(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)


At first glimpse across the water?from Brooklyn or New Jersey?New York looks like a mirage.  Massive skyscrapers packed together so densely their combined mass must approach the weight of the moon, and yet it all seems to float on a wafer-thin raft of land.  A futuristic metropolis, perhaps, or a mythical place like Xanadu or the Tower of Babel.  And yet as soon as you set foot in Manhattan you know there is no more materialistic place on earth: a brutal concrete and steel labyrinth built on bedrock and cold cash.   But then night falls and you are surging down Broadway in a crowd, bathed in the dazzling neon of Times Square, or strolling down Fifth Avenue past the lighted Ali Baba shop windows, or walking through Central Park in the spring under a blizzard of cherry blossoms?and it has become a dream city again.  

For all its bravura and resiliency in the face 9/11, the terrorist attacks have left the city a wounded giant.  New York's sense of invulnerability shattered along with the Twin Towers, and the gaping crater at the end of the island a constant reminder that New York has become a world city in a darker sense.  But will this spell doom and decline for the once greatest city on earth?  Aw, c?mon, this is New York City we're tawkin? about.  New York is Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Bruce Willis in Die Hard"a tough guy with soft heart who's not gonna roll over and play dead just because a bunch of kamikaze Arabs crashed into the World Trade Center.  The very opposite, my friend. 

You can't stop New York.  And, let's be honest, it was?and still is'the center of the universe.  If you want to make a coup de th?'tre, write the great American novel (and get it published!), make the Top Ten with a bullet, create a work of art that will make others wonder what art is, or just have the wildest time you'll ever have on this planet, you've gotta come to New York. 

One blessing for the beleaguered city is that in the three years since 9/11 it has been viewed more benignly than it ever was in the last hundred and fifty years. For most of its history New York has been regarded with panic, envy, and loathing by outsiders.  But this is because New York?poor thing!?has always been misunderstood by the rest of the world.  It's a looking-glass city.  It's not just that the Bronx is up and the Battery's down; practically everything about New York is contrary.  If you don't get that, you've got it all wrong.

To begin with you have to understand New York as a kind of magical site that, like most occult places, disguises itself under its very opposite: uncaring masses, rudeness, haste, grime, crime, indifference. 

The joke is that these are the very things New Yorkers miss most when they leave the city: humidity, noise, the crowds?even the sirens.  The police sirens that alarm tourists are the city's alto sax solos, its neon-lit song, rising above the rhythmic honking, the staccato of jackhammers and the infernal grinding of garbage trucks.  If you believe this is an exaggeration, think of it the next time you listen to Rhapsody in Blue.  It's a symphony of New York noise?its rush and sweep, the intoxicating, disorienting, vertigo-inducing delirium of the city's raw energy'the horns are car horns, the flash and roar of traffic transmuted into a lullaby of Broadway.

Making art out of a dismal environment is one of the city's specialties.  The New York subway is the grungiest in the world (because the first to be built), a brutalist warren of raw concrete and flaking I-beams, but even those grim stations (now slowly being gussied up) have been transformed into spontaneous galleries of exuberant art by hip-hop artists tattooing trains and tiles with leaping-off-the-wall graphics.

Rap came out of the boroughs, making flinty poetry out of the grim projects and crack-infested corners.  Punk was invented at CBGBs on the Bowery, amongst the broken bottles and bums. 

The adept must learn not only to surmount the negatives of New York, he must?if he wishes to survive?learn to embrace them.  All the things tourists complain about, natives find addictive: the frenetic energy, the scale, the contrast, the tension, the crowds, the hustle?even the lack of concern?are what the New Yorker misses most when he leaves the city.  It is one of the odd truths about the city that almost any criticism an outsider levels at New York can be turned on its head by the native New Yorker. 

Take the ugliness, the filth?what filth?  The New Yorker lives in his own bubble.  He is far too beset with his own obsessions of the moment to worry about that discarded coffee cup in the gutter.   Rudeness?  C?mon, that's just New York style, as Mark Twain jotted in his notebook in 1885: "All men in New York insult you'there seem to be no exceptions. There are exceptions of course?have been?but they are probably dead."

