Quiet City

During the dark hours of what is now a previous crisis for America but an ongoing one elsewhere, Queen Elizabeth delivered a message of uplift. She sought to remind her people that “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country.”

In the context of hopelessly toxic Twitter feeds, that hyphenated “fellow-feeling” arrived like a Beatrix Potter bunny hopping across the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.

The only thing that Americans can say about fellow-feelers is that we have two warring factions. This discord is our national tragedy. New York City, on the other hand, has always managed to pass as a cunningly diverse (if spectacularly unequal) assemblage of fellow-feelers, whatever the scale of crisis.

Through this pandemic — and before that through Occupy Wall Street and the Great Recession and before that 9/11 and before that Broken Windows Policing casting its shadow over the Central Park Five and before that a bankrupt city told to drop dead—New York self-branded on chutzpah and a paradoxical DNA strand of sanguine and sangfroid.

We desperately wanted to believe the shaky premise that COVID-19 was bringing us together. America may be divided and falling apart, but our Blue State mecca still owned the myth of brazen resiliency, symbolized historically by our skyscraping monuments to commerce. We never had great imagery for this rallying round COVID, but we eventually settled on the city’s physical hospitals and, metaphorically, the familiar PowerPoint bar graphs of the hospitalized—pillars that stretched daily like the cigarette supertalls casting shadows across Central Park.

After 9/11—when the nation lost its innocence and New York a matching pair of monuments—America’s President and his matching Mayor said “Hell, no!” to the demise of the skyscraper myth. Building back taller was less a defiance of terrorism than a standard re-up of the status quo. What the city failed to acknowledge in 2001 was that the myth was already dead when the Towers went up in 1972. It was already dead in the 1940s and 1950s when Robert Moses presented community-obliterating, car-based sprawl as the horizontal alternative to the vertical myth.

By the 1970s, the idea that building tall had anything to do with the realization of hopes and dreams was just another sick irony, like the Circle Line cruises running empty around Manhattan. The city could not provide working people with the housing and services they needed at the same time that real estate was becoming an exotic financial instrument. Glitzy commercial monuments made everyday people more bereft even before Trump Tower’s 1979 assault on Fifth Avenue. The tightrope strung between the Towers for Philippe Petit in 1974 was the kite string still tethered to the original twins—the Empire State Building (b. 1931) and the Chrysler Building (b. 1930).

Build-high mythology was cooked in the meth lab of the Great Depression. Monuments to accumulated wealth were spun to symbolize the heroic worker with hammer and anvil, done up in FDR’s branded WPA style. Nineteen-thirties New York was already living with a lockdown—the economy was going nowhere for more than a decade. Despite the Hollywood-made Busby Berkeley musicals fawning over swish Manhattan hotels and the Empire State Building’s star-power of doing in King Kong, most people knew it was a long walk between bars.

Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932

A truer depiction of Depression-era New York is found in the small interiors and street window vistas of Edward Hopper. The stars of Hopper’s sparse urban landscapes were late-Victorian buildings 50 years out of sync with the city’s streamlined Deco palaces—apartments of wide, screen-less windows and dark wood doors opening into connecting rooms where people lived and might actually be found. Despite the Ruskin hues of still rooms caught out by the luminosity of day’s end, Hopper’s tableaux communicated script-less acquiescence to an isolation that might be terminal, especially in a decade when intellectuals toyed with communism, immigrants had second thoughts, and second-generation assimilators discovered self-loathing.

These iconic Hopper scenes proliferated as memes for New York’s COVID lockdown. “Alone together” could describe everything Hopper painted about this city. You always feel there is something keeping his figures off the streets. We see their situations as dilemmas; their surrender is our disorientation. Aren’t they going to act? Aren’t they going to be agents of their own destiny? I don’t doubt E.B. White had these images in mind when he wrote that New York “succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute” (Here Is New York, 1949).

I have always associated Hopper’s dream-like still-lives with music that Aaron Copland originally composed for a 1939 Irwin Shaw play, Quiet City, that never made it out of previews. Two years after Shaw’s flop, Copland premiered the orchestral version of his own Quiet City, a melancholic New York nocturne featuring a seemingly lost and lonely trumpet and an oboe that calls back amid the hush of strings. The piece begins as memory summoned from the mist or maybe the haze of a street lamp—a place and a feeling that seems very long ago but—like a New York minute—is actually recent in the scheme of fortunes built and lost. The searching, restless dialogue between these two instruments intensifies not so much with regret but a sad awareness of the inevitable.

