It's not a city I like to visit. Nor would I ever again want to live there. It's too crowded, too expensive, too noisy and too big for this spoiled, transplanted small-town Vermonter. But I lived my first and most formative years there, still read its newspapers and root for its teams. Whenever I speak of "The City" (as in "my city") friends know that I am not talking about Boston.
The zealots who attacked New York picked, from their own standpoint, the right target. For New York -- as the vibrant symbol of human possibility -- represents everything that they, by their own statements and acts, fear and hate. New York represents tolerance and change. It represents the coming together of the creative energies, dreams, ideas and ambitions of people from all over the world.
It's never been an easy city. To young people, who come from Podunk to test their ambitions, it's often cold and lonely. Racism followed African-Americans from the South to Harlem and Bedford-Stuy; but despite the insults, their culture thrived. The city is merciless to immigrants, despite the lady with her torch, bearing witness in the harbor. In The Uprooted, a wonderful account of the immigrant experience, historian Oscar Handlin described the trauma of people trekking across harsh lands and then, after a sickening ocean passage, being dumped on Ellis Island, not speaking the language and forced to live in crowded tenements and work grueling jobs.
Not all survived. My grandmother, uprooted from a shtetl in Poland went crazy on Morris Avenue in the Bronx. Maybe she had a genetic predisposition for mental illness. But the difficulty of adjusting to a new world probably triggered it. Most immigrants adjust. Whatever their religious, ethnic, racial or national origin, they assimilate and, as a result, the city thrives and changes.
When I was growing up the city was totally segregated, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. Italians, Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, blacks, and Puerto Ricans fought each other more than they mixed. To walk to my public school, which was 95% Jewish, I had to walk past an Irish Catholic parochial school where Tommy O'Connor would call me "Christ killer" and try to shake me down. That was then. I'd love to meet Tommy now and laugh about it over a beer. Living in New York, people are forced to change. Multiculturalism is not a movement, it's a fact of life.
When I was growing up most immigrants were from Europe. They drove the taxis and sold newspapers. Today the taxi-drivers and news dealers are from Africa, Latin America, or from the many countries of Asia. On my last trip I bought a kosher hot dog from a guy with a turban from Bangladesh. A Chinese man made me an egg cream. A Nigerian sold me a knish. Queens, once the whitest of all boroughs, is now famous for its ethnic restaurants. I would love to hear the stories of these new immigrants. The adults are too busy working. But I'm sure that their children will grow up to write or film the drama of their lives. I suspect they'll be like the stories of the earlier immigrants, the struggles of the first generation and the assimilation of the second -- what they lost and what they gained. The melting pot is more a process than a success or a failure.
When I was growing up my heroes were athletes: Jackie Robinson, Bobby Thomson, Mays, Mantle, Joe DiMag. September 11 was a dose of reality. Now we know who the real heroes are. The people who can be depended upon to do their job. The firefighters (when I was growing up they were firemen) are everyone's heroes. As a kid in the Bronx my friends and I would chase the fire-engines down the Grand Concourse whenever we heard their bells (they didn't have sirens then). That was what we considered excitement, and it was.
The police were something else. When I was a kid, they'd confiscate our stickball bats. (We always figured they gave them to their kids). As an anti-war activist, the tactical patrol roughed me up. Someone, likely police, broke into the office of the anti-war organization for which I edited a magazine, stole our files and made a mess. There's a thin line between the politics of anti-terrorism and the politics of repression. Given today's uneasy political situation it's conceivable that this type of incident could happen again. Yet what happened in the sixties is water over the dam. An ex-cop I know, famous for his honesty, tells me that the real reason that police exist is to help people. They certainly are fulfilling their mission now.
I never liked the twin towers. Too massive, too big. The Empire State Building, on the other hand, was built with beauty and grace. The World Trade Center doesn't symbolize New York. The people do: the cops, firefighters, and rescue workers, the people lost in the rubble, their grieving families, and the millions who carry on. People with crazy accents, all of them New Yawk.
The poet Walt Whitman, who had his most creative period when living in New York, wrote in "The Song of the Broad Axe":
Do you think the great city endures?
Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the best-built steamships?
Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d'oeuvres of engineering, forts, armaments?
Away! These are not to be cherish'd for themselves;
They fill their hour, the dancers dance, the musicians play for them;
The show passes, all does well enough of course,
All does very well till one flash of defiance.
The great city is that which has the greatest men or women;
If it be a few ragged huts, it is still the greatest city in the whole world.
That to me is the Big Apple, that to me is New York.