New Yorkers don't pander to you'they think of it as a form of sincerity.  Hey, buddy, at the center of the cyclone, there's no time for decorum.  The impersonality of the place?   Those vast faceless uncaring crowds, that feeling of utter insignificance, being lost among millions who neither know you nor care.  The average subway straphanger is likely to respond to this self-indulgent pap with a brisk: "Get a grip!" After all, this deluded nonsense is a basic misunderstanding of how New York works.  Anonymity is a sacred value for New Yorkers, most of whom left their small towns specifically to escape the so-called caring censure of their prying, tut-tutting, busybodyish neighbors.

Alright, you may say, but answer me this: what about the fear factor, the ever-present menace, the muggings, the violence?  How can you possibly find anything positive about this?  But New

'...more freaks, eccentrics, weirdoes, and geniuses per square foot in New York than anywhere. . .'

Yorkers, like people who build their houses in the path of tornadoes, can even make a case for that. "I like it here in New York," says John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground.  "I like the idea of having to keep eyes in the back of my head all the time."

Anyway, you don't visit New York to see what you could find at home, you come to see something radically different?and you will.  There are more freaks, eccentrics, weirdoes, and geniuses per square foot in New York than anywhere else in the world.  It's a city of florid fantasies.  New York cultivates them; it has a boundless tolerance for eccentricity. You can become whatever you want'the more outrageous the better.  The composer Moondog (he wrote Janis Joplin's Blindman among other things) took up his stand daily on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 56th Street in full Viking regalia, including an operatic spear.

Andy Warhol'the oddest great painter in a long line of oddities of art?was the quintessential New York artist.  New York embraced him.  Cops, cabdrivers, and doormen called him by his first name.  If New Yorkers had ever voted for an artist laureate it would have been Andy.  A painter as outlandish as a Looney Toons character, he claimed "art was what you could get away with."

No one in their right mind moves to New York to lead a tranquil life among courteous and considerate people.  You come to New York to transform yourself?and you've come to the right place.  Like the archaic torso in Rilke's poem, everything about New York tells you "You must change!?  All the certainties you had about life evaporate in its ferocious centrifuge.  It may seem like tough love, but there is nowhere on earth you can go that will tell you who you are with more stringency than New York. Emerson, who otherwise had nothing good to say about New York (a sucked orange, he called it), at least got this point: "Cities give us collision. 'tis said, New York takes the nonsense out of a man." New York is Existentialism in action.  You go there to find out who you are.  It dismantles you, sands away the dross, reassembles and refines you.  A process that, naturally, creates as many monsters as it does saints, but so be it! says the New Yorker. At least you know.  If the valedictorian who won the music scholarship at Mamaroneck High ends up a key-pounding Dracula in a smoky bar?hey, that's destiny, man.

The city's primary social function is as a metamorphosis engine, and, as in the nightclub conjured up by William Burroughs, the price of admission is mutation.  New York is the place you come to be more yourself than you could be anywhere else.  It's a pressure cooker. Under the extreme conditions of the city the superfluous falls away, the molecules condense, the brittle shell cracks and what is left is you, the core you, the you you.  If, when you get to the bottom of it, you don't care for what you find " start again!

New York's mantra is re-invent yourself!  There's no limit to the selves you can create. Take the case of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccione. A dorky kid with $37 in her purse moves from the Detroit burbs to New York City 1977 with the express purpose of becoming Madonna. She morphs into East Village hipster absorbing the style and outrage of the Downtown scene and becomes the punk Alice in Wonderland character she will play in the title role of Desperately Seeking Susan.   "Hey, I'm a sponge," she says of her voracious appetite for new personas. "I soak up everything and turn myself into it." And she isn't kidding.  Her career became a series of ingenious self-transformations that uncannily intuit the public's next craving.

Richard Meyers comes here from Kentucky to transform himself into Richard Hell and invent Punk as we know it'spiky hair, safety pins, nihilist anthems (Blank Generation) and torn t-shirts with "PLEASE KILL ME? scrawled on them. Shelton Lee from Atlanta, Georgia, turned into Spike Lee in New York. Robert Allen Zimmerman came from a little Minnesota town to become Bob Dylan, the voice of his generation?along the way making up a fantastic past for himself; stories about ramblin? and hangin? out with Indians and sleepin? under bridges and taggin? along with old blues singers to learn the blues?all that wonderful, picturesque make-believe autobiography?inspired by being in New York where you can be anybody you darn well please.

People come to New York to forge their 'real? selves, the person they were meant to be?once they escaped their families and hometowns.  "Every person on the streets of New York is a type," said Jerry Rubin, as he and his fellow conspirator, Abbie Hoffman turned the city into street theater. "New York is one big stage where everyone is on display."  When you appear in this charged space you must perform or evaporate.

Walt Whitman, the supreme poet of the city, was so besotted with New York he wanted to make love to it, fuse with it in an eternal embrace: 'the beautiful city, the city of sparkling waters! The city of spires and masts!/ The City nested in bays!  My city!/The city of such women, I as mad with them! I will return after death to be with them!" Inspired by Whitman's raptures, the novelist Thomas Wolfe, came to New York from Asheville, North Carolina.  'the city flashed before me like a glorious jewel," wrote Wolfe, "blazing with the thousand rich and brilliant facets of a life so good, so bountiful, so strangely and constantly beautiful and interesting that it seemed intolerable that I should miss a moment of it."

Little 'ti-Jean? reading that in Lowell, Mass., said to himself, 'the only thing to do is go? and follow in the footsteps of his idol, Thomas Wolfe. And he did, and became Jack Kerouac king of the Beats, and, from the moment of his arrival saw New York as a wide-screen movie, swimming through the city like the eye of an ecstatic camera.  The neon signs in Times Square were, "a blazing daytime in themselves, a magical universe of lights sparkling and throbbing with the intensity of a flash explosion."?  Kerouac saw the tenements of Paradise Alley as a symbol of the overflowing too-muchness of New York.

They were 'something straight out of Dostoevski's Petersburg slums," he wrote in The Subterraneans,  'the wash hung out in the afternoon the great symphony of Italian mothers, children, fathers BeFinneganing and yelling from stepladders, smells, cats mewing, Mexicans, the music from all the radios whether bolero of Mexican or Italian tenor of spaghetti-eaters or loud suddenly turned up symphonies of Vivaldi harpsichord intellectuals performances boom blam the tremendous sound of it which I then came to hear all summer wrapt in the arms of my love"."

The city's seductive charms were enough to make the punctilious E. B. White, the classic New Yorker writer, quite giddy: 'the siren south is well enough, but New York, at the beginning of March, is a hoyden we would not care to miss?a drafty wench, her temperature up and down, full of bold promises and dust in the eye."

Ever since Baudelaire, poets have been as much in love with cities as they once were with windswept moors and picturesque ravines, but few have matched New York's bards in their eulogies, from Whitman's cosmic visions to Hart Crane's epic to the Brooklyn Bridge to e.e. cummings's delight in a snowstorm in Washington Square park to Ginsberg's Blakean epiphanies to Frank O?Hara's lyrical evocations of meandering about the city:  "Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon [O?Hara writes of himself] has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations, or pondering more deeply has withdrawn to a darkened ware- or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth, while never forgetting to eat Lunch his favorite meal."

Pop songs spilling out of the Brill Building, New York's inspired Tin Pan Alley, are different sorts of poems, little hymns to New York:  the Drifters? Under the Boardwalk and Up On the Rooftop, Wilson Pickett's Funky Broadway, John Sebastian's Summer in the City, and  Paul Simon's The 59th Street Bridge Song. Even the darker sonnets like Hendrix's Crosstown Traffic, The Pogues? Fairytale of New York, or Dylan's Positively 4th Street have become indelibly imprinted on our internal MP3-players. 

