As I went walking down Broadway…
Cities, like men, are embodiments of the past and mirages of unfulfilled dreams
Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Matrix of Man, 1968
The subway train clanked and screeched out of the darkness at last into stretched autumnal sunshine. I rattled northwards in an emptying carriage gazing down on nameless nondescript streets, and sometimes straight into ex-offices within which the same endeavours had probably been carried on from when the building had been erected in the early 20th century up until the last family firm member had locked up for the last time before heading out to suburban superannuation. There was a final rattle and squeal, a glare of water, and I was on the platform thirty feet above 225th Street watching the Bronx-bound train pull complainingly away.
Then I was down on the street, and the sun was bouncing back at me from off the River, and there were leaves turning to gold, and sparrows screaming in the tangled ironwork of the bridge. I was curiously aware of crowding ghosts – memories of the freebooters who had claimed this broad new territory for their crowded Netherlands, its proudly Protestant Stadtholder and their Dutch East India employers. My back was to the Bronx and Yonkers – to my right was Spuyten Duyvil Creek – below the bridge the Harlem River – and beyond the bridge, my chosen companion for the next 14 miles, the Heerestraat or Breede Weg of Nieuw Amsterdam which had gradually become the Broadway of New York.
I crossed the bridge and was back on the island, standing at Manhattan’s northern tip with the famous road already threatening to run away with me, diagonally down more than 200 blocks towards its glamorous terminus, where the tourists stand in lines for hours to board the boats that haul them across the harbour to where the huge, haloed woman holds up a torch to evoke opportunity and America.
Here at Broadway’s little known other end, in Inwood, the streets undulate – mostly down from Manhattan’s spine west towards the Hudson, but even Broadway buckling occasionally as if it can barely hold the topography in check. You get a sudden sense of the old Wickquasgeck Road that ran this way before the whites came.
A 1930s guide to New York said of Inwood,
Rivers and hills insulate a suburban community that is as separate as any in Manhattan
– a turn of phrase simultaneously redolent of security and the proximity of wilderness. Inwood is no longer insulated. The huddled masses of Mesoamerica have overflowed up here, reclaiming the island sold by their distant genetic kin in 1626 for 60 guilders (the agreement was concluded in what is now Inwood Hill Park) – and they have taken over from the Irish and Jewish prewar residents, some of whom must still live in the Art Deco apartment blocks, longing for gentrification.
Lately, the Mesoamericans have been joined by Muslims – all of them jumbled up together in a welter of squalid shops, parking lots, auto-body repair joints, bulldozed spaces where buildings once stood and the graffiti-tagged twisting iron ribbon of the subway track with its screeching stock. Here they are recreating Dominica, or increasingly Algeria, inside the shells of the Anglos’ edifices – selling things that only the most desperate or debased could desire.
In Inwood’s genteel west, they cling onto illusions – fragments of forest and saltmarsh, the Dutch colonial Dyckman House and views of The Cloisters, but east of Broadway Inwood is real and relevant, rich in nylon T-shirts and jogging bottoms, Day of the Dead decorations, plastic statues of the Virgin, latex Halloween masks in the form of multi-eyed Rastafarians or axe-cloven heads, pallid meat from sheep that would have died slowly swinging by their back legs as their throats were sliced open, and tremulous Thanksgiving thighs from the turkeys I saw standing bent-necked in bare metal cages, in a dank, dripping, excrement-ammoniac sub-hell populated by smoking, spitting, swarthy camp guards.
Judging from all the election posters that no-one had troubled to translate, the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano – seemingly sated with statesmanship at home – was making a determined play for control for the Sector Externo New York, while for the less public-spirited, layers of over-pasted posters advertised such all-American entertainments as Joe Veras, Toque Dequeda and El Negro. The badly lettered signs in some shop windows announcing “We Accept Food Stamp/Nosotros Aceptamos Cupones de Comida” showed that not all the Rockefellers-manqué had made it.
Great roads have their own logic and pace, and Broadway carried me on out of Dominica Externo into an intersectionland of traffic lights and offices, allowing short detours to examine enticements like the gleam of green at the pleasingly named Swindler Cove, or to watch a fat black traffic warden slumped on a doorstep trying to catch her breath after a gentle stroll, buying a Coke from an African couple pushing a presumably purloined supermarket trolley piled high with Coke cans – where had they got those? I itched to make a citizen’s arrest.
