Over the past few years there has been a spate of articles decrying the lost soul of New York. David Byrne said it. Moby split for LA after selling both of his multimillion dollar homes because it’s too hard to be an artist here. (Sounds rough.) My facebook feed is often filled with a sad tribute to a bar or restaurant that has had to close up shop to be replaced by a combination Starbucks-frozen yogurt-shop-bank.
Recently, people have started to recognize the false nostalgia and hyperbolic lamentation for real New York as what it is: annoying. So, perhaps I’m a little late in weighing in but I will anyway. If New York is so devoid of culture and just like any other city and it’s just a corporate shell of its former self, then you can leave.
I don’t mean that in an aggressive way at all. I’m not saying, “if you don’t like it, get the hell out!” I mean this merely as a gentle reminder. You can leave. It’s okay. Leaving New York City is a perfectly valid life choice. People do it all the time. If it suits you, have at it.
I’ve lived in this city for sixteen years while that doesn’t exactly put me in the Robert DeNiro/Pete Hamill/Fran Lebowitz/Woody Allen canon of New Yorkers, I feel pretty firmly established here. The New York in which I arrived over a decade and a half ago was already the New York of Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and The Virgin Megastore. These were the Giuliani years of a Disney Times Square and a fully inflated dot com bubble.
Here’s just a sampling of some of the venerated institutions that are gone: Max’s Kansas City, The Mudd Club, The Improv, Catch a Rising Star, Limelight, The Lion’s Head Tavern, CBGB’s, The Palladium, Elaine’s, Luna Lounge, Max Fish, and Rose’s Turn. And that’s just off the top of my head (i.e. without googling).
Hell, I still miss Canal Jeans and the Shakespeare Book Company.
But we need to remember the institutions of the past without fetishizing. We have to set a limit on what it is we mourn. When my friends started posting eulogies for Pearl Paint on facebook, I knew that we had gone too far.
So, look, guys, I know that Blah Blah’s on Blorkteenth Street closed. It was the best diner that you haven’t been to in ten years. I know that during the good old days, you had to step over a heroin addict just to get in the door. I know that it was founded during an actual Revolutionary War Battle and I know that it’s where Lou Reed, Truman Capote, and Fiorello Laguardia got brunch together every day for forty-seven years. I know that it’s where Biggie Smalls got his first handjob. I know. I’m sad that it closed. Blah Blah’s is now a Chipotle and the heroin addict now works in HR at Venmo. It sucks. I know.
No one is debating that authentic is better than corporate but, for reasons beyond my explanation and control, this happens to be the state of the city right now. If it bothers you that much, you can leave.
I don’t mean to gloss over the real economic realities of the city and the displacement of long time residents who can’t find housing. I have no solutions and my point of view on all of this is clearly coming from a place of middle class privilege. But I would like to make one request: if you’re white, please stop complaining about gentrification.
If I had a nickel for every person of color I heard complain about gentrification, I would have a nickel and I would nickname that nickel “Spike Lee.”
We the perpetrators complain about it to voice our concerns on the correct side of the issue but without taking any action, without leaving. If you’re upset at how you’re changing the composition of the city, leave. (I’m staying which clearly begs the question, how do I justify it? I’ll leave that for another essay.)
In his book, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman describes these very same problems from forty years ago. For the original gentrifiers, the search for a home in Brooklyn was a search for authenticity. I think that ideal of New York authenticity was burned into our brains through countless television shows and movies. Come to New York to live out your dream, live in a crappy East Village apartment, be on a first name basis with your bodega guy, have a local bar in which you commiserate with other dreamers like you in the greatest city in the world.
And Spike Lee, whether he acknowledges this or not, had a role in this as well. He popularized the stoops of mythological Brooklyn that has a bunch of web designers saying, “is Brooklyn in the house?” or chanting the slow “Brooooook-lyyyyyyn” at a Nets game. Biggie and Tribe and Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Represent.
We saw all of these things and said, “I want that” and the irony is that, because we came to get it, it’s gone. We never counted on the paradox inherent in the search for authenticity. We came here, to the most populous city in America, by the thousands or even tens of thousands, all searching for a way to be unique.
We came here to find that the crappy apartments of the East Village from the 80’s and 90’s had been remodeled and split in half to turn them into two-bedrooms that cost half of your income but you put up with it because everyone you know is putting up with it too.
And so we long for the past. We hang black and white pictures on our apartment wall of graffiti covered subway cars, rappers with a ghetto blaster and an Adidas track suit, safety pinned punks on St. Marks, and Velvet Underground posters and think back to a time when New York was real.
But was it real? Or was it just cooler and cheaper? Aren’t we longing to have lived in a loft somewhere? Could you imagine living in SOHO in the seventies? Wouldn’t that be awesome?
Eh, probably not. Can you honestly look at Taxi Driver and think: man, I wish it were like that again. Where are the runaway teenage prostitutes? Where are the porn theaters? Come on! This city needs some filth!
I imagine a grittier, dirtier New York of punk clubs and Studio 54 and cheap studio apartments with a hotplate and a communal bathroom down the hall and think, “yeah, I wouldn’t have lived here then.” I wish I could have but that’s not me. Frankly, I’m not that cool.
Because, ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. I wasn’t cool enough for CBGB’s. They wouldn’t have let me in to the Mudd Club. I bought Marquee Moon (at The Virgin Megastore) after reading Please Kill Me (bought at Barnes & Noble) and I’ve got to be honest, I’m okay with having missed out on a lot of the stuff people miss.
But, for better or worse, this is my city. Why?
The thing is it’s not that New York isn’t cool anymore, it’s just that it’s not cool for musicians. Patti Smith left. Lou Reed died.
Do you know who New York is amazing for? Comedians.
While I was watching Friends and Kids (yeah, I’ll put those next to each other) and Biggie videos, I was also watching the earliest incarnation of Comedy Central and fell in love with stand-up and the ubiquitous brick wall behind the comics.
I then came here to find that, to audition at The Comic Strip, you have to wait in line for hours just to get your five minute audition slot and that I happened to have picked the only vocation where you can be actually be told, “we have enough white guys right now.”
But the arrival of the original UCB in New York in the nineties has made this city an amazing place to be a comedian. There are now three big improv schools and, with the rise of youtube and the availability of video recording and editing, people share sketches online constantly. Other stand-ups, sick of the somewhat obsolete comedy club scene and the tight five, set up their own shows in the back of bars all over the city. Some of those stand-ups, sick of telling jokes, started telling stories instead.
I’m glad I’m here for it. This is my New York and this is why I stay.
And one day my time will be up, I suppose. Perhaps the comedy scene will dwindle like the MacDougal street folk scene and whatever comes in next will piss me off. But maybe I could end up being the Dave van Ronk of comedy. I’ll just be a bitter old man from a bygone era who rolls his eyes at everything and maybe even shouts at people on the subway, embodying another New York institution: the crazy person.
I could be that guy.
Or maybe, some day in the future, under circumstances I can’t even imagine right now, I’ll just pack it all up, and leave.