In which the writer travels from New York and Washington, D.C. to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England. This is the last of the four-part series. For the earlier pieces, please click here.
New York City – Bicycle Kingdom
Back in New York City (I took New Jersey Transit from the Broad Street Station, not, as I had hoped, a ferry across the Hudson), I stayed for ten days, sleeping at a friend’s house in Brooklyn and commuting around the city on my red, hipster SE Lager single-speed bicycle with bullhorn handlebars and an ear-drumming bell—the portrait of the artist as a bike messenger.
I bought the bike five years ago and left it in my friend’s basement, so it is waiting for me when I arrive in New York. Once I have pumped up the tires and oiled the chain, I am good to go: be it to Harlem in northern Manhattan or to Flatbush in Brooklyn.
When I first moved to Brooklyn, in 1981, and lived there for ten years, I only rode my bicycle into Manhattan on a handful of occasions. In those years, a ride into Manhattan meant hauling your bike up steep stairs on the Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Williamsburg bridges. Once you were across the river, Manhattan was a cyclist’s nightmare—a demolition derby of errant taxis, potholes the size of lunar craters, and pedestrians eager to tell off anyone riding uptown.
Now that hipsters own and operate New York, the city (at least in many quarters) is a bike-riding paradise. There are segregated bike paths on many bridges, a cycle lane up the West Side of Manhattan, and all through at least Manhattan and Brooklyn there are painted cycle lanes on many side streets.
On most of the days that I was in New York, I would ride from Ditmas Park in Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan. Save for a few dead ends on the Lower East Side (Chrystie Street where it meets Second Avenue is the worst), I could ride for ninety minutes to my meetings and spend most of my time on a cycle lane.
New York may not be Amsterdam, but it is a lot better than when I tried to ride my Raleigh touring bike around the city during the 1980 transit strike (which was notable for Mayor Ed Koch, who dealt with the shutdown in a limo, standing at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge and greeting angry morning commuters by asking, “How am I doin’?”).
The pleasure of living in Brooklyn and riding into Manhattan each day was that I never took the same route twice. Each day, before setting out, I would pour over my official 2018 Bike Map for neighborhoods to rediscover.
Some days I would wander through Prospect Heights, Atlantic Terminal, Fort Greene and DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). On other days, I poked around Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Gowanus (yes, that of the industrial-strength canal).
Once I was across the East River, I had an endless choice of neighborhoods through which to ride on my trips to midtown. Sometimes I stayed east and rode around the Lower East Side, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Bowery.
Other days I would swing west and head north through Tribeca, Soho, Greenwich Village, and the Meat Packing District. On weekends I would go south to Wall Street and north to Harlem, using the West Side cycle path to connect those dots.
Did I like the New York City that I saw over my bull handlebars? Yes and no is the answer. I love it that New York has less crime than it did in the 1970s and 80s, when there were great swaths of the city where I would never go.
In those years (we lived in a Flatbush brownstone), I instinctively avoided places such as Red Hook, the South Bronx, Harlem, Crown Heights, East New York, and Fort Greene.
In the era of crack wars and the sound of small arms fire in the summer night, I never took the Franklin Avenue Shuttle or the G train through Williamsburg, and got off the IRT subway at 125th Street.
Nor did I ever explore Bushwick or Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy), on foot or by bike. As a New York City cop told the New York Times in the mid-1980s: “I can’t tell you that every 14-year-old on the subway has a gun; but I can tell you that every other 14-year-old has one.” In those years New York was a flat-earth society, and everyone knew where the ocean met the horizon.
The New York Emirate
Death Wish New York City is now as long gone as stickball on the Lower East Side. Red Hook has IKEA and a ferry into Manhattan; Fort Greene townhouses are priced at $4 million; Bushwick may have lost Miss Reinhold but it picked up an art scene; and everyone under thirty in the city heads on the weekend to brunch on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights.
