Feed on

Second in a series of tributes to my friend, Marshall. In the last week, I’ve been pleasantly amused by Patell and Waterman’s History of New York account of Marshall’s intermittent computer woes (I knew them well); appreciated the range of appreciations Dissent has offered, illustrated by the priceless photo of Marshall with his doppelganger, a sculpture of himself by John Ahearn; and urge anyone who hasn’t already done so to read Robert Christgau’s original March 16, 1982 Village Voice review of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which begins:

“What’s most important about Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is that it’s a good read…”

Still is too but it’s hardly Marshall’s only good read— far from it! Do you know M.’s piece on I.B. Singer?

“Readers who grew up as I did on American films noirs may notice that Singer’s many hot-but-doomed couples sound amazingly like Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, or Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once.  At first the similarity seemed bizarre to me:  Could I be imagining this?  But then I realized that many of the best American noirs were made at exactly the same historical moment as Singer’s, by Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder and all sorts of other people who were Jewish refugees like Singer himself…”

— Brian Berger


Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it. Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.
—Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)

London is drowning, I live by the river.
—The Clash, “London Calling” (1979)

You know that nice park in the South Bronx? . . .
the block is burning down on one side of the street,
and the kids are trying to build something on the other.
—Grace Paley, “Somewhere Else” (1985)

When I was a child in the Bronx more than half a century ago, New York’s publicly owned radio station WNYC used to make this announcement every hour on the hour, all through the day and night: “This is Station WNYC, New York City, where seven million people”—at some point in the early 1960s it became eight million—“live in peace and harmony, and enjoy the benefits of democracy.” I was thrilled by this language. Later on I learned that it was a gift of the New Deal and the Popular Front. By the time I arrived, historians seem to think, these movements were exhausted, worn out. But their language sounded fresh and alive to me.

What did those big ideas mean? They meant that New York was full of grand material structures—the Harbor (still thriving all through my childhood), the Statue of Liberty, great buildings, Times Square, Penn and Grand Central Stations, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, and many more; we should learn to love them but also to understand their human costs. Our family weekends often featured structures. From the deck of a ferry or a skyscraper, we would exclaim, “Wow!” (I’m still happy to exclaim it.) Then my mother would say something like, “Isn’t it beautiful? And don’t forget, you can get here on the subway.” And my father would say something like, “And don’t forget who built this.” Who? I would ask. Before long I caught on and knew the answer: “People we never heard of, who worked themselves to death.” It was only later on that I realized they meant people like them who worked themselves to death. (My mother was valedictorian of her high school but never had a chance to go to college. When I went, and learned about “alienated labor,” she was delighted, and used the phrase for the rest of her life.) But they were proud of the city that anonymous, exploited, alienated people like them had built. The bad deals they had got in their lives were mitigated by their pride in being part of what they loved to say was “the greatest city in the world.” The message on the air was a melody they could dance to. The New York they hoped to pass on to us was a real community, a place where the sadness of individual lives—and there was plenty—could be overcome by the glory and harmony of the whole.

When I left New York at the start of the 1960s to go to graduate school in England, I could hear the message till my ship, the SS United States, was well out on the sea. When I came back at the end of the ’60s to teach at City College, part of the City University of New York, the message was gone. No one could remember when it went, or why. (I wrote to WNYC, and its Public Affairs Department said it would get back to me, but it never did.) I asked people, and many people told me, “Don’t ask!” It took me awhile to read their melancholy. What they meant was that New York as an ideal- ized beloved community was gone with the wind, and nothing could bring it back.

I wouldn’t accept this. I had come back here for New York’s very special form of peace, harmony, and democracy, and I was determined to enjoy them. Forty years later, I’m still determined. But honestly, I had no idea then how far my city of dreams had unraveled, and how much more it was still going to come apart.

Yet New Yorkers have a wonderful capacity to live through disintegration, to build up even while they are burning down. And in fact, day after day, year after year, all through the latter part of the twentieth century, we were bombarded by visions of our city coming apart and falling down. “The disintegration of New York” became a media cliché, but it was rooted in something real. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were the climax of a long wave—that’s what historians call these things, “long waves”—that had been breaking and crashing against us for years. A year or so later, Bruce Springsteen released a beautiful album, The Rising. The album begins with a heartrending dirge, “My City of Ruins.” “The Rising” says about cities what Springsteen has always said about men and women: the trauma of falling into ruins offers us a post-traumatic chance to rise, to rebuild ourselves in a better way. We didn’t ask for the trauma, and we don’t want it, yet if we look it in the face and live with it, we can become more than we are.

Before my story starts, I need to make a point about New York’s story. It is a story as rich in ironies as it is in skyscrapers. One of the things that made the late twentieth century so bitter here is one of the things that has always made New York so sweet: its intense and vibrant street life. Our nineteenth-century street system, built for pedestrians to walk around in, and our early-twentieth-century mass-transit system, built to move streets full of people en bloc, constitute public space of a breadth and depth undreamt of in the rest of the U.S. (and possibly unmatched in the rest of the world). A random walk in the street or ride on the train can give us a splendid view of the abundance, diversity, and color of New York life. All of our people’s energy and beauty are there to see, hear, feel in the street. But this means that our strains and rages are out in the street as well. Openness of being is one thing that makes New York a thrill. But openness may lead our tensions and struggles—between classes, between races and ethnic groups, between men and women, between generations—to boil over openly, in front of everybody. The New York street strips us naked, some- times in the midst of people we may not want to be naked with. But it strips them naked, too…

— Marshall Berman, from “Introduction” to New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007)

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