Entries tagged with “gentrification” from Patell and Waterman's History of New York
As I mentioned in a prior post, several local blogs helped us arrive at "Lost New York" as our conference theme, and so it seemed natural to assemble a panel of bloggers to talk about the relationship between writing, new media, and attempts to stave off the rapid transformation of traditional neighborhoods. Some of the folks we invited aren't able to be on the panel for one reason or another. Two of my favorite anti-gentrification bloggers, Jeremiah Moss (from Jeremiah's Vanishing New York) and EV Grieve, agreed to a conversation about the nature of their projects and the NYC blogosphere in general.
BW: Since you both blog under pseudonyms, I wonder: How did you come up with the names?
JM: As I wrote in a blog post a while back, "Jeremiah" began as a character in a novel I wrote prior to the blog. I've never published a novel and this one has not yet been seen by any editors -- I am still working it through. In that writing, I enjoyed having an outlet for my most curmudgeonly self, for the anger and powerlessness I experienced while watching the city I loved disappear. Writing is a kind of action, as opposed to passivity, and moving from the novel to the blog enabled me to stay in action about these issues -- much more than I expected.
BW: Do you still think of Jeremiah as a character you perform?
JM: I didn't expect many people to read the blog, and I didn't think I'd ever be communicating with readers. As that has happened, more and more, the line between me and Jeremiah has blurred even further. Simply put, the voice I use in the blog is me but not all of me. It is, however, an essential part of me -- sort of like a sharpened, clarified, angry, righteous part of me, undiluted by my natural tendency to see multiple sides of an issue. As Jeremiah, I can be staunch.
BW: When I read that post about Jeremiah's origins as a fictional character it really took me aback. It seemed both dangerous and liberating, given that I've only ever written online under my own name, though that can be both dangerous and liberating too. It also pushed me to think about blogging in literary terms -- as both literary writing and as performance -- in ways I hadn't quite before. Grieve, do you ever think of "EV Grieve" as akin to Jeremiah's semi-fictional avatar?
EVG: The Grieve name is meant to be about mourning. (And not pronounced as "Gree-vey.") Definitely Jeremiah's influence there. Plus I spent $35,000 on focus-group testing for that....
BW: Has becoming Grieve been something akin to Jeremiah's role-playing? Does being "Grieve" feel different in some ways from being the person you were before/are outside the blog?
EVG: At times. I've been out with friends, who don't know about the site, and I see an amazing urban etiquette sign or something. And I try to think of some perfectly good explanation of why I'm taking a photo of a funny sign or store closing. I'm the same person as before, but it now just takes me longer to run an errand. I'll meander more and scope every storefront, apartment entrance, etc. At times I'm worried folks might find my behavior a bit daft, that I'm casing the joint or something. And I've sort of lost my speedy NYC gait. Jeremiah, do you remember the commenter who thought we were the same person? As if we had the time and energy to do TWO blogs! In two fairly different tones!
JM: Yes, I do! We share a lot in common, but I wonder how people see us. I think I'm the grouchy one and Grieve is the more affable one. I don't know. Writing the blog has enabled me to enjoy the city more today than I did in the years leading up to the blog. So the irony here is that, through the writing of this angry blog, I've ended up feeling less angry. I was seriously thinking about leaving New York a few years ago. Then I started the blog and it held me here.
BW: I think that less-angry side comes through in your eagerness not to be misunderstood, and your sense of fairness when you have readers (sometimes even trolls) who take you to task on some point. I also think I've noticed over time a tendency to celebrate things you like -- a trumpet-playing bus driver, for instance -- and not just to focus on the death and destruction of the New York you loved when you moved here. Grieve, where would you fall on the mourning/celebrating spectrum? Like you said, the name implies mourning ... but you were originally mourning the closing of a bar that ended up not closing after all, right?
