The magic of this broken world, part I

Hang around New York long enough — 15 or 16 minutes, say — and you’ll hear someone complain about how nothing’s the way it used to be: that all the soulful grit’s gone, not to mention the middle class, and left in its place is something that feels, day by day, a little more like Disneyland. Call it the Giuliani “Quality of Life” virus if you will — it started in Times Square in the 90s and has now spread to the city’s extremities.

Here’s Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, just over a year ago, singing a straightforward variation on the theme:

New York is safer and richer [than it was in the economically depressed 1970s, for example] but less like itself, an old lover who has gone for a face-lift and come out looking like no one in particular. The wrinkles are gone, but so is the face. This transformation is one you see on every street corner in Manhattan, and now in Brooklyn, too, where another local toy store or smoked-fish emporium disappears and another bank branch or mall store opens. For the first time in Manhattan’s history, it has no bohemian frontier. Another bookstore closes, another theatre becomes a condo, another soulful place becomes a sealed residence. These are small things, but they are the small things that the city’s soul clings to.

Though Gopnik would claim he’s not simply being nostalgic (even in the face of the archaic spelling of “theatre”: is that New Yorker style guide?) his piece is dripping with the stuff. And I think Gopnik overstates his case. I see an extraordinary amount of grit, though perhaps not as crime-infested as it was in the 70s, in the 20-minute walk I take each Saturday through the eastern reaches of Chinatown and the LES to go buy groceries at the Pathmark down on Pike Slip. Sure there used to be more street fires, broken glass, and boarded up buildings along this route. Sure newly arriving bohemians could pay lower rents or find a place to squat. But you have to be walking with your eyes closed not to see the lingering residue of poor social policy planning, the legacies of racist immigration laws, the poverty, the resiliency, the vibrant sidewalk life and foodstuffs — and possibilities for cosmopolitan interaction — that still exist. Not to mention the punker/hipster bicycle polo in Sara D. Roosevelt park.

And though Gopnik may be right that banks pop up at a frightful rate when old sandwich shops close, he’s just plain wrong that new businesses in lower Manhattan tend to be branches of mall chains. They may be shilling shit designed for rich folk, but they do their job creatively for the most part. (I mean, my street, once it moves East, hosts a vegan pan-Asian restaurant and a vegan cupcake shop, whereas “vegan” in most other places means “salad.”) I don’t mind looking in the boutique windows in most East Side shopping districts, which is more than I can say for all the Victoria’s Secrets and Banana Republics that have way long since lined Broadway. And traces of the Old World persist decades longer than you’d think. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the gritty magic of the 10th street Baths, and you wouldn’t still hear stories like the one writermama recently told about buying a bra at one of those old undergarment places on Orchard Street. “It’s the kind of place you keep expecting to disappear,” as she put it, “but it doesn’t.” Maybe it takes a keen observer like writermama to see beyond “the monocultural desert of sameness” (to use another of Gopnik’s phrases).

But I’m not setting out to quibble with Gopnik in particular so much as I want to use him as a representative of a long line of New York complainers about the same things: the grit’s gone, the rent’s too high for the middle class; that there may have been more crime back in the day, more junkies burning fires in trash cans and more chances to get mugged, but there was more soul too.

Over on my other blog I posted a quote a while back from the novelist Theodore Dreiser, engaging in the sport of New York nostalgia in his 1923 collection of local color sketches, The Color of a Great City. He’s writing these sketches, he explains, because the city he discovered when he arrived in the 1890s as city-beat journalist has now all but vanished:

For, to begin with, the city, as I see it, was more varied and arresting and, after its fashion, poetic and even idealistic than than it is now. It offered, if I may venture the opinion, greater social and financial contrasts than it does now: the splendor of the purely social Fifth Avenue of the last decade of the last century and the first decade of this, for instance, as opposed to the purely commercial area that now bears that name; the sparkling, personality-dotted Wall Street of 1890-1910 as contrasted with the commonplace and almost bread and butter world that it is to-day. (There were argonauts then.) The astounding areas of poverty and of beggary even,–I refer to the east side and the Bowery of that period–unrelieved as they were by civic betterment and social service ventures of all kinds, as contrasted with the beschooled and beserviced east side of to-day.

By all means — let’s prevent the education of immigrants on the East Side in the name of preserving the “poetic” atmosphere of the place!

I’m more sympathetic to complaints about gentrification when they don’t enshrine robber barons as argonauts — when instead they aim their darts at the ways corporate capitalism and the luxury lifestyles of the new leisure class threaten to scrub up everything just a little too much. But I also wonder if there’s not something shared in the viewpoints occupied by Gopnik and Dreiser: each one (as far as I can tell) came to New York as a twenty-something, during periods when downtown bohemian communities flourished or promised to do so; they also both wrote their lamentations in their forties, during economic booms that were already in motion before these observers arrived. Dreiser looked back from the early years of the roaring 1920s, as well as from a period of intense disillusionment among New York intellectuals in the wake of the Great War. Gopnik writes following the bubble of the 1990s, which has never popped when it comes to Manhattan real estate, as well as in the wake of 9/11 and during a war most New Yorkers wish weren’t being fought in their name.

