Stories that Speak to the Heart and Soul of a City
From the first person narrative accounts of discovering the new world aboard Ellis Island and coming to or to not live the American dream thus after, to stories of segregation and the cultural establishment that was the Harlem Renaissance, to weekly reflection journals written by students who come to this great city to take advantage of a study abroad opportunity, perhaps no city has been the topic of literature and the performing arts more so than New York City. My second book is titled Writing New York: A Literary Anthology
by Phillip Lopate; at 1023 pages, it is a collection of the 108 best unique short stories and writings that capture the spirit and diversity of experiences in New York City.
Having taken an art class on Orientalist Art, I came into this reading assignment with a strong background in World's Fairs, as the World Fairs were covered extensively in the course I had taken. Thus when selecting from the stories to read, I inclined to EL Doctorow's, World's Fair.
Doctorow 's writing, like many of the other stories that referenced the lights of New York City, emphasizes light as a recurrent theme. Without a doubt, the bright city lights and electricity are seen metaphorically as a representative of life, communal interaction, and human innovation. He accounts for his experiences growing up having attended the 1939 World's Fair in Queens, and most notably, recalls the presence of General Electric and the various appliances and machinery put to display. More so, he remembers the distinct burning smell of the auditorium upon having witnessed an artificially created lighting display. In this imagery are powerful understandings of creation and innovation, and how New York - the city that never sleeps despite the hours of darkness - has come to captivate the imagination of the world.
And as Doctorow's experiences shape his understandings of his environment, so to have my experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I stood in awe upon arrival in Times Square for the very first time earlier on in the semester and never would I have imagined living the city in total darkness. Yet indeed, this is what sadly happened. The greatness and almost impenetrable statures and buildings that are dependent on light and electricity - two dependent variables that continue to fuel our modern times - were immediately brought to a halt. For the first time, so many in New York City would experience physical darkness. In these experiences were moments of great reflection and contemplation. I believe those in this city who used this time to ponder the innumerable questions that life has to offer perhaps benefitted the most from this experience as the surrounding was not always so dark; in this darkness, we discovered strength, community, and the power of individuals in a city to come together to selflessly rush to the aid of fellow New Yorkers who needed our help.
The second most relatable story, for me, was Ralph Ellison's New York 1936.
On the surface, this short story was one about race relations and the sharp differences of social reality existing between the northern and southern United States during the Jim Crowe era. On a more spiritual and deeper level, the story was one demonstrating that our interconnected lives have produced an inescapable struggle to cement ever changing identities.
While Ellison narrates having met and befriended Langston Hughes after an invitation to a play with themes familiar to him from the south, he is really saying far more than accounting his experiences. In fact, having felt uncomfortable with the white presence and Jim Crowe themes of the play he was attending, Ellison begins to challenge his own beliefs and suppositions about his new city. He sits at the front of the bus simply because unlike in the South, he can do so. Yet his constant self-reflection and productive self criticism drive him to question his very motives. Ultimately, he decides to sit in the back of the bus, for he believes it provides him with more legroom and a better view of his surroundings.
What resonates so dearly is that Ellison, nearly my age having completed his junior year of college, finds in these experiences a challenge of not only being alone in the city, but of defining his identity. Does he conform to his environment and its expectations? Does he stubbornly insist on binding himself to customs of life in the south? Is there a happy medium between his new life and that of the old, or will he forever sell himself short of an identity uniquely his own?
To escape city life and ponder the greater meanings and his role in life, he escapes to the Staten Island ferry - a detail I found so shocking, for more than 75 years later, I too have taken fare-free journeys aboard the same ferry.
Perhaps next time I make way to the financial district and hop aboard a purposeless roundtrip ride across the harbor, it will serve an entirely other purpose than mere touristic spectacle. Perhaps, in the tradition of Ralph Emerson, I to will aboard the ferry and pass the Statue of Liberty in light of one the most beautiful skylines in the world as a means to reflect on this existential questions that deserve to be answered.