I recently returned from a semester stint as a visiting scholar at the famed New York University, a renowned institution of higher learning in the US, and recognised the world over. Afforded the distinct luxury of allocated NYU housing on West Fourth Street, the entrance to the block was at the foot of Fifth Avenue, both streets carrying significant weight in the history of New York. It was both chance and design that took me there, and after a day or so back in my current place of ‘permanent’ residence, Istanbul, I reflect on my time and provide some initial thoughts based on my observations and insights.
New York University surrounds itself around its unofficial quadrangle of Washington Square Park, with its arch commemorating George Washington’s inauguration as president in 1789. Using a long zoom lens, the arch is visible from the 86th-floor observatory of the Empire State Building. The park was not always a popular destination for tourists, skateboarders honing their skills, musicians practicing their tunes or pot smokers exchanging their vibes. Farmland until the late 1700s, the area it was a burial site for slaves and immigrants at first and then later for the victims of yellow fever. There are as many as 20,000 dead bodies under the park.
Today, it has a newly-placed fountain that gravitates people’s attentions to the centre of the park. But the concentric circles of people looking in reflects both New York and the US in microcosm. To the centre are tourists and the elite students of NYU. They sipping coffee, listening to the live music, and watching or taking part in the entertainment. They are buzzing, humming and absorbing the atmosphere. To the four corners of the park, however, there is the homeless, dispossessed and outcast. They linger there during the day and sleep rough at night. These visible groups are often invisibly black. In many ways, this is America. In at least two of the corners, the herb is available for sale late at night, reflecting the fact that during the 1960s the park was the place to go get hashish and smoke it in public with little resistance from the authorities. As the US has relaxed its marijuana policy in some states in recent periods, New Yorkers have taken advantage of a more relaxed approach to cannabis consumption.
Washington Square Park was at the heart of old New York. In the early 1600s, Dutch settlers and freed slaves turned a patch of marshland into pastures. They called it Noortwyck (‘north district’). In the late 1600s, the area was called Greenwich, quite possibly due to an English settler from the place in London with the same name and from where the notion of Greenwich Mean Time originates. The upmarket townhouses on West Fourth Street were built in the 1830s in the cosmopolitical Greek style. In them lived the high society of New York at the time. Washington Square and Greenwich merged during the nineteenth century to become Greenwich Village. It became home to intellectuals, writers, musicians, artists and designers, and the bohemian culture associated with what became known to residents and visitors as simply ‘The Village. It remained home to famous actors and in the past writers and artists before they were all priced out by the super wealthy. The Village has been referenced in numerous films since the 1950s. The Cohen brothers’ recent Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) highlights the development of the folk music scene, with most locations in the film set in a depiction of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen lived in the area. It is even home to the fictional superhero character, Wonder Woman. Café Reggio served the first cappuccino in 1927. The coffee shop still sits on MacDougal Street.
In 1632, Manhattan, an island, was sold by the native Indians to the Dutch settlers for the equivalent of 1016 USD (as of 2014). In 1664, the British conquered the city and colonised it as their own without a single shot fired. In 1783, the British, however, were forced out by George Washington. New York subsequently became first capital under the Constitution of the United States. Soon after, it began to thrive on manufacturing, trade and commerce, especially after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which connected the city to the mainland of America, greatly expanding the city’s economic importance nationally and globally. The needs of capital required labour. This encouraged the migration of people from across America but, crucially, also from across the world. Wave after wave came from Ireland, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. It established the city as a hotbed of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that is still felt today. The skies are now filled with skyscrapers, but the minorities who work in the offices and buildings of the city live in the greater New York City area: The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, along with Manhattan.
The people who make up the city also make its history. Successful entrepreneurs spawned tremendous edifices to mark their fortunes but also to contribute to the vibrancy of the city. Architects and designers erected magnificent towers at the behest of wealthy benefactors. Reaching for the skies became emblematic of the city. When the Empire State Building was completed in the early 1930s, it was at the height of the Depression. But it did not stop the developers completing a remarkable art deco structure that sits at the heart of Manhattan.
As Wall Street became the centre of finance, banking and insurance it was the midtown area of Manhattan that housed the jet set and met their needs for luxury goods and services. One either side of Central Park, these tall constructions are a reminder of the opulence and wealth of those who came and conquered. Americans who wanted to get to the top did so in Manhattan. There remains a glowing energy in the city to this day. It is the city of light. It is the stuff of dreams for those who care to dream.
The great diversity of the residents of the city is matched by tourists spanning every corner of the globe. But it also a city of contradictions. As with all global cities, from London to Paris to Istanbul, there is a dark underbelly. Centuries of history lie underneath the pavements of Manhattan. Places and people long forgotten. Written over. While there is wealth and tradition, there is also poverty and disadvantage. New York City is deeply racialised, as it is in places like Washington DC, Chicago and significant parts of Los Angeles.
New York has always been the scene of tremendous political resistance. Home to the suffrage movement, it was also an important site during the civil rights movements of the 1960s. In more recent periods, it has been at the forefront of the fight for LGTB rights. And while Republican presidential candidates in the run-up to the 2016 elections spew bigotry and intolerance towards those regarded as most dangerous, from Mexican immigrants to Muslims from outside of the country, New Yorkers stand firm. As swathes of American Muslims were subjected to racist and Islamophobic attacks across the country in response to the Paris Shootings of November 2015 and the San Bernardino killings in December 2015, Jews, Christians and people of no faith showed allegiance to their fellow countrymen.
Senior politicians with both eyes on their electorate, not sound policymaking, emit hatred. They breed ignorance and intolerance. Their misguided utterances only fuel the issues – Islamophobia and radicalisation. It reflects the fact that the American exceptionalism, so championed over the years, has turned into fear and loathing. From the uninformed politicians to uneducated everyday people, paranoia and delusion go hand in hand. And this is the sadness that is the reality of America. What was noteworthy in the US and for the rest of world until the 1970s, namely public education, technology, science and research, has become the experience of the few, not the many. Reaganomics, much like Thatcherism in Britain, did away with the welfare state and introduced individual success as the overriding measure of the performance of societies. Without a robust alternative, it is how the rest of the world has reconfigured itself in the twenty-first century.
The DNA of the US is one forged in the furnace of violence and conflict. Sadly, it persists more than ever. Guns kill Americans at home. White police officers kill young black men or the criminal system incarcerates them at will. Obama’s drones kill Afghan and Pakistani villagers. In so many ways, New York has also been forged out of the inferno. Diversity and opportunity made New York rich. This lack of diversity, among people of influence, the politics of the elite and in everyday life, is making the rest of America a poor shadow of its former self.