By Leonard Quart, Special to The Eagle
NEW YORK -- I recently wrote about the sudden death of Marshall Berman -- the passionate, imaginative, and intellectually original public intellectual and fellow New York lover. His death led me to re-read his introduction to a book of essays," New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg," that he had edited with Brian Berger, which gave me a clearer sense of how he viewed the city. Berman's introductory essay is written in a lively colloquial voice filled with deep personal feeling, and rooted in his own experience.
He begins with a memory of his parents, whose life in the Bronx was far from edenic, but Berman feels their struggle was "mitigated" by the pride they took in living in what they said was "the greatest city in the world." Berman's own feelings echo his parents', since he believes that "the sadness of individual lives could be overcome by the glory and harmony of the whole" -- meaning the city. In addition, he maintains that New York could renew itself and survive -- whatever turmoil and social breakdowns it endured.
Berman's optimism and romanticism about the city do not mean he is in denial about its rampant crime and violence, the drug epidemic and the arson that turned neighborhoods (especially his beloved South Bronx) into ruins. He watches the city gradually unravel from the late ‘60s to the early ‘90s, and isn't surprised by the 1975 fiscal crisis. But he expresses anger towards the president's and Congress's hostility and contempt for New York during that emergency -- encapsulated then by the catchy, though erroneous, headline that President Ford had told the city to "Drop Dead." The fiscal crisis was ultimately resolved, but that did not expunge the desperation that lingered in large sections of the city.
Still, Berman could perceive that in the "South Bronx, at its moment of greatest misery and anguish," there was a "rebirth" of a culture and "creative energy." He sees in the rise of rap (it affirmed "the power of the word"), and the elaborate, colorful graffiti on the subways, an infusion of "youthful exuberance."
I must admit that at the time I had a negative response toward graffiti, which I saw as one more symptom of the city's uncontrolled chaos and lawlessness. But though Berman's positive spin doesn't fully convince me, for I still believe that whatever the aesthetic virtues of graffiti, it was an unwanted, unsettling intrusion on the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, he provides some of the strongest possible arguments for graffiti's significance.
For Berman, contemporary New York feels like a different place -- "more multicultural and diverse than it has ever been" -- and maintaining an urban life where the "dread" of crime has radically lessened. What I like about Berman is that he refuses to indulge in the nostalgia some people invoke for a time when fear and grit gave an added frisson to our street life. He appreciates the fact that walking the streets is much safer today. (Though it's still New York, and there are sufficient outbursts of violence most weeks to satisfy anybody who feels the city is too orderly, and longs for the ‘bad old days.')
Berman concludes the essay with a paean to the New York street. And despite being aware of how the real estate pressures and the inflated rents of the "global city" have transformed the character of New York, he continues to see the streets as a ground for vital interactions, "where a random walk could feel like a communion and brothel." Hyperbolic, possibly, but written by a man who truly embraces the street's openness, density, and dynamism. Berman is one of the keenest observers of the drama inherent in street life.
I don't agree with every aspect of Berman's urban vision, which tends to be more optimistic than mine, though he is no Pollyanna. Whatever our differences in emphasis, I recognize the depth and sweep of his urban insight and share his fervor for the urbanness of New York. Writing about Berman, I can't help but feel once more the loss of such a unique intellectual voice -- one that was able to connect the experiential with the theoretical and literary.
After reading Berman's essay, I attended the exhibit of another New Yorker with an original way of seeing the city, Art Spiegelman -- an artist influenced by, among others, MAD magazine, Kafka, German expressionist painters, and Picasso. His "Co-Mix: A Retrospective at the Jewish Museum" is running until March 23, 2014. Spiegelman is best known for "Maus," his Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel about his parents' survival of the Holocaust, his mother's suicide, and his conflicted relationship with his father.
A quick-witted, intense, preternaturally sharp Spiegelman spoke at the press opening about his work being dark and funny, which he says "stems from self-deprecatory Jewish humor." After you walk through the museum's galleries filled with portraits, X-rated comic books, formally experimental comic strips, sketches, and provocative New Yorker covers -- the enormously inventive range of his work becomes clear.
Spiegelman holds that "it is important to poke at stuff, and capture what lies beneath." So, in a New Yorker cover of a darkened silhouette of a ghostly Twin Towers set on a black background, he sensitively depicts the 9/11 terrorist attacks that personally traumatized him. In some cartoons, Spiegelman, frightened of a forthcoming difficult operation, has the Grim Reaper appear. In others, he conveys self-doubt about his work. Using the comic strip form, Spiegelman has created a body of work that at times reaches the level of high art.
Leonard Quart is a regular Eagle contributor. Hecan be reached at email@example.com