Beast Style

08.06.14

The End of New York: How One Blog Tracks the Disappearance of a Vibrant City

As city rents skyrocket and small businesses close to be replaced by chain cafes and glass condos, Jeremiah Moss’s blog, Vanishing New York, keeps a rueful eye on the ‘progress.’

When I tell Jeremiah Moss—whose name turns out to be a pseudonym—that I love his blog, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, but also can’t bear it, he laughs. “I get that a lot: ‘I hate your blog, but can’t stop reading it.’”

Through unadorned pictures—old signs, shuttered windows—and the odd, sad farewell notes of owners, Moss is cataloging the disappearance of small stores and local restaurants from New York’s streets and neighborhoods as rent hikes force them out and chain coffee shops and big, shiny, glass condos and office spaces replace them.

Moss, who is in his “early 40s,” speaks quietly and seems a private fellow, if full of passion and anger about what he perceives as the dissolution of the city. Many seem to feel the same way, judging by the comments on the site and his almost 14,000 fans on Facebook.

Moss started the blog in 2007, having moved to New York from a small, working-class New England town “around 20 years” ago. “I had been complaining to anyone who would listen about what I saw as the shift in the city, particularly after 9/11, with Bloomberg [the city’s mayor from 2002 to 2013],” he says. “The city was upscaled and gentrified. Suddenly a suburbanized Middle America was taking over what had been a long-standing pocket of eccentricity and bohemianism.”

Moss has lived in the East Village the whole time, in a “crummy slum tenement where the landlord never gets anything fixed,” and he has witnessed his area transform from one inhabited by “oddballs, artists, gays, Ukrainians” in a welcomingly chaotic jumble to one more akin to “fraternity culture,” packed with “the middle classes, the heteronormative…” He pauses. “Football fans.” He says ruefully, “That thing I left the suburbs to get away from is now at our gates. It’s been really frightening watching the creep of Starbucks east. There are three or four within a handful of blocks in the East Village.”

He particularly misses Mars Bar (“dive bars have been falling fast”), The Holiday Cocktail Lounge, and Blarney Cove; Mars Bar particularly because it hosted artists and the punks who would descend there after a show at nearby CBGB. These bohemian joints were so uncompromising that they reminded Moss “you needed chutzpah to live in New York,” he says. “Now you just have to be very rich. Your soul doesn’t matter.” He also misses the original Odessa diner, Chelsea’s Rawhide gay bar, Prime Burger in Midtown, the Colony music store in Times Square, the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, and the much-cherished bar Bill’s Gay Nineties, where Tallulah Bankhead used to drink.

One farewell sign on Moss’ blog, from the departing management of University Pita at 12th and Broadway, reads, “Over the years it has been a privilege to serve this community here in the East/West Village.” The signs have a poignancy, says Moss, “because there is a tension in them in what they are not saying,” he says. “Phrases like ‘Due to unforeseen circumstances’ and ‘Due to a change in ownership’ conceal what they are really saying about their closure, which is ‘Thanks to our greedy landlord,’ although some do say that, too.

“But generally there’s this stiff upper lip. You can feel the sadness and regret. When I’m photographing the signs, someone will walk by, shrug their shoulders, or say, ‘Goddammit, when did that happen?’ There’s a sense of loss and sometimes shock—that something they expect to see there isn’t coming back.”

Between 2001 and 2013, Moss calculates, the number of small stores that closed in New York had been in business for 7,000 years—and those are only the businesses he tracked or was tipped off about. The real number, he thinks, is even higher. Some owners died, he concedes, but most of those businesses were forced out by rent hikes.

“I’m a New York holdout. I hope things will turn around. I’m the polar bear on the ice floe waiting for things to cool down.”

“What seems to be happening,” Moss reports—and it is the best kind of citizen-reporting; he walks the streets, receives tips, goes out to these places to see and record the shuttered fronts—“is that landlords are not just doubling rents but quintupling them.” Sometimes the rents increase by 10 times. The result, I have noticed in my neighborhood, isn’t that bigger shops are moving in but that there seem to be more empty storefronts than ever before.

“Yes, they are creating blight,” says Moss. So why keep the shops empty? “The landlords are hoping for a Bank of America or Starbucks to come along able to pay the $40,000-a-month rent.” The stretch of Bleecker Street between Hudson and Christopher streets, he notes, has become a runway of designer shops ever since Magnolia Bakery opened and Marc Jacobs followed.

Even if landlords don’t find an occupant immediately for their premises, Moss says, they are happy to keep their spaces empty until the right suitor willing to pay the astronomical rent shows up. “If they sign a 10-year lease with the store that is there, they’re locked into that. They calculate that they’ll still win financially by the shop being empty, because someone will come along in one, two years and pay much more.”

Moss hopes—in vain, it seems—for the ratification of the Small Business Survival Act, “which has bounced around for years” and which seeks to create fair rental negotiation for small businesses; currently, there is no commercial rent control.

Moss is nostalgic and angry. Yet even if one agrees with him, one has to acknowledge that cities change, people want to live in them and sell stuff in them, and in places like London and New York, a feverish capitalism has simply made everything very expensive. It seems irreversible: Moss accepts that he doesn’t know how change will occur; maybe a financial crash of some kind, but that would obviously bring its own harm.