Catching the iridescence of squalor (what the French call nostalgie de la boue) has always been a specialty of city writers. William Burroughs? junkies traverse the subterranean city like hungry

'. . .New York
is by nature
a city of jazz. . .'

ghosts, the best minds of Allen Ginsberg's generation "destroyed by madness, drag themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," while Lou Reed, New York's own Prince of Darkness, savors the perversity and doom of the lower depths as if it were cotton candy.

New York is by nature a city of jazz, because jazz best expresses the city's multiphrenic personality.  Bebop saints Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis gave birth to the cool in the New York night.  New Yorkers even talk in a jazz patois, a street polyphony of overlapping dialogue (elsewhere known as not letting the other person finish).  The skyline itself has been compared to bebop improvisation.  "In jazz each player goes his own way," John Kouwenhoven wrote in The Beer Can by the Highway, "inventing rhythmic and melodic patterns which, superficially, seem to have as little relevance to one another as the United Nations building does to the Empire State. And yet the outcome is a dazzlingly precise creative unity."

In the fifties this gotham counterpoint became the lingua franca of New York art?from Jackson Pollock's swirling drips to Kerouac's spontaneous prose to the octave-leaping language of bebop?as if the city itself were speaking in tongues, and its inhabitants, hooked into some giant electrical circuit, lived in a future space where language, gesture, customs obeyed new laws of physics.

To live in New York you have to reboot yourself.  You even have to learn how to walk all over again?or get trampled.  The clip, the pace, the momentum of the street is frantic. The way New Yorkers walk down the street is like an army marching in double-time. Certain avenues are to be avoided if one wants to dodge collisions with visiting pedestrians who haven't mastered the New York City stride. Fifth Avenue can be especially treacherous and inconvenient to the native because of the odd strolling and gawking habits of visitors. Tourists!  Watch your step! they say to themselves.  Citizens, be on the alert, there's people actually looking up!

In the wake of 9/11 something unexpected happened: the denizens of the formerly cynical and famously indifferent city realized they urgently needed one another.  And since that time a new sense of camaraderie has developed'the way Londoners came together in the blitz or Berliners in the rubble after WWII.  Previously New Yorkers had felt they were too sophisticated and their city too big to indulge in the civic solidarity that small towns pride themselves on.  But New York is actually a collection of small towns, it's a city of neighborhoods, and people began from the moment of impact to become aware of their neighbors, to become dependent on them.  The attacks have created a new responsiveness to the connections New Yorkers have to one another.  People actually began to talk to each other?not face to face at first, that would be too much to ask?but on the Internet, through community sites like,, and

Even those who absolutely abominate New York, end up begrudgingly?or inadvertently'singing its praises.  They just can't help themselves?it's a living, breathing superlative. It flabbergasts, makes you speechless. You can't put it into words (although it has never stopped anyone from trying).  'the glamour of it all!  New York!  America!" Charlie Chaplin exulted on the wonders of being in Manhattan in his movie, A King in New York.  Just thinking about it drove Salvador Dali into an ancient delirium: "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!"

"New York is what Paris was in the twenties," as John Lennon once said.  '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."

It's 'the Big Apple,? (that chafing phrase drilled itself into our heads), a world city, the planet in parvo, the center of the universe, the omphalos (bellybutton) of the world.  34th Street and 14th Street are international souks with muchachos selling plastic sandals from Taiwan, turbaned Hindus hustling black velvet paintings of dogs playing billiards, Hassids haggling over knock-off Rolexes, and young women in pink saris beckoning you into their shops with preposterous promises of haute-couture labels, as if here on filthy, funky 14th street there were some magic portal to the great fashion houses of Paris.  Arabs, Ethiopians, Ugandans'trading, bickering, bargaining.  There are even plaid-pelted Canadians selling day-glo Christmas trees in July.

And because it's the biggest, the baddest, the wildest, and the mostest, you've gotta be there or be square.  Actors don't get taken seriously until they've performed on Broadway or Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway.  Even the great ones?Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe?come to New York to get their chops.   Natives like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Woody Allen have become walking, talking, spritzing incarnations of New York.

