Lucy and Todd

Everyone is Watching–Megan Bradbury

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 12, 2016 at 10:21 am

This fascinating novella, almost a work of philosophy, is about the death of New York City, its forced abandonment by the very people who ought to live there: the middle and lower middle class, artists, musicians and writers. A cyclic, impressionistic narrative, it returns again and again to historical and contemporary figures whose connections are staggeringly strong, apt, poetic and, seemingly, unbreakable. That they were broken and that the city has been left culturally stunted is poignant, and conveyed with incisive, rueful calm.

The people on which Bradbury anchors her story are these: Walt Whitman, arguably America’s greatest writer, who lived in Brooklyn through most of the 19th century, when it really was a place of its own; definitely not part of the ‘United States proper’, as Frank Capra had it. Whitman is the foundation of this book, a pure note of angelic American hope.

The devil is the planner, builder and destroyer Robert Moses. A crappy visionary with obscure motives, he delivered parks, beaches, hulking roads and two World’s Fairs to the people of New York over the course of the 20th century. And in the process he illegally evicted thousands of them from their homes.

To counterbalance this Frankenstein, Bradbury proposes two controversial artists, the poet Patti Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Both vitally interested in fame itself besides their art, they famously lived at the famous Chelsea Hotel, an icon and mainstay of Bohemia, just when the city of serious art was coming apart, and the infrastructure of Moses was crumbling too. The Chelsea, once luxurious, had quickly been cut up, and cut up again in the Depression – that was when the artists had moved in:

‘They lived in rooms with half a fireplace, half a ceiling rose. The outlines of the rooms were brand new and their borders were confusing. Ghost apartments. Ghost hotel.’

Those are the thoughts of the writer Edmund White, who’s also a character in Everyone is Watching. He’s there because he’s arrived back in New York too late, it seems, to live in the romantic, literary city he remembers from the Sixties. When you think about it, what’s happening to the Chelsea now is a perfect metaphor for the city:

‘When the renovation is complete, it will be a tourist hotel … the beds will be made with clean white sheets … this building will not now produce anything new.’

Artists were antithetical to what the forces of business wanted for the city. They were deemed destructive, perverse. But as clear thinkers and seekers of the new, they were just what New York always needed. The choice of Edmund White to commiserate with this story is a clever one, particularly as regards the West Side of Manhattan. Robert Moses built a huge highway there; the giant piers where ocean liners docked from all over the world became derelict, and then the locus of the gay revolution, the symbol, to White, of the freedoms New York offered when it still could. Now, the West Side is merely ‘cool’: people with money and no brains all clamour to live in the Meatpacking District.

‘Walt Whitman used to live round here somewhere,’ one woman says to another. ‘I don’t know where exactly.’ Surprising, huh?

Bradbury makes connections between people and places, and across time, that are edifying and moving. Robert Moses builds the 1964 World’s Fair and the teenage Robert Mapplethorpe works there, selling waffles. Walt Whitman is astonished by his first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – he likens it to the printing press he operates for a living. A hundred years later, Robert Moses attempts to throw an even greater span across New York Bay. But things have changed. People no longer want to lose whole neighbourhoods to the automobile.

There’s a striking passage about how it may be possible to live on a reasonable budget in New York: ‘They avoid the organic grocers and they buy food that’s past its use-by date. They don’t have a TV and so don’t pay for cable. They use the Internet for free at the Brooklyn Library. When they go out with friends they order a beer, which they share, then they top the bottle up with liquor brought from home.’ One suspects this would make Edmund White feel sad. Walt Whitman would love it.

Why did New York have to go? ‘… that filthy place which didn’t work. What is it now? A historical exhibition of a cleaned-out place.’ What a disaster.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald, 25 June 2016.

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