Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan
By Phillip Lopate
Crown Publishers, 422 pages, $25.95.
Writers love New York not for what it is, but for what it is in the writer’s imagination. Not even Paris intrigues us the way New York does, which is one of the reasons that the New York writer has become so distinct an American literary species, much like the Southern writer. And when we speak of someone as a New York writer, it is the surrender of imagination to the sense of place that we have in mind.
Phillip Lopate is a New York writer whose imagination has been fueled by his continuing argument with a city that is as powerful a part of his vision as his own body. Perhaps more powerful, since he seems less passionately involved with his body than with the city. New York is the felt presence in his writing, as if city streets and parks, buildings and walkways had absorbed his sense of what life is. The city both fascinates him and challenges him, its urbanism the source and the object of his considerable talent. One wonders whether Lopate even would have been a writer had he been born elsewhere.
Lopate is a Jew raised in outer-borough New York during a time when New York truly was what Harry Golden called it: “the greatest Jewish city in the world.” That is a story we have heard before, yet in Lopate’s case the city is responsible for creating the sharp eye he casts on it. What characterizes him as a New York writer is that the city fathered the vision that probed it.
Like so many outer-borough New Yorkers, he grew up conscious of how inferior Queens and Brooklyn and the Bronx were to “the real city.” Manhattan was not so much New York as it was a dream of what the city could be. One can be, as Lopate is, a New Yorker from head to toe, but one’s vision nonetheless stems from the city beyond Manhattan. And it is this that forces the outer-borough writer to make his journey into the real city the very definition of his talent. In “Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan,” Lopate does that — and he does it remarkably well.
Lopate’s consciousness of the city was formed when New York was “America’s manufacturing capital.” The city he still yearns for is “the blue-collar city of my father, a factory worker who would return from his ribbon-dyeing plant with the then-liberal New York Post carried lovingly like a Torah.” He writes of that city warmly, yet manages to avoid the sentimentality that so often scars New York writers — in large part because he recognizes that his outer-borough ethnic New York had been swallowed up by a city that today still welcomes new waves of immigration. Even Alfred Kazin lapsed at times into sentimentality. Not the least of the attractions of “Waterfront” is that Lopate rarely gives in to the temptation to gush about the city. He even manages an intelligent and much-needed defense of Robert Moses, who has become New York’s bête noire since Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” was published in 1975.
Lopate is a writer who has contributed to the remarkable resurgence of the personal essay in the United States over the past decades. But nothing he has yet written possesses the power or pertinence of “Waterfront.” Not only does he know and love New York, but his book also has the virtue of refusing to lie about what the city is or what it might become.
As he circumnavigates the Manhattan waterfront — a part of the city into which urban planners have poured so much energy — Lopate understands that the New York he knew, that outer-borough ethnic city that created his urban dream, is dead. “Waterfront” is a eulogy for a New York that died in the 1960s even as it celebrated itself. In part, it died of success; in part, it died because, like their Irish and Italian peers, most outer-borough Jews looked not to Manhattan for their futures, but to the suburbs. Abe Beame, New York’s first Jewish mayor, just as easily could have been the mayor of Palm Beach’ Fla., or Albuquerque, N.M. But regardless of what one may think of Ed Koch or of Rudy Giuliani, it is impossible to conceive of either of them as mayor of any other city in the world. Lopate will squirm if he reads this, but “Waterfront” is, in its way, his tribute to the New York they would not allow to die.
Leonard Kriegel is another New York writer still trying to come to terms with the city. His last book was “Flying Solo” (Beacon, 1998) and he is currently working on a book of essays about New York.