That Old Feeling: Where I Live

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The view from Ground Zero

New York is seen, on the map of cultural consciousness, as that Big Different Place. It’s a European city on the East Coast, tall instead of wide, with more foreigners than natives, more liberals than in the entire media conspiracy (which is also based here), and people who can spend their entire adult lives without ever owning or needing a car. No wonder it took a couple of jet-plane bombs and several thousand surprise deaths to get the folks outside of New York — they call themselves Americans — to sympathize with us.

Of course, New York is not one thing. It’s especially not, or mostly not, Manhattan, which is only the third most populous borough (after Queens and Brooklyn) of the big five. To New Yorkers in Rego Park or Cypress Hills, Manhattan is “the city” — the place they come to, through the bridges and tunnels lightly reviled by sophisticated Manhattanites, for a day’s work. Sometimes, their last day: few of the firemen and policemen killed on Sept. 11 died in the borough they lived in. New York, like any big city or small town, is an overlapping series of neighborhoods. We feel closest to the place where we shop, get our dry cleaning done, take a walk or drive through, surrounded by buildings that are our unspoken friends, as much as the familiar faces of folks we see every day but have never been introduced to.

My neighborhood is TriBeCa (for Triangle Below Canal Street, and if you don’t mind I’ll drop the second and third capital letters from now on). You may have seen us on TV recently: we’re not far from the former World Trade Center. How not-close? Well, these days, anyone who lives or works in lower Manhattan brags about how close they are to Ground Zero. I live on Hudson Street, three blocks above Chambers Street — eight blocks from the northern hem of the World Trade Center complex. Or maybe we’re closer. In a recent interview in The Guardian, Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein said that the explosions “happened six blocks away from our offices in Tribeca.” Since the Miramax offices are three blocks north of us, perhaps we’re only three blocks away. (That Harvey, always crunching numbers.)

Non-New Yorkers don’t know how short Manhattan’s north-south streets are. So, to put it in terms the American driving public can understand, we’re four-tenths of a mile away from the great crematorium. Tribeca is the nice place near the awful place: Beverly Hills down the block from Bosnia. But proximity to an instant cemetery gives us a vicarious creepiness, what with the acrid stench of compressed steel and flesh, and the constant police presence; a few weeks ago a three-foot concrete barricade was erected around the Western Union Building across the street, presumably because of the telcom companies and government agencies housed there. So we feel as if we are close enough to the new Gettysburg to be part of the new war effort. Or at least an upmarket extension of Afghanistan: what the performance artist Reno calls “Tribecastan,” and I call Ground Plus One.

Tribeca is a mix of low-rise housing and looming old warehouses, renovated into one of the city’s snazzier real estate grabs. I like it, in part, because I live there; but also because the architecture — venerable, solid, ornate — suits me; and, even more so, because Tribeca is shouldered, sometimes elbowed, by other neighborhoods with personalities as different from each other as Omaha from Islamabad.

To the east is Chinatown, where I go to buy low-sodium soy sauce and rent Hong Kong videos from Cantonese immigrants who speak no English (including, “I don’t speak English”). To the north is trendy SoHo — or, as we hardy refugees to the southern tip of the island call it, Canada. To the southwest is Battery Park City, possibly the first attractive housing project since the Pyramids. Spend a few hours in any of these neighborhoods and then try, I dare you, to still hate New York.

Battery Park City is a stroller’s balm on a summer day. Walk down the mile-and-a-quarter promenade — past the lovers on the lawn, the kids in their rubberized playground, the skateboarders pretending that Manhattan is Manhattan Beach, the al fresco diners at Steamer’s Landing. Stop to admire the imposing bandshell of the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden; it has enough wonderfully wasted space to remind me of the dear dead original Penn Station. And across the plaza, the Hudson River, potent and polluted, Circe seducer of the first European settlers to this tiny plot of land nearly 400 years ago. Sit on a bench, stare out at the river and watch the history of American exploration, immigration and commerce surge by.

When we take outlying relatives on a Battery Park walk, we stop in the small park at the north holding The Real World, Tom Otterness’ playfully satiric sculpture garden. The witty images — a fat cat borne on a huge coin by oppressed little men, the teetering Babel of a miniature skyscraper (protected by a moat where odd creatures lurk), the iron dog eyeing an iron cat eyeing an iron bird eyeing an iron worm — all testify to a Boschian view of predatory capitalism; and the kids love it. And walking through the Winter Garden plaza, we make sure our visitors read the legend, from poet Frank O’Hara, that snakes along a balustrade: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes. I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”


And South is ... was ... the World Trade Center. But that neighborhood is also famous for the best shopping and browsing this side of Istanbul.

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