When Your City Disappears
New York has changed for the better (and for the worse) since September 11th. But, for those who grew up here, it means living in a city that’s not your own
Growing up in New York City has a lesser known side effect for those of us who were raised here. We grew up in a tourist attraction. This is something we share with our compatriots in Orlando and Las Vegas, and it’s a simple fact of life. All of us in the five boroughs—and in the nearby suburbs that share our culture, way of life, and regular coffee at the bodega—know what it’s like to go to the Met on school trips, have dim sum in Chinatown, or see that beautiful skyline from the Staten Island Ferry at night. Or even to just know that the 1969 Mets and 1977 Yankees are part of your cultural patrimony.
That is to say that this city becomes a part of you, in a weird and not-quite-describable way that’s completely different from the way New York bonds with those who move here as adults. We love each and every aspiring upstart who comes to New York to conquer the writing world or the finance world or the dancing world… But when you’re from New York, the city is never a faraway place filled with Woody Allens and Notorious BIGs. It’s simply… here.
But that here is increasingly there. As one British writer put it, “the past is a foreign country.” The Bloomberg years, and the (pre- and post-9/11) Giuliani administrations saw a sea change in New York’s composition. The spectre of violent street crime sharply receded. Times Square turned from seedy to Disney. Entire new sectors of the economy, such as high-tech and boutique finance, flourished even as the city’s sputtering manufacturing sector suffered. Whole neighborhoods gentrified at once, with Bed-Stuy taking on a black and white cookie complexion and the Meatpacking District transforming into a playground for the rich and famous. And, of course, we’d be remiss not to mention how Brooklyn—once the butt of jokes and the homely borough that people ran away from—turned into a beacon for an entire aspirational and artisanal lifestyle.
Not all of these changes were the result of the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations. Despite the raging of so many true believers, we have larger national trends such as the decline in violent crime and the growth of big finance to thank for a rapidly changing NYC. 9/11—and it’s impossible not to discuss New York without bringing up 9/11—accelerated changes that had been brewing for years. These changes mean New York is safer, cleaner, and more prosperous than ever before. It also means living in New York is growing beyond the means of those who grew up in the city.. and that the things that make New York so amazing are rotting away.
Big Nick’s Pizza And Burger Joint, an Upper West Side greasy spoon with a novel-length menu and a cult following from all walks of life, closed earlier this month due to rising rents. It was one of those cliche places where a college professor would sit next to a blue collar worker next to a millionaire couple, all feasting on the same incomparable cheeseburger deluxes. I first went to Big Nick’s as a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School. When visiting friends on the Upper West Side, we swung by there. As a son of Staten Island, the place where New York City slowly melts physically and culturally into Jersey, I was hooked.
It was also a place which couldn’t exist outside of the Upper West Side. Sure, another restaurant with the same menu—a murderer’s row of Greek-American diner classics—could thrive in another city. But the mix of Upper West Side neurotic intellectualism with smartaleck NYC service and eccentric, discreetly hiding their wealth elderly folks? That’s harder to replicate. Big Nick’s is being converted into a bank. The Upper West Side is full of banks.
In the last few weeks alone, Odessa (another iconic NYC diner, this one in the East Village) announced their impending demise. Max Fish, a beloved Lower East Side Bar where I drank shots with two folks destined to be Famous Writers and Famous Pop Stars, shut down. Lolita, a newer bar in Chinatown that became a haunt for the hipsters and writers, announced they were winding things down as well.
Thank God the Tile Bar,the L&B Spumoni Gardens, the Strand, and the Cloisters are still keeping up the good fight. But here in New York, the very people, stores, and neighborhoods that populate our mental maps are disappearing. It’s odd to be complaining about the place where you grew up dissolving due to too much prosperity, but here we are in 2014.
We love New York, and New York loves us. But, to quote another iconic New Yorker, the rent is too damn high.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen rents skyrocket and a ton of new construction aimed at luxury buyers. And of course new apartment buildings are aimed at luxury buyers… what real estate developer worth their salt would want to build for the middle and working classes in expensive, packed-in New York, when they could build for much cheaper in the Poconos or Orange County?
As neighborhoods gentrify and rents raise, the influx of new arrivals eager to taste NYC’s rightly legendary way of life continues. Murray Hill spreads over into Stuy Town which spreads into the East Village which spreads into Williamsburg which spreads into Bushwick which spreads into Ridgewood which spreads into Maspeth. And so on and so on, as another wave of finance professionals replace the creative professionals who replace the musicians and artists who replace the party kids who replace the blue-collar union families who replace the working poor who replace the poor poor until there’s nowhere else to go.
Which is to say, where do those families that used to live in those Bushwick apartments favored by new arrivals go? And when did New York become solely for those with endless cash to burn, with no love for the rest?
The new New York is wonderful. But for those of us living here, the question is how to preserve the aspects of living in New York that make the city worth it. This includes the people. All cities change, and New York is blessed in its prosperity. But growing up in New York means the city is, literally, our hometown. At the end of the day, our hearts beat to the jingles of Nobody Beats The Wiz and Crazy Eddie commercials.
So… how do we preserve the soul of this makes-us-nuts-but-so-worth-it hometown of ours. Anyone?