None of that is inherently bad, of course. I am happy that IKEA has come to Brooklyn and brought with it a revitalization of Red Hook, which before was the vacant warehouse capital of the city. But what I don’t like about the new New York City is that it’s developing a Gulf State, suburban mall atmosphere—with Marshall’s on 125th Street and at the Atlantic Terminal; Starbucks on every corner; and high-rise condo projects that are little more than vertical gated communities. And the prices remind me of Abu Dhabi.
The rise-and-rise of New York explains much about the era of Trump, who, as much as anyone, is synonymous with turning the city into a playground for Saudi princes and Russian oligarchs—the only ones who can afford to eat on the East Side or buy a two-bedroom apartment in Soho.
I have no doubt that the angry Donald Trump from Jamaica Estates, Queens, hated the old New York—the second-hand bookstores around the Strand; the walk-up tenements in Brooklyn; or the meandering streets of Greenwich Village. Too much clutter; too many people with their own ideas.
I am sure his dream for New York is something closer to Dubai or the new parts of Hong Kong—cities of antiseptic, gold-encrusted towers, with security cameras and guards everywhere, and Rolls-Royces parked in the basement. It’s also his vision of the United States.
Trump Tower was the first apartment building in the New York Emirate. I remember when it was built. We would stand on the opposite side of the street and shake our heads that anyone in New York City would want to live like a sheik. (“Where do you get a bagel in that place?”) But Trump branded the idea of New York City as a treaty port for sketchy billionaires, and the world showed up with rubber bands around its bankrolls of hot money.
Harlem to Wall Street
On one of my excursions across Manhattan, I took my friend John Russell along for the ride. He is working on a novel about New York in the 1970s, when both of us were students at Columbia University and lived on the West Side. He now lives in North Carolina and had never ridden a bicycle around New York. I convinced him that he could easily master the intricacies of flipping off a cab driver, not to mention the bike lanes around Central Park.
He agreed to give it a try, and we began our ride at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street in Central Harlem. I picked it to show John what had once been the political base of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, the Harlem power broker in the 1960s who was brought down by scandals involving no-show jobs (a great New York tradition) and yachts delivering bag men and loose women to the Bahamian island of Bimini.
I suspect that in the next twenty years South Harlem, below 125th Street, will largely become an extension of the Upper East and West sides. Perhaps some streets will retain their African-American accents, but many will have a vinothèqueon the corner and fill in their vacant lots with yuppie high-rise towers, complete with rooftop pools and Cross Fit studios.
From the Abyssinian Baptist Church we rode up the short, steep hill to Hamilton Heights, the neighborhood of Alexander Hamilton’s house, The Grange, and City College of New York (CCNY), once the “Harvard of the proletariat.” I took John to The Grange so that home in North Carolina he could say to his friends, “Yeah, I saw Hamilton.”
Both of us were struck by the physical attractiveness of the CCNY campus, which over time had in its halls the likes of Henry Kissinger, Ed Koch, Felix Frankfurter, Colin Powell, Julius Rosenberg, Zero Mostel, Edward G. Robinson, Lewis Mumford, and A.M. Rosenthal.
Pedaling up to the heights, I remembered the controversy in the late 1960s, when the college had open admissions and the issue galvanized New York City politics. Conservatives hated the idea; liberals loved it. The net results were diminished standards. Now admission is based on merit.
With the campus in northern Manhattan and with in-state tuition $7,000 ($17,000 for out-of-state kids), I am surprised that the college does not get more mention as an academic diamond in the rough.
Below West 135th Street, we biked around Manhattanville, where Columbia University is converting a Harlem neighborhood of small shops and old tenements into a new campus for some of its glittering graduate schools.
When John and I were at Columbia, students would get security briefings, warning us not to walk north of 120th Street. (No doubt that was so that university officials would not have competition to buy up tracts of lands for their new campus.) The older Columbia campus, where we walked our bikes between Broadway and Amsterdam on West 116th Street (now called College Walk), remains unchanged.
In the late 1970s, the Upper West Side of Manhattan was the It neighborhood, and along Columbus Avenue was the first wave of trendy restaurants, then—to our horror—with $12 entrees. Now, compared to the Lower East Side and parts of Brooklyn, the Upper West Side has the feel of a Westchester suburb, with dry cleaners on most blocks and wine stores that will deliver a case to your co-op.