One additional thing these writers share, perhaps, is an overidentification of their own biographies and identities with that of the city itself, and so it might be expected that as writers age they bewail the changes their favorites cities have undergone in their lifetimes. Which renders all the more surprising a discovery I may have made this week — by mere coincidence — of a different strain of New York writing, a counternarrative to all the nostalgia, an anti-nostalgic strain. And I found it in the least likely of pairings: Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which I re-read for a book group I run for students who live in our building) and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), which one of my classes is reading for the coming week (the 1993 film adaptation of which, directed by Martin Scorsese, I showed last week as part of a Friday film series we run alongside the class).

What exactly it is I think these novels have in common — aside from a loose generic categorization as historic fiction — and what I think they offer by way of a rejoinder to the nostalgic strain in New York writing will have to wait another week.

In the meantime, if you find yourself walking in Manhattan this week (or even in one of the gentrifying boroughs), open your eyes! There are still plenty of surprises to be found, plenty of corners to turn. You may see a fellow smoking a cigar at 7 am on a sidewalk near your house, a guy who looks like he could easily be an extra on The Sopranos, and even if he’s opening up a restaurant designed for tourists, just acknowledge the fact that you don’t see many 7 am cigar smokers out there in the Big Country and let that insouciant persistence cheer you.

Continued next week …

12 responses to “The magic of this broken world, part I”

  1. Scotty says:

    As someone who was downsized from a city I loved so much, I have a hard time sharing your opinion regarding gentrification.

    In 1991, I moved to one of San Francisco’s (then) rougher neighborhoods, not because it was interesting to do so, but because it was inexpensive enough (not to mention close enough to the major trasit lines) that I could support my artistic endeavors while working in a local coffee house – my rent was $300 bucks a month. In the mid ‘90s, I saw my city turned upside down in a matter of months due to a gold-rush mentality of speculative capital, thereafter followed by a flood of overpaid college graduates who were willing to pay more and more for apartments. Through the process, I saw not just some of my favorite businesses and art spaces close, but also support services like health clinics and homeless shelters, which were reopened as dotcom headquarters or live-work spaces, bitterly misnamed artist lofts.

    I developed a hatred for some of my fellow citizens just because of the way they dressed or the types of cars they drove (as if one even needed a car in the city). I didn’t see any cultural or any other type of advantage to the ‘90s economic boon in San Francisco.

    The saddest part is that when I return, the city looks pretty much as it did when I moved there in ’91. I see a lot of the same people, and the streets are just as filthy as they were when I used to crawl home after endless last calls. The problem is that under the filth, there isn’t the glimmer of artistic excitement, just more filth. The artists never returned, and city just has the jaundiced pallor of a used-up crackwhore.

    Of course, the way I view the city is colored by my experience, and I’m sure that it has the glimmering shine of promise for the 21-year-olds who are now moving there. Given my experience, though, I understand the lamentation of NY’s elders.

  2. Tim says:

    Hey Bryan,

    I think you’ll be interested in Richard Price’s new novel, Lush LIfe, which apparently is all about the LES in transition in the Dinkins era. There was a longer piece about him and the new book in yesterday’s NYT Arts and Leisure section.

    The “things-just-aren’t-what-they-used-to-be” lament–a favorite genre of many an aging writer (as you point out)–is a frustrating form, rhetorically speaking, because it relies so heavily on anecdote and calls so infrequently on data, chiefly because one cannot quantify ‘grit’ or ‘color’. There’s no real way to argue against it without getting caught up in anecdotes of one’s own. It’s not necessarily where you look, as you say here, it’s *how* you look that matters, so in engaging with the form one edges toward pure subjectivity.

  3. bw says:

    Hey, Scotty — I think you’re misreading me in part. This wasn’t intended to be a brief on behalf of gentrification. I meant more directly to point out that a) bewailing gentrification is nothing new in a new york context — the same claims are made cyclically and have been for a long time (i hoped to make a tentative stab at what dictates the cycles); b) the people who do some of the loudest bewailing — the gopniks of the world — are often people who are very comfortably ensconced in nice neighborhoods and remain somewhat blind to the economic and cultural diversity that remains even when middle-class bohemians are priced out of the nieghborhoods they once were able to slum in; and c) they seem to be driven in the cases i’m looking at by the writer’s own aging process as much as by anything else.

    in the case of gopnik, i have no idea where he lives, but given that he seems to think the children’s gate at central park is one of the redemptive spaces left in the city, i don’t think he lives downtown. and even if he’s right that manhattan no longer has a bohemian frontier (even though there a lot of cool scenes all over the place, even in manhattan), it’s a little shortsighted to suggest there’s no vital arts scene for young kids out there. people get together and make stuff and play music and xerox fliers and even squat all over the city, though mostly in outer boroughs.

    i also think it’s shortsighted not to acknowledge that when the old (often middle- to upper-class, ivy-educated) bohemian enclaves took root they always inevitably took over neighborhoods where working-class or ethnic enclaves already existed and, in some cases, still exist. What middle-class people who complain about the gentrification of their neighborhoods often fail to see is that they are, in fact, part of the vanguard of gentrification.

