Through the Children's Gate: Of a Home in New YorkIn the fall of 2000, just back from Paris, with the sounds of its streets still singing in my ears and the codes to its courtyards still lining my pockets, I went downtown and met a man who was making a perfect map of New York. He worked for the city, and from a set of aerial photographs and underground schematics he had turned every block, every highway, and every awning--every one in all five boroughs!--into neatly marked and brightly colored geometric spaces laid out on countless squares. Buildings red, streets blue, open spaces white, the underground tunnels sketched in dotted lines . . . everything in New York was on the map: every ramp to the Major Deegan Expressway and every abandoned brownstone in the Bronx.
The kicker was that the maniacally perfect map was unfinished and even unfinishable, because the city it described was too "dynamic," changing every day in ways that superceded each morning's finished drawing. Each time everything had been put in place--the subway tunnels aligned with the streets, the Con Ed crawl spaces with the subway tunnels, all else with the buildings above--someone or other would come back with the discouraging news that something had altered, invariably a lot. So every time he was nearly done, he had to start all over.
I keep a small section of that map in my office as a reminder of several New York truths. The first is that an actual map of New York recalls our inner map of the city. We can't make any kind of life in New York without composing a private map of it in our minds--and these inner maps are always detailed, always divided into local squares, and always unfinished. The private map turns out to be as provisional as the public one--not one on which our walks and lessons trace grooves deepening over the years, but one on which no step, no thing seems to leave a trace. The map of the city we carried just five years ago hardly corresponds to the city we know today, while the New Yorks we knew before that are buried completely. The first New York I knew well, Soho's art world of twenty years ago, is no less vanished now than Carthage; the New York where my wife and I first set up housekeeping, the old Yorkville of German restaurants and sallow Eastern European families, is still more submerged, Atlantis; and the New York of our older friends--where the light came in from the river and people wore hats and on hot nights slept in Central Park--is not just lost but by now essentially fictional, like Nu. New York is a city of accommodations and of many maps. We constantly redraw them, whether we realize it or not, and are grateful if a single island we knew on the last survey is still to be found above water.
I knew this, or sensed some bit of it, the first time I ever saw the city. This was in 1959, when my parents, art-loving Penn students, brought my sister and me all the way from Philadelphia to see the new Guggenheim Museum on its opening day. My family had passed through New York a half century earlier, on the way to Philadelphia. My grandfather, like every other immigrant, entered through Ellis Island, still bearing, as family legend has it, the Russian boy's name of "Lucie," which I suppose now was the Russianized form of the Yiddish Louis, actually, same as his father's. The immigration officer explained with, as I always imagined it, a firm but essentially charitable brusqueness that you couldn't call a boy Lucy in this country. "What shall we call the boy, then?" his baffled and exhausted parents asked. The immigration officer looked around the great hall and drew the quick conclusion.