Green Skies and Pseudo-Events in
Travels in New York City during the Park51 Controversy.
oom goes the thunderclap! The sky above Soho is green, and the strange color casts a glow on everybody rushing for cover. Lightning strikes again, and another boom echoes up and down Broadway Ave.
When the streets are all emptied out and I am alone under a green sky on Broadway Ave, I realize what it is about New York City, and then my cell phone rings, and it’s Jane, who’s been browsing in a store.
We are about a block apart. We agree to meet under the awning of an apartment building. When we meet up and duck under the awning, a hailstorm, then a downpour, ensues. Nobody else is stuck outside except for us and a man selling umbrellas across the sidewalk, under cover of his van and patio umbrella. He looks at us, bears a shiny metal grin, picks up an umbrella, and offers to sell it to us.
Jane adores New York, and for the last six months not a day has gone by that she hasn’t offered another idea of what we might do and see, hear and observe in our two days here in Manhattan. A few months ago, I started counting her ideas. Gus’ Pickles! she might say one day. They specialize in pickles! And I’ll say, One thousand three hundred and forty-seven.
Maybe it was by One Thousand Four Hundred and Sixty Four that we agreed to have no plans at all, to just go walking through the big city with all the lights and shadows.
As soon as the dark skies pass, people emerge from storefronts and apartments, and there is blue in the sky. As we walk north towards Union Square, Jane the whole time recalling Nine-hundred and Forty-Six or Four Hundred and Twenty One, I am looking up at the buildings, and I see the skyways connecting each building, floating advertisements adorning rotating lights. I see the monuments in the sky, people on mobile move-a-pods, and the rail floating high above the street, milk-white trains zipping.
I am realizing what New York City is: it is the template by which North Americans project their future aspirations for North America’s big city, it’s where we imagine our hopes and dreams of the kind of place our grandchildren will grow up in; although New York City is a real place, it is also the place where North American minds explore the future. New York is America at its best, because so many different kinds of people share its streets, and because its buildings, so tall, are also so uniquely a part of here. It starts early, with picture books and cartoons, and later, in Scholastic Books for Young Adults, and then, again, in adult literature and movies; but along each step, so many authors, illustrators and futurists engage us in our tomorrow through the template of New York.
There is one thing I should remind you of about New York, and it’s the same thing I was reminded of after we stepped off the airplane and onto the jetway of John F. Kennedy International Airport. At the taxi booth at the airport earlier today, the computer system had gone down and there was no way to channel the taxis into this part of the airport. And so the taxi line became extremely long quickly, and there we stood while a single taxi came to pick up the first in a line of a hundred people. This taxi was a van-taxi, and the taxi-driver had a whole lot of luggage to get in the van. The taxi driver had trouble fitting all this luggage in his van, but he slammed the back door down hard, ushered his client in, and off he went.
Just then, some guy - gold chains, hair hanging out his shirt, decided to cross the road. A car gave him a few honks, reminding him he was walking across the middle of a busy airport street. The man with the hair hanging out of his chest would have nothing of this honking. He gave that driver his everything, with every kind of you fucking this and you crazy bastard that. He screamed it out like preschool, and then he continued to cross the street.
Meanwhile, the van-taxi, which had made it about a hundred yards, came to a screeching halt. Somehow, the back-door popped open and all the luggage came spilling out, into both lanes. This is New York - bungling, with its hair hanging out, like a drunk monkey just out of the trees. But I find the collective shortcomings of New York endearing, and this endearing reminder suggests that maybe we’ve been aiming too high. That our future, expressed through New York, might be less about floating skypods and milkbars, and more about the aspirations and dreams of people who actually live in a big city. It is true that New York is sophisticated, in the sense that if you throw a thousand hillbillies into a cramped space, they’ll all learn to match their socks. But close quarters doesn’t make them trip, stumble and fall any less than the rest of us.
The unusual weather managed to soak my clothes, but we had twenty more blocks to walk, so I walked into the Timberland store and found the on-sale rack, and came out of the dressing booth in a t-shirt and jeans.