The protagonist in Shaw’s play has abandoned his ethnicity and his early love of poetry for the accumulation of capital—Anglicizing his name, marrying a rich socialite, and becoming president of a department store. But he is haunted by the ghostly music of an alter-ego brother—an impoverished jazz trumpeter full of nervous energy, the preternatural antithesis of wealth and status. The trumpet of memory and conscience will not relent, but any reckoning with past decisions is subsumed within the gush of strings reminding us of the prevailing myth to build high and line your pockets. We are left with the solitary trumpet and its sad echoing oboe.

Intentionally or not, Hopper, Shaw, and Copland gave us “alt” versions of that lousy decade’s mythmaking. New York was not just two cities rich and poor but two cities that we keep alive in our heads—one for those who come to be found by the spotlight, whether the fan dancer from Ohio or the stonemason from Sicily, and another for those who have been bruised by the beast and want to get lost from a rabid capitalism that refuses to retreat with the economy it gutted.

COVID-19 has certainly lived up to the cliché comet of stock magazine illustrations, headed directly toward New York’s tired and frail myth. Our myth is based entirely on risk—for developers fresh off a string of bad deals who nonetheless acquire capital to build (and fail) again, for the wage laboring class mercilessly exploited in those iconic photos, balancing precariously on girders with lunch pails and nonchalance. The fundamental con was that the skyscraper “worker” represented all races and ethnicities because capitalism was tolerant when it came to making a buck. But look at those pictures: they are all white men.

Myth-makers putting up the Empire State Building in 1930

At the start of New York’s March lockdown, commercial construction work hadn’t stopped and people were asking why. Why was it assumed that putting up 50 floors of luxury apartments was an essential endeavor for mostly Hispanic workers? The Mayor had to be prodded to put a stop on this labor, but it was still workers of color—black and Hispanic—who carried the city through this crisis and took the greatest hits in pain and suffering. After Memorial Day, the nationwide outcry against police assaults on black people tore into our local skyscraper myth because of its enablers within the city’s political machine (left and right, black and white) going back to Tammany. If you’ve taken campaign money from real estate developers, you are supporting institutional racism.

In my part of Manhattan, the week of “looting”-dictated curfew was even stranger than the lockdown in the level of quiet. You could feel the anguish of the doctor’s lamp pulled down over this horrendous undressed wound. I felt even more intensely that sense of surrender Hopper creates in his scenes of humans objectified. His figures feel to us to be living on the margins for mysterious reasons, but as white people they are only on the margins to other white people. The margins in which people of color lived was a beyond that Hopper never approached, even though by 1930, New York City’s black population was more than 325,000, with Harlem the largest black urban community in the United States. And many of Hopper’s white figures have the luxury of space. A single person in an enormous room: alienation or privilege?

For me, the most arresting and unforgettable image of New York’s COVID surge is a Harlem photo by Johannes Eisele. Alisha Narvaez, the manager at International Funeral & Cremation Services, rolls a black-bagged body on a Harlem street to her storefront. Attractive and even alluring in her blue jacket on a dreary rainy day, she pulls the gurney as would a dancer on a stage. Despite the passing yellow cab, there is a benign invisibility to this terrible scene: this is the Hopper tableau of our time.

Angel in America? Photo by Johannes Eisele

During the COVID part of our crisis, I had no problem drawing parallels with Hopper’s esthetically  appealing images from the twenties and thirties. With the George Floyd part of this bad time, however, I had to question this inclination as a white person and nonessential worker. This examination of conscience made me consider an uncharacteristic work of the artist—Soir Bleu, painted in 1914, after his return to New York from Paris. The canvas depicts an odd assortment of Parisian types in a café setting—a terrace with paper lanterns that you can’t quite place as outdoors or indoors with a painted backdrop. There’s a prostitute and a working-class man who may be her pimp; there’s a well-dressed bourgeois couple. At the center table we see the backs of a military man with fringed epaulets and another who looks like a seafaring Van Gogh; they are facing but not looking at a Pierrot-like clown with a cigarette dangling from his painted mouth.

What’s eerily modern about this painting is that the clown in white-face is looking down at something in his hands that is obscured by objects on the table—and you can’t help think it’s a phone. Everyone is different and separate; they have no visible affinity aside from being white people in an urban, cosmopolitan setting. This painting captures what should be our greatest fear—that we, like Melania Trump, really don’t care. That we—static, frozen, walled off—are incapable of “fellow-feeling.” That we are in fact the very antithesis of America’s fellow-feeler laureate, Walt Whitman. If the Brooklyn boy Whitman contained “multitudes,” these figures seem to contain even less than one. Quiet city indeed. §