Saturday, April 2, 2011

Clearly, More Than a Slum

I was writing a newspaper story about the Upper West Side of Manhattan the other day -- a real estate story about, basically, what a pleasant, family-friendly, and expensive place it is to live.  Whenever I'm working on a story like that, I find myself thinking of my father's great-aunt and great-uncle.  As it happened, they lived on West 85th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues -- owned a house there -- and my dad, who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, used to stay with them for extended visits in the summers.

The reason I always think of them on stories like this is that their Upper West Side was a very different place. Very nearly unrecognizable, I'd say.  The reasons are pretty complicated, rooted partly in housing and immigration policy and in partly in the postwar economy of New York City, but let's just say, for the moment, that it was rough.  At one point, actually, mayor Robert F. Wagner famously declared a block of West 84th Street, exactly one block south of my relatives' house, the worst block in the city.

My dad has one particular story he tells, about a racially charged gang war that culminated in a mob trying to storm my relatives' neighbor's house, and that neighbor then shooting one of the intruders and going to jail.  There is, in fact, still a bullet hole in the front of one of the townhouses up there on 85th Street, and my mom and dad have seen it, and I keep meaning to swing by one day myself.  I'm not sure I'm getting all the details of this incident right, because I haven't been able to find any news accounts of it.  That, actually, is what brings me to the point of this post.

The other day I was thinking about all of this again, because I had been talking to a real estate agent who also grew up on 85th Street.  So I went searching the Times' web site for some contemporaneous accounts of the neighborhood, including the "worst block" one block south.  Didn't see anything about that one shooting, but I did come across this.  Do yourself a favor and check this story out, because it's a doozy.

So ... where to begin?

How about that lead? (Note: People in the newspaper business often refer to the opening paragraph as the lede.  I have no idea why it's spelled that way, and it's always bothered me.  So I'm just going to say lead.)  So, how about that lead?  Are there any of the seven deadly sins that don't take place on this block?  Also (and thanks to Jeff for the tip on this), if you want to play a fun game, try scanning the rest of the story to see where homosexuality fits into the whole brawl.  It might take you a while, because homosexuality is never mentioned again.  McCandlish Phillips evidently just figured he'd throw it in because, what the hell, why not?  Just for fun, though, try substituting some other, equally random detail into the lead: "Drunkenness. Unemployment. Gambling. Overcrowding. Prostitution. Sweet Potatoes." Doesn't have the same ring, I guess, but it's equally relevant to the narrative. (Edit: No.  I mean more relevant.  At least sweet potatoes actually come up later in the story.  And they're delicious and good for you, by the way, so I don't really get the hate in there.)

Oh and also: "fighting for they knew not what"?  Because they were "Negroes and Puerto Ricans," presumably?  I mean, can't we just give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they knew what they were fighting for?  Or does only The New York Times know that?

At this point you may detect a certain snideness in my tone toward the story and its author.  This is because the more I read it, the more it bothered me.  Don't get me wrong: My initial reaction, and a large part of my reaction still, is to laugh at how hilariously overwritten and self-consciously dramatic it is.  It's just that, by all accounts my relatives, the McGinleys, were nice people -- certainly not, let's say, sociopaths.  Which is what the story's author basically comes out and calls them and their neighbors.  Am I reading this wrong?  I don't think so: "This is, clearly, more than a slum. A slum is good people in bad houses. But this, as one man put it yesterday, is 'a ghetto of sociopaths.'"

So, you're sure it's not just good people in bad houses?  Or maybe only some of them are good?  Nope.  Ghetto of sociopaths.

Let me digress for a moment to explain another newsroom phenomenon. A lot of the time, vivid writing isn't the top priority in the newspaper business -- it's mostly about conveying information, and you can get fairly successful as a reporter while being basically fairly utilitarian as a writer.  I actually think that's a good thing.  But then every now and then, in this environment in which writing tends to be fairly straightforward and writers fairly humble, you get a guy who fancies himself a wordsmith.  And somehow, through self-promotion or just by being somewhat more of a stylist than everybody else in the office, he gets a reputation as "the best writer at the paper."  Every paper has one or more of these guys, and often their writing really is good (I read a Rick Bragg story from the 1990s the other day that was genuinely emotionally affecting).  But just as often, it's terrible, because in a newspaper environment, when a writer gets a reputation as a stylist, people start encouraging him to be more and more vivid, and he starts believing the hype more than he used to, and editors are less likely to rein him in, and eventually you have pretentious florid disasters like this story.

I was thinking about all that when I figured I'd google McCandlish Phillips, and sure enough, this popped up:
Gay Talese, who left the paper in 1965 and became a best-selling author, says, “He was the Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural. There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”
Well, Gay Talese is a living legend and I don't want to contradict him in any way, so I guess I'll just say that even in his best season Ted Williams only got a hit in four out of 10 at-bats.

Oh, and the last thing that gets me about this story? See in the second-to-last paragraph where it notes, not disapprovingly, that the area is in for some slum clearance?  And that "Fifteen buildings on Eighty-fifth Street and six buildings on Eighty-fourth Street, near Columbus Avenue, have already been condemned and vacated to make space for a new grade school"?

That resonated with me too, because I know what happened to the McGinleys on the Upper West Side: The city took their house away.  They got some money in return, sure, and it was an amount consistent with the ghetto of sociopaths they were living in.

At times like this, though, I can't help wondering how things might have been different if someone from the family had managed to stick around.  Entire buildings don't come up for sale often on West 85th Street, so this is just a rough comparison, but when I think about the whole situation, I think of places like this: A building a block away that's selling for $5 million.

Clearly more than a slum is right.

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