Empire state of mind

by April 18, 2020 0 comments

Will New York city rise again from the shadow of COVID-19? It did from the trauma of 9/11. Will there now be a second coming? Those familiar with NYC’s resilience know there will be

Peering through the window, I could see the iconic Manhattan landscape with its tall towers soaring into the sky. I was on an American Airlines flight from Washington DC that was set to land at what was then Idlewild Airport and is now John F Kennedy International Airport. That was my first view of New York City (NYC) and the date, if memory serves, was March 2, 1960.

Over the years, New York has become my second-most favourite city, the first being Kolkata, where I was born and where I grew up, and which remains home despite my decades in Delhi. I, therefore, deeply mourn the tragedy that has struck both NYC and New York state in the form of a massive COVID-19 attack, sending thousands to the hereafter and paralysing a throbbing megacity with its vibrant diversity of peoples and cultures, waxing along its wide avenues and in the shadows of its concrete canyons, epitomised by the Wall Street.

I am not the proverbial New Yorker who has lived in the city for years and feels the richness of its life in his/her viscera. I am an outsider whose many visits, none more than a month long at a time, have left behind a string of warm memories of exciting encounters with people, visits to galleries and museums, of the buzz of many voices in bars, varied fares in restaurants and hours of bookshop browsing (alas most of them have now closed down). The variety of people one sees is stunning — ranging from White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) to African Americans, from those of European origin to those of Chinese, Latin American, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian stock, from those in dark suits scurrying around in the financial district in lower Manhattan, to residual hippies lounging around in the Village’s Washington Square Park.

My memories, too, are diverse. I remember the West End Bar on the Broadway opposite Columbia University. Later closed down, it was frequented by the university’s faculty members and students and, often, by celebrities and writers. It was here that Jack Kerouac (On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans et al), William S Burroughs (of Naked Lunch and Junkie and much else) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl and Other Poems and Kaddish and Other Poems) held court, gave identity to Beat writing and shaped its emerging contours, with the word “Beat” being first used by Hubert Edwin Huncke (Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Edwin Huncke and The Evening Sun Turned Crimson among others).

Prior to gentrification in the last couple of decades or so, the area around Columbia University and the West End Bar was marked by poverty and a high crime rate. Now the Beats and kindred souls have left along with junkies, hustlers and muggers; the Yuppies (young, upwardly-mobile professionals) and the university authorities have taken over much of it. A sigh for that. But then NYC has seen many transient bursts of literary and artistic excellence under the canopy of its fervid creativity. The area around the Columbia University and the West End Bar is a part of West Harlem which, in turn, is included in the wider sprawl of Harlem, enveloping the central and eastern part of the latter, in the northern reaches of NYC.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the entire area was the venue of what has come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, which saw a flowering of African American culture in the spheres of literature, music, theatre, visual art and sculpture. There was an explosion of music, particularly jazz. Paul Robeson was a towering presence. Many others, who became tall eminences later, cut their teeth at the Cotton Club, for a long time a Whites-only nightclub at the heart of Harlem, which featured promising African American performers. Duke Ellington, composer, pianist and jazz orchestra leader, made his mark here. Louis Armstrong, trumpeter, who profoundly influenced the evolution of jazz, played here. Lena Horne, singer, dancer, actress and civil rights activist, made her mark here, as did Ethel Waters, celebrated for her mellifluous rendering of the blues and Adelaide Hall, the noted jazz singer who later migrated to Britain.

The visual and plastic arts flourished. Aaron Douglas’s paintings and Augusta Savage  and Meta Warrick’s sculptures were widely and critically applauded. It was equally a time for intellectual ferment, which owed much to the collection of essays, The Soul of Black Folk (1903) by WEB Du Bois, sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author and editor. He played a major, if not defining, role in shaping the Harlem Renaissance, as did Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Communities league. The widely-circulated weekly newspaper, Negro World, which he founded and ran on behalf of the UNIA, and The Crisis, the quarterly mouthpiece of the NAACP which Du Bois founded in 1910 and edited until 1934, played a critically important role in publishing African American writers and giving them much-needed visibility.

Langston Hughes was, perhaps, the most important literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Countee Collen left behind his mark as a poet. Arna Bontemps and Jean Toomer were important writers whom The Crisis gave salience. While the Renaissance’s role in enabling individual writers to be recognised and successful is important, much more so its contribution to laying the groundwork for the evolution of African-American consciousness and literature and defining its ethos. Du Bois wanted African American artists to remember their moral responsibility projecting the issue of racial equality in their work. James Baldwin, the novelist and essayist whose writings shook the United States in the 1960s, did this in all his works, and, particularly tellingly, in Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression delivered a crippling blow; other factors like internal squabbling worsened matters. The Harlem Renaissance hobbled to an end in the early 1930s. As they say, sic transit Gloria mundi (Thus goes worldly glory). Before waning, however, it projected the ethos and culture of African Americans on their terms and not in terms of the stereotypes many Whites had imposed on them. With its creative reverberations spreading far and wide, it made the world sit up and take note. It aroused the latent pride of African Americans in their own accomplishments, culture and capabilities and made them progressively unwilling to suffer the discrimination that had continued to be heaped on them despite the abolition of slavery. The road was prepared for the movement for equality, an issue that was gaining increasing momentum, to swell into the tidal wave of the civil rights movement of the 1960s when many barriers collapsed.

The 1960s were a turbulent period. Besides the peaking of the civil rights movement, the one against the United States’ participation in the Vietnamese War (as David Elliott calls it in his definitive book the by the same name), convulsed the campuses and streets. NYC was no exception and the highest point in the multiplicity of protest meetings, marches and sit-ins was clearly the April 15 Spring Mobilisation march against the war in Vietnam, which attracted several hundreds of thousands of participants.

In NYC, the civil rights, anti-war and the Beat movements, which often overlapped, flowed parallelly in the 1960s. The three subsided in the early1970s. The reasons were several. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s seemed to have taken some of the edge of the African American drive for equality. The Vietnamese war limped to a close in 1972. Internal feuds split the Left-leaning Students for a Democratic Society, which was active in both the anti-war and civil rights movements. All involved were tired of the prolonged campus unrest.

The Beat movement had also lost steam. The East Village Other, the shrill voice of counter-culture and protest, died in 1972. The Village Voice, a sober platform of creative dissent founded in 1955, ceased publication in 2017, surviving online till 2018.  The Bohemians moved out of the village. Yet New York was not bereft of excitement. The village had its jazz and restaurants. Until the COVID-19 horror struck, performances and exhibitions drew thousands to the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, which now houses the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet and the Julliard School of Music. The Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History drew streams of visitors.

Over the whole city now hangs the sinister shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will it ever recover? It did from the trauma of 9/11. Will there now be a second coming? Those familiar with NYC’s resilience know there will be.

(Writer: Hiranmay Karlekar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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