Sunday, April 26, 2009

Amazing Things Are Happening Here

Following the blocks from the 1 train to my apartment, I can tell what time it is by which stores still have their lights on. I know it's late when even Starbucks, after the midnight hour, has closed. For the most part, the streets are deserted, except for the smokers escaping crowded, merengue-and-salsa-filled bars, nurses leaving awkwardly-timed shifts, mothers returning home, weighed down with groceries and kids' clothing and burdens.

Each morning, heading back towards the 1 train I am greeted by the sun streaming through transparent, lofty walkways connecting the 8th-10th floors of buildings over Fort Washington Avenue, igniting a huge red canvas that screams: AMAZING THINGS ARE HAPPENING HERE.

Fighting crowds just to walk down 168th Street, I examine my enemy warriors and wonder where they're going. What amazing things will they accomplish today? How are they contributing to what's "happening"?

Here, on 168th Street and Fort Washington Ave, is the Columbia University Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. What goes on inside its towering buildings and interconnected walkways is all but invisible to passersby, whose glimpses are limited to the wear on the face of a tired surgeon in scrubs grabbing 5 coffees at Starbucks or the quick transfer of a person on oxygen from the back of an ambulance to the hospital's emergency room.

This city is filled with these microcosmic concentrations of activity. Within the Medical Center's towering halls, scientists are building new vaccines, grandmothers are receiving their final doses of long-time medications, hungry student eyes are watching with careful attention procedures they must learn by rote. Further south and east, somewhere between the giants of Park Avenue and the art beat of the Lower East Side, the NYU Medical Center pursues the same activities, building another medical force and affecting another subset of our city's population.

These massive functions of institutions and structures so tiny within the grand scheme of this city keep me in constant awe of New York. Thousands of minute interactions build hundreds of daily rote processes and dozens of new discoveries all within this one four-block radius where, as it also happens, I make my home with hundreds of others who take their daily activities beyond the short limits of this neighborhood.

The interconnectedness of these tiny spheres forms the glue of this city. When a patient arrives from downtown or the Bronx, he brings his mother, who cleans houses in Queens, and his brother who used to own that beloved corner deli down the street. All the neighborhoods that comprise this city become intricately connected through the movements and alliances of the people who inhabit them. And so it goes, in all the many definitions of that vague word of place, its meaning rooted in the mind of the listener or speaker, amazing things are happening here.

"Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Thursday, April 23, 2009

From Berlin, 3.18.09

A City Divided, united by the tearing down of a wall twenty years ago, struggles to build one cohesive identity to present to the world. More so than culture, economic realities perpetuate two worlds, one modern, progressive, western, the other the recent aftereffect of communism and inhibited progress.

This city serves as an excellent case study for tourism. The physicalities that so recently defined this city now provide more learning, cultural and commercial opportunities for tourists than for locals. We have been so quick to objectify these places, to historify them, that they have become fossils, informative and dead. Yet these places are remnants of an immediate past. 1990 is within the living memory of the majority of the world’s population. These places shaped day-to-day life for many of our neighbors, colleagues, friends and leaders—their footsteps remain in the annals of their rememberances—crisp and vivid and alive. Such quick memorialization quiets the immediacy—it puts these days in the bucket of the past. Yet it is apparent in Berlin that there were too many years of separation. How do they begin to participate in the same economy? What are their municipal priorities? Who does, and who should, this city serve?

Still, Berlin is alive—it is in that earlier, grungy state that once characterized London’s Brick Lane and New York’s East Village. Giulia raves about the inexpensive, inexplicable nightlife, the cultural energy, the constant flurry of parties and galleries and delicious food and watching the sunrise on a balcony in a new neighborhood each night. Much of this has been fueled by Berlin’s lack of cohesiveness, its inability to pull it all together into something subject to clear identification and resulting gentrification. Much of it hinges on uncertainty and perplexity at how to handle East Berlin. This is a unique situation that may prevent Berlin’s trajectory as a London or New York or San Francisco.

Yet for all the glamour and grunge, I don’t think Berlin is for me. In its youthful population, this city is dominated by floaters and dreamers, artists and thinkers who are driven toward a lofty aim or who are adrift, passionate yet uncertain of their ultimate direction. I thrive in cities that demand competition and competence—I need to be surrounded by creative energy that’s being funneled into targeted, meaningful production. There are elements of Berlin that I would cherish in any city—lazy Sundays, six languages being spoken at a bar, partying until dawn without spending more than five Euros, art everywhere and always, buildings with history, neighbors with incomparable stories, the fusion of cultures from Europe, Turkey, and the world beyond. Take all this and couple it with a city with unmatchable global power, with a city that demands a place on everyone’s map, if not as a destination than as a place that absolutely must be known, and that, that place is my city.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reflections on Berlin

A few weeks ago, I visited Germany for the first time. I haven't written about it in retrospect yet because I wasn't sure just what to say. That Berlin is bohemian and grungy? Quiet and orderly? What do you say about a place that feels so familiar but remains entirely foreign?

An article in last weekend's NY Times Week in Review pretty much sums up my impression of Berlin, and of Germany more generally. While visiting, I was amazed at how everything seems to operate on the honor system, and how rule-abiding everyone is, despite their personal circumstances or the reasonableness of the rule. This kind of culture can't be bred out of thin air; it stems from deep roots in a culture's collective memory, from a shared goal of mutual survival grounded in the experience of selective alienation, and from a slew of interacting situations that countries like ours may never be able to relate to.

Beyond the orderly rule-abiding, I loved Berlin's neighborhoods. Like New York, Berlin feels like a series of pockets sewn loosely together, each with distinct contents and made out of slightly different fabrics. Part of this stems from the division of the city into East and West Berlin until the early 1990s, and part of it flows habitually from the nature of a large city.

Most especially, I appreciated Berlin's late-night conversations--the quiet exchanges between friends and neighbors at casual bars where you pay what you like or at places like Gramophone Bar, where all the pieces fit perfectly together into an irreplicable ambiance. In Berlin, life feels as though it will take its natural course, and that's just as it was meant to be. While Paris is for lovers, Berlin is for thinkers and seekers, for artists building amorphous representations of life and philosophers drowning the hours away in pensive reflection on the reasons behind the state of things, while life goes on within and beyond this creative, conscious city.