Tuesday, May 24, 2016
A Tale of Two or Three (or Four) Cities
I've been thinking a lot lately, what with articles on social change, gentrification and economic disparity, about what creates the character, or zeitgeist if you will, of a city. I've not had the experience of any other city as I've lived New York, so it's a good place to start.
I believe we can move beyond the surface here, and cataclysmic events or singularities like 9/11. I say this not to dismiss the trauma of the day and ensuing years, but because I believe that the more profound changes have been through a sort of tubercular decline into vast economic disparitiest. While the city has maintained what is truly a wonderful racial and ethnic diversity, we are economically more monochromatic. There are extreme rich, and there are poor. Take it for what you will, but that's how it's played out. It's black and white in every sense of the term too and that really cannot be denied.
In the early 90s I moved into an apartment on 10th Street in Brooklyn. It was a crooked, old building with slanted floors where my children's toys rolled independently from one end to the other. There were mice in the non-working fireplace, roaches in the kitchen, squirrels in the ceiling and a crabby, bearded painter living downstairs. It featured several things though that were signifiers to me, of having arrived after many years into the world of New York City. It had an exposed brick wall, marble details (if cracked) and most importantly, a vaulting, sweeping panorama of downtown Brooklyn and the Manhattan skyline. It was a view I'd seen a million times on television and coffee table books. This was where I was going to set up shop and finally write that book that would further inject and infect my platonic conception of myself into the fabric and skyline of my adopted home. How that all played out is another story altogether.
It's easy enough to say that the sudden, tragic disappearance of the Twin Towers marked a tipping point for the personality of the city, but that's not at all fair. The city was already changing. New York, despite the reduction in crime and the overall health of the stock market, had already been chipped away at my the big mining companies disguised as real estate developers. Entire city blocks had been demolished by the score, replaced by big box stores, malls, luxury coops and condos, and the warehousing of the working class in outer boroughs increasingly plagued by staggering rents had begun. Art was disappearing. Music was disappearing. Street life was vanishing. The cultural collisions that had always marked the growth of movements in the city were smothered slowly. There were pushes back here and there, but there has been no recovery for what had been the personality, or the heart and soul of the city. Even the green spaces that had previously existed for the "everyone" became more exclusive. Think if you will, of hot dog vendors being replaced by Shake Shack and WichCraft. A meal for one person in the park now costs what it used to take to snack out a family.
This is not a treatise on gentrification either, though that certainly plays a role. It's more a comment on how a colorful tapestry went beige in the blistering light of economic change. My experience now, in New York City, isn't immersion into culture, so much as it has become an immersion into self-reflection and self-identification. I am no longer able to be part of something, so much as I am forced to define myself singularly. This is not necessarily all bad, but living here has become a a process of alienation and no small amount of isolation. True that I spent too long defining myself through external factors, but to abuse John Donne, no man is an island unto himself. There are "tribes" left, but they leave little room for individual variables. There are an awful lot of rules. They are exclusive. There are rules. There are basic tenets. They often require the entry fee of a six figure income or a trust fund. You wear this. You read this. You listen to this. You shop here. You vote a certain way. Your children do this or they do that, and you talk about them all the time as if when you shut up, they ceased to exist, along with your identity as a good parent.
We often don't know our neighbors. Our children don't play with the kids on the block. We bank online. We don't know the tellers at the local branch or see our neighbors there. We shop for groceries online and they are delivered by an anonymous man or woman. I never had any family here other than my adopted family and friends, but families generally don't live together or even close. Our connection to other cultures has become curated through museums and academies.
It seems to me that many of us have become like turtles that climb up on rocks in a pond to sun ourselves for a while before going back below.
We have become beige. We are unpainted canvases, not particularly different than canvases lining walls in other cities across North America. There is much less here that defines us as New Yorkers. We could be Los Angeles with fewer licensed drivers, or Philly without cheesesteak, but no, we have "Authentic Philly Cheesesteak," and trust me, it now tastes the same in both cities thanks to the growth and domination of chains.
We are beige.
I have lost my pride of place as anything I ever sought to define myself by has... deteriorated. What does being a New Yorker or anything else really mean?
I am me. I am fortunate that I've done the work and reached an age where I need less identification through externals, but I do remain nostalgic for a time when it took less work to be me. I am truer to myself, but it requires an awful lot of effort.
A semi-final note: I've always had a cautious relationship with nostalgia as it is really the flip-side of the Regret Coin. Perhaps I was hoping for an evolution instead of the opposite.