In the morning, we woke up in our room at the campy Ace Hotel, a Portland, Oregon based accomodation which is known for its quirky Pacific Northwest aesthetic. We walked down into the lobby, and grabbed Stumptown coffee, and then a taxi, north on Central Park West, and then we were out into apart of Central Park known as The Ramble.
The maze of woodland paths known as the Ramble, which was designed in 1857 to approximate the wild wood of the East Coast, is the most beautiful feature of all of New York’s Central Park, and also the quietest. It is mid-September, which means that the East Coast bird migration is fully underway. Almost immediately, among the tangle of tupelos, oaks and sycamores, the artificial wood becomes alive with life - a black-throated blue warbler, Northern Parulas, American Redstarts.
Over two-hundred and thirty bird species live or pass though this part of Central Park each year. But few moments are as intense as the few-week period we’re in now, where, as one Manhattan birdwatcher describes with restrained exuberance, "just about anything within reason could show up."
We meet New York birdwatchers along the way, who invite us to follow them around the small, but maze-like corridors of the Ramble. Each one, upon learning that we’re from Portland, Oregon, appears to go nostalgic and glazey-eyed on us. It’s something really weird about New York: Why do they all love Portland so much?
One birdwatcher, who walks to work every weekday through the Ramble from her apartment east of Broadway to her workplace west of Central Park tries to help us sort out our East-coast thrushes, and leads us to a variety of magical hidden spots in the Ramble, including on a small trail along the shore of Central Park’s Lake - the same lake featured regularly in Curious George books.
Central Park has always bothered me, although I have never been able to place my finger on it. In travel, I appreciate the unintentional above all else, and so here, where even in the most natural segment of the park, many of the trees are imported and the landscape itself was blasted and molded from the natural bedrock that was the former, wild island Manhattan landscape. The warblers, hawks and thrushes, then, are the only unintentional parts of Central Park - they’re the last truly wild thing about something meant to artificially resemble the truly wild.
When thinking about Manhattan’s migratory warblers, I cannot help but be reminded of Manhattan as it once existed, and of course about its native people. I was intrigued about many of the suggestions in Charles Mann’s book, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, that suggested that new evidence in a variety of scientific fields were painting a very different picture of indigenous America than ever before. He argued that much of what we have come to believe about the America’s indigenous people, about their sophistication, their technology, their institutions, their effect on the environment and their populations, may be quite wrong.
But one comment in particular is something I have never been able to get out of my head: Mann suggested that the men who founded the United States - brilliant, progressive, men of science armed with the most intoxicatingly new ideas of the European Age of Wonder and Enlightenment, may have been incapable of conceiving on their own one of America’s most important contributons to the world - the idea that all people are truly equal.
Mann suggested that indeed this vital idea, which transformed the world and the welfare of billions as nations around the world hustled to follow the ideas founded across the Atlantic, could only have been inspired by the East Coast Indian.
By afternoon, we leave the Ramble and head out into the city, splitting apart to go our own way. I notice some newspaper headlines at a magazine stand, and for the first time, I realize the context of yesterday’s weather. “Eerie Green Sky”, “Possible Tornado Ravages New York City, One Dead”, “New York Battered by Fierce Storm.”
To be a travel writer is to see things for yourself, to develop your observations and opinions first-hand, at ground level. Many of my travel writing heroes had written their accounts of places as travelogues. But travel writers had something that journalists often didn’t - perspective based on personal experiences, and so travel literature, creaed to entertain and educate, often illuminates the world more clearly than could any newspaper. In 1993, Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts had become one of the deciding factors in forming President Clinton ‘s position on Bosnia at the time. In undertaking our recent past, we are more willing to find answers through Mark Twain's travel than through the New York Times archives.
I believed that travel writing had a power of perspective that hard journalism often overlooked. And by reading a wide range of travel material, I could have a more encompassing view of the world than were I to simply read the newspaper.
Seeing these headlines takes me back to that time when I fell in love with travel writing - to experience that strange weather for myself is to see the news at ground level. There is something important in seeing real events for yourself, no matter how insignificant these street level views may seem.
When I first starting travel writing, one of the first stories that interested me was the threats the Taliban were making to blow up Buddhist statues in the Bamyan Valley in Afghanistan - maybe those statues were just symbols, just buildings, but often old buildings are powerful symbols in culture wars.
I could cover the story on my budget by following the cultural and art side of the story, much of which took place outside of Afghanistan, and in fact much of which was taking place in Los Angeles, where I was living. Soon, I was on the phone and emailing with experts on Afghanistan from around the world.
It didn't take long for me to come to the same conclusion that others interested in Afghanistan were making - all our contacts in the country were saying that they could see thousands of foreigners performing exercises out in the valleys. These were not Taliban, but their guests, al Qaeda,and they were marching in plain view. I could hear this news from primary sources.
By talking to real people, on my own terms, I could see something that I couldn't find in the media, and by May of 2001, convinced that the shelling of the Bamyan Buddhas and the open marching al Qaeda militia meant: a bigger version of the U.S.S. Cole bombing was inevitable. With an early belief that religious social conservatism and religious fundamentalism are the foundation of the most horrific conflicts, I took my arguments in public, which sometimes appeared as letters to the editor in American papers.
Before the airplanes hit New York, talk about Afghanistan was considered strange, and in one argument, I was asked to consider more relevant issues, like barring gays from marriage, which was quickly becoming the most pressing issue in domestic American politics - a social issue that was quickly gaining traction throughout the United States as a quickly growing cable network, Fox News, stoked its importance through frequent reporting on the subject.
As the pedestrian light turns on, I put the paper back and head across the street toward Central Park. Dozens of taxis and commercial trucks come zooming toward me. I freeze in panic - a bumpkin caught in the crosswalk, as all these cars and trucks race for the crosswalk, only to stop and wait for me to pass. It dawns on me how dumb all of this is - all these big cars driving around in circles in this small island. All these drivers, if they were peddling, should be funneling their aggression into speed, sport and exercise, rather than on their red-light taunts.
The next morning, Jane and I meet our friend Christine at a coffee shop. We decide to take a walk toward Union Square. Christine is a recent immigrant to New York, and so she sees the city with fresh eyes. As we walk, we pass a number of churches. Some are very old, and beautiful.
We stop to decide where to go next once we reach Union Square. While Jane and Christine talk, I can’t help but notice that Union Square, adorned with trees and grass, is filled with people. It’s as if the whole city is spending its September under the trees.
Maybe the city lights brought all these people to the city, but in a way, it's still the trees they really cling to. Maybe New Yorkers don't really need that floating, futuristic city that we all dream up for their city. Maybe all New Yorkers want is grass and trees and more organic vegetebles.
And now I understand why New Yorkers get so fuzzy when I mention Portland, Oregon.
This is how you do it. You dig up all the roads in Manhattan and replace them with a few smaller roads for maintenance, city, and commercial vehicles. You pave a bike path in the middle, and you rebuild New York as the rickshaw capital of the western world. You let the native trees grow back. Restaurants can grow their seasonals right outside their windows. Businessmen can loiter alongside serviceberry bushes, children can step outside into a streetside Ramble. Wouldn't it be nice if you could get a permit to raise chickens in Soho?
Christine and Jane, they are looking at me. “Where are we going?” they say.
“How about Park51,” I answer, and they both shrug and give me a why not? kind of look.
Park51 is a planned progressive Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. It interests us because it has stirred a bizarre controversy right here in Manhattan over whether it should be built. Such a frenzy this controversy has stirred, that it has interrupted the solemn time of remembrance for victims of the September attacks.
But I am reminded of the Manhattan storm a couple evenings ago, and what it means to me to see things for myself.
As we walk toward the subway, I see another Church; a beautiful Catholic church built of giant stones. Later, I will read an article in the New York Times, that began,
“Many New Yorkers were suspicious of the newcomers’ plans to build a house of worship in Manhattan. Some feared the project was being underwritten by foreigners. Others said the strangers’ beliefs were incompatible with democratic principles.”
The details of St. Peter’s early history sounded eerily like the controversy surrounding the Islamic Center, in which so many New Yorkers, frenzied by religion, lost their understanding of those most important American principles.
