Talkin’ freedom blues

Take a minute to jump in my Great Whatsit way back machine and recall the first time I blogged about cruising with Speed Levitch. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to take a couple other walks with him, though always through Central Park. I knew that back in the day he had a full menu of cruises from which people could choose, including a Wall St. lunch hour tour, a midtown rush hour tour, and a walk through Greenwich Village, but the chance never presented itself for me to catch one of those.

7931486670_e83a9cb517_zUntil yesterday. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon catching up with Speed while we walked the perimeter of Washington Square then headed into the West Village for a few blocks, just enough to contemplate the devastation wrought by the Seventh Ave. extension in the first decades of the twentieth century.

It was good to see Speed again. It’s always a good time. If you ever find yourself in a city where he’s offering tours, don’t miss it. And if you haven’t seen his newest project, the Hulu series Up to Speed, which he developed with Richard Linklater and is — we hope — going to see a second season, then by all means start now. It’s nice to witness Speed having broken free of fifteen years of my repeat viewings of The Cruise, where he remains forever in his late 20s, struggling to hang on to the window ledge that is life in Manhattan. Speed now — in person and in the series — has a sense of personal and professional control that seemed fleeting in that earlier version of himself, and it’s comforting to watch him age (with me), doing his thing without having to give up the best quirks of his personality.

I don’t have a lot to offer by way of summary of his Greenwich Village tour. You really need to take it for yourself. Even if you think you know a place you’ll find yourself walking through it with newly opened eyes. But I will mention one stop we made to peer from Washington Square South downtown, past Bleecker, at the newly topped off 1 World Trade Center. Speed said he hadn’t yet had a full conversation with the building and so wasn’t prepared to make a final assessment, but he tentatively sketched some thoughts that have kept me thinking. He quoted someone — I can’t remember who — about the way in which a city’s tallest structure says something about its current priorities, then asked us what we thought this building meant in that light. His tentative answer was that this building had more to do with Washington DC than with NYC, even if the original moniker “Freedom Tower” has been abandoned. It’s still 1,776 feet tall, still supposed to be understood as something responding to an attack on “American soil” rather than as a building in lower Manhattan. It’s a monument to what one Twitter friend of mine memorably described as the “rampant political opportunism that drove and defined the redevelopment process.” Will it ever escape that set of larger, nationalistic, capitalist priorities?

Later, after the tour ended, Speed and I grabbed an amazing felafel sandwich at Taim — thanks again for yet another great tip — and walked back toward the place he was staying in the East Village. Having just completed a tour that focused on the Village’s bohemian traditions, including the moment in 1917 when John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp climbed to the top of Washington Square Arch and declared independence for the Bohemian Republic of Greenwich Village, our conversation turned back to the new New York. Were we just getting older and crankier, or had the city really undergone a crucial change, and if so, what explained it? Was it related to the symbolic highjacking of the WTC site, first by Al Qaeda, then by the redevelopment effort?

One explanation, we thought, might have to do with what draws people to the city, and kind of people who are drawn. The history of bohemian Greenwich Village, of the avant garde in New York, a story that stretches pretty much through the entire 20th century, is one in which alienated peoples from other parts of the country and even the globe — artists, gays, feminists, immigrant labor radicals — found some sense of community in New York that wasn’t available elsewhere, at least not in such a completely intense, technicolor way. People came here because they were alienated or even driven out of somewhere else.

By contrast, today’s arrivistes seem to want to be here simply so they can escape to their country houses on the weekend. Their money — pretty much a requirement for moving here — entitles them to assume that they can remake New York in their image or to meet their expectations and conveniences. Earlier generations drawn here came knowing they would face inconvenience — small spaces, garbage, rodents and roaches, cranky locals — and were shaped by it. The city transformed them, not the other way around. (I’m sounding like my virtual pal Jeremiah here.) To earlier generations, New York meant freedom in a very specific sense: freedom from convention, from tradition, from stereotype, freedom to forge new kinds of communities, even if they remained in tension with other factions in the city. But what kind of freedom is promised by the Freedom Tower? Seems to me it’s freedom for the already privileged to extend their privilege even further, and to scrub out whole sections of the city’s legacy in the process. Such people didn’t come here to find a place to belong. They came to add New York to a list of belongings. They don’t care much about history or their relation to it. They complain about the smell of pickles wafting from Katz’s or make other such inane complaints. Maybe those folks are the ones who most need to get Up to Speed.

photo via

12 responses to “Talkin’ freedom blues”

  1. GF says:

    For obvious reasons, I have been having hundreds of conversations about What New York Means and my brain is just a mush of verbiage now when the topic comes up. I’m too close to the question. I just deleted a bunch of stuff because I feel like I’ve said a lot of it 1,000,000 times and I’m not sure how much of it means anything anyway and how much of it just uses New York as a thing to project on.

  2. Bryan says:

    It’s funny because that sounds like the voice running through my head while I was writing this post and trying to decide whether to publish it. I just haven’t been talking and thinking about it as much over the last year since I haven’t been here.

    On a separate note, then, I wonder if you’ve seen the series? Knowing you’re a RL fan made me wonder …

  3. Bryan says:

    I should maybe also say that I was surprised, on returning, that I actually like the building of 1WTC more than I thought I would. The long triangles are rather striking, and there’s a visceral gut-punch when you look down 5th, 6th, or 7th Aves and see another really tall building with a big antenna down there where the WTC used to be.

  4. GF says:

    I like it more in real life than I did in pictures, too. It’s right by work so I’ve watched it go up. But no, I haven’t seen the series.

  5. Bryan says:

    I’d watch The Cruise first if you’ve never seen it. But if you have, then the new series is really great. It’s nerdy and has a political bite and, well, it’s Speed, and he’s one of my favorite people.

  6. Rachel says:

    The tallest building = priorities thing is Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. In the TV series with Bill Moyers, he even uses the LDS temple in SLC as a present-day example, before comparing it to the temples of commerce in New York: skyscrapers. You make an interesting observation that this particular skyscraper, despite being in the financial district, is being asked to represent something else…or maybe just the ultimate synthesis of democracy with capitalism.

  7. Bryan says:

    Yes! Thanks, Rach. It was Joseph Campbell.

  8. Bryan says:

    His point was that the new WTC doesn’t represent the same priorities as the old one, which, although ostensibly about “world” commerce was also about local politics, David Rockefeller’s personal neuroses, the tension between midtown and the financial district, etc. It was a local story as much as a global one. The new building is, perhaps inevitably, about something else.

  9. Dave says:

    Hmm. My sense is that most of what I don’t like about the new WTC complex — and I generally agree with that Philip Nobel essay — was driven by political forces within the New York area more than by national politics. There were commercial concerns that drove the decision to erect an enormous building with a lot of leasable square footage. And the tri-state area (you’ve got to count NY and NJ here at the very lease, because of the Port Authority’s ownership of the site) wallowed in 9/11 mourning hysteria at least as much as other parts of the country did, although it’s true that the Port Authority couldn’t start its own wars about it. It was the families of those killed in the towers, and their communities and local politicians, who forced the cordoning off of the two square footprints and who held a very strong veto over a lot of the site planning, particularly what was connected with the memorial aspects.

    I agree that the new WTC complex is caught up with a bunch of assertions of nationalism and imperial supremacy. But imperial supremacy is very much what New York is about, even if many residents of Manhattan aren’t comfortable with the crassly nationalistic expressions that come easily to others who live in the metropolitan area.

  10. Dave says:

    Very interesting to think about how New York’s bohemia has changed over the decades. At least two factors seem particularly important. One is how New York itself has changed, in terms of who is drawn to the city, who is able to live there, where in the city the newcomers and bohemians are able to live (farther from the center of things than Greenwich Village), what sort of material lives are available to bohemians. Another is how global capitalism has changed, particularly how it has gotten much better and faster at converting novel artistic production into various kinds of commodities — items in the Saatchi collection, music for car commercials, “design” products for bourgeois consumption. I think that is roughly compatible with what you talk about in your last paragraph, although I’m sure I’m leaving things out.

  11. Bryan says:

    I knew I was writing too fast and painting with too big a brush, which is why I almost didn’t post until I’d had time to think a little more. But my window was closing and I wanted to keep up my Monday schedule, and I felt more or less comfortable with the general outline. Of course the forces at play in redeveloping the site were a blend of local, metropolitan, and national, but I was thinking mostly of the ways in which the Big Symbols of the site are about a national story and not a neighborhood tragedy. To be fair, it was a national tragedy. But it’s a redevelopment problem New York will live with until people just kind of forget about how the neighborhood ended up the way it did, which will happen eventually.

    The imperial forces thing is a bit trickier, and related to the perpetually lamented decline of the avant garde in Manhattan. Because of course you’re right: it’s not like the robber barons didn’t have their hold here, their children treating the city like a plaything. The rich and young and entitled have been here for a long time. Maybe I’m romanticizing a version of the past in which is seems like the odds weren’t stacked so high and that art could be made without market forces calling every shot. Then again, I re-read passages from Claes Oldenburg’s “I Am For an Art”/Store Days while I was walking through the MoMA re-creation of “The Store” — I mean seriously, what’s the whole point of “The Store” if not to comment on the conditions of art and commerce, even in 1961 — and was struck by these lines, which I’ve always loved: “If I could only forget the notion of art entirely. I really don’t think you can win. Duchamp is ultimately labeled art too. The bourgeois scheme is that they wish to be disturbed from time to time, they like that, but then they envelop you, and that little bit is over, and they are ready for the next.”

    And I course here I am up early working, trying to figure out how to make more money, so there’s that, too.

  12. oliver says:

    excellent post, my spouse and i certainly adore this website, go on it