Thursday, October 09, 2014

Were Freaks Really What Made New York City Great?

I have links to a few other blogs in the right hand column of this page, but this has been a rather desultory process. Some of these have not published new material in upwards of a year, and the quality of some of the others, after my initially finding something in them that piqued me, has not remained consistently engaging. I suppose I will keep adding to the list whenever I find something that both publishes relatively regularly and has the sort of intelligence or humor or interests that I like. I come across very little that fits this description however, though I am sure there is a lot I would like out there, if I could manage to find it. I have not exactly cast any very large nets in this regard; it is more that I have turned over a few things that happen to have washed up on my little shore and seen something that made me want to put them on the shelf for a time. The links have never been a strength of the page and I almost never refer to them in my posts.

Today however I am going to refer to the 'Vanishing New York" blog, which is written by a guy named Jeremiah Moss, some of whose work has actually been published in real newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times. For those who are unfamiliar, the blog chronicles old-style Manhattan places, mostly restaurants and other small businesses such as barber shops and newstands, that are being/have been steamrolled by the ongoing gentrification and transformation of that island to its new identity as a luxury playground for the global elite. Moss deplores these changes. I find the economic forces at play in them unsettling, and as my affections for the city are mainly directed by a kind of patriotic nostalgia, change of the sort that is happening now threatens to make me feel even less at home and happy there than I have always been (and actually I almost never go there in real life. Still, I imagine there will be a time when my children are not little or I will have enough money and time to be able to go down for a few days a couple of times a year and go out to dinner and do other things I have always imagined I wanted to do there, though probably this will never be the case). I will admit to being impressed on recent visits with how clean the steets and parks are compared to the 80s and early 90s (let alone the infamous 70s), when one of my main impressions, doubtless from the circumstance that on those visits I didn't have anywhere to stay or any money to spend and therefore spent about eighteen hours a day walking everywhere in between catching the occasional nap on a park bench, was of the overwhelming amount of garbage and filth and the seeming physical impossibility that it could ever be eradicated. But Moss seemingly cannot bring himself to find much cheer or romance even in the lovely prospects that the restoration and brightening-up of older and architecturally preserved streets and landmarks offer, because he is too conscious of the costs, mainly in accessibility and character, that have made it possible.

One of Moss's primary laments is how the forces of ruthless wealth on such a scale that for a normal person to try to contend against it is the economic equivalent of trying to fight a tank attack and aerial bombardment with a bicycle corps, and the development that accompanies it, are clearing the city of freaks and any other free-thinking and challenging people with an eye toward making it attractive to tourists and other people devoid of personality who are more conducive to following the cues the corporate interests set out for them and expediting the processes of money-making.* He longs (along with many, many other people) for the days when the freaks were setting the tone in certain parts of New York City and keeping the kind of people who didn't get them, tourists and otherwise, where they belonged, which was decidedly not there. I have friends who had a similar attitude. If they walked into a diner or bar and there were a few transvestites sitting at the counter it was a great joy to them, a reassurance that they had found a place that was all right, and real. I never felt this exhilaration, I had good 1960ish liberal values, that tolerance was necessary and people should be free to be themselves and not persecuted, and I even had some sense that this was a part of why New York had become and was so great--but still, on a personal level, I found most of the extreme freakishness unattractive and not especially fascinating. Certainly they did not make New York. In the dream New York of my imagination, which is pretty much the 1920-1965 era, the lifeblood of the city are really normal people, some of whom end up doing great things, but most of whom are regular workaday family type people, who are maybe, stimulated by the environment and the institutions and their daily interactions with each other, just a little smarter, a little funnier, and a little more energetic than a similar collection of people would manage to be somewhere else, the cumulative effect producing the possibility that we identify as our own personal dream. I suppose we are all inclined to regard scenarios where people most like ourselves seem to have the most favorable circumstances for professional and social relevance and success, romance of our preferred type, etc, as the ideal, not merely for ourselves but for society as a whole. As indeed it is, from our own point of view.

*Complaining endlessly about tourists is of course a favorite pastime of a certain kind of New York City person, usually one who did not actually grow up there themselves, and whose personal contribution to the city's economic strength or cultural vitality and prowess seems as if it is not above questioning, if they are going to insist upon holding such attitudes. I say this as a person who has been largely relegated to dreaming even about going there as a tourist at this point. All this aside, I have never felt the presence of people who were obviously tourists to be anywhere near as overwhelming as it is in any of the famous cities of Europe. Maybe in the new post-2000 Times Square, but even there it was neither as crowded or as obvious as it is in most popular travel destinations. Even when I went to the Statue of Liberty about 80-90% of the other people on the boat were either orthodox Jews or very diverse school groups who seemed to be from pretty close by, if not perhaps Manhattan itself. And I did not see a single middle-aged fat couple from Iowa. I guess one of the complaints is that the tourists, who are extremely numerous, love chains and bad food generally which drives independent places out of business and causes the most popular areas to proliferate with characterless restaurants serving garbage. I don't think it is quite that simple. I believe most people, tourists or otherwise, want to have meals and experiences, especially in places like New York or Paris or Italy, that make them feel they are living a higher kind of life than they or almost anyone else is accustomed to, as often as they can. Most people have to eat several times a day, and if they have to work, or are on a tight schedule, or have children with them, or, as often happens in great cities, are timid about whether they will be welcomed at a place that looks to be of some quality or even that is populated by cool-looking people, they will probably, statistically, on average (i.e., not you, the way above average, sophisticated reader of exquisite taste) at some point in their life or vacation will for convenience's sake settle for a meal or two at the kind of establishment designed to accomodate this particular reality. Maybe you are pretty good, and you only go to the brand name places (I will include coffee shops in this as well) 3 out of 10 times. But of course if this ratio is repeated among 100,000 tourists, in the aggregate the individual chain locations will do much more business than the scattered and more individually numerous authentic/human places.

No comments: