This story appears in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Long ago, as an eight-year-old boy standing on the roof of a three-story tenement in Brooklyn, I first experienced a sense of wonder.
We had moved to our unheated top-floor flat a few weeks earlier in 1943, leaving a damp ground floor apartment beside a clamorous factory. I had never climbed to the new roof alone. It was too dangerous, my mother said, a man-made cliff.
At dusk, my friends gone home to eat, my mother out shopping, I ventured up the last flight of stairs in a tentative, now-or-never way. I opened the hook on the tar-papered door and stepped into a world of planks, pebbles, chimneys, pigeons gurgling in a coop, and clotheslines. In that instant I felt my life change.
To the west, far off across the harbor, the sun was descending into a landscape I knew only as “Jersey.” Clouds were slowly tumbling, dark in the foreground, edged orange in the distance. Freighters moved slowly, like toy boats, cutting fragile white lines in the black water. In Manhattan, the tall buildings were merging with the gathering darkness, no lights burning in that time of war. Above the distant, jagged mass, a few stars glimmered, tiny holes punched through the curtain of streaked, dark blue sky. Below me were the rooftops of half a hundred houses. All of it was a dazzling display of form, color, and mysterious shadow, rising past the limits of what we called “the neighborhood.”
I tried to say something, but no words came. I didn’t yet know how to describe what I felt. Surely the word was “wonder.”
Many wonders were yet to come, in what has been a long, rich life, much of it made possible by crossing the unmarked borders of the neighborhood, going “over New York,” as we said when talking of Manhattan.
Below our living room windows lay Seventh Avenue, where streamlined trolley cars moved north and south. A subway entrance beckoned at Ninth Street. The trains were fiercely, metallically noisy, hurtling into black tunnels, emerging from the darkness to stop at Fourth Avenue, the doors opening, the sky visible, people leaving or boarding, the doors closing. The trains would start pounding forward again, heading for the wonders of Manhattan.
My kid brother Tom and I loved the first car of the train, where we could stand at the windowed door and watch stations emerge in the distance, form themselves, then fill with light. There would be subway trips to Chinatown and Little Italy. The sound of strange languages. Signs with indecipherable, hand-painted words. Huge buildings scraped the skies over Manhattan, so different from the low horizontal ridges of Brooklyn. On that foggy day in July 1945 when a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, Tom and I rode the subway to 34th Street to see it.
In the years ahead I fell in love with walking, comics, drawing, the Dodgers, reading, and stickball, along with the music of Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, and above all, Frank Sinatra. Like everybody else in that time and place, I had no money. But from the kitchen radio, I had the songs, humming their music as I walked the streets to school or the library or the park. Sometimes on weekends in my teens, I would take the subway and get off at a stop where I had never been and just start to walk. I’d look at the houses, the tenements, the playgrounds, the schools, the shops, the churches, the synagogues. I’d try to imagine the lives of these people I didn’t know. Each new neighborhood was at once familiar and obscure. Without yet knowing it, of course, I was training to become a writer, finding stories about this immense city and its people. All of them were living in neighborhoods too.
I’m no longer eight, or eighteen. I’m eighty. And if that sense of New York wonder now seems more elusive than ever in the city that gave me my life, this is not because of the glib seductions of nostalgia. We New Yorkers know that we live in a dynamic city, always changing, evolving, building. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The city’s enduring slogan could be: Get on with it, my friend.
Long ago my now shrinking generation of native New Yorkers learned how to lose. Particularly we Dodger fans. Yes, even the greatest hitters in the history of baseball failed six times out of ten, and thus baseball had much to teach us about life itself. But the continuing losses in the late 1940s and early ’50s to the Yankees in the World Series were dreadful and wounding. Our slogan was usually “Wait’ll next year.” And so we did. Until 1955. After Brooklyn finally won the Series that year, one of the newspapers carried the headline: “This Is Next Year.” But two years later we lost the Dodgers themselves, when they lammed to California.
Of course, we also lost Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, and eventually even the original Yankee Stadium. We lost the old Madison Square Garden, on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, and Stillman’s Gym, up the avenue from the Garden, where I first saw the great boxer Sugar Ray Robinson train. These were the rough churches and roofless cathedrals of our secular religion, called sports. Their loss was an outrage. Or so we thought.
Neighborhoods changed, of course, and we lost some of them too. Heroin arrived in my neighborhood in the mid-1950s, to suck the joy out of many blue-collar immigrant parents, who sobbed each night for their damaged American children. The crack epidemic of the 1980s was even worse. The first generation of working-class New Yorkers who took the educational benefits of the GI Bill began to move away early. They would carry their private cargoes of New York nostalgia and regret to other parts of the country. Over the years I would get letters from some, riddled with a sense of aching loss. I understood the feeling. I often felt it myself.
As a journalist, I was rooted in New York, exploring streets and neighborhoods for stories. But I was also a wanderer in foreign parts. I loved Mexico for its people, its music, its food, its literature, all discovered on the GI Bill. I also lived in Barcelona, in Rome, in Puerto Rico, in Ireland. I covered wars in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, and Lebanon. Everywhere I went, I was a walker, a flâneur, as the French call the type. Trying to see, not just look. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 36.
A few years ago I read some words by the Nobel Prize–winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney that clarified for me something about my own nature and others like me. “If you have a strong first world and a strong set of relationships,” he said, “then in some part of you, you are always free; you can walk the world because you know where you belong, you have some place to come back to.”
My place to come back to is still obviously New York.
But as I move into the ambiguities of old age, where wonder often mixes with regret, my heart often grows heavier over what I see. My beloved New York is in a bad way. To be sure, many things are better: schools, food, race relations, public safety, even manners. The city is wealthier and healthier than when I was young. But—hey, in New York there’s always a but—its architectural face is colder, more remote, less human, seeming to be sneering. In Manhattan the new superthin, supertall buildings are blocking the sky, casting long, arrogant shadows on streets once caressed by sun. And those streets are jammed with traffic, like a welded pop art sculpture made of paralyzed cars, imperious limousines, honking yellow taxicabs, and fat, grunting delivery trucks.
From the viewpoint of a card-carrying member of the street-bound rabble, most of these new buildings are examples of engineering mastery, not architectural beauty. Even in my beloved Brooklyn, across the East River and the emptier harbor that is the reason for New York’s existence, new big-box buildings are rising. Developers have even announced plans to build “the Empire State Building of Brooklyn.” The consoling wonders of the unlimited Brooklyn sky are vanishing, visible now only from those remote upper floors.
So, yes, to some extent this is a lament written by another old guy fighting off the longing for a lost past. As I move through the once familiar areas of today’s big town, pausing the way I did in the past, too often I see people who are now long gone. Too many friends. A few lovers. How many times did I start a day with lunch at the Carnegie Deli? The table packed with friends, the talk a kind of chorus line, the laughter a torrent. Afterward, we would stroll along 57th Street, savoring the drama of the human show. Now it’s called Billionaires’ Row. Back then, it was just another neighborhood.
Over there stood a hotel, the Drake, where I once spent two hours at the bar with a mob wise guy who made me laugh out loud. Downtown a ways, at the Hotel Wentworth, lived a press agent who knew Damon Runyon and got me to read him more carefully. Down that block was the state boxing commission, where I covered weigh-ins while the regular boxing writer was on summer vacation. Over there was …
The new buildings replacing the old and familiar are rising as many as 90 stories into the New York air, gnawing at the sky as if famished. The entire island of Manhattan, from Inwood at the top to the Battery on the south end, seems to be glistening with new buildings, their glass facades blinding us all on sunny days.
In these supertall buildings, the owners are mostly the super-rich—often part of the global elite from China, Mexico, Brazil, Russia—and they don’t choose to reveal their identities, using perfectly legal dodges to do so. Perhaps the most extreme example, on Billionaires’ Row, is 432 Park Avenue, 1,396 feet tall and 88 floors. It lords over its neighbors, looking for all the world as if it’s giving the finger to my city.
Even classic older buildings are caught in the swift tides of time, modernized into luxury residences. One of these is the splendid Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, briefly the tallest in New York. Its majestic presence still reigns over downtown, even though dwarfed by its newer neighbors. The Woolworth, you see, has been enriched by time.
As a young man just out of the Navy in the 1950s, I worked at 120 Broadway, a three-minute stroll from Trinity Church, the tallest structure in New York until 1890. At lunchtime in good weather, I loved walking uptown a few blocks to City Hall Park, finding an empty iron bench, or the lip of a dry fountain, and staring up at the neo-Gothic ornamentation on the facade of the Woolworth Building. I would imagine the superb European craftsmen working to make the walls speak. Hearing them speak to each other too, in musical streams of vowels.
Rumor has it that the 8,975-square-foot penthouse in the pinnacle of the 57-story Woolworth tower will cost a buyer $110 million. Once, for that price, you could’ve bought my entire Brooklyn neighborhood and had a fortune left over. In my heart of hearts, though, I would love to live there, hoping each evening for the presence of ghosts.
