NEW YORK JEW

March 12, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

                                    GOTHAM - FINAL VERSION

Now I know that the title of this essay might strike different people as provocative, or even wrong, in many different ways. Let's just say that in my usual way, I'm being brutally blunt, even if might not agree completely with this personal identification. I've settled on this label after 64 years, in the spirit that I might as well embrace it in a positive manner, since a lot of people are going to think of me that way, depending on the circumstances.

I take this title from the third volume of Alfred Kazin's memoirs. He had started out on his life by being just "A Walker in the City."  By his third volume this great American literary critic summed up his career by embracing the term that he felt that most of his contemporaries in American Intelligentsia had used for decades as a shorthand insult. I think he felt that he had triumphed over their condescension and now could proclaim his representation  even while he suspected that it really had little to do with his successful career.

I guess I feel pretty much the same way - especially when you put these identifiers in context. When I lived in London in 1976, I was clearly an American - nothing else mattered, even when I might be an Australian until I opened my mouth. When I worked behind the bar in a pub, I was the resident Yank, and no one cared where in America I was from or where I went to "church." I grew up in a New York neighborhood so Jewish that an unenlightened person might think that of course think that condition was near normal, unless you were another ethnic minority. I don't think I consciously met a WASP until I went off to college, since all of the few Christians I ever knew were Catholics. And when we moved to Portland, we confronted a reality that our neighbors couldn't even tell if we came from Boston or New York, and that our Jewish community had now expanded as part of our lives, even while its representation in the city had of course gone way down. The fact was that the vast majority of the Jews in Portland were also from somewhere else, and that everyone in town seemed so excited that we were not from California.

So I must say that as a Jew, for me its really all cultural, or as my wife might say, even just culinary. I'm not really religious, or even spiritual. I'm not sure I believe in God, although I admit that I complain to the man upstairs a lot for someone who doesn't believe he exists. After reading a lot of history, I guess I just take some pride in being a member of a tribe which on the whole has made some positive contributions to history, and has somehow survived to this day, long after all of our enemies have bitten the dust. On the other hand, I don't think that my photographic efforts are at all related to my ethnicity in either subject matter or technique, and would resist any effort to label them as such. When the local Jewish newspaper in Portland described architect Daniel Libeskind with pride as a "Jew Architect", I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

                                     PEDESTRIANS - FINAL VERSION

Its more as a New Yorker that I stake my claim, although as a New Yorker I'm pretty weird. The last time I really lived in New York I was seventeen years old; I have never lived in Manhattan. The only time I worked briefly in the city was a short summer as the worst secretary in New York City, for a theater ticket agency whose head was so obnoxious, even for New York, that most of my job consisted of standing on box office lines to obtain tickets to shows which had resolved to never deal with my boss again.

So I am a member of the vast New York Diaspora, and feel that my relationship to New York is conditional on that long distance relationship. The daily paper on my porch is the New York Times. When you read it religiously (!) every day, from three thousand miles away, you can begin to see how  "Jewish" it is, as well as how truly parochial. You notice all of the ads on the first two pages are for items that not only you can't afford, but that nobody you know can afford either. It's only when I read the Sunday Times online (I'm too cheap to pay to get it delivered) that I get to read the sections not delivered to Portland, like the real estate section, that I realize that while I grew up in New York, I am no longer a real New Yorker. The joke in my house is the question someone once asked when confronted by New York prices -"Is it the same currency?"

                                     GRID ON GRID - FINAL VERSION

My reactions to New York are thus based on my personal history, my ties to family and friends, and my continued affections. This is coupled with my reality of living so far away, and realizing that New York is for most a grand illusion. I will always be a New Yorker, and am glad I grew up there, even though I can't understand why most people stay. I even find it unimaginable how people who didn't grow up there can survive at all. I love it from afar, which causes some weird incongruities, like the fact that I was a "regular" at a wonderful little Italian restaurant down the block from my oldest friend in Park Slope, even though I visited only every six months or so when my wife and I  would visit New York. Or that my wife, when confronting my slow gait when staring at all of the skyscrapers, or my hesitancy in joining in the jaywalking, declares me "Corn Boy"!