We didn’t stop at Grant’s Tomb (ironically, before he died, he had few associations with New York City, although he did finish his memoirs on the East Side). But we did follow the cycle path south along the Hudson River, where there are marinas and cafes lining the shoreline, and, beginning in the sixties, a phalanx of apartment towers on steroids.
Hell’s Kitchen, in the west fifties—once known as the Tenderloin—is now another high-rise mecca, a mixture of office towers and apartment complexes, of the kind you might find in Singapore or Shanghai.
Port Authority is a blight in the west forties, and then in the thirties, close to the river, is the Javits Center for conventions and trade shows.
Book Expo Clinton
On our ride south, I discovered that Book Expo America (BEA) was in town. I didn’t stop that first afternoon, but I did go back later, and what I found made me sad about the future of American book publishing.
Except for the display stands of the publishing giants—Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, BEA was a ghost town.
In two hours of aisle prowling I failed to come across a single book I might like to read. I inspected some of the headlined book signings, and all I could uncover were some Harlequin romances (Amish Country Amnesia was one) and long lines of teenage girls on a school outing. I missed the panel with Doris Kearns Goodwin: Leadership: In Turbulent Times, not Plagiarism, Because, Hey, I Had a Six-figure Advance, a Deadline, and My Researcher Screwed Up. Nor did I catch the tap dance of vaudevillian Sean Spicer.
The other book in the bright lights was a thriller, The President is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, which is about a president in the guise of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Jack Ryan, who, when not mentoring interns in office alcoves, tracks down cyber terrorists. He has time on his hands because the wife of this fictional president is dead (to which Borat might add: “High five!”)
An enormous Great Leap Forward poster showing Authors Clinton and Patterson was hanging over the BEA entrance, as if Mao was one of the collaborators on the project and he suggested how a little cult of personality might juice up sales.
It was on his book tour with Patterson that Clinton made those #NotVeryMeToo remarks about Monica Lewinsky. He said: “This was litigated 20 years ago. Two-thirds of the American people sided with me.” You do wonder, from his answer, what questions the pollsters were asking back then.
Paying the Rent for 9/11
John and I ended our riding downtown, in the financial district, close to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and the new Freedom Tower (aka One World Trade Center). It’s where the Port Authority, using public funds, decided to get even with al-Qaida by building a $3.8 billion office block where various government agencies and needless bureaucracies can pay below market rental rates. (On Islamic fundamentalists… “They hate our subsidies and real estate tax loopholes….”)
Some good might have come out of 9/11 for New York City if the MTA had taken advantage of a hole in lower Manhattan and fixed a host of mass transit issues between Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey. The Hudson River needs more tunnel crossings, for trains coming and going between Manhattan and New Jersey, much the way that Amtrak should connect Wall Street to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Or the city could have given up on the collectivist idea of a “World Trade complex” and restored the block grids to the neighborhood, which, since the twin towers were built in the 1960s, has become a labyrinth of Escher complexity. (I remain an acolyte of Jane Jacobs, who said in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “…frequent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighborhood.”)
Instead Trump wannabes in the New York real estate market waved the bloody shirt over the terrorist attacks to loot public coffers of billions, so that, in the era when everyone in the city wants to work from home, the financial district can have $4 billion more in unwanted office space. (Hey, bin Laden, this Bud’s for you.)
In the process of national mourning, lower Manhattan has become a dead end, with streets part of a labyrinth leading to nowhere. Good luck trying to walk, bike, or drive south of Chambers Street. It’s a stockyard.
Had the Port Authority put that $4 billion into the subway instead of a realtor, Instagram pictures of rats dragging around underground slices of pizza might be less prevalent.
Why Hillary Lost
In between my bike rides, the only political conversation that I had was about why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election.
It came up over and over in my travels, and it surprised me each time. Nor did friends always appreciate my quip, in response, when I would say: “Well, you have to run a better campaign than John C. Frémont.” (In 1856 he lost to James Buchanan, the Trump of his era.)
The why-did-she-lose question was code for the larger question of whether Vladimir Putin colluded with Roger Stone, Eric, Don Jr., Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort to put his thumb on the electoral scales, and it also introduced the subject of the election in 2020 and whether Trump has any chance at reelection.
The question also offered a chance to review whether rogue G-men James Comey and Robert Mueller are what Russell Baker’s aunts and uncles would have called “rabble rousers” or are instead patriots in the search of truth, justice, and the American way.
The best take on Hillary’s loss that I heard came at my lunch at the Cosmos Club. (We managed to keep our appetite despite having to eat near portraits of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Henry Kissinger.) There my friend mentioned knowing several of Hillary’s top campaign officials, and his point was that they would have had trouble operating a candy store.
He told this story: Some time before the election, the White House offered up Barack Obama for a joint appearance with Hillary in a swing state, in this case Wisconsin. For their part, the Obama crowd was thinking: “If Wisconsin is a swing state, it is time to start wearing a money belt…” But they did promise to deliver their man for a feel-good Heartland jamboree.
The plan was to hold the campaign appearance in Green Bay—yes, the home of Vince Lombardi (PBUH) and the Packers—which, I am assuming, is a Republican enclave. I remember with bitter disappointment that during the 1968 election my hero quarterback Bart Starr came out for Richard Nixon.
The plan for the campaign appearance was in the works until the Hillary Clinton people cancelled the Obama rally. I was reminded of the line in Spinal Tap: “The Boston gig has been cancelled…. Yeah. I wouldn’t worry about it though, it’s not a big college town.”
Did they do so because they felt they had the election in the bag, or did they cancel because of Hillary’s health issues? I have no idea, but it is easy for me to imagine that an Obama Hail Mary at Lambeau Field (where else would you have a rally in Green Bay?) might have made a difference in a state Hillary lost by 22,748 votes, although to bridge that gap I might have asked Aaron Rodgers to give the speech, maybe after an introduction from Paul Hornung.
Usually in these why-Hillary-lost conversations, my friends wanted to vent about the Twitter presidency or to speculate whether “flipping” porn-paymaster Michael Cohen might bring down The Pussy Grabber-in-Chief. Or they wanted to despair over the geriatric Democratic Party, for whom the Four Horsemen of the Democratic Restoration (Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden) have an average age of about 74-years old—roughly the same ages that Spinal Tap will be for its next reunion tour.
In these angst encounter sessions, I tried to make the point that it was Obama’s job, as the head of the Democratic party coming into the 2016 election, to have had a succession plan in place. The best he could come up with was Her Turn Hillary Clinton and (in the bullpen) Biden. And then there was the ghost of elections past, Thriller Writer Bill Clinton, who hovered over the election as if a character in an Edgar Allen Poe short story or poem (Quoth the Raven “Nevermore”…)
Nor do I think that playing the foreign entanglement card will bring down the Trump Hole-in-the-Suite gang. As best I can determine, foreigners have been trying to peddle influence in American elections since 1800 (Jefferson was routinely denounced as a Jacobin), and on many occasions the strategy has worked.
In 1968 Richard Nixon paid off Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to keep him away from the Lyndon Johnson peace talks, which if they had been successful could have tilted the election for Hubert Humphrey.
Part of the 1980 election turned on the machinations of the Reagan handlers in regard to the American hostages in Iran, much the way the Know Nothing Party in the nineteenth century campaigned relentlessly against the Romanist conspiracy. But then I doubt Hillary would have won the election even if she had denounced Trump for reviving Millard Fillmore’s nativism.
If anything, Hillary was done in by her own foreign entanglements, including all that Qatari and Saudi front money that was flowing into the Clinton Foundation in exchange for the occasional forty-five minute speech, similar to the homilies she and Bill delivered to prayer breakfasts on Wall Street.