By subway and foot, we wound our way through Lower Manhattan and finally to the site of Park51. It is an old, vacant building. After the building sustained damage in the September 11 attacks, the former tenant, Burlington Coat Factory, picked up and left.
Now, the building sits in a quiet alley. Two policemen stand armed at the corner of the building. The building doesn’t really feel that close to the Ground Zero area, although technically it is two and a half blocks away.
Ten years ago, it would have been hard for me to imagine how such a controversy is manufactured. The very foundation of this country has always been that East Coast Indian idea, the equality of man, combined with that European-American idea of separation of Church and State. So how is it that almost half of New Yorkers - allegedly progressive, tolerant, intelligent - could fall for such a hillbilly manufactured controversy?
In the year 1962, historian-theorist Daniel Boorstin predicted in The Image: a Guide to Pseudo-Events in America that in the near future, actual events would lose their importance, and in their place, Americans would prize only pseudo-events, or events that exist solely for the attention of the media. And no event has any meaning or significance until it is viewed through the media.
For the past ten years, as an optimist about the age of Democratic journalism and the rise of new media, I had for a long time looked for the proof that new media - the rise of blogs, citizen journalism, more news networks - would create a more just and efficient world. The free market of information will result in a better educated people, and a larger marketplace of ideas will naturally mean good ideas will more easily make their way into our culture and politics.
But the opposite has happened, and genuine journalism has suffered. The controversy surrounding this community center is an entirely fabricated one: there are mosques, not to mention strip clubs and casinos closer to Ground Zero than this progressive and inclusive community center with plans for a swimming pool, a childcare area, basketball courts and a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks.
What happened is what is happening everywhere in the digital age. We have so many choices in media that we begin to filter our news sources ever toward the type of media that suits our own preferences - a relationship between media and consumer that has, in history, often spun out of control.
Looking up at the future site of Park51, I have a pretty good idea that this controversy will pass, and the ideal of American secularism and tolerance will prevail. But every month, there will be a new pseudo-event. It may be about where a president was born, or about a war on Christmas, or about how climate scientists are elitists, but it will have no bearing on reality, and will help to stifle relevant dialogue about issues that matter. It will just be the latest pseudo-event, concocted on the web by extremists, popularized by their associates in Cable News, and dangled before our eyes to swoon over. Those who make these psuedo-events appear from thin air are quite good at bringing their culture war into our homes and on our screens.
Muslims have been praying in this neighborhood for years. They have also been praying at the Pentagon and other buildings hit on September 11. Why this building, now? Any pseudo-event has a source, and its usually quite easy to track and follow.
Everything began when anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, who co-founded a vicious, anti-Muslim extremist group called Stop the Islamization of America drummed up hatred for New York Muslims through her blog. The blog's vicious, inflammatory and deceitful words quickly spread throughout the right-wing blogosphere, and within days, several of News Corp's media outlets, including Fox News, had fanned out the pseudo-event to national attention. Its reporting of the pseudo-event, which only a few days earlier had been some nasty words on an extremist hate blog, had now crystallized into the biggest story in the nation. And if you were to watch Fox News during this time, nearly every commentator would make it nearly impossible for you to feel anything less than anti-American were to consider that perhaps this Islamic community center has as much a right to be there as the halal hot-dog stand on every corner of Lower Manhattan.
Here at the future site of Park51, I can tell that Jane and Christine are maybe not so impressed. Just a lonely building, forgotten and broken like the Bamyan Buddhas. And, its just us and the cops out here. Maybe, the building doesn't really matter. Maybe its just the manufactured pseudo-event that matters in wars of ideas.
Pamela Geller, a social conservative extremst who wants Muslims out of this country. Al Qaeda, social conservative extremists who want Infidels out of their Kingdom. Both are extreme minorities in this world, but both have learned clever ways to make the news tilt toward their culture war, using New York City as their big gong. What is it about today's world that makes it so easy for a blog post to manufacture the news? Why must New York be the template for other people's culture wars?
All this makes me realize that New Yorkers don't want or need mobile move-a-pods and floating skyways. They want to imagine the New York where their grandchildren will grow up. Maybe that's why grass and trees is what - they - desire the most. Maybe it will help them to get out and see things for themselves.