GOODBYE NEW YORK
February 17, 1998
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers his hometown's crumbling buildings.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Goodbye, New York! No, I'm not going; you are. Not really, I suppose, but it sure looks like that way.
SONG IN BACKGROUND: Start spreading the news. I'm leaving today.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: First today there was that ton of bricks that fell from the wall of a 39-story building on Madison Avenue over Christmas.
SANDRA MONPEROUSE, Pedestrian: Who would have thought the building on Madison Avenue can be so unreliable? But I guess if it can happen on Madison, it can happen anywhere.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Then a chunk of masonry tumbled from the Belleclaire Hotel, then another building on 46th Street lost a chunk of itself onto the streets.
ANDREA THOMPSON, Pedestrian: I just feel like this city is crumbling internally. It's happening a lot lately.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Then part of a six-story building collapsed on West 42nd Street, then a helicopter plowed into a building on the upper West Side, then a water main broke under 5th Avenue downtown. The area flooded, a gas pipe burst, and there was a shoot of fire, and cars fell into the earth. Now they're closing one tube of the Midtown tunnel to Queens and Long Island for four years. God knows what destruction is going on in there--not to mention the other tunnels, or the bridges that are undoubtedly falling down. You hardly need to draw a picture. How long before the subway grates are loosed from their moorings and the statues and the heroes in the park fall apart and Carnegie Hall sings its swan song, and the Chrysler Building is totaled, and the American Museum of Natural History is history? Bad timing: You are just now celebrating the 100th anniversary of the unification of the five boroughs. Goodbye boroughs. Goodbye New York. Of course, it had to happen sometime. Cities are unnatural constructions, impositions of so-called civilizations on the land. Anyone can see the inherent fragility of these places compared to nature. Take a stroll into any older playground in New York and watch the weeds and fledgling trees crack through the cement and insist upon their presence. Roots erupt through the sidewalks. Pigeons assault the pathways. Once in a while a horse will break free from its carriage harness and one is reminded at once of a hundred or so years ago when this was a million horse-town--and Broadway and Fifth Avenue were wide dirt roads. From dust to dust that's the way of all cities. If you build it, it will fall down. Goodbye New York. A few weeks ago a lion got loose in Florida, and authorities scoured the area looking for the terrified animal. For a moment, it was evident how near civilization is to the jungle. In "Julius Caesar," not long before Caesar uttered his "et tu," his wife, Calpurnia, reported that among the terrifying portents of disaster she had learned of, "a lioness hath whelped in the streets." A lion gives birth in the capital city.
ACTRESS: And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: That was Caesar's Rome. New York is ours. The lions out in front of the New York Public Library? I'm sure I saw them twitch. Goodbye New York. At the far edge of the millennium's cliff are Americans worried about going down in a heap. There are several signs that this is so: The panics people fell into this past year at the thought of Andrew Cunanan and a couple of identical sheep; apocalyptic movies like "Volcano;" the upcoming remake of "Godzilla," who always had it in for cities. On television, the increasing success of the hypnotically baffling "X-Files" suggests that there are alien nations within, prepared to take the country down. One does not need to belabor the easy symbolism of "Titanic," the movie, "Titanic," the Broadway show, and "Titanic," the TV documentary. Has anybody counted the lifeboats? Goodbye New York.
ACTRESS: God Almighty.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Oh, well, it's been a nice ride while it lasted, and no civilization goes on forever. Let's take one last look, shall we, and I'll go get the car. Goodbye Empire State Building. Goodbye Grand Central. Goodbye Madison Square Garden and Harlem and China Town and Yankee Stadium and Trinity Church. Goodbye Queens and Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island too. No more Sundays in the park, no more zoo, more you. Goodbye New York.
SONG IN BACKGROUND: It's up to you, New York, New York.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I'm Roger Rosenblatt.