Nor do I think that Dick Tracy Comey determined the outcome of the 2016 election, as he did’t come up with the genius idea to root all of the Secretary of State’s confidential emails through a CompUSA home server (“Try our diplomatic Web Hosting…$139.99….”) set up in a Chappaqua, New York rec room and serviced by an IT guy named Bryan.
“What Happened”? Remember what Cassius said: “The fault, dear Brutus is not in Anthony Weiner’s laptop…”
Bed-Stuy: The Slum Becomes a White Suburb
On one of my last bike rides around Brooklyn, I explored the revivalist neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg, both of which—depending on your perspective—are having a renaissance or being brought to new lows by gentrification.
I had been before to Williamsburg, although not its high street along Bedford Avenue (tattoo parlors, used books, ceramic boutiques, and realtors selling $2 million condos). But this was my first block-by-block look at Bed-Stuy, which in the 1960s was synonymous with African-American poverty and urban blight.
During the race riots in the 1960s, Senator Robert F. Kennedy would visit Bed-Stuy and make grand promises about “doing something” (he started the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation) to end its desperation. I don’t think even he could have imagined that fifty years later these same brownstone streets would be on the racial fault line where an African-American inner-city neighborhood is at risk of becoming a white suburb.
In case your Brooklyn geography is weak, Bed-Stuy (fairly close to downtown Brooklyn) is an urban triangle that begins south of Williamsburg and extends to Atlantic Avenue (a major east-west boulevard). Eastern Parkway, where it cuts through Bushwick, is the eastern boundary. To the west the demarcation line is Classon Avenue, after which the neighborhoods are Clinton Hill (Pratt Institute) and Fort Greene, near where the Manhattan Bridge lands in Brooklyn.
Some 600 brownstones and buildings in the neighborhood are subject to the protections of historical preservation covenants. But still there are hundreds of other houses, again mostly brownstones, that give the neighborhood the feeling of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope.
Most of the houses were built between 1890 and 1910, and the wide sidewalks and leafy front lawns give many side streets the elegance of the French Quarter in New Orleans or Boston’s Beacon Hill.
Some forty blocks—each, say, with about 100 houses—are in or near the historical district. Bed-Stuy’s housing stock is among the best in New York City, if what you like are traditional brownstone row houses and not, for example, gilded Trump condos.
The Independent Subway System (old New Yorkers call it the IND) came to Bed-Stuy in the mid-1930s, opening neighborhood stations at Nostrand, Kingston, and Throop avenues.
One of the reasons that Bed-Stuy has gentrified more slowly than, say, Williamsburg is because its subway service is spotty. The G train (Brooklyn and Queens only) stops at Bedford and Nostrand avenues, and there is an M stop on Myrtle Avenue. But the interior of Bed-Stuy is served only with buses, which means that many Bed-Stuy houses are more than a mile from the subway.
It was the opening of the IND line in the 1930s that turned Bed-Stuy into an African-American neighborhood, as suddenly Harlem seemed overcrowded and housing in Brooklyn more affordable. By the 1960s the Bed-Stuy population was almost 100% African-American.
One reason that Bed-Stuy is becoming a gentrified enclave is that many of the African-American homeowners are now older, and they are being offered a king’s ransom for their elegant brownstones, even if they have been cut into rooming houses.
Prices for Bed-Stuy brownstones have reached $3-4 million, although many of the houses sell for under $2 million, which, for New York City, is a brownstone bargain.
I looked on the real-estate web site Zillow, and found 750 houses and apartments for sale in Bed-Stuy, which tells me that change could come quickly in the neighborhood, especially as many businesses are flooding into downtown Brooklyn, which is only a few miles away.
Bed-Stuy is yet another example of a New York neighborhood in which the rents and the sale prices bear no relation to the incomes of the local residents, and every time someone moves out of their house, among the buyers sniffing around for a bargain are limited partnerships and private equity firms looking for ways to capitalize on the New York real estate bonanza, which has reached Dutch tulip stages.
By comparison, Williamsburg has fewer brownstones than Bed-Stuy, but it has better access to the boom town of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the East River and the bridge, and many warehouses have been turned into luxury condominiums.
