Barry Lewis

Historian from the acclaimed Walk Around New York series and New York-expert, Barry Lewis tells us about the city he loves, the people who make it work, and peace.

Date of Birth: July 4, 1945. Yes, July 4th.

Occupational title(s), both real and desired-in-another-lifetime: Architectural Historian, Urban Historian, Urbanologist. I’ve always liked cities, grew up in one of the most fascinating (NYC), and have only lived in other cities (Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif., and Paris, France). Paris was where I learned to look at cities and look at architecture. I was too broke to do anything (this was 40 years ago) that cost real money, so I just took my Guide Michelin (typically it’s much more encyclopaedic in French than in the English version) and walked practically every street in every arrondissement in Paris.

The farthest you’ve walked in one New-York trek: When I was a kid I walked over every bridge and took every subway line to the end (and actually got out to see what was there), but I’m not sure what the longest trek was; the length wasn’t my preoccupation. I just wanted to know where all those streets, subway lines, and bridges went to. I guess there was something of the incipient Marco Polo in me. But my “sailing ship” was the F train.

A suggested walk around town for our readers, both New Yorkers and those considering a visit to the city: Walk the length of Flushing Meadows Park on a Sunday in the summer. You want to see NY at its most intensely melting-pot-ingest, this is the place. The park is mostly a mess, getting a fraction of the money Central Park profits from, and the park’s facilities are barely existent, but the collection of people, activities, and sports is amazing. You can see sports we just don’t “do” in the US; then before sundown, when the breeze picks up, South-Asian men (I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a woman doing it) fly the most amazing kites on the eastern side of Meadow Lake.

Favorite book(s): Time and Again by Jack Finney, for brilliantly showing us that going back in time is like going to another country. People looked, acted, and spoke differently and gave out very different social cues. And just about any book by Witold Rybczynski. He de-mystifies architecture, cuts thru the pseudo-cryptic hyperbole too many architectural critics indulge in, and gives us the story straight: Architecture is about shelter, form, space—and reflection.

Heroes: The working people of New York City. Recently arrived Manhattan yuppies like to think they’re the engine that drives New York via their instant dismissal of anything that’s “Bridge and Tunnel.” But I grew up in a “Bridge and Tunnel” working-class part of the city and “working people” were the people who came into my family’s 5 & 10. They were—and still are—the people who make this humongous experiment in urban chaos actually work almost every day and every night, weekends and holidays included. The taxi drivers, uniformed services personnel, subway workers (strikes notwithstanding), delivery people, etc., and etc. They know how to walk down a street with all the antenna working, do three things at once (“real” things, not electronic things), and always have a one-liner ready for the retort. And they have the accent that tells me I’m here and not anywhere else. Yuppies make fun of Newyorkese; but when I’ve been away for a while and finally return, the moment I emerge from the airplane’s “umbilical cord” into the airport proper and hear blasting over the loudspeaker the hit-and-run vowels of New York, I know I’m home. And home is the best place to be.

The thing nobody knows about Brooklyn but that everyone should: I love the place, but it takes forever to get out of it.

What makes you laugh: Life, if you live long enough to realize it.

Charity worth giving to: God’s Love We Deliver. When my late partner Stephen had AIDS, GLWD (which delivers hot meals to people with HIV and full-blown AIDS) was a very kind service. We didn’t always need it but I very much appreciated that it was there. AIDS is no longer the hot charity topic it once was, but people are still getting ill and dying from it. And those that suffer from it and are too poor for the proper care can at least count on GLWD—and its volunteers—for a little nourishment both for the belly and the heart. G-D bless them for it.

Five words that sound great: How about four? Give peace a chance.


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack