New York City is at its spiffiest these days, so much so that sometimes when visiting, especially during these fresh days of spring, I have flashes of being in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. A hopeless nostalgic, the Technicolor contrast to the lurking, brooding grime of the city I grew up in sometimes tugs at me.
But such nostalgia is so last decade and cliché to boot. Now I look behind the illusory romanticism of the New York left behind. I recall the fear that reigned in public spaces, the desperation to avoid eye contact in the vain hope that this would protect us from random violence, the sense of brokenness that prevailed and to which everyone simply succumbed.
The truth is that the safer city frees up energy that once went into keeping your head down. Walking through lower Manhattan on a bright, white Easter morning, the grand, improbable miracle of New York leaps off the streets and cannot be ignored even by the best of the cynics. After celebrating Passover last week, I was now headed for Easter dinner with my Jewish brother and Catholic-raised Chinese-American sister-in-law, not to mention my nephew whose main identity at present is his chubby, heart-stopping smile. As a Jewish American Israeli Canadian, I mused over a certain kinship I felt with a fictional 16-year-old Indian boy in The Life of Pi, who happily worships three gods, to the chagrin of local clerics.
The East Village is full of hipsters but still has small shops run by Hispanic and Pakistani families, co-existing with artsy theaters, Mexican, Italian, Greek and Japanese restaurants, and a tiny Jewish bakery named “Moishe’s” which is closed on Passover.
Walking south on the Bowery (with a nod of nostalgia to the ghost of CBGB’s) a half-twist leads into the heart of Chinatown. This is a memory that remains stable as per my childhood: sidewalks brimming with a people-crush at 10:30 a.m., an old man reading a Chinese newspaper as he shuffles down the street among them. It is a world unto itself, peppered with other city-dwellers from all reaches of life. But just as the senses are taking all this in, one block westward becomes the heart of Little Italy. Like a stage set magically transformed between acts, the fogged-up shop windows bearing upside-down ducks have been replaced by open sidewalk restaurants celebrating long-gone homelands. The transformation into a European street café culture where each place offers nearly identical menus of pasta and pesce is poignant; the restaurants are not so much selling nostalgia as they are genuinely trying to recreate their beloved old country…or at least that’s what the grandparents and great-grandparents who built this set must have had in mind.
The division is not clean. Chinatown spills into Little Italy and vice-versa; there is a sort of block-by-block tug of war but it is gentle. Whether it’s the cleaned-up city, the consensus of calm on Easter Sunday or the mere illusion in the eyes of the visitor that I have become, there is a sudden stunning realization that coexistence exists, and it is beautiful.
WNYC/NPR radio was playing a late-life interview with Anthony Lewis before he died, in which he lovingly reviewed Court interpretations of the First Amendment. The next item is about Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the legendary Knicks player who grew up in segregated Atlanta and became a star basketball champion before transforming himself into a star sports commentator. There was a different kind of co-existence at hand here – between me and professional basketball. Any mention of the latter is generally a signal for me to change channels, but the story was so engaging, the rhyming charisma of Frazier’s personality so compelling that I was riveted. Every word became a message: sports were the crack in the armor of segregation, and he believed that if not for the game, the system might still be in place. As a youth, he was punished for low grades and made to play defense for a year – so he decided to become the best defense player possible. He insisted on dressing well, eventually becoming a prima donna, because in the early years he felt he was representing his whole people; when he went into broadcasting, he read and re-read vocabulary and phrase books to improve his language skills and set that example.
The connection between the radio and the scene feels stark. The commitment to free speech (and other civil rights), the interpretations, mistakes, re-interpretation and re-application of that principle is a civil religion indeed. Everyone in this messy city knows that this law reigns supreme over all those unique cultures splashing around inside. Everyone knows that his or her unique identity can flourish not despite the fact that American society houses other cultures, but by virtue of the principles that allow those other identities to flourish.
Every system that would deny groups their birthright of universal rights will fall apart. Whether it’s a basketball game or a camp called Bab el-Shams that is dismantled as soon as it is assembled, committed people will find the cracks; towering structures of injustice that once looked thickly impenetrable will come tumbling down.
America is painfully far from its ideal – especially abroad. But in certain sections of its own land, there are small corners that work. It is troubling to consider that this seems impossible in Israel/Palestine. Surely the absurd structures of injustice will one day (none too soon) disintegrate through a mix of political, economic, and diplomatic insolvency and a large dose of activism.
But will the principles of universal rights, some measure of Buber-esque humanism, ever override the frenzy of exclusivist, supremacist identity politics? Why is it so difficult to see that universal rights are not one end of a pole, with unique culture preserved only at the other end? Rather, in a world where cultures can no more be separated than waves crashing over one another on the shore, the former is precisely what guarantees the gift of the latter.