Writing the City

Gustave Caillebote crop

I spent many years wanting to write a city book. The first time I tried — in 1987, or maybe it was 1988 — I did so under the spell of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, which traces, in part, the notion of walkabout, by which the world is literally sung (and re-sung) into being. A compelling concept, isn’t it, reality as a contingent on narrative, on song or story, on the interplay of the imagination and physical space? My intent was to adapt such a strategy for my own ends, to create on the page, in the form of a sequence of connected poems, a songline of my life as walked and re-walked through New York, where I’d been born and raised and, at the time, still lived. An atlas of poems, if you will, each addressed to a particular location that held some resonance, some memory. I might begin, for instance, at Columbia Presbyterian, where I was born, then range south to SoHo, where I lived for many years in a third-floor apartment just a twenty-foot crawl from Milady’s bar on Prince and Thompson. I might meander across the river to Yankee Stadium or over to the Palladium on Fourteenth Street, to my old school on the Upper West Side or the subway entrance, at Eighty-sixth and Lexington, in front of which I was mugged. The idea was to use landscape as a through line, a unifying factor, to frame my experience, its resonances, through the lens of where it had occurred.

David L. Ulin.  Photo credit: Noah Ulin

David L. Ulin. Photo credit: Noah Ulin

That I failed goes without saying; at the time, I wasn’t up for anything so rigorous — or maybe it’s better to say: engaged. Cities, after all, require a double vision, in which past and present, collective and personal, blur. They are shared spaces — not just for the millions who live in them at any moment but also for all those who have ever lived in them — and yet they are individual, as well. How to interweave these elements? How to make the city a character on its own terms? I didn’t know the answers to those questions, which is one reason the book remained uncomposed.

Or did it? I wonder sometimes, given the primacy of the city, or of cities, in the work I’ve loved. I am a lifelong urban dweller, one who is most comfortable surrounded by concrete and sidewalks. I share an affinity with Hubert Selby, Jr., who is said to have remarked, when taken to the Alps while on a reading tour of Europe: “It’s just a pile of rocks.” Like writing, cities are expressions of process, the back-and-forth between our aspirations and our abilities. This is why one of my favorite city books is Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell’s Never Built Los Angeles, which, in gathering more than 100 architectural projects that never made it off the drawing board, becomes a group portrait of city as possibility. “[C]ities,” Goldin and Lubell tell us, “are never complete, even when they perish. Ghosts of cities past inhabit the ruins and affect us across the ages.” Cities, and stories, too. When I read a book such as, say, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, what I see refracted is, in part, my history. “One evening after a bad morning at school and a long afternoon at work,” Conroy recalls, “I emerged from the Eighty-sixth Street station of the Lexington Avenue subway feeling reluctant to go home.” This was my experience of school. (Was there ever anything but a bad morning?) This is the subway station where, a quarter of a century later, I would have my watch and money taken from me. Conroy may have been my father’s contemporary (both were born in the same year), but in his sense of the city and how it echoes, the stronger bond is between him and me. This is why despite the many other things that it is about, Stop-Time will always be for me a New York book, about a sympathetic spirit, one who, growing up in the neighborhood where I did, haunted the same luncheonettes, the same movie theaters and intersections, and found within this patchwork not chaos but connection, the boundaries of (what let’s call) his emotional world.

Conroy’s great antecedent, of course, is Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, published in 1951 and a model of the urban memoir. Kazin is interested in the city as a walker’s landscape, in the ways we learn the streets, and our place within them, through the intercession, and the movement, of our feet. Call him a self-mythologizer, which all the great city writers are. Call him a flâneur — Walter Benjamin by way of Baudelaire. “The sudden uprooting I always feel at dusk cries out in a crash of heavy wooden boxes,” he writes of a walk through Brownsville; “a dozen crates of old seltzer bottles come rattling up from the cellar on an iron roller.” My grandfather grew up in Bushwick, and I was raised on his stories of immigrant Brooklyn, but that is not the reason (or the only reason) such a passage resonates. No, it is the layering, the use of the most concrete physical details — the crates of bottles ratting on the iron roller — to get at the dérive within. “The city’s principal constituent matter is accrued time,” Luc Sante writes in The Other Paris, another terrific city book, (as is his New York counter-history Low Life). He, too, is referring to the flâneur and his or her “active and engaged form of interaction with the city, one that sharpens concentration and enlarges imaginative empathy.” The flâneur, Sante continues, “takes in construction sites and dumps, exchanges greetings with bums and truck drivers and the women washing their sidewalks in the morning, . . . studies trash and graffiti and sidewalk displays and rooftops.”

This, he means, is the real city, the one in which we not just live but also dream — or better yet, remember — a landscape in which longing yields to possibility and back again. “I look through the scrim directly into those old memories,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Odd Woman and the City, describing the overlay of past and present during a recent walk through Washington Square Park, “and I see they no longer have authority over me. I see the square as it is — black, brown, young: swarming with drifters and junkies and lousy guitar players — and I feel myself as I am, the city as it is. I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies, and so has New York.”

For Gornick, as for me, the point is identification, a blurring that is both physical and psychological. How does the city get inside us? How does it influence who we are? I think about this a lot as someone raised in one city who moved to another, which invests my urban explorations with a whisper of psychogeography. Early in The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick invokes Samuel Johnson, who used to wander the streets of London as she now traverses New York. “Johnson hated and feared village life,” she tells us. “The closed, silent streets threw him into despair. In the village his reflected presence was missing, Loneliness became unbearable. The meaning of the city was that it made the loneliness bearable.” The line brings to mind James Baldwin’s monumental “Sonny’s Blues,” that opening sequence on the subway, “the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.” It brings to mind Nelson Algren and his “thousand-columned El,” or Nathanael West, in Miss Lonelyhearts, framing the city as a kind of purgatory, blank and faceless, in which the mass of people move as if through a dream. “He felt,” West writes of his advice columnist protagonist, “as though his heart were a bomb.” A bomb, yes . . . but more than that, a footprint, or a set of clues.

I finally wrote my city book, although it was about another city, Los Angeles rather than New York. Or perhaps it’s most accurate to say I had been writing it all along. It was not (how could it be?) the book I’d imagined; like the city, it followed a shape, a process of its own. “Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction,” Rebecca Solnit observes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “qualities best basked in by walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or the fortune teller’s, only to know that one might.” Possibility, in other words, a landscape on which we inscribe our alphabets, our hieroglyphics, like Peter Stillman spelling out “TOWER OF BABEL” with his footsteps in Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Babel, babble, order out of chaos: “You see,” Stillman says, “I am in the process of inventing a new language . . . A language that will at last say what we have to say.”