Tuesday, July 04, 2006

For the Fourth: on liberty

[This is a repeat of an old post.]

I've been visiting New York City, the place where I grew up. I decide to take a walk to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, never having been there before.

When you approach the Promenade you can't really see what's in store. You walk down a normal-looking street, spot a bit of blue at the end of the block, make a right turn--and, then, suddenly, there is New York.

And so it is for me. I take a turn, and catch my breath: downtown Manhattan rises to my left, seemingly close enough to touch, across the narrow East River. I see skyscrapers, piers, the orange-gold Staten Island ferry. In front of me, there are the graceful gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge. To my right, the back of some brownstones, and a well-tended and charming garden that goes on for a third of a mile.

I walk down the promenade looking first left and then right, not knowing which vista I prefer, but liking them both, especially in combination, because they complement each other so well.

All around me are people, relaxing. Lovers walking hand in hand, mothers pushing babies in strollers, fathers pushing babies in strollers, nannies pushing babies in strollers. People walking their dogs (a prepoderance of pugs, for some reason), pigeons strutting and courting, tourists taking photos of themselves with the skyline as background, every other person speaking a foreign language.

The garden is more advanced from what it must be at my house, reminding me that New York is really a southern city compared to New England. Daffodils, the startling blue of grape hyachinths, tulips in a rainbow of soft colors, those light-purple azaleas that are always the first of their kind, flowering pink magnolia and airy white dogwood and other blooming trees I don't know the names of.

In the view to my left, of course, there's something missing. Something very large. Two things, actually: the World Trade Center towers. Just the day before, we had driven past that sprawling wound, with its mostly-unfilled acreage where the WTC had once stood, now surrounded by fencing. Driving by it is like passing a war memorial and graveyard combined; the urge is to bow one's head.

As I look at the skyline from the Promenade, I know that those towers are missing, but I don't really register the loss visually. I left New York in 1965, never to live there again, returning thereafter only as occasional visitor. The World Trade Center was built in the early seventies, so I never managed to incorporate it into that personal New York skyline of memory that I hold in my mind's eye, even though I saw the towers on every visit. So, what I now see resembles nothing more than the skyline of my youth, restored, a fact which seems paradoxical to me. But I feel the loss, even though I don't see it. Viewing the skyline always has a tinge of sadness now, which it never had before 9/11.

I come to the end of the walkway and turn myself around to set off on the return trip. And, suddenly, the view changes. Now, of course, the garden is to my left and the city to my right; and the Brooklyn Bridge, which was ahead of me, is now behind me and out of sight. But now I can see for the first time, ahead of me and to the right, something that was behind me before. In the middle of the harbor, the pale-green Statue of Liberty stands firmly on its concrete foundation, arm raised high, torch in hand.

The sight is intensely familiar to me--I used to see it almost every day when I was growing up. But I've never seen it from this angle before. She seems both small and gigantic at the same time: dwarfed by the skyscrapers near me that threaten to overwhelm her, but towering over the water that surrounds her on all sides. The eye is drawn to her distant, heroic figure. She's been holding that torch up for so long, she must be tired. But still she stands, resolute, her arm extended.

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