To La Jornada‘s David Brooks.
Which way to walk in an endless city? Where to start when a place has so much to offer? Toward the Hudson or the East River? Broadway or Wall Street? Central Park or Greenwich Village? Zuccotti Park or the Empire State Building? The enormous scar of Ground Zero or the Statue of Liberty? To see a little of everything or a little bit in depth? What happens if you walk with the nineteenth century veil of José Martí’s New York chronicles? Or perhaps using Pete Hamill’s glasses, the reporter who says that New York is nostalgia, because nothing changes as much as this city? Or maybe it’s yesterday’s memories, gleaned from reading the newspaper La Jornada’s articles about the Occupy movement, and you are affected by the tear gas and the cry of “we are the 99 percent”?
So then the city is not the one you are walking, but instead the replicas and the representations that you carry with you, and what actually matters to you is how to focus the vivid images you no longer see, but which reside within you like the lines of your palm, in which are etched the corners, the window grilles, the large angels carved into the walls, the skyscrapers, the exits to the urban labyrinth that are in the songs of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith and the models of identity that the folk song broadcasts from Washington Square Park.
You already know New York. It is described in the first chapter of Moby Dick, in The Great Gatsby and Manhattan Transfer, of course. It’s The Catcher in the Rye, the city as background for the mystery of adolescence; The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, according to Henry Miller, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, from the viewpoint of Tom Wolfe. It’s Truman Capote, Toni Morrison and Richard Price. You know that no one who writes in Spanish has surpassed the New York chronicles penned in our language by José Martí: “Culture is as subtle as air, and like perfume more vaporous than visible. But a sign of culture is a desire for it, and this is New York,” he said in 1884, having been “in the fiery workshops, where the country is forged: with those who wander, with those who fall in love, with those who steal, with those who live in solitude and inhabit it; with those who build.”
You have seen this city in a thousand and one forms in the Woody Allen films that came to the theater in your small town. You heard it in a song, Moon River, when it was the voice of a woman with a guitar and freshly-washed hair at the window in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The Big Apple is also an open-air film set: you shoot aerials, panoramic vistas, kisses on Fifth Avenue, King Kong cradling Ann, Broadway musicals, bank robberies, the neon lights of Times Square…
We all have in our memory an inexhaustible city in this cluster of islands bought from the indigenous people in 1626 by the Dutch and which they called New Amsterdam, but not for long. The English seized it from them in 1664 and gave it its definitive name. And since New York is New York, monumental, classic, modern, avant-garde, lyrical, Hollywood-esque, capitalist, imaginative and rebellious, sketching a route through its streets depends not on what you want, but on time.
In black and white
If you search for José Martí in lower Manhattan the nostalgia is in black and white. The majority of the buildings are no longer there, and you have to search for them in the photographs that were only recently made available to the public, online, by the Municipal Museum of New York. For example, number 756 on Broadway, the editorial office of Revista América of which he was the director in 1882, had a Victorian appearance that year but now is just a grey building.
Nor will you find the house on Front Street, number 120, the address where the newspaper Patria set up and where the Swedish artist Herman Norrman painted a portrait of Martí holding a goose quill—inexplicably, because the Cuban already used a metal pen, in vogue in the U.S. since the beginning of the century. It’s an historical irony that house number 77 on William Street, where he edited the most beautiful children’s magazine in the Americas, The Golden Age (La Edad de Oro), was swallowed up along with the entire block by the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, the bank that was bailed out by the U.S government in 2008 and involved in the origin of the sovereign debt crisis in Greece. But if you aren’t repulsed and you continue along this same street, heading south, you’ll find that the restaurant Delmonico’s has survived, where Martí celebrated his final birthday, on January 28 of 1895.
With the veil of the nineteenth century you can wander the most reviled street in New York, Wall Street, from the slave market to Trinity Church, as the Cuban Apostle must have done many times, and you will see why it’s the first city to have electric lighting, how it connected the banks of the East River with the Brooklyn Bridge, introduced telephone booths and began to grow vertically with its colossal constructions on the shoulders of immigrants who were Italian, Irish, German, Chinese, Mexican, Jewish…who arrived in waves and gave it the deserved title of capital of the world. For those reasons, Martí would tell you in his column for La América (1884) of New York, “the century of railroads, electricity and machines is ours.” And so interesting people with a fanciful talent for extravagance, or with only an immense desire to change the course of their island, could seek a life in a city that was prosperous and dangerous, but it was also inexpensive and full of opportunity.
Now that there are bank branches or a Starbucks on nearly every corner, and the glass towers for the oligarchs and financial sharks of Wall Street rise above the terraces of the phantom neighborhoods of that time. Nostalgia in black and white for you has the essence of political protest.
“Like chatty neighbors who poke out their covered heads after the storm, the leaves appear” in the Central Park of José Marti. Or so he said in another of his stunning chronicles for La Nación of Buenos Aires. You smile because the leaves of an araucaria scare the pigeon that came to perch on the equestrian statue of Martí, located on the busiest side of this park, the one on the Avenue of the Americas.
You walk a few steps and see the monument dedicated to the victims of the attack on the Twin Towers and it occurs to you that the most important day in the contemporary history of the city wasn’t the 11th, but rather the 12th of September 2001, when solidarity swept the streets and New Yorkers crossed bridges or were transported in ferries to get to their jobs, in spite of everything, and help with what they could, as if they felt that being on the other side of tragedy transformed the ethos of its inhabitants. People became friendlier, but George W. Bush arrived here and planted his flag: “If you’re not with us you’re against us.”
That flag as a sign of conquest and that hateful gesture is not New York, they tell you, and now you’re getting on the subway, it’s as if you’ve paid for admission to the great human comedy. It’s not just that you see the face of the world—you’re told that one time a passenger on the train started to yell: “Does anyone here speak English?” and no one turned around. Those tunnels that bore through all of the city’s subsoil, which harbor all of the faces and all of the languages on the planet, is the place where segregation breaks down and where you are certain that there is no apocalypse for you, although you live surrounded by its signs. The faces of the poor, rich, old, adolescent, black, white, those from New Jersey, from the Bronx or from Soho should be visible underground. They can travel, sitting side by side, the Wall Street yuppie who drove the price of an orange through the roof in all the markets of the world, and the man who lost his meager harvest and ended up cleaning the bathrooms of the Stock Exchange.
It moves you to sit beside a young woman who will cross all of Manhattan after cleaning a boxing gym. She tells you that she’s from Puebla, that they caught her when the tried to enter the United States at the border and later they released her, that she has two undocumented daughters who won’t be able to go to college and that her husband works in construction. While she converses she distractedly jiggles a book that she obviously was reading before starting this dialogue. Surely no one will believe you when you tell them: the title she has in her hands is The Power of Dreams.
You end up where you started, asking yourself the same questions from the morning. But night in this city can’t go out if it’s not in a big way. Between the Hudson and the East River, at the crossroads of the paths that José Martí must have roamed during the 15 most prodigal years of his life, you can hear a Bruce Springsteen concert dedicated to the work of Pete Seeger and recorded in Dublin. A powerful band full of banjos, trumpets, violins and accordions furiously intones the hymn of the civil rights movement, “Eyes on the Prize”: “The one thing we did was right/ Was the day we started to fight.” And this, which you hear with your aching feet, tells you that there’s something beyond the movies, literature, newspapers and even the history books. There is a New York that is only your New York.