The Culture of New York City
I recently posted the attached video showing the April 19 celebration of Harper’s Bazaar’s 150th Anniversary, a projection of the magazine’s most iconic covers and photo
shoots onto the side of the Empire State Building. It is this type of event, a celebration of art and architecture, the bringing together of different art forms in a way that could only happen in New York, and available for free to anyone who wishes to be a part of it, that makes me truly miss living in New York City.
I am a native New Yorker now living in South Florida, and for all that can be said about the ease of living in a place with warm winters and plenty of sunshine, I miss the culture of my native city.
When I speak of culture, I’m not talking about the many things that one can do with the proper amount of money. Not to downplay the contribution to the city’s cultural life of the theater, the ballet, the symphony, etc., I’m speaking more specifically about the culture that you encounter every day just by being there.
I don’t want to give the impression that I grew up in a cultured, well to do family. I grew up in Queens, part of a working class family. It is for this reason that these small experiences, these little bits of culture that I would happen upon, events that were available for free just for the effort of showing up make me feel wistful for my home town.
remember being about six or seven years old and going to Central Park with my parents. We rented a row boat and rowed around the lake. I remember being inspired by the buildings surrounding the park. It was not just that they were beautiful and suggested a world of greater affluence than I was accustomed to, but really a genuine love of the architecture.
I remember being particularly enamored with one building, 9 West 57th Street, the Solow Building, which at that time was probably only a couple of years old. I don’t know what it was about that building, which was readily visible from the lake, but I loved it. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the subtlety of the design, its understated elegance. I still to this day have an affinity for buildings with clean lines, but just a little edge to make them different from all the others. It may seem odd to say that as a little kid I had such an affinity for a building, but I remember staring at it, fantasizing about things I might have done differently had I designed it. It may have been on the same trip or one of our other of our infrequent visits to central park that I remember walking past the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What impressed me was that in several places in front of the park there were groups of what I believe were music students had set up and were playing classical music. They probably needed to practice anyway, and decided that they could earn a little money from people passing by while doing it.
I have many such experiences in my history of living in New York, the experience of standing on a subway platform waiting for a train near where a Chinese man had set up and was playing a Yangqin (I did not know the name of this instrument until I just now Google searched it.), and had a small experience of a culture and history very different from my own. I saw the kids who would come onto a subway train and give a short drum performance on empty 5 gallon plastic paint containers, which was sometimes annoying and sometimes really enjoyable (really depending less on what they were doing than on my mood). I remember the Puerto Rican mural that was visible from Delancey Street that we would occasionally drive past when I was a kid, and that I would later see regularly as an adult. It was graffiti elevated to the status of art. Once again, thanks to the internet, I was able to find a picture of this mural, which has since been covered up by a new building.
The suggested donation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a suggested donation. As a student, there were many times that I went into the museum with a single dollar in hand as my donation, and was allowed me to wander through. This dedication to the idea that the art inside should be accessible to all is something that I appreciate and wish were replicated more fully in other areas of our society.
The experience of going into Manhattan, whether it was to Washington Square Park, or to Central Park, or elsewhere, was often transcendent for me. The grandeur of the buildings, the diversity of the crowds, the number of people who came together to those places just to do their own thing, was inspiring. It seems almost counter-intuitive that one would go to a central place just to do their own thing, but somehow, the diversity of activities, of experiences, of performances the critical mass of people coming together into this public space made each individual activity more interesting. It was kind of like a Wal-Mart super center of cultural, racial, ethnic, class and creative diversity.
I know that talking about something as transcendent may sound overstated, as the word is often used to describe a religious experience. I use it to describe the feeling of being part of something much greater than myself, and this is my experience with the art and culture of New York. The experience of walking into a grand building had the power to make me feel like I was part of something greater. The experience of hearing that Chinese man on the subway bringing part of his culture to my commute to work made me feel like the city in which I lived, for all its inconveniences, was also feeding me experiences that I simply would not have had living elsewhere. The experience of seeing graffiti well done, which from a legal standpoint might be considered vandalism, reminded me of the creative impulses that all people have. The need to express ourselves and add something to the cultural life of a place was on display in New York, and accepted in ways that it might not have been otherwise.
In short, but I miss my home town and the feeling of being a small part of something truly great that it occasionally offered.