Editors note. Corresponding about the Bikes Against Deportation action, this Thursday, Bill Talen sent me this small essay about immigration and the city. Please read it and join us Thursday at 5 at Varick Street.
This is New York? Millions of us are bowed over squares of light in the palms of their hands, placed there by powers in the distance.
The statues of heroes and law-makers in the parks are mostly unknown now, and all of them go unnoticed. They could be reciting the Declaration of Independence and no-one would look up.
The edifices of old buildings are stages for forest spirits and griffins and satyrs and eagles and angels. These midsummer nights are suspended in the air above the bowed heads, above the glowing screens.
Can anyone look up from their hands? The crowds mill by, descending into tunnels, emerging through doors to stand in elevators, gazing down. In some of the buildings mysterious police are pulling fathers out of the doors and down the stairs. The screaming children are silenced by the not-looking-up people in the streets. The detainees are jailed and not noticed. These tragedies did not trend in peoples’ hands.
The laws and traditions that were made by the statues are still on the books. Friends of the people being arrested find these laws written down in libraries. 80 year old attorneys from the Civil Rights Movement can recite the 1st Amendment word for word. The statue called Lady Liberty promises that you can be poor and tired and you can be free. But the jails are filling up with families, even toddlers. They are not in peoples’ hands, not on the little screens.
This didn’t happen over-night. New Yorkers felt a shift take place some time ago. No-one can pinpoint the exact moment it happened. There was a conspiracy of banality that finally overwhelmed us: too many glassy condos and not enough laughing and loitering, too many chain stores and not enough eyes in the flower pots and stoops.
Some screenless people climb up into the old monuments to try to revive their relationship with the city. They shout the words of the laws that guarantee freedom down upon the bowed heads of the bent-over crowd. The screenless ones have the sensation that in doing this they are as foreign as the immigrants, and in fact they are arrested quickly, but they expect it.
Will the city notice itself? Will the victims get some volume? Will Duke Ellington sit at his piano again over Central Park? Will Lady Liberty walk across the water and stop the arrests? Will the satyrs leap across the air-shaft and land on Trump’s balcony? Will the city come back to life?