I left New York exactly fifty years ago and have only been an occasional visitor since. I lived in Brooklyn for my first 21 years and later returned for another three year stay in my fifth year of marriage. I recognize how great and how unique the city is, but I’ve never harbored the slightest desire to live there again.
Soon after we returned to NY from our years in Mississippi in 1968, we read an article by the editor Jason Epstein contending that you needed a salary of $100,000/year to live any kind of decent life in the city, today’s equivalent of $786,000!!. Granted there was a bit of hyperbole in Epstein’s remarks, but it was still the case that we, now a family of four were living on one very modest salary, making so much of what the city had to offer out of our reach. That’s when we decamped to New Hampshire.
Truth to tell, the city was, in many ways, a harder place to be in 1971 than it is now. (Always insert here the qualifier, “if you’re white.”) The streets were dirtier and less safe and the schools were in turmoil following the community control battles of the late 60s which also opened rifts between the Black and Jewish communities who represented such a large segment of the city’s population. Getting through a day in New York, on the street, in the subway or in your car inflicted psychic and physical damage that we now understand to be the result of chronic stress.
As our families’ footprint in New York shrank as a result of death and moves to warmer, calmer climes, we visited less frequently from our new homes in New Hampshire, Houston and Chicago, and we realized at some point that we actually knew more people in Portland, Oregon than in NY. Don’t get me wrong. There’s no place like the city for energy and for the incredible diversity you encounter in its public spaces, but we chose to partake of those pleasures in very occasional small doses.
But there we were two weeks ago, in the city for the first time in so long that we found it difficult to reconstruct the occasion of our last visit. Rosellen’s brother Phil died at age 90 in the spring and the family had scheduled a celebration of his life for a later time when the Covid threats had diminished – which, thanks to Delta, they never did. The event itself was in Forest Hills Gardens, where Phil and his wife had lived for many years and which was now also the home of their son Danny and his family. What’s hard for non-New Yorkers to grasp is that NY is actually a conglomeration of interconnected villages. The one I grew up in in Brooklyn was four or five adjacent streets of four-family houses around a single shopping street. Forest Hills Garden is an area of private streets whose houses with their peaked roofs and decorative timber echoes many European settings.
The weekend of the memorial was notable for three reasons. First, it included the finals of the US Open Tennis Championships. That’s a big deal in Forest Hills, which for many years was the home of this event, but even now its new location in Flushing is close enough so that hotel rooms in the area are hard to come by during the tournament. Our search landed us in Long Island City, only four or five miles from Forest Hills, but was yet another “village” pearl in the city’s necklace. I mention LIC because it so perfectly exemplifies the ever-changing and evolving urban landscape. In my youth it was an area where no one would actually choose to live amidst the tangle of industrial warehouses and workshops housing everything from taxi parts suppliers to laminating services. Almost overnight the area sprouted luxury high rises with spectacular views of Manhattan just across the East River and attractive waterfront parks to divert the new residents.
On a much more somber note, it was also the weekend that marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In the week preceding our trip our TV screen was filled with documentaries marking the occasion, including the searing images of the planes flying directly into the upper floors of the World Trade Center. It was an image I had avoided at the moment of the actual event because in my role as director of a school on the South Side of Chicago, as soon as I heard about the first impact, I circulated through the building asking everyone not to turn on their TVs because fifteen years earlier I had sat with my class of sixth graders as the Challenger space craft disintegrated after takeoff. I was determined not to be party to another collective trauma for my students. And now, on that 20th anniversary day we were standing in that lovely waterfront park looking south along the river imagining the trajectory of those planes hurtling toward the unsuspecting occupants of those landmark buildings. We are still feeling the impact of those rogue planes in every aspect of our lives. And here we were, distressingly close to the scene of the crime.
Finally, the last day of our stay in the city also marked the first day of the school year for NYC teachers and students. Since my first day in kindergarten 77 years ago, New York has held to the tradition of starting school on the first Monday after Labor Day. Over the years much of the country has drifted toward earlier and earlier openings, as early as near the beginning of August in some parts of the South, so other districts are already through most of a quarter.
I fear that teachers in NYC are going to experience what I’ve heard from their compatriots in other parts of the country. Teachers and administrators are reporting an unusual amount of fighting and other disruptive behavior, while teachers are experiencing levels of fatigue usually associated with later times in the school year. Could this be anything but the collateral damage from the Covid year?
Middle class kids for the most part were positioned to survive the year, although there’s plenty of evidence of damage and loss there as well, but it’s the low income kids of color, who were already carrying unbearable amounts of trauma, who have now been, as a friend said, doubly traumatized. It’s almost as if, under the weight of these emotional burdens, they’ve forgotten how to DO school. The teachers’ fatigue is partly the result of having to manage their disrupted classrooms, but they also seem to have lost the rhythm that experienced teachers acquire from their years of experience that enables them to conserve and expend the energy to make it through the year.
There was one completely unexpected bright spot in the visit. Over the years we have come to dread our arrival and departure from LaGuardia Airport, a most infuriatingly outdated and decrepit airport better suited for a failing third world country. And suddenly there has appeared a long-promised new terminal, a true work of art. It’s sleek, efficient, attractive and entertaining. When is the last time you’ve used that term in connection with an airline terminal, but one encounter with its computerized dancing fountains and you would be looking forward to your next visit.
Although your place of origin always leaves an indelible stamp on the way you situate yourself in the world, the ties have frayed over these fifty years. Even disregarding the way stations in Mississippi, New Hampshire and Texas, our 26 years in Chicago alone outnumber the total number of years I lived in New York. The truth is that I was just another tourist in the city that weekend and a tourist there I will ever be.
I haven’t even told you about the memorial service that brought us to the city. That’s a story for another time.