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The Empire Slouches On

At a New York museum last week I noticed two objects on exhibit, one of them a mirror, the other a camera that was focused on the mirror. The mirror and the camera, which we apparently can’t live without, are made for one another, like the car and the road, or the sky and the airplane. They also seem to epitomize New York, the city that’s always looking at its own reflection and always taking its own picture. In an urban area smaller than New York, the Selfie might be taken as a case of fatal narcissism.

But in New York, which contains much of the loot and the art of the world, taking a picture of New York itself might be a lot like taking a picture of the planet and its inhabitants. What you see in the New York mirror is the skyscraper and the slum, the rats in the alleys and the seagulls in the air, the women in furs and the men with guns standing guard outside the synagogues, and in front of the Deutsche Bank, which the Russians use to funnel money into the west. This summer New Yorkers are talking a lot about Russia, Putin, the U.S.A, and Trump. Some say the Americans and the Russians need to come closer together to create a new world order to replace the old world order and to bring order itself out of chaos.

Then, there are the other New Yorkers who think that Putin is as bad as Stalin and that Russia is America’s enemy now as much if not more than ever before. “Beware the Russians,” they tell me. On the other side I hear, “Embrace the Russians. It has always been so in New York, ever since the Russian Revolution and Americans rallied around Lenin and the Bolsheviks, or called for U.S. troops to invade the Soviet Union and topple the government.

New York in the Age of Donald Trump feels like New York in the age of Obama, Bush and Clinton. If Hillary had been elected it probably would feel much the same, too. Granted, there are posters in the streets that read “Trump for Prison,” but there aren’t many of them and in the long hot month of July one didn’t hear cries of protest about the President’s latest revelations of wrong doings.

Granted there’s still a sea of deep opposition to Trump, and yet to a visitor from California it seems as though New York has made a kind of accommodation with Trump. Now as always, the city rides busses and subways, drinks coffee at Starbucks, shops at Whole Foods (now taken over by Amazon), goes to the movies to see Baby Driver, the speedy picture about bank robbers that’s set in Atlanta, Georgia, but that captures the frenzy of New York, where the bankers are the robbers, and where nothing basic has changed since the meltdown of 2008, so my insider friends tell me.

Wandering about New York on foot, which is the best way to see, feel, smell and hear New York, one can’t help but come to the conclusion that the city’s days are numbered, if only because another super storm, such as Sandy, is bound to hit the city in a world of climate change and global warming.

New York also feels like it will implode—come apart from inside—because it has too many people, too many cars, too many new buildings going up and up and up. There’s an orgy of construction, but not much in the way of housing for New York’s working class, which has white workers at the top of the ladder, and black, brown and yellow workers at the bottom. Colored folks do most of the shit work.

The subways are more crowded than before, and so are the big train stations. Even in the summer, with middle and upper class families on vacation or in their second and third homes, New York is tightly packed with people living and working together, and living and working separately. How much longer can it go on? How much madness can the place tolerate? My own guess is at least a hundred years.

Ever since the 1960s, I have been hearing that the American Empire is falling. Sociological seers tell me that the end is near. Do not count on it. Count on New York, which is the financial heart of the Empire, to remake itself, as it has done century after century, through the American Revolution and the Civil War, when New York bankers supported the Confederacy because that’s the way capital works.

Take the Fifth Avenue bus from uptown to downtown and you see all the gigantic chain stores that sell the brand names, miles and miles of them. It’s a shopper’s paradise if you want Gucci and Armani and Tommy Hilfiger. The Public Library at 52 42nd Street and Fifth, one of the great libraries of the world, looks like an anomaly, as do the churches where priests lure citizens inside with jazz and theater. Jesus doesn’t seem to be enough.

I love New York because it feels like a mirror of the world. A pedestrian can hear French, Spanish, Russian and Hindi on a single block, or eat Chinese, Indian, Italian and Mexican food, without having to cross the street. It’s all there for the taking and nearly everything one finds in northern California, including yoga studios, farm to table restaurants and Buddhist sanghas can be found somewhere in New York.

The city swallows up everything that seems quintessentially northern California, though I haven’t seen any pot fields, stands of redwoods or the Pacific Ocean that makes the Atlantic seem tame by comparison. In a city of eight million people, few very individuals stand out, except perhaps Donald Trump, the man who was made by New York, as well as the man who helped to make the city what it is today, though citizens voted overwhelming for Hillary Clinton. To paraphrase, Walt Whitman, New York’s greatest poet, the city contradicts itself, contains multitudes and sounds its barbaric yap above the stinking rooftops of summer.


  1. izzy July 27, 2017

    In this paean to The Big Apple, that incorrect address for the iconic Public Library hits an unfortunate sour note. It’s on 42nd Street.

  2. Jonah Raskin July 27, 2017

    You are absolutely right, Izzy. I go to the main library every time I’m in N.Y. I know where it is; I don’t know how or why I wrote it incorrectly. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

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