Moss likens the process of accelerated urban change to climate change. Just as the latter has accelerated because of man-made environmental abuse (“We need to drive cars, and factories are belching out shit because we need to ‘live’”), so the gentrification of New York has not proceeded at an incremental pace but moved into a mode he calls “hyper-gentrification,” aided by the tax breaks and subsidies officialdom accords to big businesses to set up in gentrifying areas. An area’s gentrification used to take 10 or 20 years; now it happens in a year.

“The city and corporations are colluding to change the city in a very deliberate way,” he says. “We’re destroying the urban environment in terms of the diversity of business and diversity of living. New York has always been an exceptional place, and it has always tolerated difference. Different people rubbed up against one another. But it no longer tolerates difference, oddness, and eccentricity.”

For Moss, “the artists and creative people have left the urban centers, which affects the whole bodies of cities like New York, London, and San Francisco, where a similar thing has happened.”

There are a few places in Manhattan that Moss feels have escaped hyper-gentrification’s ossifying grasp. “I love walking through Chinatown. It still looks like an accident—like how cities are supposed to look. You can see the layers of history, things are haphazard. People are making things happen on a small scale. There’s a lawlessness. There’s food put out in plastic buckets. No one is regulating them.”

Moss also has noticed in East Harlem a continued sense of community, “people looking at each other, paying attention to each other, not on their cellphones.”

The cellphone use among pedestrians has dovetailed insidiously with hyper-gentrification, Moss says. People are locked in texting, or whatever it is on their screens, and detached from their physical surroundings. “People are not walking together,” he says. “There used to be this wonderful dance on the sidewalk, but not now. And as people are buried in their cellphones, so there is less for them to look at. Everything is one long sheet of glass. It’s a co-delusion of the cityscape and its people: Together they’re growing into a homogenous mass of being nowhere.”

The blame, says Moss, lies with Bloomberg, turning the city’s population into consumers rather than citizens. Well, I say, some would argue the city has gotten better and that all this romanticization of the past overlooks that it was crime-ridden and that some parts of the city were a no-go.

Moss says he understands that, and he wishes there were “a sweet spot we could return to.” For him that would be the 1990s, “where we had not too much danger but enough to keep us awake.” He wants a safe city but one where creative people can live. The city is too highly regulated and controlled, he insists; creative people need some unpredictability.

But you can’t stop capitalism, I say, and you can’t stop cities changing, however exclusionary it now seems. We both sigh. Moss says he doesn’t have the answer to what to do next, but his recording of unfolding history frustrates him hugely. He notes the hyper-gentrification of Gowanus: the opening of a Whole Foods there last year (“a picture of greenness”) and the removal of signs from old businesses—Kentile Floor and Eagle Clothes—that symbolized the “industrial legacy” of the neighborhood. The area is “totally polluted,” with the storm drains of luxury condos blocked by feces, he says.

But onward the classing-up of areas goes. The next will be Ridgewood in Queens, Moss says, close to the already hyper-gentrified Bushwick and Greenpoint. As soon as vegan bakeries “or anything with the word ‘artisanal’ in it opens, there goes the neighborhood,” he says wryly. Community meetings in the South Bronx are already being organized to figure out how to deal with the process happening there, Moss says.

But you can’t stop people moving into areas, and why would you want to stop bad areas from getting better? You can’t, but the ideal thing, says Moss—the impossible thing—would be somehow to freeze gentrification at a moment where all parties, longtime residents and incomers, participate in and enjoy an area’s reinvention.

But that hasn’t happened thus far. The poorest and most creative are priced out, and New York becomes a chain-littered luxury suburb, he says.

The Minetta Tavern that Moss loved has been gussied and priced up by restaurateur Keith McNally, the Upper East Side restaurant Gino has transmogrified into a Sprinkles cupcake shop. “Williamsburg is like Miami Beach,” he says mordantly. “I leave my front door in the East Village in a state of agitation. It’s like leaping from island to island as the waters are rising around me. I feel angry, alienated, and resentful.” His islands of respite are DeRobertis' pastry shop, the relocated St. Mark’s Bookshop, and Stage Restaurant, but these islands are becoming fewer and fewer.

Moss would like to sell Vanishing New York as a book and move to the acceptably gentrified (for him) Greenwich Village, where—though expensive—a sense of the kind of urban community he cherishes still endures.

The real problem now is what he calls Young Urban Narcissists (“Yunnies”): twentysomethings who come to New York expecting it to bend to their will, rather than mold to New York’s, or at least meet its spirit halfway.

On blogs he sees “Yunnies” hailing the arrival of a Starbucks a block away, “which is great, because they had to walk five blocks to one before,” or wailing that “the smell of pickles in Katz’s Delicatessen is so strong they want the place closed down. They don’t want the urban experience. They want the New York of Sex and the City and Friends, which isn’t much to do with the city as it is. They want the status without the real city—that chaotic, unpredictable urban experience.”

Just as with climate change, he says, where there are polar bears sighted clinging onto rapidly melting ice floes, so Moss hopes and clings on. If it’s that bad, if Moss feels this so keenly, why not leave? Where would he go to? he asks. He used to think San Francisco, but that city is subject to the same dark forces. “I’m a New York holdout,” he says. “I hope things will turn around. I’m the polar bear on the ice floe waiting for things to cool down. There’s still enough to keep me here.”

As Moss recently wrote, he recently walked past Smalls jazz club in Greenwich Village and alighted therein upon a “tap jam,” a collective improvised jazz dancing event. “The chance that you come across something like that, that’s why I live here,” he says.