The New York City Marathon: Why So Many Were Glad to See It Gone

Students in one of my developmental-writing classes last year were in there–or some of them were–because they had failed to write a competent essay based on a reading relating to the New York City Marathon. I was interested, of course, in what had happened, and talked with them about the experience… which led to discussion of attitudes about the marathon.

I quickly discovered that my students–mostly urban youths from poor and/or immigrant backgrounds–knew little about the marathon and cared even less. What has been, for over 40 years, a mainstay of yuppie New York, is meaningless to millions of others in the city.

At most, it is an annoyance, making it more difficult to get around on marathon day.

Their feelings about the marathon, I decided, are quite a bit like those of the people in Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, and Williamsburg toward the annual Caribbean Day parade on Labor Day. It’s something for other people on a day when its better just to stay at home.

Few of my students or their families have the time for a sport like running, a sport that demands long hours and a years-long regimen. A little basketball can be snuck in here and there; the same’s not true for an endurance sport like marathoning. Most of my students, and most of their families, see joggers as creatures from an intruding middle class, if they see them at all. The runners that they do know are running for another purpose, as football players or even cricketers. The sport as a sport in and of itself has never caught their imagination, not as a group.

The same is true of the people of the rather working-class neighborhood where I live, Marine Park. It’s quite like Breezy Point (most of us in this neighborhood, including me, know people who lost their homes in the massive fire there) or Gerritsen Beach (where many of us, including me, end up with some frequency) or any other of the neighborhoods near the water on the southern edge of Brooklyn, Queens, and even Long Island–areas extremely hard hit by the storm (Marine Park was extremely lucky: we had three days without power on my street–on a few it is still off and on others it was only out for hours, trees are down and a few cars and houses damaged, but the water didn’t reach us).

Even at the best of times, the New York Marathon is little more than a blip on the screen here. There are few people to be seen jogging in the neighborhood and fewer still who take the time even to watch the runners. It’s not like Cobble Hill, where once I had a store, where runners dodge around pedestrians and dog walkers each morning and evening, a major part of street traffic.

My point is that most of the people who work for New York media, or in New York government, come from a class and from neighborhoods where the marathon (like running for sport) is a big thing. But it is not a big thing everywhere. In fact, to most New Yorkers outside of the southern half of Manhattan and the yuppie areas of Brooklyn, the marathon never has meant much. It gets media attention not because of widespread support but because of support in the very neighborhoods the members of the media live.

The marathon gets widespread support at top levels of city government not because the people love it so, but because it is an international event, drawing spectators as well as runners from around the world. It brings in money.

But that money, too, is narrowly focused–at least as far as most New Yorkers can trace it. It goes to hotels and bars in midtown and on the East Side of Manhattan. It does very little for the rest of us.

So, it was no surprise to me that, this morning, when we were walking our dogs in the park that gives Marine Park its name, we talked to only one person who thought it had been a bad idea to cancel the marathon–and he thought so because there had been no outcry against the Giants game over in New Jersey–hit harder even than Staten Island and South Brooklyn.

But, and I hate to tell you this, Mayor Bloomberg, football is a great deal more important where I live (and to my students) than is your marathon. All of those students of mine could have written passing essays, I am sure, if they had been asked to write about football.

The point? Bloomberg’s failure, in first deciding to hold the marathon, lay in an inability to recognize that what may have seemed important to him might not seem so to many others.

Though I haven’t much time for Charles Murray or his book Coming Apart, he does make one very important point: the members of the “new” upper class need to get out more, to see how the other 99% live and what their needs and interests are.

Then they won’t make such stupid mistakes.

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