Museum Mile Musings

This is a good time to be in Manhattan. The weather’s perfect, the park and foliage are still green, and daylight saving time keeps the days long. New York used to be able to build these beautiful cities-within-a-city, like Rockefeller Center, but that’s all in the past. The developers got to the politicians and now have free reign. The city had an opportunity after 9/11 to make a 21st-century Rockefeller Center downtown, but a shark by the name of Silverstein preferred profit to architectural achievement, as did another horror, Aby Rosen, who is busy turning uptown ugly.

I’ve been walking up and down what’s known as the museum mile all week, as the doctor treating my legs is located up that narrow slice of Upper Manhattan fronting Central Park. These are well-scrubbed blocks, beautiful and pricey and all built before my time, thank God. As one moves farther north, or uptown, side streets nearby contain worn, grubby apartments laced with fire escapes and long-absent but now-ubiquitous gangs hanging around. The city once again feels unwelcoming the moment one crosses the DMZ around 105th Street.

Most of the people one sees around the Upper West and East Side are tourists, visitors who want to see where John Lennon got shot rather than where the Vanderbilt or Astor houses are located. In the past, novelists of the city have always portrayed the place as a battleground between social climbers and the entrenched, ignoring the poor European immigrants waging bloody turf wars. Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote narratives of class, not the place. This was at the turn of the 19th century and beyond. Then came the great F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the city didn’t keep him for long. He saw more glamour and mystery in the Riviera, and it proved his downfall. I grew up on John O’Hara’s potboilers about upper-class preppies and then went on to Louis Auchincloss and his Manhattan stories about bankers and lawyers. Two friends of mine, Tom Wolfe and Jay McInerney, have written at length about the city, Tom being among the first to touch upon race relations, or lack of them, in a major novel.

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New York was a more complex city to write about for a novelist because of the country being as big as it is. There is one London and one Paris where people gravitated and where their clubs and major businesses were located. Not in the good old U.S. of A. There was a Boston and a Philadelphia with societies to match and far outclass anything New York had to offer, and also places such as Chicago and St. Louis and San Francisco whose seats of power and grandes dames looked down upon an ex- butcher’s fortune like the Astor one. And, of course, one can never write about a provincial place like Washington, although Gore Vidal did place a novel in the capital, as I found out to my great displeasure.

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