In this month’s author Q&A, Melody Nixon speaks with Phillip Lopate about public art and communal spaces, his relationship to cities, and New York City as a “place that encourages wit.” Lopate’s essay “Above Grade: New York City’s Highline” — about the public park built on an elevated freight rail line in Manhattan that opened in 2011 — appeared in Issue No. 02 of The Common.
MN: At the end of the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, you read outdoors on the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront before the illuminated lower Manhattan skyline. You read a short piece of your own and excerpts of other writers who have taken the place of Brooklyn as subject, such as Paul Auster, Truman Capote, and Hart Crane. Each piece related somehow to the changing scene: the moving East River, the lights of the skyline as they switched on, the rattle of cars through Brooklyn brownstones. I found the hyper-awareness of setting, in relation to the reader and the text, very satisfying. How important is place to your identity as a writer?
PL: In terms of my identity I think of myself as a writer first, a New Yorker second, a Jew third, and an American as (probably, a distant) fourth. But certainly my identity is very bound up with this particular place. New York City is in all my works — novels, poetry, nonfiction — whether as a backdrop or a character. In a sense I’m what you might call a “regional writer,” and I feel very positive about cities in general. I don’t want to apologize about cities — I like cities, and I think the rhythm of being in the streets or being indoors works into the sentences. There’s a sort of New York speech, which is compounded of Jewish, black, Hispanic, and Irish, and so on, that percolates into one’s syntax and one’s way of forming sentences. All of that makes me very much a writer of a certain place.
Ten Questions on Writing and New York City: An Interview with Phillip Lopate
By PHILLIP LOPATE
When, in June 2009, the High Line Park opened to the public, it was declared an almost unqualified success. Some architecture critics nit-picked the design, but basically they endorsed it, and ordinary folk (I include myself in that category), less fastidious, greeted it with enthusiasm. Crowds lined up for hours to have the elevated promenade experience, it became a (free) hot-ticket item in New York City, which typically over-embraces a novelty for six months, then ignores it. Especially in hot weather, the challenge soon became to grab one of the reclining benches on the sundeck and tan yourself for hours, while envious masses stumbled by. The crowded, restless carnival-grounds movement of the park-goers above-ground rhymed the pedestrian conveyer-belt effect of the gridded streets below: Manhattan is a place where loitering in one place is done at your peril. Paris has boulevard cafes for cooling one’s heels, Rome comes to a rest at fountains and piazzas, but in Manhattan you keep moving forward. Well and good: I approve.
New York City is too infinite to have a center, too hot-and-cold to locate its putative heart. But if one place can claim a measure of symbolism for the metropolis, it is City Hall and its adjoining park. Surrounded by Park Row, which once housed the legendary newspapers of James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst, and now plays host to more contemporary media via J&R’s Audio/Computer World, by that majestic cathedral skyscraper, the Woolworth Building, with its beige and taupe terra cotta cladding, by the muscular Municipal Building, a McKim, Mead and White wedding cake of Stalinist-architecture bulk, abutting the on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, by the ghost of what was formerly Ellen’s Coffee Shop, run by an ex-Miss Subways, and by the masses of civil servants on lunch break, shoppers frequenting bargain discount outlets, and criminals paroled from a nearby jail, the Tombs, all strolling up Chambers Street—City Hall itself is both grace note and anomaly.