Sunday, December 08, 2013

Not The Home Of The Braves

From Montreal it was due south to New York, my last stop, not just in America, but of the entire trip. It was strange for me to be thinking about being back home after so long on the road, so I decided not to think about it and instead concentrate on exploring New York. For many New York is America. Its dominance, both economical and cultural, is unparallelled. Its locales made famous from innumerable Hollywood films: Times Square, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Fifth Avenue, the brownstones of Greenwich Village, the Empire State Building, and Central Park are as well known to people from Panama to Peshawar as much as they are to the populace of Pensacola. I had, actually, been there before, way back in 2001, as a young student on my summer holidays (ah, how innocence fades) and was interested to see how I would see it with more jaded eyes.

Manhattan's exclusive 5th Avenue looking uncharacteristically empty on a Sunday morning.

I had, therefore, already seen the "major sights". I'd gawked at the lights of Times Square, I'd been up the World Trade Centre (and was not planning to visit the memorial plaza that has been built as, from what I have heard, the queues and security checks are deeply onerous), and I'd pounded the corridors of my fair share of museums and galleries. One sight, however, that I neglected to pay my respects to when I was first here, was Lady Liberty. And so I decided to rectify the omission this time around. Ironically, for many immigrants to America, she would have been one of the first things they would have seen of their new home, whereas for me it would be one of the last. The statue and nearby, associated, Ellis Island (Ellis Island was where the immigrant processing centre was located. A centre which saw over 12 million people passing through its doors during its 32 years of operation.) have a unique place not just in the American psyche, but also the myth of the creation of modern America. A myth of unbounded freedom, opportunity, justice. A myth that is played to and reinforced during a visit to the statue and the immigration museum on Ellis Island.

Lady Liberty looking more glum and wet than proud and majestic.

For example, during the audio tour of Liberty Island you are deluged with a bombastic panegyric to the statue, how its noble face and broken shackles inspire generations, how it is a symbol of all America stands for. But they fail to mention that Frédéric Bartholdi, the French sculptor of the statue, initially planned for it to be located at the mouth of the newly dug Suez Canal, a testament to the African continent. The Egyptian khedive (ruler) thought the idea smacked too much of European imperialism and refused, and so Bartholdi had to make do with America, his second choice. The idea that America is somehow second-best goes counter to the ideas of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism that are central to the American psyche. The few Americans I did mention this oft-overlooked trivia morsel seemed to take it as a personal affront.

Over on Ellis Island the picture portrayed by the museum was a little more nuanced. As well as the standard tales of Europeans fleeing war, strife and famine caused by the dogma and ossification of the Old Ways, there were nods to the many West African slaves* that were forcibly brought over, and even a panel or two to the Native American tribes. And it is the latter that interested me the most. In the great American narrative the indigenous population are conspicuous by their absence. Although they evenly inhabited the entire continent from coast to coast they appear but a couple of times in great sweep of American history: first they are kind and helpful, being instrumental in the survival of the Pilgrim Fathers; and then almost nothing for another 250 years when the cowboys have to see off those pesky, savage injuns, who are rustling their livestock and threatening poor farmers. Throughout my travels through the States I had barely seen a single memorial, museum or plaque to the native population, their only tangible legacy being in local place names: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Michigan and Illinois are all Indian names. It seems especially ironic given the American penchant for commemorating any historical event, no matter how minor. But I suppose nobody likes being reminded of their genocidal past and how their prosperity is built on a foundation of misery,  suffering, deceit and theft on a colossal scale. And I do not use the word genocide lightly, for that is, in essence, what the treatment of the indigenous population amounted to, as I have discovered whilst researching this blog post (a distressing experience, as every incident I learn about makes me simultaneously sad and angry; angry especially because it is not known, and instead ignominiously swept under the carpet of collective consciousness).

The assessment hall on Ellis Island, through which millions of immigrants to America passed on their way to a new life.

When the first settlers came they were in a position of weakness. They didn't know the land, and so they acted peacefully to the friendly locals who helped them out, signing treaties of friendship and non-aggression. As time passed more settlers came and the desire for more land and resources grew. The settlers, now more powerful, thought it more expedient to break their treaties and drive out their erstwhile allies than to keep their word. They were, at the end of the day, only heathen savages. And so the Native Americans were pushed ever further westwards until it was agreed that the Indians should be removed from American territory altogether and granted the land west of the Mississippi. George Washington had proposed that if the Indians were to adopt European ways they could be integrated into American society. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole and Chickasaw took him at his word, adopting European farming practices, European education, European houses, Christianity, and even fought alongside American troops in the war of 1812. They thought they were sorted and that the Americans' words of friendship and equality would be honoured. They had failed, however, to count on the duplicitous nature of American. In the 44 years from 1786 to 1830 the Choctaws signed nine different treaties with America, which whittled their territory in and around the modern state of Mississippi from the size of Iceland down to nothing. The last treaty, of 1830, finally booted the Choctaw off their ancestral lands and west across the Mississippi to present-day Oklahoma, which was set aside as Indian Territory "in perpetuity" (which in American legal parlance, when dealing with minorities, seems to mean about 20 years). The 15,000-strong Choctaw nation was forced to walk 500km to their new homes. One in six died along the way.

I couldn't find any memorials to Native Americans, so instead I'll offer you a photo of the memorial dedicated to merchant seamen, many of whom died in WWII. The beauty of the sculpture is that at high tide the man in the water is almost totally submerged so that all that you can see is his outstretched hand.