EVG: Yeah. When the news came down in December 2007 that Sophie's and Mona's were for sale, I was naturally very upset. While I wasn't a hardcore regular there, Sophie's, in particular, was always very close to me. (I think we all have some sort of fond Sophie's memories....) Meanwhile, I was already a regular reader of The Villager and Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, as well as Bob Arihood's Neither More Nor Less and Lost City. I was growing increasingly tired of the onslaught of the condofication, bankbranchification, duanereadification and whatnot of NYC, in particular of the East Village. These things all inspired me to do something.
So on a drunken, lonely night (always a good combination for doing something stupid, like starting a blog! Plus, actually, it was the middle of the afternoon!) I signed up for a Blogger account to create a tribute site for Sophie's. It wasn't supposed to be about me. At first, I just collected different news items on the possible sale. Then I thought it could evolve into this project we could all be part of.... making little films about the people, etc., who frequent the bar. Post photos. Chronicle the possible end of days. It would be a document capturing a special time and place.
Before I ever really figured what to do with the site or told anyone about it, it looked as if the bars were staying in the family. So I retired the site on that positive note.
BW: What made you change your mind and come back?
EVG: Well, Jeremiah encouraged me to continue, to turn my attention to other things in the neighborhood. So I did. Didn't do much at first. I'd get about six hits a day on the site. Was just having a little fun. But I was following this premise for the site: Appreciating what's here while it's still here. Remembering what's no longer here. Wishing some things weren't here that are here. Doing this awakened the reporter that was in me.... and the site has evolved to be a little more newsy -- and hopefully provide a slice of life about a special neighborhood....
BW: So you slide back and forth between celebrating what you love and mourning the things that shouldn't have passed. Oh, and expressing disdain for guys in pink shirts.
EVG: Well, I don't mind pink shirts as much as the behavior of the person wearing it out and about. Anyway, like Jeremiah, doing this site has rekindled my love affair with the neighborhood -- and the city. FroYo and popped collars or not. To be honest, I hate having to leave for a long weekend or holiday.
JM: It's true that I encouraged him. And now look! He grabs up all the East Village news before I can get to it. Seriously, though, Grieve has an amazing ability to be everywhere in the East Village at once, to pick out minute details and spin them into something quietly meaningful. We have a very friendly rivalry when it comes to neighborhood business. Sometimes, I have to call dibs, because I move much more slowly than he does. We encourage each other. Blogging is this weird, lonely "vocation," something of an obsession, that I think appeals to introverts who yet want to be known, but not too known. So it's been great having Grieve and other bloggers to connect with through the process.
BW: The literary historian in me wants to ask if blogging is perhaps the next site of the formation of literary community, one of my long-standing interests in NYC literary history.
EVG: The relationship that formed between me and Jeremiah is one of my favorite things that has come from doing the site.... which makes wanting to crush him that much more difficult! Ha! I wonder if people might be interested in knowing how often we actually do talk via e-mail.... or run ideas by each other.... and, on occasion, read each other's posts if we're unsure how it's working. I also look forward to what he's going to have on any given day. I truly think he's one of the best essayists around....
JM: An anonymous commenter on another blog, Jill's "Blah Blog Blah," recently referred to the "East Village Blog Mafia." It was derisive, but fascinating--that someone's out there imagining that these bloggers have any kind of real power, a bunch of middle-aged people sitting around critiquing the uncontrollable. But there is some kind of community here, in this NYC blogosphere, though I know virtual communities and relationships are much maligned these days. I have mixed feelings about them. Are they any less real than in-the-flesh relationships? When I first came to New York, I sought a literary community. I couldn't find it. The blogosphere may be the closest I've come to it.
BW: As far as content goes, as different as your blogs are I see both of you working in a time-honored tradition of lamenting the loss of an older and more authentic New York. It's a pattern of nostalgia that seems especially bound up with the bohemian tradition in New York, from the 1910s forward. That lamentation seems to be part of the bohemian experience itself: either it was over just before you arrived, or just before the next guy did. Is there something quantifiably different in that lament since, say, 2001? Or does pointing to this long-standing pattern distract us from the very real changes that deserve to be critiqued?
