Friday, May 17, 2013

Noon in Manhattan

That's the time as I begin a long-overdue post on my writers blog. I'm staring out at the brick walls across a narrow street in Tribeca, a neighborhood of old factories near the Holland Tunnel entrance that is being rapidly gentrified and becoming some of the most expensive real estate on the island. From the corner windows, I can see down to the Hudson River, where I will walk soon and long on a lovely spring day in Manhattan.

 I've loved this city for a long time. Its buzz is seductive, intense. It's a cultural mecca, and it is also the history of immigrant America, once wild and lawless, always a bit out of control, an entryway for so many of our ancestors. Mine, on both sides of the family, passed through its port to set foot in "America" before heading west where the jobs existed, where a world could still be created out of hard labor and a whole lot of suffering and loss.

Manhattan has also become a city for the rich, and maybe also the very poor who are still rent stabilized and able to access needed services. For the rest of us, it's a great place to visit, but impossible to stay.
Only a friend's apartment makes it possible for me to be here right now for a short spell.

Kitty corner from this building, a parking lot that was here every other time I stayed at this place is gone and the building next door is being gutted. This, too, is New York: taking it apart, building it anew, over and over again. When the reconstruction is done, more multi-million dollar condos will be for sale.

You probably saw "Gangs of New York," but it is stunning to stand around the Five Points and think of what once went on in that tiny fragment of the island as immigrants came off the boats, and so many became stuck there.

The Five Points neighborhood was squalid, disease-ridden, corrupt, violent, chaotic, and ruled by cutthroat gangs.

We forget sometimes that the United States was born of such things. We may like all that cultured history of Mt. Vernon and Monticello (still haunted by their own secrets of the nation's birth, like slavery), but what really built this country, the people who built it, the spirit from which it was built, has deeper roots in a place like Five Points, and the Indian Wars, and the madness of the Gold Rush, and Jesse James, and slavery, and conquest, then we like to believe or know. I certainly didn't learn that real history in school growing up.

This matters to me as I work through the first revisions of my more-than-memoir, my look at the Myth of the American Dream through the lens of the multi-generational history of my family. When I contemplate what George Packer in his new book calls, "The Unwinding," and others the "unraveling" of the nation's social contract, it's another way of talking about the myth's end. Like everything else in history and beyond history, the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy used up becomes energy that is no longer available.
We have wound down our available energy for that dream very quickly because its basic premise is completely unreal - that the dream of a kind of freedom based on endless frontiers, expansion, affluence, conquest of all limits, an ever-growing economy, along with indomitable human ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, is the meaning of the universe, the center of the cosmos, and will advance forward forever and ever, dominated forever and ever by a mere nation among nations that holds itself superior to all others.
Except that none of this is true anymore, if it ever was - and the last part never was. Always and forever we were set up to run into limits, inexorably, and to pay the price of this kind of national culture - which always had a basic structure of injustice and violence at its core. It was not created without those things, and it does not exist without those things, and it can't keep trying to hold that myth in place without those things.

from the ruins...
My friends told me about what it was like when Hurricane Sandy hit. This part of the city, the whole island below 34th St., went dark as the waters rose. They are just a couple of blocks from the Hudson River. The water came right up to the street below me here, right to the intersection, sparing their building, but not those from here down to West Street. They sat in the dark and watched the rescue boats as responders helped people out of their first to 3rd & 4th floor apartments and condos to safety.

It's a different kind of deconstruction that has come to Manhattan (and Staten Island and Breezy Point and the Jersey Shore) because of the Myth. Just one sign of what may be coming if we continue to insist on it, finally a kind of chaos and unraveling from which we cannot rebuild.

We don't know how to live humbly anymore. We don't know how to live within the limits of what is real.

And that's what I wanted to write about today, still staring out at the brick buildings across this narrow street in Tribeca. There is something we just don't want to get about how we're living, especially if we think we deserve this because we work hard or achieved some status that is represented or expressed by affluence.

It will be a hard mental and spiritual switch away from the Myth of the Unsustainable American Dream, but we will make it one way or the other - by design and purpose, or by decadence, decay, unwinding, unraveling... We will do it by forethought or by disaster. Really, that's the only choice we have - not how to hold the dream, but in what manner we are prepared to let it go.
Old miner's house, Calumet MI. 

And in that part of my life where I am a writer, a culture worker, where I seek creative expression for the times in which we live, to open doors of perception through narratives and verse, I ask myself every day how I can best serve that unraveling. Because the cultural work, as well as the spiritual work, will be key to whether or not we go through it with some amount of grace or more along the line of the old Five Points.

We have both in our history. We will have to choose one path or the other. Going on as we are is not one of our options.

Margaret Swedish
Photos: also Margaret Swedish

No comments:

Post a Comment