National Geographic : 2015 Dec
86 national geographic • December 2015 L ong ago, as an eight-year-old boy standing on the roof of a three- story tenement in Brooklyn, I first experienced a sense of wonder. We had moved to our unheated top-floor flat a few weeks earlier in 1943, leaving a damp ground floor apartment beside a clamor- ous factory. I had never climbed to the new roof alone. It was too dangerous, my mother said, a man-made cliff. At dusk, my friends gone home to eat, my mother out shopping, I ventured up the last flight of stairs in a tentative, now-or-never way. I opened the hook on the tar-papered door and stepped into a world of planks, pebbles, chim- neys, pigeons gurgling in a coop, and clothes- lines. In that instant I felt my life change. To the west, far off across the harbor, the sun was descending into a landscape I knew only as “Jersey.” Clouds were slowly tumbling, dark in the foreground, edged orange in the dis- tance. Freighters moved slowly, like toy boats, cutting fragile white lines in the black water. In Manhattan, the tall buildings were merging with the gathering darkness, no lights burning in that time of war. Above the distant, jagged mass, a few stars glimmered, tiny holes punched through the curtain of streaked, dark blue sky. Below me were the rooftops of half a hundred houses. All of it was a dazzling display of form, color, and mysterious shadow, rising past the limits of what we called “the neighborhood.” I tried to say something, but no words came. I didn’t yet know how to describe what I felt. Surely the word was “wonder.” Many wonders were yet to come, in what has been a long, rich life, much of it made pos- sible by crossing the unmarked borders of the neighborhood, going “over New York,” as we said when talking of Manhattan. Below our living room windows lay Seventh Avenue, where streamlined trolley cars moved north and south. A subway entrance beckoned at Ninth Street. The trains were fiercely, metalli- cally noisy, hurtling into black tunnels, emerging from the darkness to stop at Fourth Avenue, the doors opening, the sky visible, people leaving or boarding, the doors closing. The trains would start pounding forward again, heading for the wonders of Manhattan. My kid brother Tom and I loved the first car of the train, where we could stand at the win- dowed door and watch stations emerge in the distance, form themselves, then fill with light. There would be subway trips to Chinatown and Little Italy. The sound of strange languag- es. Signs with indecipherable, hand-painted words. Huge buildings scraped the skies over Manhattan, so different from the low horizontal By Pete Hamill Photographs by George Steinmetz The 850foot Pier 45 at Christopher and West Streets in Greenwich Village was refurbished as part of the longest riverfront park in the country and is now a favorite neighborhood spot for sunseekers. More than four miles of decaying docks, bulkheads, and parking lots were transformed into Hudson River Park, which has won awards for its design.