Sunday, July 21, 2013

Auld New York Town

This past weekend, I got down to the West Village, what I remember as the old Waverly movie theater (now the IFC something or other), to catch a screening of the Big Star documentary, which I enjoyed greatly.  Lord knows, I moved to New York in the late 80s because of Manhattan, and for the next 15 years or so spent all my spare time there: movies, bands, museums, bars, etc.

Getting into my 40s and more set in my routines, mainly the gym, I got out of the habit of spending all my spare time in Manhattan and now do so rarely.  I usually wait for movies to come out on DVD, the live music scene in Manhattan has been decimated compared to previous decades (mostly migrating to Brooklyn), I realized I don’t like museums, and I don’t drink all that much anymore.  (When I do, it’s more likely to be a few at happy hour to allow myself a normal night instead of a drunken 3 AM subway ride … which I have done far too many times.)

What struck me most walking around the West Village is that, aside from the urge to see a cool documentary … I had no urge to be there.  Tower Records on Broadway and Fourth, where I spent countless hours buying phenomenal records and CD’s?  It’s now the Major League Baseball Fan Cave.  The second floor appeared to be a gym.

Back in the 80s, even the 90s, it was a given that I’d find myself in some part of the Village, all the time.  Knew its shortcuts and back streets.  Shinbone Alley was my favorite.  I don’t know who can afford to live there anymore.  In terms of artists, only successful ones, for sure, or somehow connected financially.  The tenor of the place has changed, as it often does in the city, usually more subtly.  Of course, in the 80s, it cost too much to live there, too … which is why I’ve never lived there!

But it seems like in the past few years, the concept of material wealth and stature has completely overwhelmed Manhattan.  Used to be you could find pockets of that old, gritty New York, of the 70s and earlier, when the city nearly went broke.  Particularly in the East Village, but I’ve spoken to people who used to live there, and they all got priced out in the 00’s.  I know very few people who live in Manhattan now, and most of them are living in very small spaces for rents you don’t want to know about.

In an email to an old friend who loves the historical aspects of NYC, I noted something weird that doesn’t give most people reason to pause but strikes me as stunning: there are no more working-class white people living in Manhattan.  Very few, I’m sure.  Because of the spiraling rents, and the projects, the only places you will find working-class people, being more traditionally non-white.  I notice this more because I was raised in a white, rural, working-class area.  And I know when I’m around “my people.”  My people aren’t around Manhattan!

Any given day in Manhattan, there will be thousands of working-class white people there, but only as workers coming in from the outer boroughs, Jersey or upstate New York.  They don’t live there … they can’t afford it.  Once upon a time?  Entire neighborhoods were filled with working-class whites.  Used to be Polish and German enclaves on the upper East side.  The Irish were all over Manhattan until the post-war suburban boom kicked in.  Ditto the Italians.  There might still be some stubborn Jews hanging in there down around Delancey Street and such, but not many.

(Sidenote: if it’s still available, check out the 1974 movie Law and Disorder starring Ernest Borgnine and Carroll O’Connor as two middle-aged neighborhood guys who decide to form a neighborhood auxiliary police group, with disastrous results.  I always assumed the setting was Co-Op City in the Bronx, or maybe Queens.  No … it was around Delancey Street as the actual street names are mentioned in the movie.)

Am I the only person who finds it strange that an entire class and color of people have no place in Manhattan?  I think this skews the view a lot of Manhattanites have of not just working-class white people, but working-class people of any color.  They have no connection to them, other than to either marvel at their baseness, or fear them in some deep-seated sense.  I’m often aware that white-collar/white folks in the city, when they find themselves around working-class whites, are not just standoffish, but vaguely fearful of them … probably because they spend so little time around them.  And there are actually white people out there who didn’t get the memo that we’re all supposed to be highly-educated and well-off financially.

It doesn’t perplex me – I can see how it happened over the course of decades.  But it does make me wonder if I’m the only one who notices how strange this is.

I wouldn’t say the honeymoon is over with New York and me, but as I look around at New York circa 2013, I ask myself: how long am I going to be able to afford to live here?  And I don’t just mean Manhattan.  It seems like every traditionally white neighborhood in the outer boroughs, including mine, the rents and property values keep pushing upwards.  Honestly, at this point in my life, I’m open to suggestions!  I make reasonably good money – most places in America, I’d be doing well.  Here … it’s like I’m on the verge of being a pauper.  I have no idea how people live here who surely make less than I do.

What does perplex me is this push for so many people to converge on New York these days when there doesn’t seem to be any reason other than to do so as a status symbol.  People used to move here for artistic reasons.  Or to escape.  To find this wild, crazy place where people made their own rules.  That’s not New York anymore.  As noted with Manhattan, you get a wild hair up your ass to move here … it won’t be there, unless you’re well-funded.  There is no burgeoning music scene.  Or Algonquin-style literary group.  I would hope there is still some kind of art scene that encourages people to be here.  But the writing aspect, thanks to the web, isn’t as centralized as it once was.  Outside of Silver Cup Studios in Queens, movies rarely get made here anymore … it’s too expensive.

