Big City in Little Pieces: An American in New York. (Cover Story)

By Kauffman, Bill | The American Enterprise, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Big City in Little Pieces: An American in New York. (Cover Story)


Kauffman, Bill, The American Enterprise


The enduring cinematic visage of New York City belongs not to King Kong or Woody Allen but rather to John Travolta, who in Saturday Night Fever forsook his family and home in Brooklyn to cross the bridge to Manhattan. On one side was clan, faith, family. On the other was the promise of wealth, glamor, and sex with girls who don't go to church and don't feel at all guilty about it.

Travolta's desertion of Brooklyn is presented as a graduation we are supposed to applaud. After all, a Manhattan transfer is the beginning of enlightenment--just ask those who manufacture so much of America's image of itself from offices in Manhattan.

With four of New York's five boroughs located on islands (only the Bronx is on the American mainland), bridges are in some ways all that connect our country to its most atypical city. New York has always been the antithesis of inland America. It is a port, with all that entails: prosperity, a transient and polyglot population, vice and depravity, a sense of action and bustle and excitement. It is "like a munificent dung hill, where every thing finds kindly nourishment, and soon shoots up and expands to greatness," wrote Washington Irving, who created Diedrich Knickerbocker, the Dutchman who was New York's emblem for so many years. (Today the emblematic Knickerbocker is Latrell Sprewell, the coach-choking professional basketball player.)

In the weeks after September 11,2001, the bridges between New York and America were fortified. So great was the outpouring Of sympathy for the besieged city that even inveterate Yankee-haters found themselves pulling for George Steinbrenner's mercenaries in last fall's World Series. At my village's crossroads, volunteer firefighters collected donations for the city in their fluorescent hats. I threw in a tenspot every time, remembering, churlishly, how in our time of need New York had done nothing of the kind for us. Thirty years ago, nearby Attica State Prison was bloodied by a revolt, which directly touched a far higher percentage of local people than the 9/11 crashes did in New York. The widows and orphans of the slain guards were not showered with flowers and quilts and charitable millions by the touched hearts of Manhattan; their gift was scorn and mockery, encapsulated in Al Pacino's chant "Attica! Attica!" in the transvestite bank robbery classic Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Whatever kindnesses we in the hinterlands have extended to Manhattan in the wake of that black day in September are emphatically not in return for past favors.

The visitor who enters New York via train is disgorged into the magnificently restored Grand Central Station, with its ceiling depicting the constellations, pinpricks of light that must substitute for the night sky Manhattanites cannot see through the light-haze and the skyscrapers.

In the 1880s, Manhattan was the site of the first serious debates over height limits for buildings. Critics argued that skyscrapers were unhealthy in two ways. In case of disaster, the upper floors were charnel houses (as we have lately relearned). And even absent fire or explosion, the towering structures block sunlight, contributing to a general urban sickliness, opponents complained. New York being New York, the builders won, and out of Irving's dung hill arose an urban cordillera whose peaks ranged from the impressive (the Chrysler Building) to the pointless (the Empire State Building) to the assertively ugly government boondoggle that was the Twin Towers, also known as "the largest aluminum siding job in the history of the world."

The outsider is still overwhelmed by the din and anomie of New York: the jackhammers and honking cabs and people who won't look you in the eye. (And, these days, the street banners and store window signs reading, "Fight back NY! Go Shop!") For every valorous fireman there is a neurotic hypochondriac straight from "Seinfeld" badgering her pharmacist for Cipro. …

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