So what do my photographs of New York reveal of these strange contradictions? After all, I've already related that one takes the best images of the places that one is most familiar with, so Portland, not New York, is in my wheel house. In no way am I a "New York photographer" - but I think my images say something about my special relationship.

STATUE OF LIBERTYSTATUE OF LIBERTY                                                       LADY LIBERTY - FINAL VERSION

I  think it manifest itself in three ways. One is how I react to the landmarks, which I have known all of my life. I need to come up with a different, unusual, or some might say even strange perspective in order to justify creating the image at all. Thus my take on the Statue of Liberty. Or the Empire State Building.

EMPIRE STATEEMPIRE STATE                                                                               EMPIRE STATE - FINAL VERSION

Or an old bridge in Brooklyn. BROOKLYN BRIDGEBROOKLYN BRIDGEBROOKLYN BRIDGE 1                                                                             BROOKLYN SILHOUETTE - FINAL VERSION

The second way is the things that I notice, as a New Yorker on an occasional visit. These details can show appreciation of things that are no longer part of my environment, but are now even more special.

WATERTOWERSWATERTOWERS                                                       WATER TOWERS - FINAL VERSION

ROOMSROOMS                                                                             ROOMS - FINAL VERSION

                                     BROWNSTONE DETAIL - FINAL VERSION

                                                                 CAST IRON - FINAL VERSION

                                     MASONRY DETAILS - FINAL VERSION

These details are the kinds of things that an architect from Portland - the land of wood - only remembers with fondness. Sometimes I carry my references to further limits - details that only a New Yorker might be expected to understand.

                                     GRAND CENTRAL - FINAL VERSION

LAW & ORDERLAW & ORDER                                      LAW AND ORDER - FINAL VERSION

                                     THE BID IS 7 NO TRUMP - FINAL VERSION

                                     PATIENCE - FINAL VERSION

My faraway attitude allows me to understand that it would be okay if non-natives did not get these references. Real New Yorker's would be appalled. Although if you ever watched Saturday Night Live, or Law and Order, ridden the subway, or knew what the Trump Tower looked like above the horrible name plate, or ever saw a New Yorker cartoon that had anything to do with libraries, you would probably understand.

The funny thing about living in Portland lately is the weird way that New Yorker's have embraced our city so much that I sometimes think that they think Portland is the sixth borough. Some cynics describe us as Brooklyn without Black people. Others realize that "Portlandia" really only represented the hipster condition that was plaguing all of America. Most visiting New Yorker's just can't get over no sales tax and the comparative rarity of the $30 entree on our menus - they've found urban nirvana! I only understood this new fascination when I started noticing a new byline in the Oregonian, back when there was an Oregonian. The name Sulzberger leaped off the page, and I soon learnt that Pops had sent the future publisher of the Times to the backwoods to learn the reporting side of the business. After all, the kid couldn't write for Dad's paper - that wouldn't be right. So know i began to see why that other paper I read every day was so fascinated with Portland - the cub reporter's efforts had led The Times to treat Portland as the only true representative of urban America beyond the Hudson. It got so bad that sometimes I couldn't tell which newspaper I was reading, like when I noticed an article decrying the layoff of fifteen workers at Powell's and realized it was The Times and not The Oregonian. Or when the food section - of the Times (!) - highlighted half a dozen restaurants within six blocks of my house, only 3,000 miles away from most of its readership.

Finally the third way this once and always New Yorker reacts to the city is just an all-knowing horror of the urban angst that I know I miss.

IF ONLYIF ONLY                                                                               IF ONLY - FINAL VERSION

I found this image looking out of my sister's old corner office above 51st Street off Broadway. It was something she saw every day, just part of her world. Her visiting brother saw that unique combination of order in chaos that could result from the simple decision to restrict automobiles from Times Square a few blocks South. New Yorker's can complain about things that most people wouldn't even notice, but they also listen to rules, as long as everybody else must suffer along. I doesn't hurt if you paint these rules in big letters on the street, with no explanation of the restriction. You see, New Yorker's attitudes towards life's vagaries veer quickly from astonishment to resignation to a triumphant "urban professionalism" - "What's wrong with you, don't you know what's what?" And of course the final stage of New Yorker's (and mine) "special relationship" with urbanity is my alternate title for this final image - "ONLY IN NEW YORK."

                  

 


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