THE BLOG
05/13/2010 10:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The First Manhattan-Born Justice Since Cardozo; Barney Greengrass Goes to the Supreme Court

"French movies are about urbane Parisians, not dyspeptic Upper West Side Jews on antidepressants."

That's a quip from a character in Andrew Aciman's recently published novel Eight White Nights. And given that the soon-to-be-confirmed Elena Kagan was born and bred in that territory, it's likely that the formative character of this definitive but for outsiders hard-to-define geography will be the subject of much investigation.

I find it shocking (but not surprising) that Kagan will be the first Supreme Court Justice since Benjamin Cardozo who was born and raised in Manhattan. Antonin Scalia was born in Trenton and moved to Queens when he was six. Felix Frankurter was 12 when he moved to the Lower East Side from Vienna. I won't speculate on the reasons for this Manhattan void, but it makes a difference. The intimacy of geography is inseparable from worldview.

Manhattan's clanging diversity, claustrophobic density and what E.B. White described so perfectly as its "high strung disposition" in his legendary essay "Here is New York" cannot help but leave their mark on an impressionable young women. Gun control means something different when your mother told you to always carry enough money to keep a mugger from getting really angry. Your view of property rights has to be different if you grew up on a farm, or if your idea of wide -open space is the produce aisle at Fairway. When your lobby and the Chinese laundry had a Christmas Tree and a menorah (cheap plastic though it may be), you'll have a very personal view of the Establishment Clause.

And Elena Kagan's intimate geography isn't just Manhattan, it's a neighborhood that has come to mark a certain species of liberal, assimilated but culturally alert and politically active Jews. In Elena Kagan's generation, the West Side wasn't populated by wealthy German Jews or those who made it big on Wall Street; that crowd headed for the safety and predictability of the other side of the park. Her proximate world was filled with those who fought against the Vietnam War, campaigned for Eugene McCarthy -- and debated -- with typical Upper West Side ferocity -- about whether to transfer allegiance to Bobby Kennedy because he came in late, after Gene had taken the courageous first step, and because he never paid sufficient penance for his work for Joe McCarthy.

It's a peculiar territory both solipsistic and Talmudic. Take away the poverty and the Cossacks and it's our vertical shetl, a hallowed land where Isaac Bashevis Singer and Woody Allen walked and from whence they gleefully drew characters with what seemed like little authorial modification; where hundreds of Vienna-inflected shrinks have shuttled neurotics; where Seinfeld was set (and The Odd Couple before that); where the word "rambling" was first assigned to an apartment as a modifier; where the only royalty was Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King who opened his shop in 1908, the year the Belnord -- where Isaac Singer lived -- was completed.)

Elena Kagan's Upper West Side credentials are impeccable, especially if you're willing to reduce ambition, success and the valuation of intellectual pursuits to a stand-up comedy cliché. Her father is a public-interest lawyer who represents tenants and her mother taught at Hunter High School. I'm sure they listened to Nichols and May records, made fondue, read Bellow, and had Chinese food on Sunday. Her two brothers are teachers -- Irving at Hunter, and Marc at Bronx High School of Science. They grew up in an apartment whose degree of luxury is already the subject of much real estate debate in the blogosphere. One poster on StreetEasy.com noted "...they lived in what was at the time an upper middle class home (I'm guessing she lived in the maid's room and her brothers shared the second bedroom)." You can check out a floor plan here.

But there's another side to this. Elena Kagan lived through the seventies, the bleak, hopeless slide when New York City was deemed "ungovernable" and crime was an everyday fact of life. That was especially true on the West Side, which hadn't yet gentrified; back then, the blocks east of West End Avenue, where you needed to go to get a quart of milk or a New York Times, were violent, dangerous. The brownstones that now cost many millions were rooming houses and even drug houses. I'm sure she remembers that intimate geography of fear and strikes and unplowed streets. It was a time that gave birth to the wry joke "A liberal is someone who hasn't been mugged yet."

Perhaps this piece of her past is why Kagan has a more favorable view of "executive power" than many liberals would like. She saw as a child and young woman, first-hand, what the lack of a strong executive meant when New York was faced not with global terrorism, but daily terrorism from what we now call an asymmetrical threat. Perhaps the example of Giuliani -- loathed as he was (but secretly admired) -- by many Upper West Side Jews left an imprint. Perhaps she will surprise the Tea Partiers, who find her an apposite embodiment of everything they loathe -- not a real American, she with her two Ivy-League educations, spectacular urbanity, empty kids' bedrooms and unclear sexual orientation. But like Manhattan itself, she's far more complex than her simple-minded opponents make her out to be.

In 1937, Lorenz Hart -- born to Jewish immigrants in Harlem -- collaborated with Richard Rodgers on a play called Babes in Arms. The musical gave us "My Funny Valentine" and "Lady Is A Tramp" -- as well as a little gem called "Way Out West on West End Avenue." It's a witty paean to urban life that should become Justice Kagan's personal ring tone:

Git along, little taxi, you can keep the change.
I'm riding home to my kitchen range
Way out west
On West End Avenue.
Oh, I love to listen to the wagon wheels that bring the milk that your neighbor steals
Way out west
On West End Avenue.

Elena Kagan will be the only Supreme Court Justice in generations who understands what Larry Hart was actually talking about. That will turn out to be a very good thing, not just for under-represented Manhattan, but the country west of West End Avenue, too.