By Annalee Newitz
I HAD the urge to be low-tech, so I spent a day walking across Manhattan. If you believe that culture is the new nature, my trek was roughly equivalent to an amble through the forest. I bought a bagel and lox at Zabar's, stuck my earbuds in on the corner of Broadway and West 80th Street and headed south. Surely a Neanderthal could have had this same experience munching on meat and humming to herself as she wandered through Europe 42,000 years ago.
The Upper West Side—bounded by Central Park on one side and Riverside Park on the other—is actually full of old-school traditional nature. There are trees and slightly stinky bodies of water and birds. I know there's supposed to be some dramatic cultural difference between the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, but I think my relentlessly Californian senses prevent me from discerning what it is. Both sides of Central Park are full of well-maintained residences, doctors' offices, corner stores built in the 1950s and nannies ambling with baby strollers.
Exiting the park's south side is pretty much like walking into a really dirty waterfall next to sharp rocks. In fact, scratch that—traditional nature has no metaphors adequate to the sheer human hell of this place. Its dense cultural outcroppings and vortices stretch at least to 40th Street below Times Square and create the sensation of being in a crowd that's just on the verge of rioting in response to a piece of entertainment. This is very different from being in a crowd whose proto-violence is prompted by a desire for food or political freedom.
At the heart of Times Square, I made a left and detoured briefly into the Condé Nast building to visit one of my editors. Four Times Square is one of the only high-rise office buildings in Manhattan built with eco-friendly materials. Supposedly, the windows are specially made to maintain a moderate temperature, and the air ducts keep fresh air circulating through the place.
I couldn't really tell whether the building felt any "healthier" than, say, one of the scary buildings near Penn Plaza where I once interviewed a bunch of guys in suits. But it was amusing to try to identify which people in the elevator worked for Vogue and which worked for The New Yorker. After eating a genetically engineered banana with my editor among the translucent plastic structures that bloom like gigantic flowers all over the Condé Nast lunch room, I returned to Broadway.
I slowed down when I hit 30th Street, moving through each neighborhood and watching the population change gradually the way I would watch a beach becoming forest if I were hiking on the California coast. The closer you get to Union Square Park near 12th Street, the more you start seeing young hipsters and frenetic middle-class people with bags of groceries. Continuing south, I skirted the edge of Greenwich Village and scooted past NYU, where everybody has floppy hair and Converse sneakers and jeans with stitching on the pockets.
Everyone got older and richer briefly in SoHo, but that group dissipated quickly around Canal Street. On Canal, it was impossible for me not to examine at least four or five pieces of unlicensed copies of trademarked and copyrighted media. People stuck handfuls of pirated DVDs under my nose; street vendors sold knockoff Hello Kitty and Gucci. If only this crowd could slake the thirst of those proto-rioters in Times Square, I don't think we'd have any violence.
The buildings got taller and the air between them colder as I approached the downtown financial district. People in suits with whimsical ties almost distracted me from my favorite part of Broadway downtown: the enormous brass bull statue near Wall Street that celebrates the crude joys of financial power. I never get tired of looking at its huge balls, which hang in remarkably realistic detail between its raised tail and abstract cock. Capitalists have never been a shy bunch, nor do they have any difficulty finding metaphors from nature to explain their peculiar form of culture.
And then, at last, I was at the Staten Island ferry, which brought me to the one place where Manhattanites fear to tread.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who isn't afraid of Staten Island.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.