Amsterdam to New Amsterdam: A Return to New York and the Realities of the American landscape

Notes from above the Hudson Valley

Watching the landscape below me pass, I could feel the lump in my throat growing larger. Before me lay not the ancient pasturelands of Northern Ireland I had seen at the outset of my passage, nor the geometric polderlands of Holland. Instead, I saw, as my mentor and professor David Smiley once called it, a landscape of disparate fragments- America- somewhere above the Hudson River Valley.

Restless from hours of contemplating the journey behind me, I squinted to see the tiny backyards passing beneath me. Each house stood with its own individual swimming pool, a small fence, two cars, and somewhere deep inside, a sleeping dog, a cat, or a hamster. Ah, the American Dream. And so, the realities of the American landscape returned back to me: cul-de-sacs, strip malls, AppleBees, empty parking lots, and cloverleafs highway interchanges. I had written at length about this landscape during my last year of college, yet surveying it all after these months of travel, I realized how quickly I had taken it for granted.

Unlike Europe, whose cities from above look like complex organisms-neurons that split into dendrites that connect with other neurons and form a world whose natural beauty tells the story of civilization, America is an abstraction akin only to the electronic switchboard. And further west, where the aggregation of time fades more completely, this landscape resolves into a speculative grid more beautiful and disturbing than anything even the Romans might have dreamed of.

To Penn Station

After three months abroad in near-constant transit, I could only hope, after my plane touched down, to find my parents on the other side of the baggage claim window, smiling and eager to embrace me as in some cinematic, slow-motion camera sequence. But, traffic, rather appropriately, had thrown them off course near the Cross-Bronx Expressway, a parking lot drifting to New Jersey backed up two hours plus. Resigned, and wearing tired red eyes that had the customs agents sicking hound dogs on my luggage, I opted to take the train to Penn Station rather than wait in the depressing Newark Liberty terminal.

The train was a fair bit less comfortable and commodious than the Dutch and German models I had become so accustomed to- even a bit less so than those of the Czech Republic, sad to say- but I admired the cast of characters and gradually re-immersed myself- re-awoke really- to find myself in that never-so-elusive American-ness I had begun to romanticize in the months past.

Penn Station, for anyone who has never arrived in New York by train, is the busiest, most poorly designed, and chaotic railway station in America. The original station, a hulking Beaux-Arts masterpiece modeled on the Baths of Caracalla, was torn down in the 1960s, an oft-remembered travesty whose injustice jumpstarted New York’s preservation movement. But getting off that train into the busy terminal, my countenance weary of travel, my hair too curly and full of knots, I was all too glad to be shoved above ground into the commotion of New Yorkers bound for anywhere but here. With a bag draped over my shoulders close to dropping its contents from the bottom, I quickly was reminded that America is no Europe, and that New York, is indeed, hardly America. I watched myself enter the city, as always from above, making my way along a street I could see and plot on my mental map, directly into the heart of the city. But unlike the European cities I had accustomed myself to, where I had only to look for the outline of some old fortification walls or the nearest crevice leading into the medieval nucleus, the Manhattan grid offered only sidewalks teeming with outsiders (for all Americans, especially New Yorkers, are from somewhere else) and streets that gushing with yellow taxicabs like the waters of angry river.

And then I saw it- the forlorn Broadway bicycle path. But a year or two old, it was a already, weathered, faded, and obstructed. A bicyclist wearing a miner’s headlamp and a neon suit flitted past me between the taxicabs and I briefly imagined if I might have had a similar sensation of chaos in Cairo or Marrakesh. But I was happy to be home, and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

I remember now the words of an old Irishman I encountered at a near-empty hostel on the outskirts of Haarlem: “Americans want to go where they want, when they want,” he’d said, stuffing a piece of pound cake between his jaws, “Bicycles’ll never work in the US. People here, the Dutch, Germans, Danish…they like rules.”  He was a lonely, dirty, disgruntled curmudgeon and he left crumbs everywhere and smelled like a wet towel. But he was right. It is written in our constitution, etched in our minds, and given full expression in the lust and vigor of our proud American hearts: I do what I want, when I want, and nobody tells me what to do.

I’ve been catching up on news and politics for the past few days, and the situation seems, if not grim, at least entertaining and theatrical. Here is the question: How do convince people in the most individualistic society in the world to embrace change for the collective good?

I read an article on nutrition the other day that clarified the problem. Change, it advised, cannot be imposed through the agency of experts, intellectuals, and politicians who supposedly know better. To change the way that people eat, as well as dress, move, and talk, one cannot begin with the assumption that such unhealthy, processed foods are bad for you, but instead must effect a sea change by which eating these foods becomes viewed as disgusting, regressive, and antisocial.  The connection to bicycling, while tentative, is nevertheless there. People don’t stop doing things because a high minded elite says they are bad for them; they stop doing things to preserve themselves in the eyes of their peers and to conform (by their own merit) to what is acceptable, cool, progressive, and cutting edge.

 

Bicycling has the potential to reshape American cities and reintroduce a healthy, positive, and sustainable form of transportation into a civic life spoiled by a culture of fear and insulation- one whose prime hapless agent happens to be the automobile. But this change, if it is to be effected at all, must be ingratiated into the public conscience instead of imposed from a source that knows better, but fares worse. For ordinary Americans see and accept and know that America has been designed for cars, that the best way to get from point A to point B staying warm, comfortable, and listening to music is in a car- and that anything that happens to hamper that progression is not only antisocial but illogical. And they are right.

But what most Americans do not realize, and may never realize, is that the cost of this grand convenience has eroded his most natural rights and gifts. That to use an instrument- be it his body or his bicycle- that requires an input that is self-sufficient and without cost- to go where he wants to when he wants to, is a right surrendered, sacrificed and compromised by the willful tyranny of his favorite machine. And that as he has allowed this machine to become his legs, so too has it become his heart, his mind, and his culture. Whether the answer lies on the bicycle path, the sidewalk, or the street, what must not be forgotten is that just as children have the right to play, so too should man have the right to walk, or jog, or rollerblade, or if he sees it fit, to bike, without obstruction, without delay- and wherever he damn well pleases.

 

 

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