no editor

Writing from a poetic standpoint–seeing events as metaphor and hearing dialogue as verse–isn’t always possible when I sit down to write, like now. Sometimes, the muse hasn’t arrived yet, but I know I want to and *should* write, just to keep the muscles from atrophying.

It is forecast to be above 50 degrees today, though the wind will bring it down to the mid-40s. No mind, I’ll try to get out on the board in Central Park, listen to William Orbit, feel the concrete beneath my wheels and the cool but warming air on my skin. I don’t want to leave a warm apartment but am always glad to be out there. Never disappointed after a session.

The birds are starting to be heard more frequently in the courtyard. In the “donut hole,” which is threatened by real estate development around town. “Town.” That’s what my parents called it in the 70s. That’s what “Town & Country” magazine calls it. Will “city”–as much as I love the future state of that idea and even the present energy of it–take away the donut hole and the sparrows, blue jays, cardinals and red-tailed hawks?

I am not going to edit this.

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Island of many hills

In 1811, the Commissioners of New York City approved a plan that dramatically altered the topological, economic, and (I’d argue) spiritual landscape of the city.

The grid plan was devised from maps made by surveyor John Randel Jr., and it is this plan that required the leveling of the place that the Lenape Indians had called “the island of many hills,” or mannahatta. Writers and designers stuytown_thennow-copyfrom Clement Clarke Moore to Edgar Allan Poe to Frederick Law Olmsted lamented the changing of the landscape and, in the latter’s case, one was able to preserve and re-create a central location in Manhattan that recalled for residents and visitors the island’s varied ecological wealth.

This grid, though, also paved the way for Manhattan to become arguably the world’s most influential city, by both monetizing its square footage and also attracting the world’s leading moneymakers and artists (Cf. “Triumph of the City,” Edward Glaeser), as well as the poor and new immigrants, both seeking opportunity. The GDP of the NYC Metropolitan Area in 2012 was $1.33 trillion, the highest of any city in the U.S. and ranked 13th even among countries, following Australia and ahead of the likes of Spain, Mexico and South Korea. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute ranks New York as first among cities for GDP by the year 2025, though only 10th in population, underscoring the density of GDP per capita.

In light of this influence, living in New York City became synonymous with “making it.” If you can make it here, sang Sinatra, you can make it anywhere. Success, money, and fame are the siren calls for Americans who move here; “streets paved with gold” and the opportunity to earn enough money to send some back to families living halfway across the globe or to start anew with one’s family here is the draw for new immigrant groups and even the poor looking for a job. Having a Manhattan mailing address, and having a (212) area code, are also synonymous with status. Living in one of the “outer boroughs” is akin to banishment. (Though this is changing, as Brooklyn has allure to many and is becoming once again almost its own city.) Therefore, a spiritual malady that infected the first Dutch settlers 400 years ago has been passed to the current generation who live here and to adolescents around the world who yearn to come: to live in New York—“to be a New Yorker”—is to be inherently worthy. It is to be assigned value.

The grid cemented this thinking.

Yet—and at the risk of abusing the construction metaphor—the jackhammer of prophetic voices now calling people, particularly Christians, to serve the city, and the spade and trowel of urbanists, city planners, restorative architects and landscape designers can re-fashion Manhattan into an island of many hills once again.

These hills need not be physical to be effective.

Rather, our spiritual wholeness will allow us to see that topological variety can be realized by ensuring that affordable housing is created in desirable neighborhoods. Likewise, any good ecosystem—one that is also beautiful—must be sustainable and symbiotic with adjacent ones. This points to the need for mixed use areas, varied architecture, businesses that are locally run and serve the needs of the community, and active Community Boards that allow for residents themselves to maintain that ecosystem alongside other ecosystems (neighborhoods). The “physical” space of New York City in the 21st century and beyond must be a place of varied urban ecologies the way mannahatta once was for the beaver, the bear, the oyster. The destruction of the natural habitat started long before the grid, when one group (the Dutch) presumed to “own” the land and “bought” it from the Lenape. This was a foreign concept to the latter group, which saw its role as one of steward, as “husband” of this topology and its natural environment. The Lenape and other native tribes, in fact, viewed their decisions in light of how they would affect seven generations out.

Today’s leaders have the same opportunity for vision and spiritual wholeness—wholeness that is mindful of what seven generations out will need and want.

Just as an unbridled capitalism of Wall Street would concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, so too an unchecked hand of the State (through city government) would redistribute that money in a way that concentrates power in the hands of a few. Therefore, our spiritual wholeness allows us as citizens to manage abundance well and to give responsibly, generously, even sacrificially.

This is the history and the future of New York.

The southern border of the grid, on and around 14th Street, embodies the old and new, the past and the future.

