Ghosts of Harlem

10.02.2004 | BOOKS

Flying Over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy
By Thomas L. Webber
Scribner, 288 Pages, $24

When Thomas Webber was nine years old and World War II was barely a decade finished, his father received a message from God. His father had received messages from God before--telling him not to become a lawyer, for instance, and to become a minister instead--but those messages had come before Tom was born, and so they hadn't had much impact on him.

This message was different. God instructed Tom's father to leave his comfortable position as dean of students at Columbia's Union Theological Seminary and move to East Harlem, where he could tend full-time to a Protestant parish. Thomas Webber's father obeyed this call, and moved his family into a public housing project on E. 102nd St., where young Thomas was a lonely white face on the streets of El Barrio.

Flying Over 96th Street is a story about diversity set in a time before diversity was cool. Like most noble goals, diversity is easy to praise and hard to achieve, and those of us who do the praising are often content to leave the achieving to someone else. For many of us, the city offers diversity in a lukewarm, passive way. New Yorkers listen to Ethiopian music on Japanese stereos; go to Mexican restaurants; work in buildings cleaned by immigrant labor; and ride mass transit through ethnic enclaves on the way to homes or jobs or somewhere else. These are the wonders of globalization and immigration, the gains from trade the economists talk about, and when the economists talk about them, they have a point. Our cities are better for this smorgasbord of culture and people, and we are better for being exposed to it.

But our exposure is frequently peripheral--we see suggestions of other cultures but rarely immerse ourselves in them. The lines of laundry that sag between buildings, the chaos of other languages, the gaudy signs with lettering from alphabets that aren't ours; all of these are apprehensions of other cities within our own, cities we are aware of but rarely understand. And while the awareness is itself an achievement, the absence of understanding is a reminder of just how far we have to go. The boosters of diversity forget to talk about fragmentation, about how we seal ourselves off from another through physical walls and mental geographies--demarcating safe and unsafe places to live; appropriate and inappropriate times to be in the park; bubbles of safety and spectacle where visitors can go; and other places that belong to other people, places where we don't belong.

Webber's father, on instruction from God, put himself and his family in a place they didn't belong. Webber as a result grew up in two cities: the privileged Collegiate School for Boys, where he went to school and spent his days, and El Barrio, the other side of 96th St., where he came home and spent his night. With the wide eyes of a child, he regularly crossed a threshold that was impenetrable for most people on either side. The blacks and Puerto Ricans and Italians never ventured into the world of doormen and well-tended street trees, while the townhouse dwellers never found their way into East Harlem. Webber's school did not exist for his neighborhood friends, and Webber's neighborhood did not exist for his school friends. For both groups, the city ended at 96th Street.

This is a beautiful book. Neither preachy nor ponderous, it avoids the easy romanticization of poverty--the idea that to be poor is somehow more "authentic"--that afflicts too much literature on the city. There is no white guilt here. Those characters in the book who beat their chests with liberal outrage often come across--appropriately, I think--as foolish and unhelpful. This is neither a manifesto nor a call to arms. Flying Over 96th Street is a story, and its many lessons are subsumed in a compelling narrative about childhood, about children's ability to see past differences in others, and about how we harden--how we lose our openness as we grow older. The teenage Webber struggles when he discovers a close friend is gay. He is stung when neighbors fired with racial politics turn on him. And he watches painfully as his father, the man who brought him to East Harlem, becomes less open to questions, more fixed in his ways. The calls from God stop but the onward march of life continues, and one day his dad looks human.

Hardness is a part of adulthood. We all discover, one way or another, that to open ourselves to everything is to ask to get burned. Openness means risk, and so our approach to it always teeters between longing and fear. Sometimes the fear wins: in xenophobes, in racists, in globalization protestors crashing against barricades. Yet more often we compromise. Most of us who live in cities learn to make deals with them. We strike a bargain, put on our armor, and resolve not to demand the best of the city if it won't show us its worst. Soon there are places we won't go, people we ignore. Walls go up. Life becomes more tolerable, but the city, which is supposed to constantly offer us something new, increasingly gives us only what's familiar.

We all make this deal differently, and perhaps only a child could make it the way Webber did, approaching New York with an innocence that beat back both convention and trepidation. He did the city without a net, and while the trip wasn't painless, it let New York do what cities are supposed to, which is condense and present the world, and make the places we live seem bigger than they really are. The promise of the city has always been to let its residents travel without leaving, and we should be glad that for Webber this promise was realized. For too many others, the city isolates rather than broadens, and the world seems to be always somewhere else, never beneath their feet. For anyone who cares about New York, or any American city, Flying Over 96th Street is an essential work.

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