Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You Still Here?

I’ve been thinking about authenticity lately. In this desert of the real at the beginnng of 2011, a guidebook can be handy. I’d recommend Sharon Zukin’s semi-recent academic reflection on gentrification, authenticity, and community in New York City, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Zukin, a Brooklyn College professor, was born and raised in Philadelphia, and came to New York for college, graduating Columbia in 1972.
Arguably, Zukin has seen New York at its most “authentic,” (some would say at its most “shitty”) if you approach it from the curmudgeonly view that the city has lost its soul in the past decade. But she explores the forces surrounding gentrification and urban “renewal” through the prism of a few different neighborhoods and sections (Williamsburg, Harlem, the East Village, and Union Square, is as far as I’ve read).
Anyway, it truly made me step back and reexamine what I’ve written on this (too rarely updated) Internets soapbox. I take nothing back, but hope that I can explore the whole thing a bit more deeply, this living and breathing mass of contradictions that is the Five Boros. One of the main pillars of Zukin’s analysis is the eventual disappointment of seeking out authenticity. The dire need to find it and claim it, to meld it to one’s identity, somehow inevitably leads to diluting that authenticity, driving out the elements that have signified New York to multiple generations: immigrants, working-class attitude, originality, fierce creative energy, and that amorphous term (scorned by me): “grittiness.”
The media-dubbed “cool hunters,” who bust the market research to sell to corporations eager to cash in, seem to work in the same fashion as the moneyed forces guiding, like a silent hand, this unstoppable wave of gentrification. Drawing (and essentially bribing) young people to try products they want to test on them, they saturate the market until the kids latch on to something else. In this case, however, it’s the kids coming to New York who need affordable housing but aren’t necessarily rich by any means who are the vanguard in the process. They seek the grit for many different reasons. In many cases, they’re the eventual victims as well, pushed out of neighborhoods due to exploding rents along with the much more longtime residents. A shitty-looking but beloved Puerto Rican dive bar converts easily into a fair-trade, indie café with shows on the weekends, which converts nicely into a Starbucks, or a Crumbs location.
It’s easy to latch on to those you perceive as different from you as an enemy “Other.” The hipster-bashing thing, as much as it amuses me and is rooted in some deep truths, feels like a distraction. So does the bashing of stroller mommies. I’ve noticed walking/texting as the common disease that NY’ers of all stripes seem to have contracted, a frustrating habit that I know is inherently a national problem, but can’t seem to unbundle from my return here in particular. I wrote not too long ago that when I see people grinning at their phones as they plow heedlessly through crowds of people that I imagine that everyone doing so is holding up little mirrors.
But anyone who can’t tie together the stratification of this country into a solid core of the very wealthy—surrounded by a massive, deprived underclass, and a quickly diminishing middle class—to see its very real reflection in what is going on in New York, needs to wipe the cupcake frosting off their Dwayne Wayne flip-up specs.
Manhattan is well on its way to become a gated community, over-regulated and policed, everything razed except the projects and maybe Stuy Town, to make a huge corporate, police state-administered shopping mall and business center. The outer boros will have an upper-middle class clustered as close to the city as is possible, with the outer rings getting progressively poorer. When we’re well past our peak oil comeuppance, the city centers will be the place to be. It’s not entirely a mistake that the elite are feathering their nests here, and distancing themselves from the growing extremism and increasing desperation of Small Town America and the outer-ring suburbs.
Will the pampered denizens of the new inner-city, seeking the authenticity they can’t find in the glass box canyons, corporate office parks, the gated Manhattan , then turn to the outer rings to find a new frontier in which to experience the real, the unscripted, the grimy, and unpredictable?
What made New York the realest in the first place? I’m not nostalgic for crime, but does anyone else find the transformation of Manhattan Island into a giant Upper East Side troubling? Admittedly, I enjoy the Upper East when I go lurk up there. Close to museums, stately architecture, and where else do you see old ladies in leopard print still smoking with cigarette holders talking in raspy voices to their cherished, well-groomed poodles? But what makes that area great is that it’s bordered by Harlem to the north, Murray Hill to the south. (In the good/bad old days, Murray Hill wasn’t such an exclusive address).
The wide-eyed group of Upper East Side friends trooping down to the Village and being blown away by something new and different was always one of the great New York experiences. The city is greatest when people of all classes are flung together, when many different types of people live in close proximity, smashing into each other, the volatile electrons around the nucleus of New York’s soul.
The sickenss now is the growing sameness of experience eveywhere around us. To slightly tweak Bud Fox’s speech to Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (not my favorite flick, but whatevs): How many luxury stores can Bleecker Street in the West Ville handle? How many gourmet cupcakes can you stomach? How many new eateries with sterile, shining interiors, so inhospitable to sit and eat in, can you frequent? How much is enough?