I took a walk there one day—from Hudson to East Rivers.

Image courtesy of The Architectural League

Fingers intertwined

Boy of three or four walking slowly along the #1 downtown subway platform at 86th Street. Blue and white sneakers. Jeans. His father three steps ahead.

The downtown express—always the loudest by far of the four trains coming through—thunders through the middle of the tunnel. Next stop 72nd Street, if it remembers to.

Father plugs his ears with his forefingers.

Boy makes an arch, a bridge, with his arms—his fingers intertwined a foot above his head, his shoulders pulled up vertically to cover his ears.

He continues to walk like this until the train passes.

If not now, maybe soon

“Seriously?” he asked me. Barely a teen, there was so much—conceptual or real—that he’d not seen or even dreamed of.

a bldg for then, if not soon“Well,” I admitted, “it is only a thought. An idea. I kind of figure that heaven will be something like this—that we’ll be able to create almost anything we want. So long as it holds to the laws of gravity and so forth.”

Our eyes caught, and we had the same scandalous thought.

“But,” I continued, “if it’s like ‘The Matrix,’ maybe we can bend the laws a little!”

“Yeah! Like I think, Dad, what I’m going to do is to practice all the parkour moves I want to do…”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Only…” and he started to walk away to pack his backpack for school, “I won’t ever get hurt and stuff.”

There was a smile on his face as though his hope were catching up to his dream—as much of a smile as he would allow himself when he made a remark that he wanted to linger on. He looked at me over his right shoulder as he walked to his bag. His smile was there. And when I watched him start to put his binder in his bag, his smile was still there.

His movements and steps were confident, deliberate, as though he finally felt his feet growing down to the ground.

photo: Bosque Urbano, by MAD Architects

Never eat the beer nuts

‘See that?’ she said. The white awning with faded green letters said, ‘Crocodile Lounge.’ I studied it through the window opposite our seats in the front of the M14A bus as it crawled east.

‘They serve free pizza with every drink. That’s why I like to go there. They have one in Brooklyn, too.’

I looked back at her sunken but still sharp eyes, which had hammocks of wrinkles on either side. ‘Is the pizza any good?’

‘Sure! Sure!’

There was a silence. This was toward the end of our ride.

The Crocodile Lounge is profiled in New York magazine and attracts also an NYU crowd, one of whom praised the establishment as, ‘cozy with a non-douchy atmosphere.’ I tried to imagine my new neighbor’s white hair and Army jacket alongside the purple college sweatshirts.

I broke the brief silence. ‘You know, I’ve been told never to eat the free beer nuts because everyone’s had their hands in the dish…’ my voice trailed off, betraying that I hadn’t been in a bar in some time.

‘No, no. They don’t have beer nuts. But the pizza’s pretty good.’

She was a retired probation officer who had worked in The Bronx and lived in Stuyvesant Town since moving here from Ohio, ‘to escape Ohio.’ She had always been intrigued with the criminal justice system and had enjoyed her work.

‘Were you disillusioned by the time you retired, or inspired, or about the same?’

‘About the same.’

‘So I guess you went in with your eyes open.’

[Unintelligible response with quasi-nod.]

‘So what do you with your time now that you’re retired?’

‘I’m retired!’

The hammocks appeared with her smile.

photo: 18spots

Bones for soup

My father told me many years ago that when he was a boy he often dreamed of being trapped overnight in a Manhattan delicatessen rather than, like most children, in a candy store.  This somewhat explains the other night at dinner, when my 5-year-old son said, “Dad, for dessert I want pickles.”

 020709cava_cavien

The other theory might be that Teak’s choice of the wrinkled gherkin over Double Chocolate Milanos – on which his two brothers were more than willing to take up the slack – could have been more about drama than Epicureanism.  The more exotic he can act, the more attention he garners, the more delight he creates, the better in his mind.  This, too, points, back to Dad.  For his 76th birthday, my wife Karen and I bought him a smoked eel from the Lower East Side, and my artistic bride proceeded to tie a red bow around its dried head, its eyes fixed ahead unblinkingly despite its gauche appearance, so that when Dad opened up the present, out popped an Anguilliforme whose expression was as startled as octogenarian watching Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.  I don’t doubt that Dad enjoyed telling the story of the eel more than he savored eating it, and he did so love eel.

 

My brother, Jim, two years my younger, was the Fickle One growing up.  His main food stuff was carrot strips with ketchup, and my older cousin Berta had to tell him every new food “tasted like potato chips” for him to give it a try.  Now, he is a victuals virtuoso, living down the block from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, where he is a regular at Sahadi’s.

