our class, modernization has been realized in an incorporation of the present (the modern) into existing traditional art form. Hopper’s address of new subject matter represents modernity just as Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder does.

N’ero certo! Han trovato il bandito! Una buona giornata per Wells Fargo!

Hearing English phrases interpolated into the Italian libretto can be strange. Several times throughout the opera, the audience broke into laughter hearing terms like “Wells Fargo” amidst lyric Italian. 

Sometimes, pushing boundaries by incorporating modernity results in the creation of something beautiful. Though thinking about dying children is not how I usually spend my Friday nights, I enjoyed Kindertotenlieder a great deal.


However, a 2008 concerto accompanied by video that evoked the sophistication of a 1970 PSA? I found Thomas Ad├Ęs’ In Seven Days to be completely obscured by the accompanying video footage that aimed to simulate different stages of the story of creation.

With that, Buona sera, Mister Johnson!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Isolation and the Modern

If the city never sleeps, where does everyone go? Hopper’s 1921 Night Shadows is featured in the current exhibit at the Whitney. Hopper illustrates a lonely vision of the modern.  Despite the construction of impressive skyscrapers, modernity seems to render us isolated. The figure in the etching is walking down a desolate street that represents a certain side of Manhattan. Walking down the streets at five in the morning is at once serene yet chillingly isolating.

In a city abundant with high-rise apartment buildings, I can’t help but feel sometimes that we’re living a giant complex of dollhouses. At night, when we’re done engaging in commercial and social activity, all the dolls are put back in their little boxes or rooms, alone. The teeming masses that breathe life into the city streets during the day go to rest and those same streets become barren.

Rather than cripple under the feeling of isolation, I find repose in these quiet city streets. For those who are willing to brave the ungodly hours of the morning and walk them, these streets offer a scene for introspection and reflection in contrast to their chaos during the day. The streets hold the energy from the day like a dish out of the oven.

Hopper’s vision of modernity as a state of isolation leads me to react with a more positive figuring of the city. In a modern city such as New York, the activity of the day can be so fervent that it necessitates repose. I like this quiet time in New York that allows me to reflect as an individual. City dwellers are forced to make their own lasting –in contrast to the fleeting connections that come from being a member of the crowd—connections. Living in a city necessitates being proactive. For all the city does provide, it doesn't hand you a community. I rarely experience the lack of human connection that Hopper fixated on, because I've found my place here. I feel no less modern for it. This feeling of place changes almost daily, but I think that's what it takes to make this modern city home.