Any piece about New York City has a heavyweight champion to contend with – E.B. White’s “Here Is New York” – but André Aciman’s “Shadow Cities” comes out swinging. “On a late spring morning almost two years ago,” it begins, “while walking on Broadway, I suddenly noticed that something terrible had happened to Straus Park.”
The “something terrible” hooks me. You don’t have to know what or where Straus Park is – chances are you don’t – in order to get a jolt from the fact that something terrible has happened to it. You also learn something essential about the narrator of this essay: that he is the sort of person who notices when something terrible happens to a park. Often a reader’s interest in a personal essay hinges on an existing connection with the writer’s work. Jhumpa Lahiri, for example, could write a personal essay about her sock drawer and I’d read it. But when I first read “Shadow Cities,” I didn’t know who André Aciman was or what else he had written. I just liked that he could find disaster on a spring morning in that most serene of locations, a park.
The disaster, I discover, is that the park appears to be in the midst of being dismantled. And then I learn more things I like about Aciman. For example, he knows that a simple sentiment can power a short sentence. He is an exile from Alexandria, he is used to leaving cities behind, but having finally landed in Manhattan, he writes, plainly and plaintively: “I wanted everything to remain the same. ” Of course, that is not going to happen in a city whose archaeological layers shift before our eyes, and Aciman knows how to work that syntax too. From his bench in Straus Park, he piles up the accumulated nostalgia of a neighborhood, clause after clause:
Eighty-three-year-old Kurt Appelbaum, a concert pianist in his day, was sitting at such a bench; we spoke; we became friendly; one night, without my asking, he offered to play the Waldstein and the Rhapsody in Blue for me, “But do not tape,” he said, perhaps because he wished I would, and now that I think of it I wish I had, as I sat and listened on a broken chair he said had been given to him by Hannah Arendt, who had inherited it from an old German colleague at the New School who had since died as well.
Straus Park becomes, for Aciman, a place of all kinds of remembering. Its peculiar situation at the intersection of 106th Street, Broadway and West End Avenue affords him phantom glimpses of other cities, other selves – so much so that this “tiny, grubby park” slowly begins to seem like the hub of the universe. And it turns out that Aciman is wrong in jumping to terrible conclusions about it. It is being not destroyed, but restored. In writing about it, Aciman realizes that the city it has restored to him is not Paris or Rome, as he had thought, but a deeper shadow city, the one most essential to his wandering self. This is the revelation that makes “Shadow Cities” such a strong piece, an essay in the true sense of the word, an attempt through writing and reason to figure something out – something important, something lasting.
I’ve said that interest in a personal essay can hinge on familiarity between reader and writer. At the time he was visiting Straus Park, Aciman writes, he was doing research for his dissertation at Columbia. I did graduate work at Columbia too, and stood in the gloomy library stacks; I read “Shadow Cities” during my second year, in 1999, and was moved by it. I wondered whether it had inspired a horde of literary-minded visitors to stampede uptown on the 1/9 line to see firsthand this miraculous world within worlds, Straus Park.
But the New York Review of Books doesn’t have a stampeding sort of readership – devoted, but not, I’d bet, stampeding – and I realize now that even I, who was on campus almost every day and had been so moved by this piece of writing that I still think about it 12 years later, never walked the four blocks south from Butler Library to pay tribute. I think what this means is that it wasn’t Straus Park that I cared about after I read Aciman’s essay – that wasn’t the point – but the idea of Straus Park, that unassuming little place within a place you love that helps you organize your thoughts about all the other places you’ve loved and the person you were when you loved them.
Every time I reread “Shadow Cities” I bring to it my own memories, and something new in the piece stands out. This time it is this sentence, which comes after Aciman has chronicled all the places he’s reminded of when he sits in Straus Park. He’s talking about Rome and Paris and Amsterdam, and then he writes: “This, I think, is when I started to love, if love is the word for it, New York.”
We see the words “I love New York” a lot, but it’s a bumper-sticker sentence. It’s for tourists, for export. I love how Aciman’s sentence unfolds conditionally – how “love” is questioned, how it and New York are separated. It feels honest to love New York the way Aciman does, to call the defunct fountain in Straus Park a “septic sandbox” but sit by it day after day just the same and mourn it when you think it’s gone.
You can’t take the 9 train to Straus Park anymore, incidentally; the 9 is one of the things that disappeared from New York after 9/11. It was suspended in the immediate aftermath, came back for a few years, and then the MTA phased it out for good. There wasn’t really a need for it. The 1 makes all those stops. But I miss it all the same, even though I live in Brooklyn now and almost never ride the West Side line. I rode it on 9/11, on what must have been one of the last trains to run that morning – when I got on at 14th Street to go to Columbia to teach my class the towers were on fire, and when I got off at 116th they were gone. I suppose mourning the 9 train is my way of mourning everything that disappeared that day, that day when something terrible happened to the city, something that can’t be restored but whose loss has become part of the reason I love – and love is the word for it – New York.
Radhika Jones is an executive editor at Time.
Photo of Radhika Jones by Peter Hapak.