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Vol. LXIII, No. 28
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
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Book Review

Under or Above Ground, New York, New York’s a Wonderful Town

Stuart Mitchner

Remarkable, unspeakable New York!

Henry James, The American Scene

When I was growing up in the midwest, New York was the source, the one undeniable destination, the goal, the center of the world, the place to be. All the books I read were produced there. Classic Comics came from Rockefeller Center. When we went to see the touring production of a Broadway play, it, too, of course, came from New York. Eating breakfast in the kitchen every morning, I was looking at the folding screen my father had decorated with New Yorker covers, and it was thanks to his passion for the place that we got to live there one year. If I bonded with the city walking home from McBurney School on fall and winter evenings through the Great White Way, my initiation into New York’s sweaty realities came during school-bound subway rides to Columbus Circle packed among the proverbial sardines in the rush-hour armpit of the city (a mixed metaphor subway riders will understand).

Tracy Fitzpatrick introduces her book Art and the Subway: New York Underground (Rutgers University Press $29.95) with a personal recollection featuring a woman eating potato chips, a couple holding hands, and an elderly man who smiles at the author, pats her on the shoulder on his way off the Bronx-bound train, and blows her a kiss from the platform. Anyone who has spent time on New York subways will probably be able to recall their own version of, as Fitzpatrick puts it, “the odd moment underground.”

Under and Above Ground

Between 1938 and 1941 photographer Walker Evans observed, sampled, and recorded the formula for such subway moments in the faces of riders snapped with his hidden camera; the two images reproduced among the bounty of illustrations in Art and the Subway show seated couples. Although both couples are clearly strangers to one another, the man and woman in Subway Portrait (1938/1941) seem to be experiencing some sort of wordless communion, shoulders touching, gazes aligned, each pointedly aware of the other (even their hats seem to be communicating).

One of the best-known images of the odd passenger moment is found not under but above ground, in Why Not Use the “L”? by Reginald Marsh, whose sketches of subway and elevated life comprising hundreds of cartoons for newspapers and magazines were the subject of what Fitzpatrick calls her first subway project. The three passengers in Marsh’s painting occupy separate worlds: the standing woman reading a newspaper, the bespectacled girl seemingly staring into the abyss, or perhaps it’s her fearful awareness of the sleeping man in the overcoat slouched on the dingy, straw-colored seat next to her like a denizen of the lower depths, his face a sinister caricature out of Goya’s Caprichos. The title might as well say, “Why not Go to Hell?” Look at the dim life-forms huddled beneath the columns and arches of the elevated in Marsh’s Chatham Square and you know he was aware of the the play on “L” and hell.

James Rides the “L”

Henry James experienced the hell of the “L” when, as described in The American Scene, he “electrically traveled through a strange, a sinister over-roofed clangorous darkness,” upheld by “posts and piles that were as the supporting columns of a vast cold, yet also uncannily-animated sepulchre.” James compared riding the “L” to “moving the length of an interminable cage.” The Master probably preferred to stand, spurning the dirty yellow seats, one gloved hand gripping the leather strap, an imposing figure in his black top coat and top hat, holding fast as the car sways and averting his eyes from the windows of tenement life flashing past. Or did he? In the same book, he sees New York as the essence of “the human scene in the United States,” confessing that all questions give way to “a single irresistible obsession” he describes as “the ache of envy of the spirit of a society which had found there, in its prodigious public setting, so exactly what it wanted. One was in [the] presence, as never before, of a realized ideal and of that childlike rush of surrender to it and clutch at it which one was so repeatedly to recognize, in America, as the note of the supremely gregarious state.” You can almost hear the sound of the elevated echoing through the next paragraph, in “the clangorous charge of cars, and the hustling, hustled crowds” that “carried one’s charmed attention from one chamber of the temple to another.”

Ultimately, James’s vision of the “electric carfuls” is not unlike Marsh’s or Evan’s: “The carful, again and again, is a foreign carful: a row of faces up and down, testifying, without exception, to alienism unmistakable, alienism undisguised and unashamed.”

The 17 color plates and 80 black-and-white images in Art and the Subway accompany chapters on performance art, graffiti, subway in film and on song sheet covers, and public art by artists such as Bruce Davidson, DONDI, Keith Haring, Yayoi Kusama, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Murray, as well as Evans and Marsh.

Walker Evans’s photographs of subway riders appeared in book form in 1966 under the title Many Are Called, with an introduction by Evans’s friend and colleague James Agee. “They are of all ages,” wrote Agee, “of all temperaments, of all classes, of almost every imaginable occupation …. Each, also, is an individual existence, as matchless as a thumbprint or a snowflake.” The book was reissued by Yale University Press in 2004 on the 100th anniversary of the New York City subway system.

The Original Knick

Another New York book just out, Elizabeth L. Bradley’s Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York (Rutgers $24.95) shows how Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious author of Washington Irving’s A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809) became the mythic persona of the city. Bradley traces the popularization of the name eventually used for hotels, housing projects, beer, and of course, basketball teams. A cartoon of Father Knickerbocker was the original logo of the New York Knicks, and former Knick and U.S. Senator from New Jersey Bill Bradley (no relation to the author) calls the book “a unique examination of how a name familiarized by Washington Irving two hundred years ago grew to become a cultural symbol of New York.”

The Forests of Times Square

In Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (Abrams $40), Eric W. Sanderson geographically matches an 18th-century map of Manhattan’s landscape to the modern cityscape, having researched historical and archaeological records, and employed, according to the jacket copy, “modern principles of ecology and computer modeling to re-create the forests of Times Square, the meadows of Harlem, and the wetlands of downtown.” The illustrations by Markley Boyer that show what Manhattan looked like 400 years ago. The New York Times called Mannahatta “a cartographical detective tale.” You can experience it first-hand in the Museum of the City of New York exhibit, “Mannahatta/Manhattan,” which will be on view through October 12.

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