I’m intensely aware of that sense of materialism overwhelming New York, and, boy, I don’t like it, as you could guess!  I’m not kidding myself – it’s always been a highly materialistic place.  It’s the nature of the city.  But it also used to be the nature that every strata of society could function here, too, with its place, with a tolerable way of life that may have seemed crazy to outsiders, but was entirely manageable to those who knew how to live it.  There still is … but it’s surely going to be diminished as time goes on here.  It feels like everything is being reduced to the level of the rich and very rich, and the subsidized poor, being the only ones who will be left, as anyone in between, sooner or later, will be priced out.

That seems nuts to me, hopefully impossible, but I’m honestly not so sure these days.  Maybe it’s my age, and the irritating effect that being around blind ambition for so long has had on my soul, but I still value that simple sense of going about life, of being open to it, that sort of innocence you can have at any age that seems to be the antithesis of all this status seeking.  That thing is crucial to anyone who creates art of any sort, even if it’s only something like this.  It can peacefully co-exist with the urge to make money and do well for one’s self.  But not when the ability to simply live in a place becomes overwhelmed by financial concerns.

I had to leave the small town to see what else was out there, but that small town never had to leave me.  And it hasn’t.  I can’t shake that upbringing, and I don’t want to.  The concept of chasing money has never made sense to me because I was raised around people who were perfectly comfortable in their own working-class skins and felt no need to impress anyone else.  God, I love the sense of self that my father had, that the guys we worked with in the factory had, they understood this in their blood.  That you should be able to have a place where you can work for a living, and get by.  Not get rich, but be able to have some type of personal happiness that has nothing to do with how much money you are or aren’t making.

This has all got to stop someday.  I though the economy nearly collapsing a few years ago was a sure sign that things were changing, had to change, could no longer function this way as a nation, as a people.  But doesn’t that seem like a speed bump now?  Maybe that was the warning sign that we need to change how we live, the things we value?  Maybe it was nothing … even though it sure seemed like we were on the edge of a new Depression at the time.

It seems like we go through these massive events every now and then – be it 9/11 or the near collapse of the world’s economy – and what changes?  I’m sure things have changed as a result of both – there are lot of people who went unemployed for long periods of time and still could be now.  But walking around Manhattan in my spare time, just quietly taking mental notes, I can assure you, it’s business as usual around these parts.  I don’t get it, but I never really have.  That’s more personal values than lack of understanding.  I do get that I’ve lived here just over 25 years, and it wasn’t until the past few years that I’ve sensed how crazy this all is.  It’s not a direction any sane place should be moving.


Ken D said...

While by and large I don't disagree with your observations, it seems to me that the white middle class turned its collective back on the City as much as it was "priced out." When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s the mood was get out of NYC as fast as possible and good riddance. Long Island, Westchester, Jersey, Staten Island were the goal. And for many, I think, still is. While the tide has turned and the urban core is now ultra-desirable to many, I think blue-collar whites haven't made the switch yet (maybe because they know they can't afford it now).

An anecdotal example: I live in a very racially-mixed part of Brooklyn and our local blog was recently lit up by reports from white people who had encounters with police officers—as blue a collar as they come, no?— from our precinct who asked these citizens essentially, "Why do you want to live in this jungle?" And yeah, the implied racism was not accidental.

Also, I for one am glad to see that New York City is no longer Manhattan and then "the outer boroughs." Brooklyn is obviously a changed place. So too, are parts of Queens. I was reading the other day, someone who was betting that the smart money would be on the northern Bronx and Yonkers as the "next place."

And honestly, after 20 years of living in Manhattan, I don't miss it one bit. Maybe because it has changed so much, or maybe because I have. Probably both.

William S. Repsher said...

All good points. Save I'd note that those cops making the comments more than likely don't live in the community and I'd wager live on Long Island or in Jersey.

While I don't "miss" the rough-and-tumble quality New York used to have -- I moved here in the 80s at the height of crack, and lived a decade in the Bronx, no less -- it does seem to me that it just gets harder and harder to live here financially.

In Astoria, you have a lot of middle-class folks who own homes bought in the 70s and earlier who could never afford to buy a house here now. They're lucky in a sense that they're essentially sitting on gold mines, but down the road, they have to consider that their neighbors, slowly but surely, are going to seem alien to them, a different class of people, the kind who can afford to lay out $800K for a simple rowhouse now.

None of this would concern me as a renter, save the rents just keep going up, and I can't see myself living here for a very long time simply because making the monthly nut will cost too much. I think I'm suffering from some New York fatigue lately -- a bit tired of the constant "on" sense and over-ambition. Not that I need the place to stay the same in some sense, but that artistic sense that drove me here back then just seems to be not what it was even as late as the 1980s.

Ken D said...

Yes, those cops I was talking about most likely live in the suburbs. That's pretty much the point: white, blue-collars who still regard the big city as a dangerous, undesirable place to live.

I sympathize with anyone who has to deal with NYC real estate prices nowadays. And "New York fatigue" sounds familiar. But as far as the "artistic sense" of decades past, all I know is that the kids keep coming. To dance, to paint, to work off-off-Broadway, to slave as prep cooks, to intern at magazines and galleries, and sure, also to learn to trade derivatives. In some ways, not so different from the 80s (but thankfully without the crack).