Michael Moynihan

01.06.14

Weren’t Those the Bad Old Days? The Poison of New York City Nostalgia

Forget the reduced crime of Bloomberg—de Blasio’s mayoral inauguration was suffused with a longing for uglier, more ‘authentic’ times. And this irrational forgetfulness is everywhere.

I flipped on the television on New Year’s Day, bleary-eyed and head throbbing, to discover something dreadful. New York City had become a Dickensian nightmare. Gangs of feral, ragged children tugged at the hems of billionaires, who were too distracted by their glistening new condos to pay any heed. Remember those quaint ethnic communities, once teeming with stickball games and eggplant-shaped old women wielding rolling pins? All bulldozed by developers, eager to satiate the needs of the rich and foreign.

At Mayor Bill de Blasio’s January 1 inauguration, speaker after speaker cataloged the inequalities of 21st-century New York (which are real, but would provoke envy in Oliver Twist). There were frequent references to the city as it existed before Mayors Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani; we were wistfully transported back to the days of Fiorello La Guardia and David Dinkins, when New York was just about piss and grime, not piss and grime and runaway wealth.

The shorthand for that New York was once “the bad old days.” In 1990, during Dinkins’s tenure, an astonishing 2,245 murders were committed in New York City, compared to 332 last year. How this precipitous decline in violence was achieved is a matter of intense debate—CompStat, broken windows policing, gentrification, abortion—but let’s leave that to the social scientists and acknowledge that the bad old days have long since past. A good development, one would think. But de Blasio’s inauguration was suffused with nostalgia for the bad old days. Indeed, the reflexive nostalgia for uglier, more “authentic” times infects most conversations one has about New York with other New Yorkers.

And it isn’t just New York. Everywhere, everywhere, one finds pessimism about the future, despite declining violence; rising wealth in India, China, Vietnam, and other once poor countries; and jaw-dropping advances in science and technology. The world is a vastly better place than it was 50 years ago. But the wealthy, educated, and impossibly right-thinking are bullish on the past, smearing Vaseline on the lens, lamenting a bygone era that probably never existed.

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For those of us living in large urban centers, irrational nostalgia is unavoidable. Products made in the most cumbersome, time-intensive way—the artisanal processes that artisans once found tedious and unprofitable—are mindlessly celebrated and presumed to be “better” than mass-produced alternatives, even when they’re not. Science is celebrated when deployed in the Richard Dawkins way, against the rubes, but considered monstrous when transforming the “natural” into the “unnatural” (the genetic modification of plants).

Indeed, every topic is liable to get the it-was-better-before treatment. A few months ago, I had an argument with a friend, a brilliantly smart Los Angeles-based producer and television flunkie. At a dinner with other television flunkies—during which I acted as the sole representative of planet Earth—the conversation wandered onto the topic of childbirth, which many at the table had endured.

“I opted for a natural childbirth,” one woman said brightly.

“But natural in a hospital, surrounded by trained professionals ready to prevent a natural disaster?”

“Yes, but no drugs. None of that unnecessary, elective, intrusive stuff. I mean, people had children before epidurals, before all of this needless equipment. How do you think women had children in the 19th century?”

“And what was the infant mortality rate in, say, 1890?”

Well, yes, it was quickly conceded, there is that. (Incidentally, the infant mortality rate was 150 per 1,000 live births in 1890. It’s 6.1 today, a number often considered scandalous for a First World country.)

Food and medicine were once natural, and the city was once real. And like the medical profession and the food industry, New York has been spoiled by rapacious profit-mongers and hypercapitalists. Sure, in 1980s New York the possibility of randomly being stabbed in the spine might have been distressingly high, but wasn’t the increased likelihood of permanent disability the stuff that motivated great art?

After the quintessentially New York musician Lou Reed died last year, newspaper eulogies often doubled as eulogies for a more interesting New York. The Guardian complained that Reed’s “old haunts have been overtaken by sushi restaurants and parking lots.” Salon.com sighed that “the denizens of [Reed’s songs] ‘I’m Waiting for My Man’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ were priced out of Manhattan and gentrified Brooklyn. The grindhouses of Time [sic] Square were replaced with Disney Stores and TGI Fridays.” Fewer lamented the lost New York of Reed’s masterpiece “Street Hassle,” where dead junkies are dumped on the street (“and by morning, she’s just another hit and run”), or of his 1989 song “Romeo had Juliette,” which charted Manhattan’s collapse into poverty and crime. (And the rent was still too damn high: “This room cost 2,000 dollars a month / you can believe it man, it’s true.”)