 

Our family’s eating idiosyncrasies affected our dining-out behavior, insofar as generally acceptable social etiquette goes.  The unwritten rule was that none of us could order the same thing.  (Perhaps this is more common than I’m given to understand, but it was especially frowned upon in my family, almost to the point of audible tsk’s from Mom.)  So when Karen and I, Jim and his wife Rachel, and my parents would go to a restaurant and open the menus, there was secretly a pole position jockeying that would ensue.  Who’s ordering the bouillabaisse first, several of us might have thought.  The stuffed sole sounds good.  But is the waitress going to start on my left and go around the other way, or on my right with Howard, who I think I can convince to order the chicken fingers, and then come to me?  Karen, deep from the heart of Texas, would often order the beef, and was safe from Order Elimination, as most others went more unconventional.

 

When the meal was finishing, Freeman clan behavior was no less aberrant.  At a Murray Hill Greek restaurant, where many of us had seafood, my father once collected all the fish bones from everyone’s plates to take home and make into soup.  The waiter had to assist in the en masse effort.  At the summer lobster party at Point O’ Woods on Fire Island, where people were scattered across a dozen and a half picnic tables in front of the yacht club, Dad would often hunt for crustacean carcasses, his family’s or others’ – perhaps those even of houseguests of neighbors… “Hello, my name is Frank Freeman.  And you are?…  I’d like your lobster shell.” – to take home and make, yes, soup.  Soup was always a good excuse for foraging among the discarded.  And growing up during the Depression in Babylon, Long Island, with oily, hollowed-out men knocking on the kitchen door looking for a piece of bread and cup of coffee was also a good reason.

 

Recently, my cousin Berkley sent me a photo album with pictures of my dad and his dad taken eighty years ago.  There was my dad playing dress up, posing for the camera at age…nine?  A pirate, a clown, a prince.  There was also a shot of him at age three.  This would have been in 1924.  He wore what looked like a sailor suit.  White shirt with wide, dark lapels.  Blonde curls, shaped like those of a Hassidic Jew, sprouted from his temples and hung past his ears like harvest-ready vines.  His eyes invited the camera, but behind them there seemed to be sadness.  Or maybe it wasn’t behind them; maybe it was in front:  an unaware and foreboding look into the future that ended one May 1998 afternoon, or evening, or morning, or whatever time of day it was when he made it end.

 

Teak leans over to me as I eat my Caesar salad.  He opens his mouth as a prompt.  I fork a manageable piece of romaine lettuce with dressing and a morsel of grilled chicken and put the bite into his mouth.  I wait.  He chews and smiles at me.  He hums approval.

 

I look into his eyes, and he looks into mine.

 

 

 

photo:  cava_cavien

City from a garden

Considering a pastor’s frequent remark that the world began as a garden and will end as a city, I was struck by the sheer nonsense that this poses:  if we agree upon such basics as conservation of mass and energy – which I learned in 8th grade Physical Science with Mr. Dooley, the “P.S.” teacher who also sub-ed as an assistant wrestling coach and who pronounced “pleasure” as “play-zhure” and “measure” as “may-zhure” – if we accept these things and also that the universe is a closed ecosystem, then to grasp that a city – an amalgam of concrete and steel and plastic that churns out refuse as a plant does oxygen – can spring forth from a hillside of daisies, is quite an inhuman feat.

Reflect on it a moment:  view a movie from a sped-up stationary camera over the last umpteen years of human history and watch the cities sprout from molten lava and dust into the shimmering loci of creativity and humanity that they are.  One must, then, see cities as completely natural, as bizarre a concept as that is to Sierra Club lifetime members.

And so it is.  Only with God is this possible.  And not only possible but, we know, inevitable if we read to the end of the Bible.

My friend Terrance, from Montana, once told me he couldn’t square the biblical account of heaven with his own experience.  He grew up with Indians, hunting for deer and fishing for steelhead.  He told me that his Indian friends once chided him for wearing a down parka in the woods during winter hunting expeditions (the Indians all wore wool), because the parka material would make scratching sounds against tree limbs as they walked and alert the animals to their presence.  The wool was silent.  To the Indians, then, nature was most natural, city most foreign.  I wonder how Indian Christians square the concept of a 110-story glass behemoth rising up from a landfill of old bras, diapers, and tuna fish cans:  that this is in some way the trajectory of the world.  I wonder if even I can square that.

Recently I was on the subway and watched a young man sitting across from me.  He is dark skinned, handsome.  He wears a crisp navy blue Yankees ballcap, bill flat, sticker showing size – 7-3/8″ – still on the bill, like it is some kind of validation to cool.  He is aware of this.

This is the city.  This is the antithesis of wearing wool in the woods so the animals remain unaware:  this, rather, is announcing one’s presence and trumpeting it.

 

graphic:  El Profe