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Opinion
Letter from New York

Leonard Quart: A summer trip back to NYC

New York Daily Life

The lower Manhattan skyline of New York City is framed in the rigging of a passenger ferry approaching the city.

I am back in New York for a few days. I don’t have sufficient time to gain a full or nuanced picture of how well or badly the city is functioning, but I do learn a great deal by hobbling about and close observation, and by reading a wide variety of articles on the city.

What I do see: The tourist buses are full; cafes and restaurants are bustling; hotel occupancy rates are up; park crowds are growing, some with returning office workers, like Bryant Park; and there is a great deal of building going on. (Given that it’s imperative that the city construct more affordable housing, though, it’s hard to perceive there is a need for the many sterile and unnecessary luxury towers that are being built.) In Central Park on the Upper East Side, life seems as outwardly harmonious as its lush green lawns do. People of all ages jogging. Handsome pedigree dogs being walked. Commercial painters selling their mediocre work. Tourist groups exploring the park being lectured to about its history. A wide range of flowers including rhododendrons and white, pink, orange and rose-colored azaleas are in bloom enriching the atmosphere. Obviously, I know that the opportunity to sit comfortably in a privileged and beautiful spot is rarely part of the lives of a large portion of the city’s population, but those places and events exist in the city, and though having money to enjoy them is often necessary, there are many activities that cost little or nothing.

Still, before focusing on the city’s myriad and painful problems, I feel I should center on what makes the city a viable place to live and at times even exhilarating. As always, the museums offer a variety of appealing exhibits. I have seen a few, but the days of my trying to experience seeing the countless things that the city offers are over. Though I miss the “high” of seeing a play and visiting Chelsea galleries in one day, I know I have to be satisfied by what my diminishing energy allows me to do.

Clearly, unless one is young and never feels fatigue, you can only touch on a few of the 83 museums in New York. One of the exhibits I saw was at the Library of Performing Arts in Lincoln Center, and it involves a “walk on the wild side” with the first large-scale exhibition featuring previously unseen and unheard work from Lou Reed’s archive. Another was the Whitney Biennial, which runs until Sept. 5 at the Whitney Museum. This year’s edition doesn’t have a specific conceptual framework, but it has 63 participating artists showing works, which have many different aims and use many different processes and materials. The show may not be to everybody’s taste, but the museum with its stunning Hudson River and city views remains a captivating experience. And there is a floor with their permanent collection that usually changes some of the paintings on exhibit. But you can always see paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Edward Hopper and Frances Stettheimer on its walls.

The last place I visited was the free-to-visit, museum-like mega-gallery Hauser and Wirth on West 22nd Street, where the art star Nicole Eisenman filled two floors with a wide range of work using paper, sculpture and painting (exhibit ends July 29). The centerpiece of the exhibit was Maker’s Muck — a large-scale, partly kinetic installation imaginatively meditating on the nature of the creative process. Its prime focus is on an outsized plaster figure that sits hunched over a potter’s wheel, on which a mound of ersatz clay endlessly spins, and on the floor there are many discarded sculptures that the artist felt didn’t work. There are also arresting, expressionist paintings like “The Abolitionists in the Park,” which seems somewhat influenced by the great German expressionist Max Beckmann but less traditional in its depiction of gender and sexuality.

I don’t want to turn into a publicist for the city, and gloss over all its painful aspects. One simple statistic tells us a great deal of how difficult it is to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan, with the median rent surpassing $5,000 for the first time. What also hurts is that the Rent Guidelines Board has given the green light to allow landlords in New York City to hike rents on more than 1 million rent-stabilized apartments, making it harder to live in the city for people with less money.

Another area of concern is the vacant storefronts that permeate the city. There are 56 vacant storefronts between West 68th and 98th streets on Broadway in an area that once was full of shops and people, and still contains Citarella, Zabars and Fairway. So Victoria’s Secret has closed and so has DSW Shoes, and some blocks emanate an aura of melancholy abandonment.

Of course, crime and violence gnaws at public consciousness, even if in reality it is not quite as overwhelming as the anxiety it arouses. For the month of May, the number of overall shooting incidents again declined in New York City compared with May 2021. Still, the perception that crime is out of control dominates life in NYC. And our tough-on-crime mayor Eric Adams has moved quickly to crack down on low-level crimes (“broken window theory”), worked with federal law enforcement to intercept gun trafficking, and removed homeless people from encampments. So far, none of these actions have had a major effect on violent crime. However, I’m willing to give Adams more time to reduce the city’s crime level.

As for the city I know, the next time I return I will probably have different perceptions — hopefully, more positive than negative ones.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com.

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