Seeing what a wonderful method this was to get rid of undesirables, President Jackson (who is on the $20 bill), enacted laws to remove the remaining tribes by fair means or foul (though usually foul). And so followed the Creek, the Cherokee, the Seminole and the Chickasaw along what they would call the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee, still believing in the White Man' system, took their case to the Supreme Court to fight their forced expulsion. Interestingly the court found in their favour and so the government went through with their removal anyway. If this is what happened to the tribes that the Americans deemed "civilised" then one can only imagine the contempt with which the Plains Indians were treated

A shame I had to learn most of this through online digging. I think that if many of these topics were more openly emphasised then America(ns) might have more humility, rather than simply appropriating their names to sell cars and sports merchandise. (I wonder what the few remaining Indians think of their cultures' names being used to promote products that are so completely antithetical to them.) But I seem to have strayed off topic somewhat. New York, the Big Apple. Having ticked off my big ticket sight, I set about discovering for myself some of the smaller, more homely curiosities that the city has to offer. Having spent years living in London I've come to realise that it's its little nooks and crannies and grotty little neighbourhoods that fascinate me most. So off it was to the Upper West Side and Yonkers to slake my thirst for obscura. Up in the northern corner of Manhattan is The Cloisters - part of the Metropolitan museum, a recreated medieval monastery incorporating actually Romanesque and Gothic stonework from French and Spanish. Add to that choral chants and it's a world away from the bustle just hundreds of metres away. From there you can walk along the Hudson shore to the George Washington Bridge, which shelters the cute little Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse, known affectionately as the Little Red Lighthouse. It was meant to be torn down in the 50's, but due to its starring role in a children's book the kids of New York mobilised to save it.

The Little Red Lighthouse, hiding under the George Washington Bridge. It's so unassuming and tucked away that many New Yorkers don't know of its existence.

And if you, dear traveller, were to cross north out of Manhattan you would come to the New York borough of the Bronx (interesting fact: the Bronx is the only New York borough not to be on island). And if you were to continue further north, along the Hudson river, you would come to the town of Yonkers. Pleasant commuter-belt neighbourhoods, a sizeable Irish community. Yadda, yadda, yadda. My reason for visiting Yonkers stemmed once again from my interest in urban vestiges. A hundred years ago America saw the rise of the robber barons and a class of super-rich that hadn't been seen before. Unlike today's mega-rich, many of them had some sort of social conscience and funded numerous philanthropic projects. One such man was Samuel Untermeyer, who made his money as a lawyer, who opened up his lavish gardens every month to the public for them to enjoy. Upon his death he bequeathed them to the nation. Unfortunately the American government isn't very good with the concept of public goods and the gardens were passed around until they ended up being given to the city of Yonkers ... who didn't have the funds to look after them. A small portion of the gardens are still maintained, but the rest are now overgrown ruins overlooking the Hudson, with the added feature of having authentic ancient Roman ruins (Untermeyer had had them shipped over to decorate his garden).

A row of original Corinthian columns, lost in a sea of weeds on the banks of the Hudson river. The to-overlooked Untermeyer Park.

Whilst ambling through the slightly muddy and deserted grounds I spotted a gazebo (marked on the little handy map as the Temple of Love) and went over to investigate. Rounding the corner I surprised an embracing couple. I was about to apologise and leave when the guy said that it was OK, and if I could take some photos of them. I was about to say "?" when I noticed the rose petals on the ground, the garlands of plastic flowers, and, in case I hadn't got the message, a home-made banner with the words "Will You Marry Me". Judging by their smiles I guessed the answer. And so, by pure serendipity, I got to help record a very special moment for Matt and Kristina and hear about Matt's proposal preparations ("Hey Kristina, do you want to go out for a walk?", "But I'm cleaning the bathroom.", "It'll only take a few minutes.", "I've started scrubbing the floor already." He made it sound so romantic.). The reflected glow from their happiness gave me a smile for the rest of the day.

As if that wasn't enough, a little further down the river is the Yonkers power station. Built at the turn of the last century to power the Hudson railway it soon became obsolete as larger, more efficient plants sprung up. It was finally mothballed in the early 60's since when it has diligently sat there gathering dust and graffiti tags. Whereas other urban power stations around the world have been gentrified into museums, shopping malls and apartments, the Yonkers plant has remained in purgatory, despite its privileged location by the river. But I didn't mind as it gave me a chance to see if I could still climb walls and disregard No Trespassing signs. Yes and yes as it turned out. Power stations are the cathedrals of the industrial age, their lofty turbine halls naves, and the ever-present graffiti frescoes. A perfect place to visit on a Sunday (also because there are no workmen on the site to shout at you for trespassing).

The Yonkers power station with its majestic riverside location.

New York, New York. Not sure I want to be a part of it, but definitely don't mind stopping over to visit.

*I find the way the story of African slavery in the Americas is told in the US to be far too vague and imprecise. For a start the origins of the slaves is often reduced to the single word Africa. It is the second-largest continent in the world with incredible human diversity. Whilst the slaves brought to North America all came from a small part of it, namely the coast from Senegal to Nigeria, and its hinterlands. The difference between a Senegalese Wolof and a Kalahari Bushman, in terms of ethnicity culture and customs are far greater than those between, say a Portuguese and a Russian, yet we are far more likely to make the distinction between the latter than the former. Also the figure of 12 million slaves brought over is the most bandied about, yet of those, barely more than 5% were destined for what is today the USA (most ended up in Brazil).

1 comment:

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