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NEW YORK DAZZLE AND DEARTH

By Christopher SwanStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 1981



New York

The city is just waking up. Off to the northeast, its distant towers rise out of the murky smog into glinting sunlight. It looks so permanent and yet so new under a blazing morning sky. The Hudson River, catching the sun's early intensity, almost seems to be on fire. And, even at this hour, the traffic is starting to crawl through the narrow streets.

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I had hitched a ride on WOR's Helicopter 710, which hovers like a dragonfly over the city traffic every weekday morning.

It is the hour when the city comes to life, "when million- footed Manhattan unpent descends to her pavements," as Walt Whitman once put it. But all that is visible at the moment are the towers, the spectacular sun-caught sky- scrapers crowded together in architectural profusion.

This rain forest of new office buildings is the centerpiece of New York City's much-heralded fiscal renaissance, and also the sore point in a longstanding debate over just how widespread and legitimate this economic rebirth really is. There is the distinct impression among many critics that New York is really two cities: the energy-charged, dynamic cultural capital on Manhattan Island, most visible to tourists and the city's well-to-do; and the grim, unrelenting, tedious, demanding place that offers its residents little more than a struggle to survive.

"In this great city of New York," author and literary critic Alfred Kazin recently told an assembly of cultural patrons and moral supporters of the decaying New York Public Library, "nothing is more obvious than the gap between the classes, the races, between the culture and expertise so glittering in midtown and the destitution, degradation, drunkenness, dope selling, and dope taking that have preempted many of our parks and slum streets. . . ."

Herman Badillo, a former congressman and deputy mayor, would add that the tax incentives given to real-estate interests wishing to build in Manhattan, as well as other accommodations, have helped to create a "fantasyland" of skyscrapers and tourist attractions in the Big Apple's core, and a sea of neglected lower-and middle-class living in the rest of the city.

"It's all baloney," retorted Mayor Edward I. Koch with characteristic bluntness during an interview. "If you had the whole city on the mainland . . . nobody would say a word. But when the central business district happens to be on an island called Manhattan, somehow or other people say, 'Well, there are two New Yorks.'"

"There arem two New Yorks," Robert F. Wagner, deputy mayor for planning, acknowledges. But he points out that this theory may have been "oversimplified" by some critics. And, he adds, this administration intends to "bring these two New Yorks together."

From 500 feet up, in a circling helicopter, the task of even governing this city, let alone bringing its haves and have-nots together, seems unimaginably intricate and imposing.

With its two mammoth airports, 51 waterway bridges, its 232-mile subway system, its water tunnels, its islands, its prisons, hospitals, schools, its 7 -odd-million people, and its 850,000 buildings, the city really a physical agglomeration of everything the planet has to offer in the way of man-made problems. All crammed into a river-centered geographical pocket.

In two hours, circling, traversing, and recircling the city by air, this incredible jumble and expanse of things that make up New York sorts itself out: the waves of construction from various decades dating back to the 19th century; the miles of elderly, tenement-style buildings; the stumps of ruined hulks breaking jagged through the earth; as well as the gentrified tracts of reborn communities.

While at first it all seems uncharted and trackless and chaotic, gradually the rhythmic order of the intricate patterns of neighborhoods and streets and devastation and rebuilding emerges. And it is in these patterns that the real life and hope of New York are played out.