The word “douchebags” has gained traction in the American vernacular lately. It is a shorthand for a certain type of male, and in the language of NYC nightlife, an apt description for a certain kind of bar scene. People always got drunk, and the unfortunate term “bridge and tunneL” can be thought of as a distant cousin to it. It just seems people are ever more childish, vapid, and actually seemed to have been cloned en masse from characters they see on TV. They seem as exciting as a Powerpoint presentation on retirement planning, and it might be weeks of hanging out with such creatures before you hear an original thought. I’ve eavesdropped on them.
What is it about the douchebag that irks, reviles, like Kryptonite to the rest of us just looking for a decent night out? The stockbroker villain of American Psycho, the cookie cutter date rapist, the guy unironically rocking the pink sweater tied around his shoulders, sighted at Mars Bar a few months ago—it’s an umbrella term, for sure. One hopes that someone relocating here spun from the average cloth of middle America would let something of NY filter into his fabric, allow for some change or adjustment. But the frightening thing is that, while once the city bent others to its sensibility, the opposite seems to be happening right now. NY has lost its super powers.
There are still plenty of folk moving here, at whatever age, and whether from the Midwest, Iran, France, Mexico, Korea, Senegal, or countless other nations, richer or poorer, who have aspirations, and perhaps a romantic view of NY that has nothing to do with the money porn of luxury loft living. They imagine the mom and pop stores, the sense of community, the stoop life, the 9 million possibilities, themselves a drop in the bucket, but filled with boundless energy and outsized ambition. Whether running from something, or simply reimagining themselves here, they have always seemed to make the soil here more fertile. A Greek Diner, a Korean nail salon, a Dominican cabstand, an Arab deli, an Irish bar, an aging hippie bookstore, an Italian pizzeria—it feels like these things were invented here.
What happens when the phrase “Only in New York” is sapped of all meaning? It feels like every day that the Times ejaculates another puff lifestyle trend piece about how the new hot shit is luxury buidlings with every possible amenity imaginable, whole buildings filled with young people eager to live among those just like them. If we agree that the city is morphing into a fairytale cocoon, how will it differ in any real way from the downtowns of Akron, Ohio, or San Clemente, California, or, God forbid, Albany?
If you live in a building with a café, Internet access, free laundry service, a gym, and 150 neighbors in your age group, it’s not a NY apartment; it’s a dorm. How many amazing, creative things were spawned, how many chance occurences because some kid ventured out of the soft confines of their NYU, Columbia, or Fordham dorm room and went exploring? Ok, so some of them did so and ended up cokeheads or slaves to the H, or remain locked up in some basement dungeon somewhwer. But I hope you smell what I’m cooking here. Or the wisdom imparted by older, saltier neighbors on one’s floor in a tenement walkup. We miss out when chain stores metastasize, when the bland uniformity of money forces out the greasy spoon, the old-school donut shop, or the local shoe repair spot. Duane Reade and John Varvatos ain’t letting you pay on Tuesday for a hamburger today, na mean?
The essence of NY was equal parts unpredictability, randomness, creativity, street epiphanies, crazy stories about those real “New York characters,” and so much more. These will always be here, but they are being slowly devoured by money. And is there anything more boring, really, than hearing people talk about money? (At least put it to a beat, a la GZA’s “Gold”).

People will continue to come here, but maybe there’s some way, by sheer force of collective will, to restore the selectively permeable membrane that filtered out the folk that would’ve never come here. For now, they continue to obliviously craft a Californized, suburbanized funzone. That membrane used to be the danger, the crime rate, all tied to New York’s rep. We’re like the comfy old southpaw, still some brain cells left, challenged to one last streetfight. Do we still have the stones? 
I’ve asked many questions, many of them rhetorical. All of them are about a perceived problem, at least from the collective perspective of many of the New Yorkers who have given me feedback on this blog—most, but not all of them natives of the city. However, there are many who aren’t complaining about the new New York, not by a longshot. The nearest and dearest of the 2,200+ people killed in 1990 here, for example.
To paraphrase Zukin, there were probably some aging, decrepit Five Points bruisers holding out for dear life at the turn of the century from 19th to 20th, lamenting the loss of their beloved, longtime mutton shack, grumbling about those newfangled donut shops that seemed to be sprouting up everywhere. Or those Eye-talians popping up everywhere out of the blue, so much more foreign than newly-recognized-as-white Irish.
There’s something about this place, you admit to yourself, despite the urge to pack up and hightail it out of here, even if the reasons for you may be vastly different than those who’d had enough, say, in 1979.  After all, you’re still here.