The infinite city, cont’d: never the whole story

Two videos about New York that nearly gave me whiplash, viewing one right after the other: almost like seeing the city’s conscious and unconscious. City of reinvention and progress, city of ruins and decay; the glittering surface and the unseen depths; what New York strives to be, and what it abandons and forsakes: both are valid. Both are true.

No story is ever the whole story. Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC is doing wonders, but singing the praises of the city’s public transportation doesn’t take into account the Transit Authority’s budget woes — which have led to cuts in both subway and bus service, and the shutting down of entire bus routes which families and senior citizens depended on, particularly outside Manhattan. Nor am I likely to forget that the improvements touted by the first video (and they are very real improvements) were spearheaded by a mayor who callously thwarted the democratic process, overriding a public referendum on term limits in order to get himself reelected to a third term. Shall we really embrace progressive urban planning at the expense of our democracy?

No story is ever the whole story. Underneath the city’s grand aspirations, and underneath even our everyday pleasures and concerns, lies the substructure of what’s forgotten: what Miru Kim calls the “deleted memories of a city,” its unconscious, comprised of spaces that were once perhaps intended “for the prosperity of the city” but are now “a sanctuary for outcasts, who are completely forgotten in the average urban dweller’s everyday life.” But neither is that the whole story; the dreaming and striving communities at the city’s bustling surface, in the full daylight of its consciousness, are real as well.

No story is ever the whole story. The story of the city this past weekend might have been the story of the annual New York Comic Con, or of the various commemorations of John Lennon on what would have been his 70th birthday, or of the festivities around the tenth anniversary of the Rose Center for Earth and Space. I missed them all, and went on an excursion with my family to the Little Red Lighthouse instead: to take in some history and a view of the Hudson River flowing obliviously past the city, heedless of all its stories.

No story is ever the whole story. E.B. White wrote:

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute… [it] is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants, so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.

And this is perhaps even true of 9/11, as horrible as that day was. Adam Gopnik wrote at the time, “we try unconsciously to seal ourselves from the disaster: people in Europe say ‘America attacked’ and people in America say ‘New York attacked’ and people in New York think, Downtown attacked.” (This was perhaps too flippant, and Christopher Ketcham at Freezerbox savagely took him to task for it — but this just proves the point that New York is a city of multiple experiences, infinite interpretations, countless lenses of neighborhood and race and class; yet, at the same time, a reading of Gopnik’s whole elegiac article shows that he was a lot more sensitive to the tragedy than Ketcham gave him credit for.) President Obama has said that the United States “can absorb a terrorist attack”; while this is true, it’s even more true that it was New York that absorbed it, and staggered under the grievous blow, and survived. And moved on: the attack not forgotten — never forgotten — but incorporated into its endless weave of stories.

No story is ever the whole story. But if I’m honest with myself, I’d have to say that, on a grander scale, this is true not only of New York but of the world at large. For New York is the world writ small — compressed, like a poem, as E.B. White wrote — and so the sensation of being at the nexus of diverse narratives is perhaps more heightened and more easily felt here; but the narratives are everywhere, nonetheless. And perhaps it’s this very multiplicity of stories — in the city, in the world — that is itself precious, and worth preserving.

More than any other city, New York exists at once as a city of symbols and associations, literary and artistic, and as a city of real things. This is an emotional truth, of course — New York is a city of wacky dreams and of disillusioning realities. But it is also a plain, straightforward architectural truth, a visual truth, a material truth. The city looks one way from a distance, a skyline full of symbols, inviting pilgrims and Visigoths, and another way up close, a city full of people. […]

The pleasure of living in New York has always been the pleasure of living in both cities at once: the symbolic city of symbolic statements (this is big, I am rich, get me) and the everyday city of necessities, MetroCards and coffee shops and long waits and longer trudges. […]

It is the symbolic city that draws us here, and the real city that keeps us. It seems hard but important to believe that that city will go on, because we now know what it would be like to lose it, and it feels like losing life itself.

— Adam Gopnik

(h/t The Daily Dish)

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