What makes New York home to so many?

Dawn Scibilia and Alan Cooke’s documentary Home explores the concept of home, the essence of New York, and the experience of coming here. Cooke, a recent Irish immigrant, gives his impressions as he gets to know the city, and director Scibilia expands on this with a gorgeous array of footage and interviews with Frank and Malachy McCourt, Liam Neeson, Fran Lebowitz, Susan Sarandon, Pete Hamill, Rosie Perez, Mike Myers, and more.

Home, which was shown on PBS on March 17, addresses so many interesting aspects of the subject that I can touch on only a few. It discusses New York in particular as an immigrant city; Pete Hamill speaks of the “density of the layering” in the city’s history, with all the generational waves, as well as the merging of talent and cultures that result from so many newcomers. Liam Neeson contrasts it with growing up in Ireland, “where people hold the same views for generations.”

Frank McCourt says New York has a “sense of beginning” that other cities don’t have. This must have been true of most of the United States at one time; the Europeans who settled here did not settle into Native American culture but forced it out. Today, though, most of the country feels much more settled than New York does, which is partly why the most recent wave of immigrants is such an emotional issue elsewhere. In many areas, it feels like upheaval; in New York, gentrification and chain stores feel like upheaval.

Change is another theme of the film—much as we lament the continual losses of major and personal landmarks (from the old Penn Station to St. Clair’s diner on Atlantic Avenue), if New York stopped changing, it would die.

Alan Cooke says at one point that walking around New York, he feels “beautifully anonymous.” I identify with that feeling—to me, it’s a sense of freedom and a strange kind of belonging not in the sense of others recognizing you, but in the sense of being one among millions of others. I find this soothing. But at the same time, Rosie Perez really nails it when she describes her neighborhood in Brooklyn as home because it’s where she feels most like herself.

I don’t know when Home will screen again in New York, but if you pick up the DVD, you’ll get nearly an hour of additional interviews, including Fran Lebowitz on New Yorkers’ tolerance of different cultures (“I mean, they’re more into what restaurants have moved in. They don’t think ‘Oh no, we hate Greek people, we hate Nigerian people,’ they think, ‘What do they eat?'”), Malachy McCourt on dreams coming true, Frank McCourt with a beautiful description of how your experience makes a place a part of you, and Pete Hamill on the danger of forgetting the history of New York: “What you lose is the tale of the tribe,” which was once told by people in the neighborhood, on the “worst looking folding chairs in the history of mankind.”

One Response to “What makes New York home to so many?”

  1. […] of HOME The Chashama Film Festival is showing the excellent movie Home, which I wrote about last month, at 6 pm Saturday, May 31, at 217 E. 42nd St in Manhattan. Director Dawn Scibilia will be there for […]