This article is part of The Legacy Project: explorations into creating legacy projects for end of life, funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship Award.
How many stories does one city hold? Since arriving in New York this question has been on my mind. How many stories had I heard about New York before I set foot in the place? How many films have I seen set in New York? How many books, photographs, paintings and songs have tried to capture time in a city that means so much to so many? How does a city begin to tell its stories and why do we need to listen?
As I've been travelling around the USA I have noticed a reoccurring theme: the need for a place, a community, a neighbourhood, a street corner even (thank you David Simon for The Corner and The Wire, set in Baltimore) to tell their stories. Some cities have suffered great insults upon their psyche, and need to tell their stories to help the healing process. When visiting the site of 9/11 In New York City I went to the Tribute Centre which has been specifically erected to help do this. Whilst I walked around I could hear the voices of those who had survived echoing around the thousands of names and pictures of those who hadn't. Now in the place of devastation are two infinity pools, and through the Freedom Tower and new World Trade Centres the area has begun to rebuild itself, with the ever present legacy of what went before at the forefront of the regeneration. This happens on grand and minute scales.
Stories are told in defence of the past and in fear of the future. Each neighbourhood seems to be in the midst of a tension between the old and the new, and grappling to carve out the story of its history whilst the juggernaut of gentrification rolls on. In Harlem, where I am staying, the legacy of leaders from the black community is commemorated in street names, murals, tours and building names. A jazz bar on the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd called Paris Blues prides itself on being the only standing jazz venue left in Harlem with the original owner of 80 years old, Samuel J. Hargress Jr still present. And all the while developers arrive and force residents out of their neighbourhoods in favour of gleaming apartments, trading off the heritage they are in the process of destroying.
Individual stories can embody moments in time in the history of a race, a city, a country and resonate universally.
I attended the showing of a film called ‘Red Shirley’ a 30 minute film by Lou Reed (himself now a figure of folklore in the stories of New York) who interviewed his cousin Shirley Novick on the eve of her 100th birthday in 2010. Red Shirley, so named due to her affiliation with the Communist Party, had come to New York as an immigrant aged 19 speaking only Hebrew. She lived to be 102 and was fiercely involved in politics, art, music (often going to see Velvet Underground live) and her neighbourhood until she died. After we watched the film people spoke about their own individual stories of Shirley - I was fortunate enough to be next to Shirley's neighbour of decades who in turn told me some stories I would have not been privy to otherwise. For some present Shirley represented the story of one of the millions of ordinary yet extraordinary immigrants to America, and her film was an important document in the history of the Jewish people. For others she was a glimpse into the family story of Lou Reed, who has influenced generations of artists and musicians. For a handful she was a relative, a friend, a neighbour and for all she was a powerful reminder that a thirst for knowledge can keep you young even when you're over 100. I asked Shirley's neighbour what she thought her secret to longevity was: “she never stopped learning” was her answer. Had Lou Reed never thought to turn a camera on and interview Shirley, all of this rich insight would not have been given the opportunity to live on. It was an uplifting evening and I was struck by the cross-pollination of cultures, generations and races who attended the screening of a 99 year old seamstress telling her life story to her world famous cousin.
Stories of struggles for the right to exist can be told in the most irreverent ways. I watched the drag artist Lady Bunny, a legend in the New York scene, eviscerate modern hashtag activism in her show about political correctness, which was held at the original Stonewall bar - synonymous with the gay rights movement in the USA. In a searing number she sang about the fight for gay rights and the story of Stonewall, whilst making some of the filthiest jokes I've ever heard (and I've heard quite a few). Her message was loud and clear: know your history.
Storytelling is part of every culture, and is a primitive part of humanity. As part of The Legacy Project I have been fortunate enough to spend time with people and organisations who make it their mission to extract and preserve these stories and memories. New York is also a reminder that places can hold as many stories as people - it has been a pleasure to listen to a very small number of them.