info 12.14.04

Why Pale Male Matters

'What sort of city shall we be?' isn't a question that most New Yorkers take time to answer in their course of their daily lives. It's a question that gets asked and answered at moments of disruption (blackout? block party!) and deeply, urgently in moments of tragedy.

It's a question a resident would only ask after they've made the conversion from born-elsewhere to genuine New Yorker. And you truly become a New Yorker when the city seems more to you than your workplace and a collection of shops and restaurants, when you start caring about the city itself, beyond your daily route, outside of your neighborhood, about the city we were and the city we might become. You know you're a New Yorker when you know what kind of city we are. No one can tell you this, it just becomes a fact of your life.

And it is in our public spaces that the city's true character is repeatedly tested and exposed, where thousands of daily kindnesses go unremarked among the noise and crowds and irritations. Inevitably, it's a delicate balance. Press too hard against this public space, impose too much order, and people revolt. Do you recall the time Mayor Giuliani decided to enforce the jaywalking law? It was, in one sense, as trivial as anything could be. But it mattered to New Yorkers because it tampered with something essential. The disorder of jaywalking is fundamental to our sense of self, to the free spirit that drew its free spirits here. At the time, after barricades were erected, they were duly and inevitably stormed. On the other hand, without enough order, and care, and attention, the city withdraws, diminishes, as it did after the Central Park jogger violence.

Law and order are not, of course, the only things that shape the public matrix of the city. Power, the economy, the fortunes of a given neighborhood, tourists, the homeless, reconstruction projects, public plazas, new subway cars, wind tunnels, dogs, street lamp design, public art, trees, landmarks, and green spaces all play a role in determining the essential New Yorkness of New York. (It's why movies set in New York but shot in Toronto are irredeemably phony). This is not to sentimentalize the city's streets: it goes without saying that they can also be deeply maddening, dirty, and dangerous. Without healthy interaction in our public spaces, though, the city would become as lively and interesting as a theatre during intermission, if everyone stayed in their seats.

927 Fifth Avenue board president Richard Cohen and his wife, Paula Zahn failed to understand the public, communal, and civic space that is the sine qua non of New York. They failed to understand that they, like all the rest of us, are guardians of this city first and foremost. And when something belongs to the city, as Pale Male and family so manifestly do, and they are treated so cavalierly, as Cohen and Zahn so manifestly did, the arrogance becomes untenable. And untenable arrogance has a way of meeting comeuppance in this city.

Here's a bit of history of which the Cohen/Zahns are doubtless unaware: On February 10, 1897, the Bradley Martin gala at the Waldorf took place. It was a such gilded farrago that it came to symbolize New York's fin de siècle extravagance, and more, that when the very rich become too insular from the rest of the city, the rest of the city will fight back. The Louis-XV-at-Versailles theme caused such an outcry over its excesses that the Martins shortly set sail for Europe, never to return. The Cohen-Zahns are as out of touch now as the Martins were then.

Ever since Penn Station, we've learned how easy it is to lose vital parts of our city. We know what kind of city we don't want to be, and that's the kind of city that did what the Cohen-Zahns did. What kind of a city shall we be? Most of us already know the answer.
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