Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Embracing Change

“New York is nothing like Paris; it is nothing like London; it is not Spokane multiplied by sixty, or Detroit multiplied by four. It is by all odds the loftiest of cities,” E.B. White wrote in 1949.
New York is the greatest city I've ever lived in. It is constantly changing, evolving. Neighborhoods are transformed at a fascinating speed, ethnic and racial groups replace one another, and places of worship house several different congregations in their lifetime.
In the past thirty years that I've lived here, the city has changed at an unbelievable pace. Thousands of new immigrants from all over the world have arrived and foreign-born New Yorkers now make up 36% of the population—an all-time high. New York benefits from these newcomers, their courage, energy, cultures, and cuisine.
The city has both gained and lost. Many of my favorite places are gone: the small off-Broadway theaters and art cinemas, the sing-along bars, Zito’s Bakery, Café Europa, and the Village Gate. Times Square has been cleaned up and Broadway Disneyfied. Our parks and waterfront have never looked better and the city has never been safer.
I have become the victim of ever-changing New York twice. In 1988, I had to leave TriBeCa when I didn't have the money to buy the loft I was living in. I lived in SoHo for the following five years and had to leave when the landlord sold the building. Losing my residences was traumatic. Looking back, I don't feel bitter. Had I not been forced to move, I would have never experienced living in the West Village or Harlem. I might not have moved on with my life.
Some of my friends in Berlin, as well as some New Yorkers, still live in the same apartments they first rented as college students. They will never move because their rents are so low. When I return to Berlin and visit my old stomping grounds (I lived there from 1975 to 1980), many of the same restaurants and clubs I knew then still exist. At the Slumberland, a late-night dive on Winterfeldplatz, I found a former roommate (a member of my Wohngemeinschaft) leaning against the bar as had been his habit thirty-five years ago.
Living in one room with my partner for eight years stifled my creativity. In the West Village, we paid less than $1300 a month rent, which many of our friends considered a steal. I did not feel so lucky. I was tired of not having my own desk, tired of not having any privacy, and most of all, I was tired of living like a college student. Growing up, growing older, is about change. Forced to move, we move out of our comfort zone. Moving to Harlem has been a blessing. Once I had my own desk, my love for writing returned. I discovered City College across from Saint Nicholas Park and ended up studying creative writing there. A few years later I left my work as a school social worker to become a full-time writer.
Harlem has changed a lot since I moved there in February 1999. In the 70s, Harlem became a blighted neighborhood devastated by drugs, crime and arson, “a penal colony of poverty, drained of population, services, and hope” (Adam Sternbergh, New York Magazine 12/11/09). Thirty percent of the population, most of the middle class, had left. The new Harlemites, like me, often moved into abandoned or rehabilitated buildings. We did not displace the existing population. With the influx of new middle-class residents and their money, drugstores, supermarkets and a variety of new businesses arrived in Harlem. Harlem residents benefit from this development. They lost too. African-Americans are no longer the majority in Greater Harlem, but Harlem is on its way to become a truly integrated neighborhood.
Many of my peers bemoan the loss of the “Old New York”; they miss the gritty streets, the wild sex clubs, the hustlers on the Christopher Street Piers, and raunchy Times Square. They wish themselves back to the seventies, where they believe everything was better. They complain that New York has become too expensive, that lawyers and stockbrokers have replaced poets and filmmakers.
But young people from small towns from across the US and from the world over still flock to New York. Unable to afford the East Village and Williamsburg, they move to Bedford-Stuyvesant or the South Bronx. They share a flat with several roommates; they struggle to make ends meet, but they would not be anywhere else for the world. No one said it as eloquently as E.B. White (Here is New York). His words still ring true today.
“And whether it is… a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer…”

Monday, January 4, 2010

European Morosity

“Americans are so friendly. They talk to you, they smile at you,” Gaby said. It was her third day in New York. Like me she grew up in Moers, a small town on the lower Rhine. Geneva, Switzerland, is her adopted home. “Swiss people, like the Germans are not friendly to strangers. They always seem in a foul mood,” she added.
I’ve also noticed this difference between Europeans and Americans and still remember my astonishment upon my arrival in New York. White Americans physically resembled the Germans, but seemed a different species altogether. They did not walk with slumped shoulders; they did not drag their feet. They walked with a bounce in their step and held their heads high. They smiled at you. They were optimistic. I did not understand why they weren’t affected by history. Where was their Vergangenheitsbewältigung? How did they cope with the past? Why weren’t they burdened by guilt for what they had done to the Native Americans and the Blacks? Why weren’t they mourning their losses in the Vietnam War? Half of the world hated them, but they didn’t care. Unlike the Germans, they didn’t believe in guilt-ridden soul-searching.
Recently Dominique Moïsi’s book The Geopolitics of Emotion deepened my understanding of the differences between Americans and Europeans. Moïsi is the founder of the French Institute of International Affairs and a visiting professor at Harvard University. In his book, he examines the emotions that drive cultural differences and cause the divisions in the post-9/11 world. He shows how fear, humiliation, and hope are reshaping the world. For him both the U. S. and Europe are ruled by fears of the “other.” Both continents fear the loss of their national identity.
In contrast Muslims and Arabs are ruled by humiliation. They feel excluded from the economic benefits of globalization. Historical grievances and conflicts at home extend to the countries they emigrate to. This feeling of humiliation is evolving into a culture of hatred. In another part of the world China and India --with their economic might and focus on a prosperous future-- have created a culture of hope. Moïsi believes that “Chindia” will in the future come to dominate the world and that the U.S.A., with its huge debt and crumbling infrastructure, will no longer be a major player. According to Moïsi, Europe--stuck in the past and resembling a museum--won’t be able to move forward.
He sees more collective hope in the United States than in Europe and cites the election of Obama as an example. He observes that West Europeans experience more collective fear despite little real suffering. What my visitor from Geneva described as the foul mood of her fellow citizens, Moïsi calls the morosity of the continent.
His ideas are a thought-provoking and resonate with many of my own experiences. He is considered a leading authority on international affairs and I highly recommend his book:
Dominique Moïsi: The Geopolitics of Emotion, Doubleday
Price: $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-385-52376-9 (0-385-52376-9)