[Photo Credit: Scott Heins]
[Photo Credit: Scott Heins]
That is, our past. Not only the refusal of white people to live with people of colour, but their conviction, running back through the history of the US, that any black space is not legitimate – that whatever black people own can and should be expropriated by whites, if they so desire it. During the second world war, this idea of white primacy sparked one of the worst race riots in American history, after white people insisted not only that Detroit’s federal housing built for war workers be segregated, but that all of it be turned over to white residents.
The riot was no anomaly. During the first world war, in 1917, another white-on-black race riot all but annihilated the black community of East St Louis, Illinois. A few years later, armed white mobs (backed by local law officers) razed to the ground the all-black Florida towns of Ocoee and Rosewood, and the prosperous black Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Scores of black people were killed in these onslaughts. Greenwood was burned to the ground as airplanes dropped incendiaries on the neighbourhood. Some 10,000 African Americans were left homeless.
These flourishing black communities were erased not only from physical existence, but also from living memory. Bodies were hidden, accounts censored and the survivors scattered or intimidated into silence. To this day, we don’t know exactly what happened, or how many people died.
One of the most vibrant communities in black America vanished just across the street from where I lived almost all of my adult life. Until a few years ago, I had no idea it had ever been there. Soon after I graduated from college in 1980 – at almost the exact time the federal government joined a lawsuit by the National Association of Coloured People (NAACP) against the city of Yonkers – three friends and I moved into an apartment on West 99th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
[Photo Credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times]
Not all of the old spots are gone on the Upper West Side yet. Yes, Brooks Brothers and Barneys have made the place hard to recognize from the one I knew as a kid. But Murray’s is still there.
Now, I never shopped at Murray’s–maybe I bought some dried apricots there once. Still, it’s reassuring to know it’s there. So long as it is I can picture my grandparents and my father. The past is alive.
We’re familiar with talk about how Vietnam permanently shaped the baby boomers. But if you grew up in or near an American city in the 1970s, you grew up with crime (and divorce), and this disorder was bound to leave a permanent mark. It was bound to shape the people, now in their 40s and early-50s, reaching the pinnacles of power.
It has clearly influenced parenting. The people who grew up afraid to go in parks at night now supervise their own children with fanatical attention, even though crime rates have plummeted. It’s as if they’re responding to the sense of menace they felt while young, not the actual conditions of today.
The crime wave killed off the hippie movement. The hippies celebrated disorder, mayhem and the whole Dionysian personal agenda. By the 1970s, the menacing results of that agenda were all around. The crime wave made it hard to think that social problems would be solved strictly by changing the material circumstances. Shiny new public housing blocks replaced rancid old tenements, but in some cases the disorder actually got worse.
Growing up in and around the Upper West Side in the ’70s and 1980s, I remember being afraid all the time of getting jumped. Getting mugged was something that happened to everyone, just like getting your car broken into if you parked it…well, anywhere, but especially Riverside Drive. I was taught to have my keys out, in my hand, a block away from home, and I was used to getting half-crazed, hard looks from people on the street…on every block, every day.
When I walked from my grandparents apartment on 81st street (between Central Park West and Columbus) and Broadway, I knew which blocks to stay on, and which sides of the blocks too. Amsterdam Avenue was not to be taken lightly.
Brooks references two other pieces in his column. The first, Life in New York, Then and Now, was written by John Podhoretz (son of Norman Podhoretz) in Commentary:
Nostalgia can be a treacherous mistress, because she glamorizes the past and downgrades the present in a way that threatens to make them both intolerable. Since I live only a mile from where I was born and raised, with only slight changes to the visual landscape, I find myself constantly under nostalgia’s threat. An indifferent French restaurant occupies the space that once housed the record store where I bought my first 45 rpm disc of the Cowsills singing the title song from Hair, and standing in front of it I split into two, the 49-year-old in the present and the seven-year-old in the past crossing its portal with a little brown paper bag in hand, excited beyond measure to get its contents home to place the needle on the 45’s ridge and watch it slide into the first groove, the sound of the scratches giving way to the opening blast of the Cowsills’ five-part harmony. In the same way, standing on a Thursday evening in front of the building in which I was born and raised, I am suddenly in the hazy light of an early Sunday morning at the age of six and managing for the first time to right the bicycle from which the training wheels had lately been removed and then wobbling my way down the block and around the corner and around the second corner and then around the third—and slamming the bike into a toddler who was wobbling his way forward in front of his building.
That memory is itself almost certainly a conflation of two moments that occurred months apart, but in retrospect, they blend high exhilaration and low shame, an almost perfect distillation of the bipolarity of childhood feeling. That is the ambiguous power of nostalgia, as the jagged recollection of hitting a tiny child with a bicycle still has the power to catch like a rusted nail four decades later and open a fresh wound.
The second piece, Gentrification and Its Discontents by Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic, is also worth checking out. It’ s not about the Upper West Side, but it is about old New York vs. contemporary New York.
[Photo Credit: Bruce Barone]