JM: The most dramatic change to me in recent years is the people. I sometimes get flack for critiquing people as a group, but super-gentrification, Starbucksification, etc. -- none of it happens without people. Many of the people who come to the city and specifically to the East Village today seem different than the ones who came 15 or 20 years ago. Their values are different. Their behavior is different. Their attitude toward the world around them is different. When I think about gentrification and my own role in it, I parse it this way: do you come to a neighborhood because you like the way it is, because you like not just the cute cafes, but also the down-at-the-heels bookshops and delis, and the old people on their stoops, the corner psychotics, and even the stink of the garbage at high summer? Or do you come to a neighborhood with the wish and the intention to change it? Do you see a "project" that needs work?
BW: I hear you. I've just been through exactly this problem with my kids' middle school on the other side of Chinatown, down by the river. (I refuse to use the label "Two Bridges.") We came to the school four or five years ago when it was just on the upswing: charismatic principal and staff, a well-rounded set of course offerings, grant money starting to come in for athletics and extra-curriculars like music and a robotics club and Saturday fashion and art classes. And it had real diversity among its students. The school was predominantly Asian and Latino -- something like 2% white kids. It didn't stay that way for long. Now it's been thoroughly infiltrated by Tribeca and the Village. A couple years ago we were asked to go to our old elementary school's "middle school info night" to represent our new school. When we were there, it was clear the middle school was already starting to get a lot of buzz. People whose kids weren't even admitted yet were talking about fundraising and running for PA offices. Pinko intellectual that I am, I said something like, "Well it's important to realize that we're entering a delicate ecosystem: there are already some culture clashes and neighborhood histories that make the parents' association both a challenge and a real opportunity for cosmopolitan learning -- parents and kids alike. We're not coming in here to colonize the place, after all." And one Tribeca mother looked me square in the face and said: "That's exactly what we're doing!" And I'm not kidding, I almost got into a shouting match with her at a parent meeting in the principal's office two years later, when I couldn't listen to another moment of her trying to bully and belittle the principal, who was trying to end de facto segregation in the school by slightly altering an honors program that had become skewed mostly toward the new arrivals. I'd guess white kids are up to 30% or so at the school, many of them from wealthy families, and their parents seem very entitled -- wanting the city and the school to conform to them and not vice versa. They bring energy and money, but in some ways at the expense of the dignity of the people who were there first.
JM: I think a lot of people now have come to the Lower East Side, the East Village, and other neighborhoods in the city with that attitude. They see "potential." They see plans for renovation and "renewal." And there is so much hatred and fear in that -- disgust for what and who is already there.
BW: At the same time, how to stop the wave? We were part of the vanguard of gentrification, after all. Such conversations always make me wonder: do you think 150 years from now a committee will be formed to save Blue from destruction? ("Save Blue! It was the most unique of all the sore thumbs that invaded the neighborhood in the early 21st century!") Or are things cyclical? Will it be filled with squatters?
JM: The thought of Blue standing for 150 years is too much to fathom.
EVG: Well, I do believe that there will be people like us 150 years from now lamenting the loss of Blue ("The one-time home of Justin Long!") and getting excited about the discovery of a hidden 16 Handles ad.... there will always be people who love the city and appreciate its history. I have a friend who has lived here since, well, forever, and he'll say things like, "Oh, the Bowery hasn't been the same since prohibition ended!" Not a real sentimentalist, but I understand the point....
JM: Grieve once forwarded me a blog post from a young woman who recently moved to the LES and was now moving out again. She actually said she would not miss the "disgusting stink" of the pickles emanating from Katz's Deli. To me, if you don't like the smell of Katz's pickles, then don't come live here. Or live here with the intention to learn to love that smell. Or something. Basically, it boils down to a lot of people moved to NYC after 9/11 who seem to hate urban life and everything about it. It baffles my mind to wonder why they came in the first place.
BW: I do think blogs have been crucial in supporting efforts to preserve a traditional sense of neighborhoods. Do you guys have a favorite NYC blog or two you think deserves wider exposure than they've received?
EVG: Even though Bob Arihood has been featured in the Times, I think he deserves more attention. I love what he does... and his photography needs to be in an exhibit somewhere. I also really like Slum Goddess. She's funny and opinionated. She knows a lot of people. Her blog really exemplifies what a blog is supposed to be -- a little bit of everything. Hunter-Gatherer does this very well too -- you feel as if you really know the person and his or her interests.
JM: I second all of those choices. And one less-known blog I enjoy is It Was Her New York, by C.O. Moed. It doesn't get much attention because it's not about what new cafe opened up on Ave A or how tenement residents are fighting back against noisy luxe hotels. But it's written by a native Lower East Sider and it's very intimate.
BW: Thanks, both of you, for taking the time for this conversation! I look forward to hearing from more bloggers on these questions at our panel Saturday -- or here, in comments.
Photo credits: 1, 3: Jeremiah; 2: Grieve; 4: Bowery Boogie
"I can lick any man in the House," thumped a braying John Morrissey, twice holder of the American bare-knuckles boxing championship, Dead Rabbits gang leader and the man who, after losing a humiliating fight to him, ordered Bill the Butcher murdered.Follow-up installments include his treatments of the Five Points and Bowery entertainment culture. As you'd expect if you're a regular reader, these historical nuggets are interspersed between the blog's more typical fare: jeremiads denouncing Bloomberg's anti-neighborhood development ethos and petitions to save the Bowery.
The "House" he mentions was not a local saloon. It was the United States House of Representatives, a gang to which Morrissey -- boxer, gangster, murderer -- had been elected, not once, but twice.
When he's not blogging to save the neighborhood, Rob (and friend Ferarra) are busy saving its history in other ways -- including the founding of the East Village History Project and its new East Village Visitors Center, where you can find information about taking Ferrara's Gangsters, Murderers, and Weirdos tour, among others.
*The tshirt above isn't affiliated with the blog; rather, it's produced by WORLD NYC, located at 187 Chrystie.
While we're on the topic of unique NYC architecture from the 19th century, I'll throw out a link to the blog Colonnade Row -- the only blog I follow that purports to be written by a dog (in this case, little Kirby Carnegie, an opinionated bulldog "trying to make sense of things around me!").
The blog is written from -- and named after -- the remaining marble Greek Revival row houses on Lafayette Street below Astor Place, across the street from the Public Theater. Recently Kirby offered up what I think is the best "25 things" post ever, a list of odds and ends about the building he lives in. The list includes:
You can find the rest here.1. When it rains, the people on the top floor of my building have to throw a nylon tarp over the front of the building to prevent water from seeping in their windows and rotting their ceiling.2. The fireplaces in the rear apartments began to crumble from inside a few years ago and had to be sealed. They're now unable to be used.3. It is unlikely that the facade of the Colonnade will ever be restored. The limestone that was used was of poor quality and pollution and age have rendered them beyond help. Also, the two parties that own the buildings will never be able to agree (or afford) the cost.4. There are four separate townhouses in the remaining Colonnade, although most people think it looks like one. Originally there were nine. There is no connecting passage from within the buildings to each other although the front balcony does run uninterrupted.
The post prompted me to dig around online to find out a little bit more about the buildings' history. A couple tidbits, especially ones that relate to my recent entries here:
For one, Colonnade Row, when it opened in the early 1830s was named La Grange Terrace, after Lafayette's estate in France. It was originally built as part of the gentrification of Bowery-bordered neighborhoods. (The timeframe coincides as well with the gentrification of Washington Square, which has some important Greek Revival remnants of its own.)
