Vanishing New York
My dad is from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When my sisters and I were younger, every year for Christmas, his gift to our family was front row tickets to a Broadway show. We’d always go to dinner afterward and oftentimes, to his old neighborhood… special places to him. He would always point out the plaque (still there) with the names of the men from Little Italy who were killed in action in WWII, his father among them, a marine whom he never knew. Whenever I’m down there, I walk around a bit to take in that history. But, of course, Little Italy is not the place of my father’s childhood, where he and all his cousins lived in arm’s reach of each other, marrying their next door neighbors and having a grand old time, even though they were poor (“we didn’t know we were poor!” my aunts and uncles always told me). Like all of Manhattan, it is breathtakingly transformed.
When I think of my own college years at NYU, traipsing from my dorm in the Village to Limelight and every cafe in between, I’m filled with deep, wonderful memories. But of course, Limelight is a gym now. Or a store, I can’t remember. So many places where I spent my most formative years, gone without a trace. (Though NYU is much to blame for this – the irony!)
One of the heart-breaking facts of NYC is that it is demolished and rebuilt every day. Yes, that’s part of the dynamic energy of the city. But it is its greatest flaw. When nothing is valued, when nothing is saved, when history is more ephemeral than an iced latte, we lose something that we ought to have kept. I’m no different from the people who grew up at Studio 54 and watched their New York disappear. But there is an insidiousness to the corporate overlording that feels new, to me at least – a change in our society overall. Globalization? Whatever.
This is a topic that I wax morosely on all the time. I am by nature a sentimentalist, deeply nostalgic, and in love with beautiful old New York buildings… so just about the least properly equipped New Yorker. I don’t just mourn my own history and the connection to my family history — I mourn the crass mall-ization of a great city… the the lack of affordability that is banishing wide swaths of New Yorkers, a bland, homogenized hymn to Forever 21, the international money launderers, er real estate investors, the ugly (half empty) glass monoliths, each screaming its financial supremacy over the others.
It’s not a huge problem if you’re just passing through. But if you’re here to stay, there is a melancholy you cannot help but feel in your heart.
Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York is a fantastic, much beloved blog that chronicles the treasures that we have lost and are continuing to lose. Currently, it is highlighting a Kickstarter campaign for a series called the Holdouts, staring Kevin Corrigan, which is about this very topic. (Update: they met their goal!) I felt my hair go on end as soon as I started watching the trailer. The best line – “I’m in Croton-on-Hudson… it’s the new Brooklyn – don’t you read the paper?” All the poor landless souls like me who insist on torturing ourselves by reading the insufferable NY Times Real Estate section every Sunday in all its ludicrous pomposity – where every article is about the “new Brooklyn” in one expensive suburb or another – know what he is talking about.
Brilliant work, but even more than that, a much needed plea for sanity, for acknowledgement of a problem that is more than just sour grapes. New York is not the only city that is at risk from ambivalence about gentrification and mall-ization. Is this really how we all want to live? Going from Chipotle to Duane Reede (to cure our diarrhea), without a single cultural signpost to tell us where on the Earth we are standing at that moment?