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Archive for January, 2015

Whether or not cities actually exist

I’ve recently had occasion to visit New York for a weekend. A group research project I participated in for a history pedagogy course I took last spring turned into a panel at the American Historical Association, and while it made for a number of commitments to juggle over New Year’s, I wound up taking the train down from Boston the first Saturday of the year and AirBnB-ing a place in Brooklyn (a much better deal than the conference hotel, to say the absolute least — it’s a real gem). I caught Cappella Romana’s concert at Trinity Wall Street, helped chant Orthros and Divine Liturgy at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity Sunday morning, having brunch afterward with a friend at the Brooklyn Diner (which is neither in Brooklyn nor a diner), meeting another friend for a drink at the Stone Rose Lounge in Columbus Circle, then wending my way to the New York Hilton Midtown to meet with my panelists. As it happened, we wound up once again at the Brooklyn Diner; I had later dinner plans, so I contented myself with a Greek salad, then headed over to Times Square to meet another friend. As is our custom when I’m in New York, we had dinner at John’s Pizzeria, and then I took the subway back to Brooklyn. I had an early morning that Monday getting back to the Hilton for the panel; that went well, and then I found myself on the train back to Back Bay Station.

It wasn’t the most convenient trip in the world, but I had fun, and I got to see more of the city than I’ve seen in previous visits. I first visited New York in March of 2005, almost ten years ago — I was 28, and I was invited to audition for the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program. Obviously I didn’t get in, but it was a nice first opportunity to go. I saw Samson et Delilah at the Met with José Cura and Denyce Graves, Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and went up to the top of the Empire State Building. Good times. I stayed in Midtown on that trip, at the Wellington Hotel next to Carnegie Hall, and on my way to the Brooklyn Diner last weekend I found myself walking past them and simultaneously thinking, “Hey! I’ve been here!” and “My God, has it really been ten years since that first trip?”

Since 2005, I’ve been to the city rather happenstantially. Later that same year I visited St. Vlad’s, thinking, as many young men do who are new converts and thus excitable, that maybe the priesthood might be in my future. I took the opportunity to take the train down to meet a friend for dinner and a Broadway show; I repeated this on another visit to St. Vlad’s in 2008. My next time out that way was New Year’s 2011/2012, when we went out to New Jersey for our usual extravaganza and spent an afternoon at Chelsea Market. In the time we’ve been in Boston, we’ve passed through New York a couple of times while driving elsewhere, and then the Sunday after Christmas we drove down to spend a couple of days with Bloomington friends who were there visiting family.

It’s been a curious experience getting to know cities like New York and Chicago and Boston and Washington, DC and even London and Athens in my 30s. Being born in Alaska and growing up in the Pacific Northwest in a family that had absolutely no reason or desire to go to any of those places, if we went anywhere, the overall goal was usually sunny weather or a family-friendly attraction or both. We drove from Wenatchee to Florida in 1981 to see the first shuttle take off; we flew to Hawaii in 1984; we went to Disneyland in 1986. I spent a week in Palm Springs with my grandparents in 1987, in 1993 I visited Indiana for the first time for the International Thespian Society Festival at Ball State University in Muncie, and then I got to go to Florida again in 1994 on a choir trip. 1994-2002 saw me going to Alaska every so often to see family, and then to Victoria, B.C. for our honeymoon, but a 2002 trip to Chicago to see Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Opera of Chicago marked a first substantial visit to one of the “big cities”, and then it was 2007 before I got to visit Europe for the first time.

From a certain perspective, it’s perhaps fair to say that growing up, places like New York didn’t actually exist. They were movie sets and backdrops for books, but you couldn’t actually go and visit them. Perhaps not unlike how pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism was the default way of presenting Christianity in the media (at least when I was growing up), film and TV seemed to default to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco for the normative experience of “America”. In both cases, what was presented had absolutely nothing to do with my experience of Protestant life in the suburban part of western Washington state. Subways and trains weren’t real. Skyscrapers weren’t real (until Columbia Center was built in Seattle, and then suddenly we had “the tallest building west of the Mississippi”, at least for awhile). Brownstones weren’t real, nor were buildings that were much older than 40-50 years. Apartments and neighborhoods weren’t really real. Schools that were named with “P.S.” followed by a number weren’t real. Heck, a climate with four seasons wasn’t real. Gangs and street violence and drugs weren’t real, too (until they were, and then the area lost its collective mind; as much as “midnight basketball” is code for “stupid government ideas that don’t solve problems”, Seattle basically did the equivalent of banning “midnight basketball”).

At the same time, I’m also aware that when I visit New York in 2015, it’s not even close to being the same New York that I would have visited in, say, 1985, for a whole host of reasons (gentrification and 9/11 being among them). Still, it’s hard to walk around the city at all without the awe of a 10 year old, at least for me. Would I ever live there? Sure, in a heartbeat, if I had a job that meant I could afford to live there and raise a family (granted, I’m not sure all parties who would have to be involved in the decision would be for it). Boston has at the very least been a really nice compromise, a big step up from where we were, with pretty much everything that I was missing.

Something I at least think I detect in Boston, New York, and Chicago — I’m less able to speak about, say, San Francisco, having spent next to no time there — is an American cultural identity that is united more around the common experience of a place than the place being the destination of homogenous, like-minded people. To put it another way, having been born and having grown up in places that are occupied by people trying to get away, what I see in Boston, New York, and Chicago are the places occupied by the people who stayed. Ironically, I feel more at home in all three of those cities now than I did in Seattle by the time I left, and certainly far more than I ever did in Bloomington. It gets tricky to talk about this without romanticizing it, which isn’t the goal, and I’m talking as somebody who struggles with a sense of rootlessness to begin with, but it does make for a very different perception of a place. It might very well be no more than wide-eyed “grass is greener” syndrome, which is part of why I say it’s interesting getting to know these places for the first time in my 30s. I know that Theodore isn’t going to remember much about this year, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to bring him out here so that he does get some of this in his system early. Next month he’ll get to spend 10 days in Seattle, too. He may not remember it well, but somewhere in his memory he’ll know that these places exist.

Writ large, I realize that as a historian I study a lot of places with a similar kind of personal remove. I theoretically can actually go visit them, but mostly I haven’t, not yet, and even when I do, they won’t really be the same places I’m studying. No, you can’t go back to Constantinople… And then, yes, there’s probably low-hanging fruit on this topic where religion is concerned, too. I can fancy myself a city kid all I want by converting to Orthodoxy and going to a Greek church in the Northeast, but it won’t ever change the fact that I’m a white kid who was born in Alaska and grew up going to an Evangelical church in a suburb of Seattle, right? And choice is tricky to justify.

Anyway. I don’t really know that I have a point here, so it probably won’t get anybody very far trying to find one. Just chewing on some things.

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