  4. Scotty says:

    What middle-class people who complain about the gentrification of their neighborhoods often fail to see is that they are, in fact, part of the vanguard of gentrification.

    Trudat. As the cancer spread throughout SF, I realized that we (middle class white kids)were the foot- soldiers that made our neighborhoods acceptable for wealthier whites to move in. This was an incredibly tough pill to swallow, I mean realizing how much a part of the problem I was.

    Perhaps we were too young and stupid to realize that our slacker lifestyle would be attractive to anyone else. Perhaps we shouldn’t have smiled as often as we did or boasted about how we only worked three days a week.

    As for the rest of your post, I’ll give it a fresh read when I come down from the rage I often feel when I reflect upon those days.

  5. bw says:

    A really smart book on this subject — that treats it in all its complexity — is Christopher Mele’s Selling the Lower East Side.

  6. lane says:

    Whenever I find myself either a)complaining or b)in the company of complainers, I stop myself and say “I have this friend who reads 18th Century journals and back then they said “‘Oh the village is so expensive this’ and ‘oh everything’s been ruined that . . .'”

    As ever, thanks Bryan.

    And for what it’s worth “Post-Giuliani Brooklyn” is SO much better.

  7. bw says:

    I should also add as a disclaimer that having worked a way around traditional housing markets does make a huge difference in how I feel about all this. But wasn’t working your way around traditional housing markets always part of the plan? Maybe it just used to be easier. Maybe it will be again some day — post-Cloverfield?

  8. lane says:

    dream on, life was never easy, and it never will be.

    and what you did to “get around” the housing deal looked like a helluva lot of work.

    ; – )

  9. Hey Tim — Thanks for that tip. The comment was frozen in moderation for most of the day. I missed the review but will dig it up now.

    And Lane — thanks for acknowledging the hard work, always nice to hear. I suppose it was hard work to install your own plumbing back in the squatter days, too. I’m of course drawn to the romance of the late 70s downtown, but feel somewhat relieved that i don’t have junkies busting into my place to support their habits.

    We do have a guy on our street who until recently lived in a little homemade wooden box.

  10. So from the morning I posted this until now — especially after Scott’s opening comment — I’ve felt guilty for writing something that could be so easily misconstrued as pro-gentrification. While I was digging around looking up some of the addresses listed in Sante’s Low-Life (as part of the post that follows this one) I fell down the rabbit hole of NYC’s anti-gentrification blogs. Some of these blogs are really great, and most of them are written by people who love NYC history at least as much as I do. I find them to be so sad, though! Every post is about something that’s closing or getting a face lift. Much of what’s written is angry. I certainly can understand it, and if I’d moved to lower Manhattan in 1981 rather than 2001 I’d probably be just as angry, watching bars and restaurants and clubs close while banks and glass hi-rises take their place. Those kinds of changes piss me off too … but perhaps it’s the long view of the historian in me that hopes such changes are cyclical rather than moving inevitably toward perma-Disneyland. While I don’t think it’s realistic for things not to change over time, I do believe that historic preservation and some kind of security for affordable housing (maybe even for middle classes as well as for working families?) is worth fighting for.

    That said, I do have to keep pointing out that complaints about New York neighborhoods changing are as old as the city itself — which should teach us *something*, right? I wanted to take away the lesson that there are still surprising things to be found, which I’d rather blog about than *just* posting about what’s gone. Someday will someone be nostalgic and blogging furiously about the closing of the big Blue behemoth on the LES? I’m sure they will, and probably because it’s so goddamn out of place. I hate that it caters to such a snotty income bracket now. Maybe someday it will become rundown and inhabited by squatters.

    Anyway, all of this is just to say that I think one really positive function these anti-gent blogs serve (in addition to prodding people to preservationist action) is archiving what’s passing. In that vein, I’ve become really fond of this blog, especially its “Vanishing Downtown” category. Check it out. It’s sad, and it’s making me think hard about the tone I took as I kicked these posts off — which is probably what set off Scotty — but it’s a really great record written by someone about my own age who lives a few blocks from where I work and who grew up in Manhattan. If you want to find more of the anti-gent blogs check out his blogroll.

    Here’s one post of his in particular that I think more than meets me half way. At least I’d like to think so. (Hey — I can count the number of times I’ve been in that Whole Foods on one hand! Shouldn’t that earn me some anti-gent street cred??)

  11. Here’s a relevant story from yesterday’s paper. And who exactly are these middle-class people who greet the news of financial downturns on Wall Street with, “Great! Now maybe we can get into Nobu without a four week wait!” Are these real people?