Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: A graphic look at city via memoir, maps

Letter From New York


NEW YORK — Books about New York City come in all forms, are written from a variety of perspectives, and emphasize different aspects of the city's life.

Roz Chast is a native Brooklynite turned suburban commuter who has been drawing cartoons for The New Yorker for almost four decades. Most of her cartoons deal with the insecurities and neuroses of domestic and family life. Her figure drawings are simple and unconventional — no shading or perspective — and they are humorous.

Her previous book, "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?". a graphic memoir about her relationship with her aging parents, is utterly honest, poignant, perceptive and darkly funny. Her parents are unwilling to admit to their emotional and physical fragility though they can no longer handle their daily lives. Their behavior at times irritates, even angers Chast, but she also feels guilty that she can't hold back time and can't do much to help them.

Manhattan mash note

Her latest graphic memoir "Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York" (Bloomsbury) is a personal and practical guide to walking, talking, renting, and eating in Manhattan — her notion of New York. It is also a mash note to an endlessly shifting Manhattan.

The book, through her text and drawings displays wit, charm, and a gift for honing in on anomalous city details like the variety of city stovepipes, odd musty stores that sell things that you won't find anywhere else, and a New York specialty, the decaying building scaffolding that seems to stand for decades without ever being taken down. Much of the book repeats what any native New Yorker would know but what a tourist may find useful: a map of Central Park, the city's subway routes, and the density of visual information that one encounters walking.

It is indeed Chast's discerning eye, and also her unique voice — images and text — that makes the book distinctive. Chast's parents, more middle class than my own, still shared the same provincial attitude towards Manhattan. They rarely left Brooklyn, and when they did they never explored its streets. Chast felt she had to break from what she perceived as the drabness and narrowness of her world, and take off from Brooklyn/Bronx to Manhattan — her dream destination.

As a result, Chast views Manhattan as a place where boredom is impossible, and where among its wide range of attractions the Met offers " a sense of the infinite," and the restored Grand Central Station provides a "breathtaking" sight. It's also the only location where an outsider like Chast felt "in some strange way she fit in."

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Her book attempts no analysis of the city's ethos and problems, but merely offers an impressionist look at a city she exults in. Chast is not blind to the fact that the city is changing rapidly with much of its past disappearing. But she doesn't pine for the gritty old days when crime and drugs were omnipresent. What she remembers fondly are the cheap rents, which made the city a place for dreamers, artists, and eccentrics to settle in. It's clearly much harder now, as rents have become prohibitive, co-op prices are inflated, and many neighborhoods gentrify.

I like Chast's light touch (e.g., a cartoon of how downtown streets break from the grid pattern and snake in all sorts of directions) but she seems barely affected by the fact that Big Money reigns triumphant in New York. I wonder if her serene response to what is taking place all around her is due to the fact that for all her passion for the city, she still lives in the suburbs, and is able to detach herself and write her paean from a distance?

The other New York City book I want to discuss also uses graphics, but in this case maps. Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's new anthology of maps and essays, "Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas," provides 26 carefully plotted maps that densely capture varied aspects of the city's overflowing life. Well-turned essays by writers, anthropologists, and historians like Luc Sante, Taju Cole, Marshall Berman, and Lucy R. Lippard accompany the maps. Solnit writes that: "By a good map I mean an aesthetic one, a map that is an invitation to the imagination, a map that offers a fresh view of the familiar ."

The maps include one that captures the range of songs celebrating New York's neighborhoods, icons, and corners: from Broadway musicals to hip-hop, from Nina Simone's "Central Park Blues" to the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk," and from Kenny G's "Tribeca" to Tom Waits' "Union Square." Another map is a thickly detailed two-page map called "What Is a Jew?" One layer presents 2011 Jewish population statistics for each borough, and another lists sites of Jewish significance ranging from my alma mater City College, where 10 Jewish laureates graduated, to the infamous, Trump-linked Goldman Sachs offices; and finally to the Lubavitch Hasid headquarters in Crown Heights.

Celebration of city

In an essay by Sheerly Avni accompanying the map, she writes that the '70s may have been "the last great era of Jewish influence in New York." For Jewish religious observance is now at an all-time low, and intermarriage at an all-time high. There are also many more maps that depict the city's playgrounds and wildlife, publishing, basketball, and the movement of trash among other subjects. All the maps move us to do more research on the nature of the city.

Utterly different books, but both are celebrations of a unique city, one that for all its complex problems (from landlord and developer greed and economic inequality to a decaying infrastructure, homelessness, and failing schools) can evoke feelings of exhilaration for the cornucopia of experiences that the city offers.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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