In Williamsburg, the hipsters are displacing old communities of Hasidic Jews while it is the African-Americans, in Bed-Stuy, who are getting red-lined and block-busted (although they get paid handsomely for their exile).
The Vanishing Soul of New York City
Wanting to know more about the effects of “hyper-gentrification” on New York City, I scoured the New York section at the Strand bookstore (“my Yale College, my Harvard”) and came away with Jeremiah Moss’s Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul (published in 2017), which is a 465-page scream against the New York of Trump towers and high-rise condos.
Of the new generation, Moss writes: “They came in droves, many of them (not all) armed with a sense of Manifest Destiny, helping to turn New York into a sanitized vertical suburb.” He writes: “I went to bed one night in a bohemian enclave and woke the next day in a mean-spirited, suburban high school hangout.” He goes on: “Call it Total Oligarchic Gentrification. Call it a Billionaire’s Bonanza. I call it hyper-gentrification—because it’s fast, frenetic, and aggressive, but also because hyper-gentrification just sounds sexier than “Fourth Wave” or “gentrification generalized.”
In my mind Moss romanticizes the New York City of the 1970s (“Ladies and gentlemen,” as Howard Cosell told a TV audience during the 1977 World Series, “the Bronx is burning”). But I take his point that realtors of the Trump extraction have hijacked local government.
Of Mayor Bloomberg’s giveaways to developers, Moss quotes from a Daily News letter to the editor, which reads: “Our city suffered two tragedies a decade ago: the 9/11 attacks and the election of Mayor Bloomberg. The former tried to destroy New York City; the latter succeeded.”
. . . the city is becoming a dull landscape of Anyplace, USA, in which New York looks less like New York and more like downtown Denver, Dallas, Toledo. [Clearly Moss has never been to Toledo.] Same towers, same coffee chains, same mega-mall typefaces and cinnamon-bun compulsion, buildings made of tiny surfaces that face each other, admiring themselves in their neighbors’ empty reflections. In those endless repetitions, that recursive loop of nothingness, we walk through a hall of mirrors, disoriented and dislocated.
The last half of the book is a Moss walking tour of New York neighborhoods, all of which I had biked through on this visit. Of Bed-Stuy he writes:
In 2007, the Bloomberg administration rezoned two-hundred blocks of Bed-Stuy. During that decade, the black population dropped to 60 percent as the number of white residents increased dramatically. The Timesreported: From 2000 to 2010, the white population soared 633 percent—the biggest percentage increase of any major racial or ethnic group in any New York City neighborhood.” In 2012, Bloomberg rezoned another 140 blocks. One year later, Bed-Stuy sold its first million-dollar apartment. Said the Post: “There goes the neighborhood.”
I take Moss’s point that the new New York, in many quarters, has lost all proportionality, and that the urban magic—as described in a Jane Jacobs editorial about neighborhoods with fruit stands, books stores, and “the eyes of street” preventing crime—is being swept from the city.
That said, my daughter lives in a far-flung section of Crown Heights where, in the dismal 1980s, city officials used to paste onto the front windows of burned-out buildings color-form posters showing scenes of domestic tranquility (cats perched on window sills, plants growing in the background, etc.).
In those days—I am sure they are now kicking themselves—landlords used to torch their own buildings to collect insurance money, and parts of Crown Heights, Bushwick, and East New York looked like Vonnegut’s Dresden.
I am sorry, however, that the price of the New York Risorgimentohas meant doing deals with Trump-ish realtors, for whom Mussolini’s Rome and its wedding cake architecture would seem to be the inspiration (done in reflective glass, instead of marble, as we all know that TrumpWorld needs a lot of mirrors).
Thomas Wolfe Goes Home Again
On the flight home, perhaps to relieve some of Moss’s pessimism, I started reading Thomas Wolfe’s celebrated novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe was born in 1900 and grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and he wrote lengthy, sometimes wonderful, sometimes turgid novels, mostly about himself, and sometimes about the country.
He is not to be confused with The Bonfire of the Vanities Tom Wolfe, the writer and satirist (and my friend), who died recently. That said, both were Southerners and both wrote sprawling novels about the American experience, although I think Tom did it better than Thomas.
I picked up the Thomas Wolfe novel because I had never read it and had heard that much of it was set in New York City and Brooklyn. Also I had recently been in Asheville and visited his house (at least from outside). And because, in biking around Brooklyn, I am sure I was trying to go home again.
Of his homecoming experience, Wolfe writes: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
The sprawling novel straddles the worlds of North Carolina, New York, and Europe, from the days just before the stock market crash of 1929 to the Depression and the rise of Hitler’s Germany.
Personally, I don’t think the novel holds together, except as the world’s longest and most disjointed “Song of Myself.” I liked neither his descriptions of North Carolina nor Brooklyn, but I do think he writes well about night trains and Berlin in the 1930s. Some of the passages are eloquent and pitched perfectly; most of the novel, however, just rambles.
A major theme of the novel is Asheville’s real estate bubble (not unlike New York’s today, but his dates to the 1920s). Wolfe writes: “Everyone bought real estate; and everyone was a ‘real estate man’ either in name or practice. The barbers, the lawyers, the grocers, the butchers, the builders, the clothiers—all were engaged now in this single interest and obsession.”
Wolfe might well be describing Moss’s New York, except that he connects real-estate speculation with a form of political blindness (not unlike that of a country who could elect a Trump).
He writes: “In that mid-October of 1929 nothing could exceed their satisfaction and assurance. They look about them and, like an actor, saw with their eyes that all was false, but since they had schooled themselves to accept falseness as normal and natural, the discovery only enhanced their pleasure in life.”
I had sought out the Wolfe novel so that he could be my narrator—so to speak—on my evening bike rides back home to Brooklyn. Very often, while in New York, I had dinner or drinks in Manhattan, and it meant riding home at twilight or in the early summer darkness, when the air was warm and the view from Manhattan Bridge was that of a skyline-at-night paradise. (It was also full of those messengers who deliver food on electric bikes.)
Each day, I experimented with the route home, always trying, on my single-speed bike, to level out the long hillside that is otherwise known as Park Slope.
Sometimes I went past a new barbeque emporium on the Gowanus Canal—Pig Beach, which had the look of an endless frat party. Other times, I went further south to Carroll Gardens and then south to Prospect Park. But no matter where I went, the hill remained.
For a long time, given Wolfe’s gritty descriptions of “South Brooklyn,” I had the feeling that maybe he had lived in a walk-up tenement on 3rd Avenue, perhaps around Union Street and the Gowanus Canal (“Burn on, big river, burn on…”).
I finally looked up his address, and found that he had lived on Montague Street, which nowadays is ground zero of swanky Brooklyn Heights and has come a long way from the days when Wolfe made it sound like skid row.
No wonder he can’t go home again—a co-op on Montague Street would cost more than $2.5 million. Or as Tom Wolfe writes in Bonfire, about a mediocre condo in Manhattan: “Whaddaya want for a million bucks?”
Later in You Can’t Go Home Again—after pages and pages about his emotional turmoil as a writer—Thomas Wolfe returns to the theme of political decline and writes, as if describing Trump’s America:
Suddenly we realize that America has turned into something ugly—and vicious—and corroded at the heart of its power with easy wealth and graft and special privilege….And the worst of it is the intellectual dishonesty which all this corruption has bred. People are afraid to think straight—afraid to face themselves—afraid to look at things and see them as they are. We’ve become like a nation of advertising men, all hiding behind catch phrases like ‘prosperity’ and ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘the American way.’ And the real things like freedom, and equal opportunity, and the integrity and worth of the individual—things that have belonged to the American dream since the beginning—they have just become words too. The substance has gone out of them—they’re not real any more….
I would love to believe that New York stands for more than the dreams of its real estate promoters, just as I want to believe that the United States stands for something more worthy than Trump’s high-rise fascism. But I also know, especially on a bicycle at night in the middle of Brooklyn, that not every street will take you home.