John Jacob Astor lived in La Grange Terrace as an old man; the Public Theater inhabits a building he originally erected as the Astor Library in 1854; the Astor Place Opera House, roughly where the Starbucks is now, was erected in 1847. When Lafayette Place, as the street was formerly known, was first cut from Art Street (now Astor Place) to Great Jones Street in 1826--shortly following General Lafayette's return tour of America in 1824-25--it reduced the size of Vauxhall Gardens by half. Lafayette Place was protected from traffic by virtue of its small size--it was only two blocks long--and the nine townhouses that made up Colonnade Row took up almost the entire length of the west side of the street between Art and 4th.
"Built of marble quarried by convict labor from Sing Sing prison," as Eric Homberger notes in Mrs. Astor's New York, "'Colonnade Row' was the grandest of all the nineteenth-century attempts to reproduce the upper-class townhouses and aristocratic neighborhoods of London and Paris."
Famous residents, over time, included Astors, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Delanos (including FDR's maternal grandparents), Washington Irving, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Julia Gardiner, who married the sitting U.S. President James Tyler in 1844. Charles Dickens stayed there during his trip to New York in 1842. Schermerhorns, mentioned in yesterday's post, lived in the neighborhood.
There's a great picture and map of the neighborhood in Homberger's book. I've flagged the relevant pages here. The photo above comes from nyc-architecture.com.
EV Grieve directs us to another NY history blog, Inside the Apple, which has this to say about previous attempts to rename the Bowery:
The most famous Dutch bouwerij was owned by Peter Stuyvesant, who lies buried in the churchyard of St. Mark's in the Bowery on 10th Street and Second Avenue. For years, this church was known as St. Mark's in the Bouwerie, its archaic spelling not only hearkened back to the days of the Dutch, but also helped distinguished it from the nearby thoroughfare. By the late 19th century, the Bowery had become synonymous with skid row. A lot of the Bowery's reputation was deserved, but at least part of the blame for its near-universal name recognition was the musical A Trip to Chinatown, which featured the song "The Bowery." Its chorus boasts:
The Bow'ry, the Bow'ry
They say such things and they do strange things,
On the Bow'ry! The Bow'ry!
I'll never go there any more.
By 1916, the street's reputation had gotten so bad that civic groups battled to come up with a new name for the thoroughfare. One suggestion was "Cooper Avenue" in honor of Cooper Union founder (and Jell-O pioneer) Peter Cooper. A rival proposition recommended "Central Broadway." It's hard to imagine the chaos this name change might have brought about in a city that already featured Broadway, West Broadway, and East Broadway. Neither of these suggestions had any real traction, perhaps because there was still nostalgia for the old Bouwerie of Peter Stuyvesant. Indeed, that nostalgia was so strong that in 1956 a group of merchants suggested that Third Avenue be renamed "The Bouwerie," to invoke the charm and refinement of a bygone age. (That this would have given the city a Bowery and a Bouwerie a block apart seems not to have figured into their calculations.) Plans were underway at the time to remove the last vestiges of the Third Avenue "El," and it seemed logical to local boosters to get rid of the name Third Avenue--which they saw as intimately connected to the failure of the "El"--and replace it with Bouwerie, which would increase the street's cachet and, presumably, retail rents.
While preparing for this morning's lecture on Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick (1868), I noticed for the first time just how much the novel hates on the Bowery. In its opening sequence the otherwise industrious street urchin Dick realizes he's overslept and probably missed a few shines because he'd spent the prior evening at the Old Bowery theater. Even though the theater is one of the spots that keeps Dick in town, the novel remains pretty equivocal about the entertainment provided there: clearly Dick enjoys it, but later in the novel he reforms and promises not to waste his money there in the future. The book's less equivocal about Bowery fashions: one pair of pants is frowned on by the narrator as "very loose in the legs, and presenting a cheap Bowery look."
And Dick is fine with this dis. He's more than happy to scrub up for an imagined life as a clerk (no Bartleby is Dick!) and he continually fantasizes about having a "manshun" on the "Avenoo." At the novel's close, he and his pal Fosdick resolve to leave their little pad on Mott Street and move to "a nicer quarter of the city."
If Alger were still writing today (or if some team of underpaid ghost writers continued to churn out sequels the way someone keeps turning out new titles in the Boxcar Children series) I'm sure we'd see Ragged Dick -- ragged no longer -- ready to move back down to the Bowery now that the Whole Foods had arrived. Slumming's the new Old New York luxury craze, after all!
(h/t to Grieve for the last illustration, as well as a bunch of the links above; topmost image: Reginald Marsh, "The Bowery," 1928)
Lots of chatter lately about the economic crisis bringing a return of an older, grittier era. Crime on the rise, city services down, that sort of thing. A couple Sundays ago I saw three shell games going on in a three-block stretch on Broadway ... in SoHo! So something must be up.
Jeremiah, like many, hopes it means an end to the luxurification of the East Village. But EV Grieve, writing in the comments, warns that the media hand-wringing about the return of crime and dirt is a ploy by Bloomberg's people to get him elected to a third term.
Whether you're nervous about the return of street cats and corner trash can fires or giddily rubbing your hands waiting for the yuppies to evacuate (maybe we'll have a new reason to celebrate Evacuation Day?) you'll probably get a kick out of the video playlist over at Gawker capitalizing on the buzz.
Bonus round: Earlier in the week The Bowery Boys took us back to two filmic takes on SoHo in the 70s.
Bowery Village remained notorious for some of the stomach-turning stench of its slaughterhouses and tanyards. As late as 1825, upstate drovers ... were herding an estimated two hundred thousand head of cattle across King's Bridge each year and making their way, accompanied by hordes of pigs, horses, and bleating spring lambs, down Manhattan to Henry Astor's Bull's Head Tavern and adjacent abattoirs. A butcher who acquired an exceptionally fine cow would then parade it through the streets, preceded by a band and followed by fellow butchers in aprons and shirtsleeves, stopping before homes of wealthy customers, who were expected to step out and order part of the animal.Wallace and Burrows don't cite this (I found it instead in Robert Allen's Horrible Prettiness, a history of burlesque), but when Mayor Hone laid the cornerstone for the Bowery Theater in 1826 he said he hoped the institution would "improve the taste, correct the morals, and soften the manners of the people." By this he meant he wanted to use the theater (which would conveniently siphon off rowdy audiences from the more genteel Park Theater farther downtown) as a means of social uplift and social control. I doubt the hotel and condo developers have a similar benevolent -- if condescending -- agenda for folks living around the rapidly gentrifying Bowery today.
Some of those customers, bolstered by gentry families filtering in from the lower wards, wanted to transform the Bowery into a more genteel neighborhood. Taking aim at the stink, the endless whinnying, lowing, and grunting, and the occasional steer running amok and goring passers-by, they set about driving the Bull's Head from the area. In the mid-1820s, an association of socially prominent businessmen bought out Henry Astor and dismantled his enterprise. (A new Bull's Head opened in semirural surroundings at Thirds Avenue and 24th Street and soon attracted cattle yards, slaughterhouses, pig and sheep pens, and a weekly market; the area became known as Bull's Head Village, the city's northern frontier.) Meanwhile, in place of the old tavern, the consortium set about erecting Ithiel Town's splendid Greek Revival playhouse--the New York (soon to be Bowery) Theater. Mayor Philip Hone hailed the transformation as marking the "rapid progress of improvement in our city." But neither theater nor street was destined for gentility, and the Bowery would soon evolve into an entertainment strip for surrounding communities. (475-76)
Hone misjudged the neighborhood. Let's hope Bloomberg has too.
