10 August 2007

Private Splendor, Public Squalor

I don't have many complaints about New York, and in general, I think it's headed in the right direction. I know, I know, people assure me that if I stick around long enough I'll have plenty to complain about, but so far so good.

For the most part. However, when I went for a swim at Brighton Beach last week, followed by a walk up the boardwalk to Coney Island, I couldn't help feeling this was an area where the city could do better. Lots better.

Many people don't know it, but New York City has some pretty spectacular beaches. Maybe not the equal of Ipanema or Bondi, but there are miles of beautiful sand, water that's just about the perfect temperature for swimming (well, for a couple months of the year, anyway), and when the heat of mid-summer descends upon us, you'd need only a few palm trees to complete the illusion of a subtropical paradise.

Well, except for a few minor details. The Parks Department (assuming they're the ones in charge) does a creditable job of cleaning the sands, but cigarette butts and broken glass still get dumped there faster than it can get picked up. But what are you going to do? Millions of people use the beaches, and it's probably too much to expect them all to be civilized.

But what's really missing are the most basic facilities. I haven't been to Rio, but at any fair-sized beach in Sydney, there'll be at the very least a changing room and a concession stand; about the best New York has to offer is some truly rank public toilets.

I discovered this when I decided to change back into my street clothes for the trip back to town (I'd worn my swim suit under my clothes when I came to the beach). I walked over a mile and a half without finding a single place to do so. If worse came to worst, I thought, at least I could change inside one of the toilets, but many of them had "No Undressing" signs, and the others were so tiny and so squalid that you wouldn't want to remain inside of them any longer than absolutely necessary.

I finally found one large public toilet near Coney Island that people were using as a changing room, but it clearly wasn't designed to be one, even though there was plenty of space if it had only been laid out sensibly. What was even more ridiculous was that New Yorkers (who knew?) are apparently an extraordinarily modest lot: whereas in Sydney, people would have simply dropped their drawers and got on with dressing or undressing (hell, in many cases they'd do it right out in the beaches, about half of which are clothing optional anyway); here they stood around grimly and shamefacedly waiting for the handful of toilet cubicles to open up.

And what a grim experience it proved to be when you finally got inside one: nowhere to set your things down except on a filthy toilet or on a floor awash in liquids of indeterminate origin, and barely enough room to move, let alone wriggle one leg at a time out of your trunks and into your jeans. Next time I think I'll just ride back to the city in a wet swim suit rather than face that prospect again.

And on an only slightly related note: what's up with the museums? $20 "suggested donation" to get into the Metropolitan, and the MOMA doesn't even bother with suggestions: it's just plain $20 or get lost.

Now we all know that New York is an expensive city, but those kind of fees necessarily preclude all but tourists and the middle and upper classes from experiencing one of the greatest cultural resources in the world. When I was a kid, our family had very little money, but several times a year my dad would pile the whole family into whatever old jalopy he could keep running at the time and haul us down to the Detroit Art Institute or Historical Museum. The cost? Zilch, nothing, nada. It was totally free, and I don't think it's overstating the case to say that that fact helped change my life.

Those visits helped establish a lifelong habit, but more importantly, gave me the first inkling that there was another world possible beyond the grim belching smokestacks that might otherwise have circumscribed my Detroit existence. After I left home, no matter if I was dead broke or even homeless, I'd still stop in at the museums, sometimes to immerse myself in culture, sometimes because it was the only place that was warm. Sometimes I'd spend the day; other times I'd walk in for a quick 10 or 15 minute breather, a refresher course in what it meant to be human.

All that changed when the authorities in their wisdom decided that society could no longer afford free museums. There were discount plans, sure, and one or two days a month when the great unwashed were still allowed in free, but they were missing the point: that the people who often needed museums most were those who couldn't or wouldn't rustle up fifty or a hundred bucks to take the family on an outing, and who might never set foot in one unless it was there and available for free on a regular basis.

I can safely say that if museums had been charging the 1950s and 60s equivalent of $20 a head when I was a kid, I might have visited them once or twice if I was lucky, rather than the literally hundreds of times I did. And my life would have been infinitely poorer for it.

It's worth mentioning that one of the few unmitigated triumphs of New Labour in Britain has been to do away with all admission fees to state museums. All it took was a relatively minor redirection of tax money, and suddenly kids from families like mine were again able to wander at will among the treasures of the ages. And if Britain can afford to do this, how is it possible that New York and other American cities can not? At a time when New York City is growing richer by the minute, possibly richer than any city in the entire history of humankind has ever been, it's not just ridiculous, it's practically obscene that we can't afford such simple amenities.

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