It’s possible, of course, that in the distant future, these new supertall buildings will attain a similar emotional aura with the passage of time. Possible, but I doubt it. Their faces are mostly blank, their facades full of resistance to human folly, gossip, imperfection, or need. The real estate business has always been riddled with issues of class. But this new architecture seems imprisoned by big money. Reports indicate that the inhabitants are usually in transit. It’s doubtful that they belong to parent-teacher groups or block associations, or know the owners of their corner deli. I could be wrong. They might be wonderfully human, full of laughter and good heart. Yes, some of them must even fall in love with the wrong people. But they seem unlikely to produce a Henry James, Edith Wharton, or Louis Auchincloss, who knew how to turn the privileged life into a kind of prose poetry. They live in vertical fortresses, cut off from the rest of us. They surely must get lonely.
And this suggests another objection to the monumental changes under way: The failure to recognize the role of neighborhood.
In certain ways every New York neighborhood is a hamlet. All have class identities, and some have ethnic realities. All have a unique character, a unique street life of their own. Washington Heights, once largely Irish, is now heavily Dominican. East Harlem was Puerto Rican when I was young. Today it’s largely Mexican. Brooklyn’s Sunset Park also was Irish and is now heavily Mexican and Chinese. The Lower East Side was mainly working-class Jewish. Today Muslims work the stalls of Orchard Street, in the company of the millennial young. There are many other hamlets, with new names such as Nolita, Dumbo, the South Slope. I hope they prevail over the supertalls. I hope the people in them have as much fun as we did.
Two blocks from my loft in Tribeca, one of the new structures does make me pause and stare in admiration, feeling a cautious kind of hope. The address is 56 Leonard Street. Only the penthouses on top are sheathed in glass, so there are no blinding waves of contemptuous sunlight. Balconies rise nearly 60 stories to the top, giving the building a ribbed, accessible-looking surface. There’s some chance we’ll see actual human beings outside on good days: dining, scheming, reading, laughing, lying, dozing, or bad-mouthing rivals. High above the streets, yes, but recognizably human. A street life of the air.
The best view of New York might be from above, as the brilliant photographs of George Steinmetz help us to see. This is a city usually beyond our seeing. Steinmetz captures his images from a helicopter or “a flying lawn chair” he designed, freeing him to see the world’s deserts, oceans, jungles, cities. Not just look at them. See them. Suddenly, through his eyes, we are above New York. On first seeing the Steinmetz images, I felt again, for the first time in several years, a sense of wonder.
One afternoon, in hopes of an existential shot of wonder inspired by Steinmetz, I visited One World Trade Center, the replacement for the original, destroyed on September 11, 2001. I was near here on that lovely morning. After the attack on the North Tower, I saw tiny humans jumping from the flames, saw the South Tower collapse, saw police, firefighters, photographers, and journalists heading toward the burning buildings while others were fleeing them. As a reporter, I kept coming back for weeks to the neighborhood of too much disaster and even more courage.
Now the new tower was open at last, and I felt a duty to visit. It will be for a long while the city’s (and the nation’s) tallest building, at 1,776 patriotic feet. The ride to the 102nd floor took 48 seconds. There was no sense of movement, no whooshing pull of the body. Inside the elevator car, a time-lapse panorama played images of the history of New York, with the Twin Towers appearing for only four fleeting seconds. With a whispery sigh, the door opened.
I walked into the enclosed observation deck. From those windows, I could see in all directions. North for about 30 miles up the Hudson River. East to my home borough of Brooklyn, parts of Queens, and a slice of Long Island. South to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and beyond to the vast Atlantic. West to New Jersey, with a view of a tiny Statue of Liberty, our most famous French immigrant.
I moved closer to the windows and looked down. There it was, the Woolworth Building. My favorite. Still here. Changing color in the fading sun. My eyes briefly blurred.
The view was spectacular, but I felt no sense of wonder. Instead, I was seeing my father and his neighborhood friend, Eddie, going up the subway stairs in front of me and out onto Cortlandt Street and the wonders of Radio Row. Bulbs, tubes, extension cords, radios themselves, new and used, gleamed from stalls, shops, from under tents.
I remembered too the end of Radio Row, in 1966. The legal theorists of eminent domain had won. Radio Row was scraped away to make room for the first World Trade Center. My father wasn’t the only New Yorker who never forgave them. But like other New Yorkers, I’d grudgingly gotten used to the Twin Towers. They’d grown familiar, if not loved. Now I missed them too.
After a while, I wanted to get back to street level. To look at strange faces, see the distraction, sorrow, joy, laughter in their eyes.
I descended to earth. On the sidewalk a young visitor asked me how to get uptown. I pointed him toward the subway.
He smiled. “No, I want to see all the way.”
I gave him directions, telling him to go to Church Street; walk north; make a left at Waverly Place, which would bring him to Washington Square; and then …
“Enjoy the neighborhood,” I said.
Pete Hamill started writing about the city 55 years ago as a reporter for the New York Post. He has published 11 novels, two short story collections, two memoirs, a biography, and four works of journalism, including a new edition of his book Why Sinatra Matters.