The Phantasm of American Life

My first weeks in the academic quarter of Manhattan, Morningside Heights, just under Harlem, are an enlightment compared to last year in Brooklyn Heights. Surely, the vibrant energy of Harlem street life breathing down upon it, attributes for a great deal of its more lively heartbeat. But the esthetics of the Columbia campus area contribute their own value and atmosphere, especially here in the border region at 122nd Street. The subway number one sees the day of light, racing with the loudest rattling of old and rusty, cast iron rails and construction, and while Broadway runs down, the rattling shoots straight up to the station at 125th, about 20 meters high.

At Amsterdam Avenue begin the projects, brown stone apartment highrises, mostly occupied by African-Americans, while the Hispanics live further up in Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights. The street life becomes more present there along Broadway in the mid 100s. Although, I am at first tempted to say that here the cultural background is more visible, at second thought, I know that it is mostly a universal laborclass culture that expresses itself here. If I compare it to the Indian Neighborhood in Amsterdam or with Neukoeln in Berlin, you will find the same type of western bazaars in all. The only difference perhaps is the number of beauty, nail and hair salons that are packed on a Sunday. The stores sell a widest variety of plastic bric-a-brac, children toys, household goods of the worst quality, mostly made in China. Their one attraction is that they are cheap, very cheap, most items selling for not more than a few dollars. It is not the frequency of buys that lies low in a lower class neighborhood, but the quality of goods bought, it seems from these stores. From electronics, furniture, clothing to household articles, it is not hard to see at an eye-glance that the durability of the goods lies at a very low level. Of course, this is true in general of goods on the American consumer market, but it is especially true at the lower strata. Perhaps, this has been the great phantasm of the American standard of living.

Or is the phantasm of American life perhaps the isolated top-tier of American society, that truely enjoys the highest standards in life in every field of life? Is it this masquerade of the top that veils the truths of American life? The shattering of the dream of the American middle-class, that of social and economic prosperity and security through independent labor on the free market (contrasting with the European middle-class’s security that has been ensured through state-run social programs) is continuant. But the American ideal is prosperous and ascending ever at the top. Nothing can compare to the powerful and overwhelming display of its achievements like at Columbia University campus.

At the very center of it, sits the Alma Mater on a stone throne, wearing a victorious wreath on her bronze head and inviting the visitor into her fostering, spread out arms. She looks out over the neo-classic library on the other side of the main campus square, sitting in front of the pantheon that now serves as the main administrative offices. But the housing of Columbia university stretches beyond these two main buildings, from the divinely white neo-Gothic St. John cathedral at the edge of Morningside Park to the Riverside Park on the west side, which provides a beautiful serene promenade, overseeing the Hudson River and New Jersey.

At Grant’s Tomb, after running in the evening a fenomenal jazz band plays a magic show, filling the largely black crowd with enthusiasm.

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