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THE NEW YORK NOBODY KNOWS: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
by William Helmreich
Princeton University Press, 449 pages
BAGHDAD: THE CITY IN VERSE
edited by Reuven Snir
Harvard University Press, 339 pages
reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin
Writers, this one included, have long struggled to capture in words the dynamic and multi-layered ways that cities change. Cities themselves are powerful change agents in the wider world, but they are defined and redefined constantly by the evolving tastes and desires of their residents (who themselves are always changing), technology, culture and religion, structural political and economic shifts, and the feedback loop of history and history-telling, characterized through myth, poetry, and mass media. Here’s how I try to make sense of it in Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books):
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Think of the city as a collection of swarming cells that change, adapt, grow, shrink, and grow simultaneously. Imagine hundreds or thousands or millions of cells, each living and dying not in parallel or even in sequence, but overlapping from one generation to the next. The whole place moves in several directions at once. Unless calamity hits, no city dies in a single instant. Despite what you read in the papers, no city, no neighborhood even, is ever miraculously reborn.
I want to say cities change because people, in all their contradictions, make them. But urban change can also be terribly unnerving, even terrifying, and sometimes violent. We might reject it outright, and fight it to the death. We might campaign to preserve a building that harkens to another time, or demand that a neighborhood remains “Italian” or “Puerto Rican” or “black.” And we might mourn for a city “that once was.”
Perhaps, in part, it’s the very conflict between change and constancy that makes cities such interesting and powerful places. Now, two very different but surprisingly related books published at the end of last year, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William Helmreich (Princeton University Press) and Baghdad: The City in Verse, edited by Reuven Snir (Harvard University Press), help us frame and reframe the discussion. Both Helmreich, a sociologist who has studied New York for four decades and Snir, a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Haifa, seem to agree about the organic nature of urban change. “A city is not a static unit,” writes Helmreich in the introduction to his book. “It’s a dynamic and constantly environment, adapting to the needs of its residents.” Citing the prominent sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod, who passed away a month ago, Snir writes in his excellent introductory essay, “Cities are ‘living processes’ rather than ‘products’ or ‘formalistic shells for living’,” an idea I mirrored in Song of the City, which is organized into parts: pulse, body, soul, and seed.
Both of these admirable new books are indeed necessarily open-ended explorations: Helmreich’s across space, Snir’s through time. Over four years beginning in 2008, New York native Hemreich walked 6,000 miles across nearly every block of New York’s five boroughs; Snir, whose parents were exiled from Baghdad to Israel in 1951, parceled through more than a century of poetry about Baghdad, translating and ultimately presenting 199 poems by some 123 poets.
The cities, too, are distinctly comparable. Baghdad was founded in an instant, in 762, by the Caliph al-Mansur, who called his city Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace. It was to be the first city in the Arab world that would eschew placelessness. Until then, according to Snir, the Bedouin notion of genealogy framed one’s Islamic self-conception far more than the idea of homeland. Within a century, having made “place and self mutually interdependent,” Baghdad became one of the largest cities in the world, and beyond that, writes Snir, in a manner that makes us think of New York as a symbol for America, “Baghdad has been the city of Islam and Arabism par excellence—the center of the Islamic empire and the Arab world, in reality and certainly metaphorically. Baghdad was at times a metaphor even for the entire East.”
It became an open and pluralistic and hedonistic city through the end of the first millennium, into the second. It was, as the poet Ibn al-Rumi writes in the 9th century, “A city where I accompanied childhood and youthfulness;/ there I wore a new cloak of glory./When she appears in the imagination, I see her budding branches aflutter.” And then, in 1258, the city was destroyed by the Mongol Hulagu, a founder of the Persian dynasty Il-Khanid. This was all but the death of the place; Baghdad didn’t quite recover until the late 19th century into the 20th century, when it flourished as a tolerant, modern metropolis. The Baghdad of a century ago, in 1914, Snir points out, was majority Jewish, and filled otherwise with Arabs, Bedouins, Christians, Kurds, Persians, and Turks. At that very moment, melting pot New York was enjoying the heights of 20th century immigration and the first great migration of African Americans to the more tolerant north.
Of course, Sadaam Hussein and the modern Hulagu, the United States, eventually put that to an end; and in a sense, the cities’ fates became intertwined, as the poet Adonis, whose work on Baghdad Snir has collected in this volume, notes in the poem Salute to Baghdad (2003),
Put your coffee aside and drink something else.
Listening to what the invaders are declaring:
“With the help of God,
We are conducting a preventative war,
Transporting the water of life
From the banks of the Hudson and Thames
To flow in the Tigris and Euphrates
Snir presents a great deal of poetry on Baghdad from the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, a time marked at first by modernity and cultural blossoming and at last by utter destruction and despair. Writes the poet Bushra al-Bustani in A Sorrowful Melody, “The tanks of malice wander./My wound/Is turned away like an abandoned horse/Scorched by an Arabian sun,/Chewed by worms./Picasso paints another Guernica,/Painting Baghdad under the feet of boors./Freedom is a lute/Strummed by a nameless dwarf./Paintings in Baghdad’s museums/Are at the mercy of the wind.”
In the book’s afterword, the Iraqi writer Abdul Kader el-Janabi notes that with its history of destruction, “Baghdad is an easy metaphor for revival and eclipse.” Indeed, despite attempts to conjure more complex and dynamic narratives for their cities, both Helmreich’s and Snir’s books are infused with that traditional broad stroke urban metaphor, of life and vitality followed by decline and death and (hopefully) life again. The difference is the point of view. New York, in the dusk of the Michael Bloomberg era, is triumphant: safe, utterly vital, nearly entirely tolerant. New York today is New York par excellence. As the protagonist of his story, Helmreich, who grew up in upper Manhattan in the 1950s, carries this prejudice into his exploration, which tends to downplay the challenges to New York’s massive homelessness problem, for example, or ethnic tension. He has a right to, for certain. New York, which lost more than 800,000 people during Helmreich’s formative years, has soared in the last two decades. He is, I think, both proud and amazed. And though Baghdad is now and again one of the largest cities in the Middle East (its population is 7+ million; New York’s is 8.3 million), Snir’s narrative is prejudiced by his own family’s story of loss of a beloved homeland and the war on Iraq, which left vast sections of the city in ruins.
The best way I know to counter the power of this broad, and deeply ingrained, urban narrative is with writing—and in the case of poetry, imagery—that’s specific, and particular to time, place, and circumstance. In this regard, I was somewhat (but only somewhat) disappointed by Snir’s collection. There is much metaphorical writing across the eras—“In the sky/The poles bow,/searching for what deserves illumination,/But the streets are overcrowded/With void.” (Sinan Antoon, 1989)—and not nearly enough visceral reality. I wanted to be taken onto an overcrowded street of the ancient city, of the modern city, of the city post-war to smell and hear and taste it. For that reason, one of my favorites in the collection is An Elegy for al-Sindibad Cinema, by the late Sargon Boulus, published in 2008. The movie house, a fixture of the cosmopolitan city of the mid-20th century, was bombed during the Iraq war. “Those evenings were destroyed…/Our white shirts, Baghdad summers…/How will we dream about traveling to any island?” he asks,
Al-Sindibad Cinema had been destroyed!
Heavy is the watered hair of the drowned person
Who returned to the party
After the lamps were turned off,
The chairs were piled up on the deserted beach,
And the Tigris’s waves were tied by chains.
Helmreich seems aware of this pitfall; his epic walk was meant to—and did—put him face-to-face with hundreds of New Yorkers on their own turf, to see them as individuals whose daily reality helps define the city of today, and who in turn are shaped by the city. And those New Yorkers are complex beings, as he writes, “a person’s identity can include, say, religion, community, race, language, and economic considerations all at once. Human beings are naturally free to pick and choose from these.”
In essence, he’s reporting out on the state of things. In Jamaica, Queens, he meets an immigrant from the small South American country of Guyana who has planted a garden. “It’s a small area,” writes Helmreich, “about four feet long and three feet wide, surrounded by a miniature white picket fence.”
“These flowers are beautiful,” I say by way of starting a conversation.
Small and wiry, with bright teeth framed in part by a neat mustache, he responds with a soft smile, “They are flowers from my country, Guyana, which I love. I planted them to remind me of home. This way, when I look outside I always remember the beautiful place I lived in before I came here.”
Foreign-born people now account for 40 percent of New Yorkers; with their American-born children, Helmreich points out, they are the city’s majority. He thus spends a great deal of time on ethnicity, devoting chapters on new immigrants, “the Future of Ethnic New York,” and on New York’s neighborhood-based communities, home to so much of the immigrant experience.
In the chapter, “Enjoying the City,” Helmreich finds himself in the northwest Bronx, at a concert of the Jamaican reggae singer Beres Hammond. Helmreich describes the scene, “people on their feet, dancing the entire time,” the make-up of the audience—99.9 percent West Indian, 65 percent women—“dressed about two steps above what you’d call casual.” This must have been a fascinating event as cultural tableau. The author might have described in detail food, dress, conversations, art, and even the neighborhood around the venue at CUNY Herbert Lehman College. But instead, Helmreich gives the reader a kind of quick analysis in language that feels too broad and too conjectural (and full of assumptions), hoping to categorize the scene rather than record it for its essence. “Each immigrant who comes to the United States,” he writes,
leaves behind ways of life that need to be adapted to fit in with their new circumstances. Yet they also wish to preserve their identity. Yes, they’re now in America and hearing American music, but also important is the music of the homeland, accompanied by lyrics that express yearning, memories, shared values, and forms of cultural expression—how the houses looked, how the foods tasted, and how the people lived and related to one another. And of course the lyrics speak of the challenges of making it in their new homes.
Helmreich goes on to reveal some of Hammond’s stage banter, but of course what the reader really wants is to read the lyrics that are about the struggle to live in two worlds, hear the conversations, and taste the food. The author has it all, we presume, in his notes, but this visceral, sensatory New York isn’t revealed here. Nor are buildings or streets described in any consistent way. This isn’t Joseph Mitchell; we can’t quite conjure Helmreich’s hidden New York.
Part of the issue here is that the author is too ambitious: he wants to give us the whole city, the city he’d lovingly discovered and rediscovered in his four year walk, but 468 square miles is too vast a territory for ethnography. And his sociologist’s instincts work against him: amidst the panorama, it’s extremely hard to categorize and label in ways that expand the reader’s interest and imagination. To try to make sense of complex things, he’s all too often forced to sweeping judgment and summary statements that feel inadequate. Calling some place a “bad neighborhood” or diverse people “gentrifiers” doesn’t help. Labels have a way of distancing us from the complicated reality.
Interestingly, the book improves vastly as it moves along. In the long chapter on gentrification, Helmreich is able to convincingly put analytic skills to work, and perhaps because the people he encountered in gentrifying neighborhoods are English speaking, the quotes from them are longer and more resonant. It also appears that the systems and values at work in these places feel more accessible to him, and therefore to the reader. But he is right focus so substantially on immigration and immigrant life. Nothing so much defines the process of urban change than the ways newcomers adapt, reject, assimilate, become inspired by the city they’re adopting, which is after all the collective product of the many millions of people who had come before.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.