Leonard A. Quart: What I love about New York



New York magazine, founded in 1968, is a slick, chic, lively, successful magazine that I read infrequently. It has published a number of first-rate writers depicting and dissecting American and New York culture and politics over the years, such as Tom Wolfe, Norah Ephron, Michael Tomasky, Jimmy Breslin, John Heilemann, and most recently, the wide-ranging and gifted political/cultural columnist, Frank Rich.

Reading New York, one feels its frequent sharp critical writing and reportage is often secondary to the magazine's commitment to high-end consumption, appealing especially to status-conscious or brand-obsessed Manhattanites and upscale suburbanites. The magazine compiles a variety of best lists each year, like the top 1,160 physicians in the area from dermatologists to surgeons, or others that feature the best repair shops, shopping, dining options in the city. Clearly, the lists aren't aimed at the residents of New York's public housing or middle class outer borough families, but at people who are able to live extremely well, and want to acquire the best of everything.


Recently, I read its eighth annual list of reasons to love the city. The list cites the city's indomitable will ("Red Hook wouldn't let Red Hook go under" during Storm Sandy); its cultural riches ("the state of playwriting in the city is very strong"); the many celebrities that reside here, including Hillary Clinton, whose return to New York will make the city "again the nation's capital of presidential ambition"; and our uniqueness ("that the boxing coach at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn is a resolutely right-wing ex-convict with a doctorate in literature from CUNY and has written five books of poetry").

I too love New York, but my reasons for loving the city are markedly different from those of New York Magazine. I am not interested in seeking out urban oddities or cataloguing what makes us a hip and powerful city. I am much more concerned about a deluge of sterile chain stores that is threatening to drown out much of what makes New York special to me.

For example, I still use a drug store (Whitney Chemists on University Place) and an appetizing store (Russ and Daughters on East Houston) where, being a frequent customer, and knowing the people behind the counter, I often joke, engage in small talk, and even at times have a bit of personal conversation with them. These shops evoke an older New York when stores were organically rooted in neighborhoods. They are intimate places (despite Russ and Daughters being a tourist magnet) that are warm and aesthetically pleasing. I hope that these stores will endure, but in much of the country they have vanished.

There are the city's iconic, plain and efficient wooden water towers that my daughter, a poet/journalist, described as "sentinels of a time unremarked." I sometimes look up at them, surrounded by New York's sky when it is blazing red or blue/pink at dusk. The towers then seemingly invoke a feeling of one's solitude in the cosmos. Their presence consoles me.

I love the winding pattern of streets like the West Village's Morton and Bedford, which are filled with Federal-style townhouses and ivy-covered brownstones. These streets are picturesque, serene, and totally urban. And although more financial industry and media types now live on these streets than struggling writers, strolling through them always reminds me that it was once was a bohemian redoubt inhabited by Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Baldwin, Eugene O'Neill and e.e. Cummings as well as other now famous artists, musicians and writers.

For the film critic or the cinema-lover there is no better place than New York, with the possible exception of Paris. In the Village one can choose from a cornucopia of theaters and films, from multiplexes showing major Hollywood releases to theaters showing first run art films, American independents, documentaries, and a few, such as the Film Forum, that offer a range of repertory series, including ones on film noir, silent comedy, and Japanese directors.

I love that New York is always a city in flux, but I also know that constant change has a powerful underside. It can mean a ruthless destruction of the past, turning the city into an island of characterless luxury. But in a neighborhood like Brooklyn's Bushwick, which by the late 1970s had turned into an impoverished wasteland of empty lots and shops, burned out buildings, and rampant drug dealing, change has been positive. As nearby Williamsburg has grown into a high rent area, Bushwick has become a magnet for artists and hipsters, who have moved into converted warehouse lofts, brownstones, and other renovated buildings. Though there is still a great deal of poverty and Bushwick remains relatively dangerous, its partial transformation has made it a more interesting and livable area.


Finally, I like solitary walking where I can contemplate the city and my own thoughts without being intruded upon. But what's necessary to me at the same time are thoroughfares thronged with people. Their varied faces and histories -- personal and collective -- evoke the New York experience in all its drama, layering and complication.

Although I have left out of my personal list the city's famous parks, museums, theaters, galleries and unique neighborhoods, that I embrace as well. Of course, New York also has a dark side and many things to despise, but I have left those matters for somebody else to catalogue.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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