Dispatches: New New York

In the last fifteen years, a certain era in New York has ended.  From roughly 1970 to 1993 (from the late-sixties flight of whites to the onset of Giuliani time), a strange state of affairs obtained in the city: most central districts between Midtown and Wall Street were also fairly undesirable by bourgeois standards.  The Upper East Side and the Upper West Side were known as the East and West Sides, as though there was nothing beneath them, and with the exception of Greenwich Village, the area between 34th Street and Canal Street was filled with zones of freedom from many forms of compulsion: economic, regulatory, etc.  These autonomous zones were able to shelter many populations from the need to have regular work and income: artists and street people, partygoers and throwers, various and sundry types who disidentified with the mainline of U.S. culture.  Indeed, one of the cultural meanings of New York in recent decades has been as the city that represents the escape from U.S. culture, from cars, commuting, cultural homogeneity, national chains, social segregation, order.  That meaning is not necessarily permanent.

Many cities, of course, perform this function in their nation’s social imaginary.  Many metropolises are seen as, paradoxically, shelters from the capitalist economy of which they are also the beating heart.  The difference is that the shelter is usually on the periphery, not smack in the middle.  Whereas Houston Street and Broadway, which in 1993 was a sort of crossroads of a uniquely New York art-music-film-performance culture, is also structurally central to the city, both geographically and in terms of the other relevant urban topology, the subway map.  Back then there were pieces of street art on three corners.  Today the intersection features a Pottery Barn, a Crate and Barrel, an Adidas flagship store, and a branch of HSBC.  Down the street, on Bowery and Houston, a giant condominium building awaits the opening of its major commercial tenant, Whole Foods (which I, unlike Steven Shapin, find a soul-destroying place to shop).  These nationwide brand names, along with others such as Home Depot, Bed Bath and Beyond, etc, were never to be seen here until recently.

Much hand-wringing occurs about this state of affairs – Whole Foods within sight of CBGB’s?  Oh, my.  Yet I think from a longer perspective it is the period in which the Lower East Side and Soho represented zones of autonomy that is the anomalous one, not the present re-corporatization of New York.  Would I prefer that Bowery was still a bustling restaurant supply district by day, a urine-soaked sleeping gallery by night?  Would I prefer that the East Village not become the home of another twenty-dollar entree yuppie joint and retain the Ukrainian bars with pool tables of yore?  The Soho of After Hours, in which Fanelli’s was the only place to go, instead of an upscale outdoor mall?  Sure, I would.  But I also think that artificially preserving the short-lived bohemian character of these neighborhoods is equally unreal: should NYC pay people to squat in LES buildings and drink in the Mars Bar, a la nineteenth-century gentry who employed hermits to live in the artfully ruined hermitages on their Capability Brown-designed grounds?  Clearly making the city into a museum of itself, as with large stretches of Paris, is not the answer to anything. 

The freedom from hugely expensive rent is no longer something that now exists in many places in the city, center or periphery.  But with real estate developers and lawyers and rezoning permits comes in addition a much more invasive state presence.  Neighborhoods that were once nearly outside the boundaries of the law are now routine and orderly places where people wearing jogging clothes walk their dogs.  East River Park, which was roamed by bands of freaky ruffians, is now the site of friendly barbecues and safely ironic activities like the hipster street hockey league.  This elevated policing has had a terrible side-effect: it has almost killed dancing.  Not only are large spaces downtown nearly impossible to come across, but cabaret licenses (the city’s license to dance) must have the signatures of six or seven different city agencies before approval.  The only sites that can be found nowadays for large, vaguely eclectic nightlife are in peripheral places like Greenpoint and Bushwick, instead of on East 14th Street or Gansevoort Street.  Nightlife in the center has fallen victim to the need for (quiet) order brought along by bourgeois residents of neighborhoods that until recently were the domain of the disenfranchised: West Chelsea, the Meatpacking District (is there a more off-putting transformation in the city?), Alphabet City.

So has the city lost a facet of its identity, the one that holds up Downtown as the site of a unique creativity and roughness?  To some extent, it never was so free as they say.  A paradise lost is much easier to maintain than to regain.  On the other hand, I think it’s objectively different from the days when squeegee guys reigned and the city’s image as ungovernable was confirmed by the, well, lack of governance.  Strangely, though, the social identity of the neighborhoods seems not to have caught up with the new reality.  The Lower East Side, despite the fact that an apartment on Orchard Street costs as much as one on the Upper East Side, retains some patina of countercultural transgression.  A recent ‘happening’ in the disused half of the Essex market was a perfect example of this incoherence.  It was a kind of avuncular imitation of an underground event: noise bands, artists talking to each other, a cavernous and dilapidated space.  But on the other hand, the event was sponsored by Hermes, and some trendy new vodka sprung for an open bar, hoping to convince the connected to drink their brand.  There were porta-potties with Musak playing in them outside, trucked in from some Westchester wedding.  The City had approved the use of the Market.  You had to sign a release to get in, saying you wouldn’t sue if you got lead posioning.  Corporate-art dinosaur Jeff Koons spoke.  Hardly a subterranean upswell of pure creativity. 

That is the kind of event that gets put on here these days.  It has become much more important, downtown, to ape the signifiers of the chaotic eighties scene, than to recreate it (see Strokes, The).  The scenesters of the moment like to think of themselves as bohemians because of their stylistic choices, but they are players in a world of intense competition for status and yes, money.  A successful gallery or a major label record release are also paths to embourgeoisment, and they require constant networking, and regular working, just as much lawyering does.  Finally, the money to be made by the real estate boom has conferred a strange kind of status on people who bought a building on Greene Street for twenty thousand dollars in ’75, which is now worth five million.  They are hardy bravers of the frontier beyond gentrification, but also economically rewarded for their defiance of purely economic motives.  It’s a self-knowing take on the concept of aesthetics as the reverse of economics, in which the eschewing of monetary advancement is the secret to eventually having both virtue and money.  If anything, this is the permanent dialectic in which New York is ensnared: make art or make money, but keep hustling.

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