"Everything in New York seems more real," says Gwyneth Paltrow, "because in New York everything happens in real time."  There's the sensation of urgency about any activity in New York, as if time were somehow contracting or the world about to end.  An eternal howling NOW, a hectic climate familiar from scenes of volcanic disasters. A crisis unmasks everyone, and New York is a city in state of permanent emergency, a continually erupting volcano. Lulls are considered ominous and unnatural. "When the typewriter [an ancient keyboard device] stops in a New York office," John Dos Passos wrote over 50 years ago, "everybody's embarrassed; men start to quarrel or to make love to the stenographer or drop lighted cigarettes in the wastebasket."

There's the sense that if New York ever stopped it might affect the rotation of the earth, hemlines in Paris or the price of blowfish in Indonesia.  Like Bob Dylan said, in the "60s, "You didn't ever want to go to sleep because you might miss something."  Even back in the mid-nineteenth century New York had the reputation of the city that never sleeps.  "Compulsivity may overtake you so you stay up all night drinking, talking and making the most out of it," Mark Twain wrote in 1867.  "Like the early pioneers who went west, you sort of want to see what is out there. You want to meet up with strange and unusual like-minded travelers of the night. That seems to be the easy part. Someone is there every time you turn around. New York never wakes up because it never went to sleep. Instead each morning you sort of join the program already in progress."

New York's skyscrapers are emblems of its vertical ambitions as they push and shove upward in a lunge of hubris, greed, and capitalist narcissism. But in the process something strange and beautiful happens: out of this clamoring forest of expensive office space emerges a transcendent sense of space that has affinities with the spiritual yearning of gothic cathedrals.  Their stepped-back profiles may have been the unintended consequence of the 1916 zoning laws, but New York's classic skyscrapers are monuments of supreme grace and elegance: that art deco diva, the Chrysler building; the sleek moderne Empire State Building, a cool aristocrat of skyscrapers; the anorexic Flatiron building.  The svelte Lever and Seagram buildings are throwing a chic International Style cocktail party on Park Avenue while the Guggenheim Museum holds a s?ance to art in its inverted ziggurat.

Resentment boils up in the outsider as he endures the New Yorker's insolent litany of superlatives: "Not just the place to be, it's the only place to be." "Outside of New York everywhere is Podunk." The arrogance of the New Yorker inflames you.  But it's not just "we're the biggest and best," not just naked competitiveness?well, not only competitiveness?it's because city dwellers think of Manhattan as a supernatural place. Not the hallowed city on the hill of the Pilgrims perhaps, but still a city with its own numinous sense of place.  Perverse, ingenious, delighting in everything new, ruthlessly indiscriminate?an island bound by two rivers, its fish-shaped land carved out by some sly mercurial god to be his eternal abode. 

New York makes sense only as an evolutionary mechanism, a transporter system for the daily absorbing and nightly redeploying of ideas, images, money, merchandise, sex, intelligence, chutzpah, and flash, using its own haywire energy as its turbine.  It's a whirling dervish of a city, and one gets the feeling that if it weren't held down by its graph-paper street grid, New York's centripetal force might simply spin it off into the Atlantic Ocean.

But the true meaning of Ground Zero is that New York has to begin all over again. The city famous for transforming others has to transform itself.  The great colossus knows it must reinvent itself but is in somewhat of a quandary how to accomplish this. 

As brutal and monumental as it may seem to the casual tourist, New York was always an imaginary place, the vision of a great world city.  It's a work in progress.  Like the old New York saying, "It'll be a great place when they finish it."  And now, more than ever New York needs dreamers who, like Alice, can entertain ten impossible things before breakfast, and believe in them fiercely enough to be able to rebuild the polycephalic dream of New York.  Because that rose in Ben E. King's Spanish Harlem "growing in the street right up through the concrete, but soft and sweet and dreamin?? is the very essence of New York spirit.  ##



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