Tony Judt’s New York, and Yours
Like Tupac Shakur, the late Tony Judt keeps pumping out hits even after his death. His latest, an op-ed in the New York Times about his love of New York City, is absolutely brilliant. The thesis isn’t particularly novel – basically, that New York is in America but not of it, or, in his words, “a city more at home than in its home country” – but the prose is so spectacular that the recycled thesis can be overlooked.
Tony Judt’s New York is beautiful. It is also thoroughly his. He marvels at “Joseph the Tailor,” a Russian Jew, and his barbers, “Giuseppe, Franco, and Salvatore, all from Sicily.” This New York could have existed 100 years ago, were it not for the “Israelis on the next block” selling falafel, or the “Arab at the corner” with his “sizzling lamb” (actually he might have found the latter 100 years ago too).
One thing absent from Tony Judt’s New York is any semblance of African-American life. This is a New York in which the Harlem Renaissance never happened. Or at least, where it was forgotten, or ignored, despite the profound effects it had on New York and indeed on American culture.
Spanish Harlem is also invisible. Tony Judt’s New York has no Puerto Rican Day Parade to colour its streets. My wife and I live in Washington Heights now, in the bubble that is the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, within a community that is 85% Dominican. The Dominican Republic has been the largest source of immigration for New York in the last decade. These residents too, like multitudes of Latinos that populate the five boroughs, are missing.
Even “Jewish New York,” which Judt labels “past its peak,” has simply found different mountains to climb. Fifteen blocks north and a few blocks east of our apartment sits Yeshiva University, the center of Modern Orthodox Judaism in America, which is alive and well. The Hasidic Jews of Crown Heights, Borough Park, Midwood and Williamsburg are fruitful and multiplying, and occasionally peddling a politics so noxious even Carl Paladino could find a home there.
Judt’s Jewish New York, of Woody Allen and Irving Howe (the Jewish New York with which I identify) may be dwindling, but other Jewish New Yorks are thriving.
I recognize my comment is annoying, like the grad student at the back of the room who raises his hand only to lazily ask: “What about race? What about class? What about gender?”
And indeed, I could register this complaint on behalf of every community in the city. Why didn’t Judt talk about New York as a Gay Mecca? Or the birthplace of Hip Hop? Why no mention of the multiple Chinatowns? The Caribbean, Korean and Kurdish immigrants that flavour the city? And where are the women?
But the point, and it’s a trite one, is that New York is many things to many people. Tony Judt found in New York what he was looking for: a taste of old Europe, a cosmopolitan sensibility, an intellectual life interspersed with the common touch. It was also a launching pad for countless artists, a hidden world of pleasure and peril for the men of Gay New York, workers and wives in a City of Women. “Its lights will inspire you,” proclaims Alicia Keys’ in Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” as millions of New Yorkers, inside and outside the municipal limits, all around the world, sing along to the chorus in this anthem for the new millennium. The city is Tony Judt’s, but it’s also theirs, and mine, and yours.