Apparently the glossy new building The Caledonia, in the meatpacking district -- which does, in fact, advertise itself as offering "a new exciting style of living in a historic downtown location" -- boasts a sort of library (or "culture lounge") as a "literary backdrop" for its residents. Only thing is, it's sponsored by a publisher of extraordinarily expensive, self-congratulatory design books targeting wealthy readers, and they're much more "backdrop" than "literary." Jeremiah laments:
That's because the books here are provided by Assouline, a publisher of objets that are meant to be seen and looked at, not so much read. They sell themselves as "the first luxury brand in the world that has used its publications as medium." They have a boutique in Dubai and another just opened in the new Plaza condo. Some of their books come wrapped in Chanel and Coach leather jackets.He concludes by asking: "Might there not be something vulgar about turning books into shiny objects without substance for the sole purpose of displaying wealth?" And while I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I'm also struck that such conspicuous literary consumption has long been associated with the hazards of new fortunes in the city. (In Boston, too, for that matter.) Some old New York problems apparently won't go away, though in our day they've clearly been taken from personal to corporate levels.
Their subjects cater to the affluent and the aspirational. A few sample titles: Megalomania: Too Much Is Never Enough; High Society: The History of America's Upper Class; and A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style.
A couple of taglines: "New York was vulgar, flashy and vibrant" and "Megalomania: excess, folly, splendor, vulgarity."
As an antidote, I'd recommend a new mural housed in the belly of the beast -- the 30'x10' mural At Home with Their Books, by artist Elena Climent [slideshow] -- recently installed on the ground floor of 19 University Place, where our offices are located. The titles represented there, we hope, could actually lead a viewer to a library or bookstore to satisfy his or her curiosity about New York's literary heritage. Let's just hope the exhibit is open to the public from closer range than the sidewalk! (If it's not, I'll complain!)
Update: Promoted from comments, TMK reminds us about Gatsby's library, as well.
Just as he framed Sister Carrie (1900) as something of a period novel -- though set just a decade earlier -- Dreiser frames the sketches collected in Color of a Great City
as memorials to the "phases" of the city that "most arrested and appealed" to him as a young man, but were "fast vanishing or are no more":
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.I'm struck by a couple things, reading a passage like this one from his Foreword. Certainly the Lower East Side of the early twenty-first century would seem downright genteel when compared to the post-Five Points world he had encountered a hundred years ago. But this type of lamentation remains a familiar one. (Has Manhattan Lost Its Soul? a recent cover of Time Out NY asked, as if for the first time.) Is it simply that we're at the tail end of a long gentrification process that spanned the entire 20th century? Or, acknowledging that economic disparities still abound in New York, even in Manhattan, is there something about the persistence of poverty -- not to mention the durability of ethnic enclaves and even some old architecture -- that should cause us to question the tone of resignation in Dreiser's Foreward and the certainty with which so many observers from his time to the present declare that Manhattan just isn't as vital as it once was, say, ten or twenty years ago?
I find suprising things downtown every day.
UPDATE (later that day ...): A very recent example of the lamentation for a more interesting, gritty, vital, and affordable New York can be found in the publicity for the new Berman and Berger edited collection, New York Calling, just out from Chicago:
New York City in the 1970s was the setting for Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, and Saturday Night Fever, the nightmare playground for Son of Sam and The Warriors, the proving grounds for graffiti, punk, hip-hop, and all manner of other public spectacle. Musicians, artists, and writers could subsist even in Manhattan, while immigrants from the world over were reinventing the city in their own image. Others, fed up with crime, filth and frustration, simply split.
Fast-forward three decades and today New York can appear a glamorous metropolis, with real estate prices soaring higher than its skyscrapers. But is this fresh-scrubbed, affluent city really an improvement on its grittier––and more affordable––predecessor? Taking us back to the streets where eccentricity and anomie were pervasive, New York Calling unlocks life in the unpolished Apple, where, it seemed, anything could happen.
I wonder, is this lamentation constant through the last century (and perhaps even longer)? Or is it cyclical?
(Thanks to Sukhdev Sandhu for bringing New York Calling to my attention.)