Keeping New York at Bay

New York is perhaps the most pretentious city in the world. This may not be directly obvious, given that the vast majority of its people are far from snobbish, but it is has this attitude about itself. It fancies itself the best city in the world.

I came here reluctantly. I stay here, as I keep telling myself, temporarily. I try to let the city not get too much under my skin. But still, it is hard to keep it out. For one its noise permeates everything. It feels like you are permanently stuck in traffic, in an idling car. You can even feel the vibration on the road. Only in an idling car you are capable of listening to, and having a conversation with your five-year old son. Here it is not always possible.

My son is quite happy here. Six months into my exile here, he started saying that New York is the “bestest city in the world” – Africa already seems to him exotic and far. He sometimes imitates me by saying he wants to go back to Africa. Mostly when it is terribly cold outside. Still, I think he gets too much American “culture” – I sometimes wonder whether it has anything going for it other than Thanksgiving,  Fourth of July fireworks and Halloween. Even those if you think closely were thanks to non-American elements. I mean Halloween is an imported feast, Thanksgiving was due to the natives misguided generosity and the Fourth of July, well, it is just when these haphazard immigrants decided they have what it takes to become a nation, but do they really? It is another story.

I am always at pains to find the genuine heart of America, the soul of America, if you will. But perhaps New York is the wrong place to look. Because here they built shrines for the mighty greenback, and in my opinion the whole structure is going to crumble around their ears very soon. Apart from the greenback there is nothing much left here that is American. All is made in China, even my highly touted iPhone.

Greed seems to be the machinery that fuels everything in New York. Those people rushing and jostling on the bus or train or subway are perhaps rushing to close some deal. Wall Street is the place where people dream of making a fast buck, and where so many already watched their wealth evaporate literally into thin air.  The city lives on hype and lies. In fact hype might have been invented in New York first before Hollywood took over manufacturing it. How many people followed the illusion of wealth this city represented only to end up in a gutter. How many people believed its golden lies?

I refuse to be swallowed by the city and all it stands for. I hide on Roosevelt Island, where I can watch the city at a safe distance. And like my island, I still refuse to let the big city take me over. For how long? Only time will tell.

Thank God for Roosevelt Island

The little apple is not for everyone and now that I have read about it and researched it I begin to understand why.

The Island is merely a rock, about 3 km long and only 0.24 km wide at its fattest point. It is like someone dropped a long raft in the East River across from the East side of Manhattan (it extends from E 46th street to E83rd). From my windows I can see the UN General Assembly building, and the Trump Tower where I occasionally sit for lunch break.

The Island has a bad reputation. I have heard people referring to it as an “enclave of isolation” a “ghetto” and it is ranked 47 in the best neighborhoods to live in according to New York Magazine, with some parts of the Bronx and Staten Island faring better. The online article has a charming picture there, but dismissively says that although its setting suggests a small town atmosphere within a big city, it never quite found its own retail or street culture, and remains notoriously inconvenient.

Its history is no less colourful. The dutch bought from the Indians in the 17th century. It was  called Blackwell Island for a time. Between 1921 and 1973 it was known as Welfare Island, for obvious reasons. Its residents have an equal stigma attached to them because of that designation. Also if you consider that shortly after the City of New York bought it in the 1920s it housed the petiniary, the lunatic asylum and the smallpox hospital, you would understand the deep dark history of RI.

Before I chose to rent here I took a walk around the Island on a dark and wet day of early spring. The streets were deserted and gray, the abandoned shops looked grimy and forbidding behind dusty windows. The skyline on Manhattan side looks nice but towards Queens you look towards a Costco warehouse and three chimneys of a thermal power station. The “retail” section of Main Street has the look of a long history of decay and neglect and the playgrounds were abandoned. The high number of disabled and rehab patients in their motorised or manual wheelchairs adds to the melancholy of the setting.

Once spring and sunshine arrived things started looking different. I took walks after work, and saw families, romantic couples and even fishermen along the promenade. The broken paving and rusty railings remind me of home in South Africa, and although I do not get from this promenade an ocean-wide view to Robben Island and beyond like in Cape Town, it still smells and feels like the sea. Best thing is that I have the river as a buffer zone to seperate me from the city that I still mistrust.