By the time I got down to around 197th, Catholicism-cum-Santeria had given way grudgingly (with occasional relapses) to Judaism. Cohen’s Gentle Dental was advertised by a smiling tooth wearing blue boots, yarmulke-sporting students asked me for directions to the yeshiva, and an ancient scowling man with a twisted back and a smell of rancid clothes took time out from gathering bundles of free newspapers to ask in a heavy Yiddish accent if I could give him a dollar for the bus.
Then Judaism gave way to a braggart non-conformism, with the “Rev Ike” on every Sunday at 2.45pm at the Christ United Church, in what looked like a 1930s cinema – a suitably hideous setting for such a must-miss missionary.
There was no such vulgarity at 155th, where there was set an Episcopalian church in grandly Gothic style to convey the impression of hyperboreal antiquity – set in a neat little garden of well-behaved grass and upright tombstones marking the remains of upright people, with a tasteful sign advertising decorous services to passers-by who would probably prefer to watch the Rev Ike. All New York Episcopalian churches give the same impression of good. gloomy Gotham taste combined with deadness.
Rather than either Ike or Episc, I would always prefer the most joyful sight of the whole walk – a harsh scream above the cars, outstretched claws and a blur of azure, as a blue jay hurled itself argumentatively into a tree in the middle of the road, like its ancestors had been doing hereabouts long before even Wickquasgeck.
I was surprised to notice that the iron gratings on the drains had “Made in India” stamped on them – as I had earlier noticed that almost all Big Apple souvenirs are manufactured in China. But then New York now has an increasingly tenuous relationship with America – let alone the Europeans who founded the city and the country the city once represented. The little man who sat mending clothes in the window below a shop sign advertising “Nordic Cleaners” may well have been a cleaner, but he was no Nordic – and it suddenly occurred to me I had not noticed any Nordics for hours.
And so I passed interestedly across the island, past huge buildings of the strictly functional type so admired by Ayn Rand, and handsome ones in pastiches of European styles, like the American Geographical Society, which looked like it had been plucked from South Kensington – an institution whose staff no longer need to venture far in search of exotica.
At 116th was the little proud universe of Columbia University, where future leaders lolled confidently before neo-classical porticoes, and security guards spoke into handsets below statues presented by the well-rounded sounding 1890 Class of Arts & Mines. By now, Broadway had become more or less tame, because more familiar. Even the topography had flattened out, as if the road was feeling weighed down by buildings that grew steadily taller, and the rare shop windows were selling such essential items as Halloween costumes for dogs. By the time I had reached Columbus Circle, the effigy of the robed discoverer looked absurdly puny against the bulk of the buildings.
There was welcome green relief of London plane trees at 107th with the tiny triangle of Straus Park, named in honour of the Macy’s founder – with its sad 1913 memorial to Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, who insisted on staying aboard the Titanic to drown with her husband.
Lovely and pleasant were their lives, and in death they were not divided
runs the inscription from the Book of Samuel, below an unsuitably languid Art Nouveau female bronze. Civilized-looking people sat on benches and read books while traffic thundered past just a few feet away – the racket muffled somehow by the trees.
At Times Square, the neons were blazing details of fizzy drinks and frothy shows, and Broadway heaved with technology-hung drifters wearing refugee chic of T-shirts, anoraks and jeans – the lackadaisical livery of individualists everywhere. Even the mixed-sex, multicultural and frankly unfit-looking police in Times Square seemed to be falling out of their uniforms – the antithesis of the tall stern Irish cops of yore.
But there were more focused presences – an orange-tabarded trade union demonstration, hundreds of capable-looking men bearing placards reading “Proud to be Union”, who looked extraordinarily out of place in this epicenter of indulgence. And there was an even more surprising irruption, as with a Harley-Davidson howl bounced back from the buildings, Broadway was captured briefly by 70-80 bikers, all young black men, helmetless, some wearing rubber gorilla masks, coming at speed into the Square, led by three riders abreast doing wheelies as they stared about arrogantly, like a combination of Mad Max and Planet of the Apes. The police gaped, normal traffic scrambled to the side and phone-cameras were flashed by weakly-grinning watchers who did not realize that this was intended as intimidation, a play for dominance and a defiance of the cops – who indeed had no time to respond before the phalanx had passed out of sight, if not out of hearing. Two minutes after the rumbling bikes had gone, a lone police car headed off in insincere pursuit, its thin siren a gnat-noise compared to the ruckus of the riders.
Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony) liked New York, particularly Broadway, although chiefly only by comparison with the rest of America, which she eviscerated in her dyspeptic 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans. Even while lavishing praise, she could not resist a waspish aside:
This noble street may vie with any I ever saw, for its length and breadth, its handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent trottoir, and well-dressed pedestrians…If it were not for the peculiar manner of walking, which distinguishes all American women, Broadway might be taken for a French street.
She was less susceptible to Broadway’s thespian amusements, saying of the non bon ton Chatham Theatre:
I observed in the front row of a dress box a lady performing the most maternal office possible, several gentlemen without their coats, and a general air of contempt for the decencies of life, certainly more than usually revolting.
I wondered what she would make of Broadway now. She might have enjoyed the “farmers’ market” in Union Square – not real farmers but organic campaigners, but bringing a glad smell of hinterland to the city’s over-angular heart. The closer one gets to Wall Street, there is a semblance of civilization in the shape of well-dressed bankers (although Mrs. Trollope would have loathed their employment) and there are a few buildings that would have been standing when she was in the city – including the Dutch-gabled “Deutsches Haus” ar Washington Square (so human-scale I wanted to touch it), the Fraunces Tavern and St Paul’s Chapel.
She probably entered the Trinity Church that then stood on the site of today’s well-mannered building, and would have curled her lip superciliously at the orthography on Obadiah Hunt’s monument, who had died in 1760 at 84 –
From Birmingham in Warwick Shire With his wife Susannah from Credley in Heartford Shire In Oldingland
These Oldinglish are lost in the graveyard loam, along with Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton, thousands of remains banked up behind a restraining wall that looms over passers-by oblivious to the proximity of so many predeceased.
Even the generally nil admirari Mrs. Trollope might have been quietly moved in St Paul’s Chapel, where 9/11 is still raw to the touch. The first time I had been in St Paul’s had been during my first visit to New York, just a month after the attacks, when every surface was covered with photographs of the terrible day, portraits of missing people, anguished appeals for information, ribbons, flowers, flags and pieces of dead firemen’s uniforms. Even my non-American eyes had been pricking, and it had been strangely hard to swallow, as a group of teenagers came together as an impromptu choir, and sang The Star-Spangled Banner with tears streaming unashamedly down their fresh faces.
After nine years, the Chapel still has a similar capacity to move strangers, with its folk art 18th century US Seal above Washington’s Pew, a crudely lettered banner reading
TO NEW YORK CITY AND ALL THE RESCUERS – KEEP YOUR SPIRITS UP. OKLAHOMA LOVES YOU!!
and its permanent display of photographs and a fireman’s uniform surmounted by a police helmet, almost hidden beneath badges donated by emergency services from across the world – recalling those amazing weeks when almost the entire world felt, like Le Monde, that “We Are All Americans”.
Just behind the Chapel lies a sere bone-yard of smashed and standing stones, old trees that outlived the WTC, and a bronze cast of the root system of one tree that did not. Just across the road, Ground Zero sits and steams, while cranes hoist huge girders in pursuance of a vast rebuilding that feels like it will never be complete.
On again I went at last, the road running away with me again, compelling me to finish what I had started – backwards through American history between cliffs of glass and the Canyon of Heroes. Then at last I came to Battery Park and Castle Clinton and beyond a wideness of sky and Bay. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine da Verrazano’s ship tacking up the reach to anchor off the wooded island, the first of many to realize the potential of this prize. What he set in motion in 1524 would reach its denouement for the Alonquians in 1626, for the Dutch in 1664, for the British in 1783, and if the northern end of Broadway was anything to go by, might someday see the overthrow of the Anglos.
Straight ahead, several miles away, Liberty’s vast verdigris virgin was framed perfectly by mooring posts topped by seagulls. Crowds of other travellers were there in the park at the end of the road, talking, laughing and photographing each other with the statue as clichéd backdrop. I took my own to prove that I too had been there, and as a coda to my Broadway album. Suddenly tired, I sat down for the first time in seven hours and stared out across the storied waters, dreaming of arrivals and departures.
This article appeared in Chronicles in October 2011, under the title of “An Englishman in New York”, and is reproduced here with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner