Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Coming down to Earth.

I frequently have reverse writer's block, meaning I don't write because I feel I have too many things I want to say, so I have to take a stand back and hope that the ideas can be distilled. I'm spending 10 days in New York enjoying watching tennis and taking a holiday. The world that I physically and emotionally inhabit has a large component that is dedicated to sport, so I was still up on its equivalent of a sugar high at the end of the Olympics for reasons every Jamaican knows and now much of the world is beginning to understand. I love to see people perform their sporting craft with grace and ease, knowing that is part some inate or well-nurtured trait and has involved years of real hard graft. That's why I will always prefer to see a Roger Federer, who moves on the court like a Fred Astaire of Rudolf Nurayev. That's why I love to watch film of Pele, who caressed a ball as if it were a fragile glass orb. I will never denegrate the skills and efforts of the other athletes, but that grace at the highest level is a real gift to behold.

I'm physically removed from the Caribbean right now but trying to stay in touch with what is happening. During hurricane season, that means checking the weather and hoping that a tropical storm or hurricane does not wreak havoc on any of the islands, especially those with relatives. So Tropical Storm Hanna is still beating around The Bahamas (daughter and parents living there). Tropical Storm Gustav dumped rain aplenty on Jamaica (parents and relatives living there) and has moved on toward the Gulf of Mexico (have to travel through that region soon). But, with the USA also often in the hurricane's sights, we have Louisiana dealing with Hurricane Gustav and evacuating citizens from New Orleans to avoid a repeat of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. So, where ever you turn there is something stalking you. So, I am not going to worry about stalkers, and just think about what my eyes are showing me.

When you visit a place like New York it's hard to fathom sometimes if you are seeing something graceful or something that is really artisanal. It's a big place and it's hard to not be impressed by the size. The metropolitan area has just over 8 million inhabitants in an area of 305 square miles. That's sizeable and NYC has been the US's largest city for nearly 220 years. The only other place that feels physically similar to me is Hong Kong, and for good reason--it's about 425 square miles with about 7 million people. Having spent a lot of my years living in London (7 1/4 million people in about 610 square miles) I understand why people want to say that NYC and London are similar. Believe me, my friend, they are not at all. New York has none of the poetic grace of London. William Wordsworth's "Upon Westminster Bridge" will always ring true for London, but not for New York:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The sheer vertical scale of New York City is what makes it stand apart, along with its huge avenues that have no equivalent in either of the other two cities I mentioned. This city is about urban compression. Because of that desire to build into the sky it's taken people a long time get back to Earth. You're always close to ground in London. However, I notice that New Yorkers seem to be getting terrestial again. You find small neighbourhood parks, planted with all kinds of legal herbs, vegetables, fruit, and flower. You read about people wanting to make use of whatever small outdoor space they can to make a garden: the joy of hand mowing an area that is 6 feet-by-6 feet is something I cannot relate to, but then again I cannot get excited about paying US$2000 to live in a space about the same size. Londoners, with their houses and gardens even in the densest urban districts, would find it hard to hide a wry smile.

I cannot pinpoint when it started, but somewhere during the tenures of Mayors Koch (1978-89), Dinkins (1990-93), Guiliani (1994-2001) and Bloomberg (since 2002), NYC became more civilized, cleaner, easier to manoeuver, more fun to visit, better to live in, more attractive to look at. I remember its grime--not much different from London at one time, and a familiar urban nightmare. I remember its traffic congestion,which now seems to be still a real problem in the rush hours and in certain parts of the city--residents may tell me otherwise. I remember its extensive but relatively cheap underground rail system (similar to London in making the area whole and moving the vast majority of people each day; still great value at US$ 2 a trip, and possible transfers to buses). I remember reading about its crime, though I have never seen any crime incident in the 25 years or so that I have visited. Eating out has always been easy and pleasurable for all the variety, and that seems to have increased, if that is possible.

I've never studied NYC's economic history, but have seen some of its evolution, especially as manufacturing and processing industries changed, leaving behind wonderful buildings that were ripe for dereliction. Seeing the Garment and Meatpacking Districts districts transform into areas for chic clothes shops and gourmet restaurants is satisfying to me, because the essence of the areas remain but the purposes have morphed. So, these areas are working hard to stay relevant and true to themselves. Not like Covent Garden, whose flower market, was replaced by a plethora of other things chic.

New York City does not have what London offers in terms of open spaces. Its rivers are there but do not have the same social power of The Thames, dividing London into two cultural halves which you ignore at your peril, providing the base for economic activity that was once direct (shipping, warehousing, etc.) and now disconnected (riverside housing, eating and dining, and financial services). Crossing them by foot does not evoke much romance, as many of them are huge constructions in steel, iron, or concrete.

There is Central Park but it's like one large grassy oasis that serves the whole city; there are a few smaller parks that are like dots. But there is nothing like the choice of Hyde Park, St. James' Park, Kensington Gardens, Battersea Park, Holland Park, Hampstead Heath, etc.

Like London, New York is really largely about its people, and here it is very much like London. It's been a receiver point for centuries, and many people easily forget from where they came once they are in New York. I overheard some young people talking in the park yesterday and extolling the virtues of living abroad--"It's really good to live, with, y'know, foreigners for a while; getting to know about their cultures and stuff, y'know". Their clipped American accents painted a picture of WASPs talking--because I too have preconceived notions when I think of Americans. Then I looked across, and not one of these kids had a European-looking face, and all looked like they were new generation Indo-Pakistan stock. Good that they identify themselves so clearly as not foreigners.

I left the park and walked back to the apartment where I am staying. It seemed that with the tourists and the variety of locals I passed with their different ethnic backgrounds (Koreans, Senegalese, Hispanics, Chinese, Italians, black Americans) there was enough of the world right there, though true to say that seeing foreigners and living with them are not the same thing.

So, NYC seems to be more like my workhorse athlete, not my poet in motion. My bias may come from not living here and growing up with the sense of differences that I can always feel in London.

I'm off to explore another foreign part of NYC this morning, with a trip to Chinatown. I'm not finished with my thoughts about New York, but I need Sunday morning food to think, and so with the prospect of dim sum clouding my mind, I will leave you with some urban food for thought.

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