Indeed, Reed was contemporaneously chronicling—not so much celebrating—bad old New York. In the 1980s, writer Kathy Acker argued that New York had collapsed from neglect, angry that those who stayed in the city did so because they couldn’t afford to leave. The rich were, by her estimation, guilty of abandoning the city: “New York City is a pit-hole: Since the United States government, having decided that New York City is no longer part of the United States of America, is dumping...all the people they don’t want (artists, poor minorities and the media in general) on the city and refusing the city federal funds; the American bourgeoisie has left. Only the poor: artists, Puerto Ricans who can’t afford to move...inhabit this city.”

Sure, the possibility of being stabbed in the spine might have been distressingly high, but wasn’t the increased likelihood of permanent disability the stuff that motivated great art?

But all of that is forgotten, replaced by denunciations of “Disneyfication.” In every issue, New York magazine asks a notable New Yorker a series of questions, including the standard “Which do you prefer, the old Times Square or the new Times Square?” To cite a random recent example, actress and West Village denizen Patricia Clarkson offered the expected and acceptable answer: “Old Times Square. It just didn’t seem like a theme park.” Because there is a correct answer, of course.

Nostalgia for a better past is a constant in the literature of New York. During his inaugural address, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer cited E.B. White, author of the classic paean to the city Here is New York. But read White’s celebration of Manhattan and you’ll find a yearning for the good old days. In 1949, White noted that the great hall of Grand Central Station was “one of the more inspiring interiors in New York,” that is, “until Lastex and Coca-Cola got into the temple” and commercialized it. (For author Henry Miller, writing a decade earlier, there wasn’t enough advertising in New York compared to his beloved Paris: “There are no advertisements of Pernod Fils or Amer Picon or Suze or Marie Brizard or Zigzag,” he huffed in his scathing letter-cum-essay Aller Retour New York. “The walls are bare…”)

And White’s account of the changing cityscape will sound familiar to those bemoaning Disney- and condo-fied New York: “[Manhattan] used to have a discernible bony structure beneath its loud bright surface; but the signs are so enormous now, the buildings and shops and hotels have largely disappeared under the neon lights and letters and the frozen-custard facade. Broadway is a custard street with no frame supporting it. In Greenwich Village the light is thinning: big apartments have come in, bordering the Square, and the bars are mirrored and chromed.”

Not everyone is nostalgic, though. New Yorkers of a certain vintage will recall Florent, the infamous all-night meatpacking district diner and regular haunt of vapid models and coked-out downtown club kids. Like almost every neighborhood in Manhattan, the meatpacking district has since transformed—haute couture and expensive restaurants—and Florent, owned by the eminently quotable French restaurateur Florent Morellet, was an inevitable casualty of the transformation. When Florent closed, Spike Lee provided a typical quote to The New York Times: “I’ve been going to Florent since 1986, whenever I can. But the whole neighborhood changed. Before it used to be transvestites and transsexuals on every corner. Now? Forget about it.”

But Morellet moved on, finding himself haunting the new bohemia of Bushwick, Brooklyn, an enclave of housing projects and dewy-eyed young artists. When The New York Times asked Morellet to be nostalgic about his restaurant, he wouldn’t bite: “On the island over there [Manhattan], people bug me. They say to me, ‘Oh, my God, you were a genius, you had the greatest restaurant on the face of the earth.’ And the next sentence is, ‘Isn’t it terrible what they did to you?’ I’m like, ‘No, I think it’s great...I’m so glad it’s over.’ I’m so sick of everyone in Manhattan complaining about the way things used to be.”

But Morellet is an outlier. The human instinct for nostalgia, the fantasy of returning to something simpler, more pastoral and idyllic, more My Antonia (or in the case of New Yorkers, more authentic, more Bonfire of the Vanities), can be impossible to resist. We can all conjure a past love, a personal belle époque, that was indescribably perfect, when lamenting loss and missed opportunities. But the psychology of memory is complicated: We remember simpler times that weren’t so simple, erasing inconvenient past events with the eagerness of a Soviet newspaper editor.

And with New York, we remember Halston, Warhol, Studio 54, and CBGB, we fantasize about the cheap rent and lack of German tourists clogging the streets, the porn theaters and graffitied subway cars. And we forget the things that made the bad old days so bad.

When asked if he would return to the city he once called home, actor Casey Affleck told The Daily Beast, “I’m waiting for it to get cool again. Maybe de Blasio?”

Let’s hope not.