Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Two ways of looking at a city

The first: city as museum, architecture and trees and light the ever-changing exhibits in a familiar gallery space. The second: city as connect-the-dots, filling in the gaps between the places I have been before, learning the picture they make together. My Saturday walk was a bit of each; I had planned on more of a museum tour but found myself forging a new understanding of the space between the parts of Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill I am familiar with and Bushwick to the northeast. I did not quite bridge the gap but was astonished to look at a map yesterday and realize how close I had been.

I started at Bedford Hill, a new coffeeshop on Franklin that I like. Cinnamon chocolate chip cookie taste lingering, I walked up Greene a while and discovered Stuyvesant Heights, gorgeous, historic, full of streets puzzlingly Georgian (Decatur, Macon, and of course Dekalb not far off). It also had one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen...though I was disheartened, to say the least, by the gravestonelike memorial commemorating "all the unborn babies murdered by abortion" which listed the decision date of Roe v. Wade.

I moved south toward Crown Heights, my original destination, and was enveloped by religiosity of a different form, as all the Orthodox Jewish members of the community left temple and poured into the streets. There are a couple of truly extraordinary blocks here, with absolutely enormous houses and green space. The structures aren't housey like the Victorians in my neighborhood. There's something epic about them--not skyscrapery, but solid. Other streets, while less sheerly impressive, were also beautiful, with curving Greek-looking facades and towering front yards and, yup, more temples and churches.

I'll mention here that over the course of Saturday I read Sarah Glidden's excellent How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, a comic book about the author's experience on a Birthright tour. It reminded me of a whole different set of beauty and problems beyond the church and gentrification I witnessed in Stuyvesant Heights. I am not planning to go on a Birthright tour and Glidden's book was the perfect substitute, since her politics and her initial expectations of the trip are pretty similar to what mine would be. The book seemed an appropriate companion for what turned out to be a walk fueled by religious sites.

Crown Heights seen, I walked back to more familiar neighborhoods down Eastern Parkway, which I would love to bike the way I did on Ocean early Thanksgiving morning. Its stately buildings put the idea of city-as-museum in my head. The passing blocks gave me a wintry feeling, and I imagined what it would be like to walk down them in the snow. Soon, I hope.

Postscript: Yesterday, I walked down Willoughby from Little Skips, waaaay down Willoughby, from up by the Myrtle Avenue Z stop to Franklin Avenue. I waited for the B48 for close to half an hour and boarded...only to find myself flying by Bedford Hill in a matter of moments. Ah, geography.


  1. OH WEIRD, I just read How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less -- (I'm increasingly fascinated by Israel) and am now just re-reading Peter Beinart's big essay from this summer: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/failure-american-jewish-establishment/?pagination=false
    which might interesting on the heels of Glidden's book.

  2. Ha, I am hoping that this meditation was inspired at least in part by Thursday's theme.

    Is Bedford Hill a good place for working? I'll want a report!

    And I think you could probably start leading walking tours of the city.

  3. a: We are really on the same wavelength, readingwise. I admit to wondering as I read Glidden's book whether you had heard of it, since it seemed like the sort of thing you'd enjoy. I will have to read the article you link to when I am a bit less copyedity.

    E: I think it was before your email, but let's say I am so awesome that I psychically intuited your them. Bedford Hill is a little small for working, probably. And there are some dudes who lead walking tours out of my neighborhood, apparently. Maybe I can set up a competing operation. :P