Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cities in Flux

This recent article in The Atlantic by author, Richard Florida is really one of the most thorough, insightful, well-researched, and in the end, hopeful descriptions of what Depression II will mean to this country. It's a bit of a long read, but I highly recommend it. As much as I dreaded the implications of what I was thinking, in a be careful what you wish for sort of way, I have long believed that New York needed a major calamity to restore it to what it once was. One might have thought 9/11 would have been sufficient. But Dubya told everyone to just go out and shop, and people from the backwoods of Mississippi who think the island of Manhattan is populated solely by freaks, deviants, and mortal sinners suddenly started going around wearing I ♥ NY t-shirts with some kind of temporarily manic patriotism.

It will be tough for me to describe without you hearing it in the voice of a crotchety old man whose tirade begins with "baaack in myyy daaay..." and I'm sure everyone who sees the evolution over a span of decades to some degree longs for the way things were. Don't get me wrong, I've seen a lot of exciting changes, too. It's still mildly tragicomic to think how different a place this was when I first started spending a lot of time here--around 1990--and moved here to stay a year later.

A walk east from Noguchi's Cube at Astor Place after dark was a singular adventure. St. Mark's Place was a string of grimy little fetish clothing stores and dusty punk record shops lined with unwashed panhandling squatters with rainbow Mohawks and their girlfriends with too many piercings. "Um, Punk is almost as old as I am, time to move onI'd think to myself, and rumors that many were the product of cozy upper-class suburban families just trying to be "edgy" and "stick it to the man" led to a feeling of contempt at the hypocrisy of their lifestyle. But when they were gone, replaced by marauding hoards of drunken NYU frat boys with their white baseball caps turned backwards hunting for their next date-rape victim, I really started to miss Mohawk Guy and Piercings Girl. At least they were there. At least they weren't Gap clones. And even if Punk had become formulaic, at least they were trying to be somewhat counter-cultural.

I don't hold NYU in the highest regard, anyway. First they wanted to tear down Edgar Allen Poe's historic house on Washington Square to build some bland dormitory monstrosity. They were prevented, but then they did succeed in tearing down one of the greatest monuments to New York's Music History for a bland dormitory monstrosity: the Palladium. Not only was it one of the best club spaces I'd seen, it was also one of the most extraordinary places I'd been. The room for the main dance floor was enormous, you'd look up into the soaring expanse of the hall, and hanging from the ceiling were two giant golden cupids that seemed to be hovering weightlessly in mid-air. The Doors played there along with countless other incredible acts over the years, and it was the last remnant of what was once New York's great theater district. I wouldn't have minded quite as much if the building NYU put up in its place had been exemplary architecture, but I guess that was asking too much.

Of course we got over to Avenue B, but really, you just didn't go any farther than that. Avenue D was like an uncharted wilderness of mystery and unknown dangers. Even as late as, say, 1995, I got mugged between First and A after hours (it was no big deal, I didn't have much on me and wasn't hurt at all--my feeling is "if he's resorting to this, he clearly needs this $40 more than I do"--he made an obviously empty threat, I said "whatever, I don't have anything else," and walked away). Now there's just about nowhere on the entire island of Manhattan that you can't safely go. "So...where's the problem?" you ask. One has to consider what this means in terms of the cost of living and how that affects the character of the city.

I had friends who shared an apartment on Eleventh Street between A and B. It was the entire floor, and this was no railroad layout. You walked into an entryway, a giant hallway between the two ends of the apartment. It was probably eight-feet wide if it was a foot, and practically a room unto itself. They had two full bathrooms, at least one of which had a sort of cheap Jacuzzi-style tub. Their kitchen/ living room area was probably as big as my entire apartment is now, and this is one of the biggest places I've ever lived. The two bedrooms together took up about the same amount of space at the other end. You know how much rent they were paying per month? $1000.

One thousand dollars. Very literally, I don't even think you could rent a closet for $1000 in Manhnattan now. The same goes for nightlife. There is no place for small, underground clubs and bars that can bring in new and innovative acts. It's just not cost-effective. No little storefront art gallery can last with up-and-coming young artists. The vast majority of them have been cast out into the outer boroughs. In Manhattan, it's either a big, bland, corporate affair or it's just not going to survive. 

Everybody was so glad when they cleaned up Times Square, and granted, it is safer, but at what cost? Being there at night, when it's as bright as noon and everywhere you look is in constant, vibrant, high-tech motion, I'm convinced I'm in the very center of the universe. But I avoid it like the plague. What's there for me? Musicals stolen from Disney films, musicals stolen from John Waters films, musicals lamely patched together from songs by ABBA, songs by Billy Joel, songs by Johnny Cash, songs by Lieber & Stoller...and by the way, just how many more of these half-assed excuses for a Broadway show do we really need? Doesn't anybody actually write their own music anymore? And what happened to the likes of Tommy and Hair? Virgin. Gap. Disney Store. Old Navy. Starbucks. Olive Garden. If I really wanted this crap, I'd live in the suburbs and shop at the mall. I hate malls, and I have no use for corporate clones. That's why I live in New York and not the suburbs. 

The only other redeeming element I've found is Sam Ash, which is still the best store for musical supplies in the city. When required to visit, I dread the fifteen minutes it takes me to navigate shuffling, morbidly obese, picture-taking tourists and their seven children down every block. A little danger would be good for this city. We wouldn't lose our tourist trade, it would merely be concentrated into discrete and avoidable pockets, leaving the rest of us an oasis of our own. A little more diversity would be even better, to make this the vibrantly creative place it used to be. We'd been the absolute apex of the global art world at least since the 1940s, and I can't help but blame Guiliani for all but destroying New York's ability to welcome and support a creative underground.

It's ironic, too, because most people from the middle of the country still have this sense of terror that death awaits them around every corner of the city, even though our crime rate is far lower than the cities from where most of the American tourists come. The Atlantic article points to Detroit, which, not surprisingly, has one of the worst crime rates in the country. The author suggests the possibility that Detroit and cities like it could very well become ghost towns unless something radical is put into place, perhaps as a result of the government bailout. It seems strange to consider a city of that size being just completely abandoned. How long does it take a city to crumble to dust? The Roman Coliseum is still more or less standing, after all.

©2009, Ryan Witte

No comments: