From Blackout to Priced Out in New York City
It was almost as though the Williamsburg I remembered had been bombed out and replaced from scratch.
Bemoaning the disappearance of the New York is a time-honored tradition: no one has ever arrived here early enough to experience the city at its greatest, and everyone who comes after you has arrived too late. It would be easy, and at times Jeremiah Moss makes it tempting, to relegate his book Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul to the pile of tomes by city dwellers bemoaning their lost city. But it would be a mistake.
For the last decade, Moss (a pseudonym; he recently revealed himself to be Griffin Hansbury, a 46-year-old psychoanalyst by day), has spent the last decade “bitterly” chronicling the closure of all manner of New York institution on his blog “Vanishing New York”; this long, thoroughly researched book, is the child of that endeavor and the result is a compelling and often necessary read.
Perhaps fittingly, the title sounds like a lament: few New Yorkers have been spared the loss of a beloved apartment, diner, restaurant, café or bakery. You name it, it’s vanished. (Moss took the first half of his pseudonym from the “weeping prophet” Jeremiah). But the truth is, to have lived in New York over the past decade has felt less like a tragedy than a psychological horror film, an unstable reality where doors are never in the same place, homes become jail cells, and you are continually forced to question whether you are imagining it all.
Walking down Bedford Ave in Williamsburg last week after a show, I was overcome by a sense of disorientation; besides Spoonbill and Sugartown books, which had opened the year I moved there, I no longer recognized a single storefront in a 14-block stretch. Yes, it had been 15 years since I’d lived in the neighborhood, and yes I’d returned now and again and was aware of the extraordinary change that had gripped the area — arguably the most dramatic in the city — but still. Not one storefront? Even in a city where extreme change has become the norm, this felt breathtaking. It was almost as though the Williamsburg I remembered had been bombed out and replaced from scratch.
For some the image of a war zone may be an apt description of hyper-gentrification, the name Moss gives to what has happened in the city since the turn of the century.
One of the great accomplishments of this nearly 500-page polemic, is that even as I read through in a state of outrage and sadness, I was also reassured: I am not crazy. The city really has vanished, though vanish feels like a passive word. The city has cannibalized itself at an increasingly frenzied pace over the last decade, something Moss itemizes with dates, names, and numbers. So quickly, in fact, that until I came across certain places mentioned in these pages, I didn’t realize I’d forgotten what I’d been missing.
More importantly, buried in all the romantic, embittered reminisces, Moss has provided us with a comprehensive history of the city’s zoning laws, demonstrating how they carefully (and at times, not carefully at all) mask their racism with claims of wanting to make the city “more livable.” More livable for whom, Moss asks again and again. The answer is always the white and the wealthy. It is here that Moss flourishes. Using the numbers, he successfully argues his most persistent, and strangely hopeful, claim: that the disappearance of the New York we love, or say we love, whose fabric has long been weaved from the mom-and-pop shops and artistic havens that once bloomed here, is not the inevitable reality of living in a changing city. It is intentional.
This was never truer than in the Bloomberg years.
There has yet to be a full accounting of the Bloomberg’s effect on New York; we are still living in its direct aftermath. In “Vanishing” Moss paints Bloomberg as the modern-day, billionaire successor to Robert Moses, long cast as New York’s worst villain, steamrolling through city in an endless effort to make it friendlier to billionaires. One need only glance at the million-dollar condo high-rises that continue to explode all over the city to see the results of that mission.
At times, this achievement is drowned out both by long recollections about how things used to be, and what Moss calls a possibly “ill-advised” editorial decision to cast his New York into two groups; the bad guy “Elites,” and the good guy, or “Undesirables” who are comprised ofimmigrants, people of color, the poor, and working class, queers, socialists, bohemians, and general dissenters. One unfortunate result of this rendering is that when Moss, for instance, tries to connect decisions made by 1920’s “Elites” to today’s, he can sometimes sound like a conspiracy theorist. More problematic is that it can leave the impression that the Undesirables were united in their desires, which is a dangerous fantasy that among other things suggests that the poor, or people of color didn’t suffer just as much at the hands of, say, the working class as they did at the Elite’s.
Or that many of these underdog groups didn’t have a hand in ushering in some of New York’s more villainous characters. I arrived in the city just as Giuliani was running for reelection. In the Greenwich Village bar where I worked, which was populated and owned by the very people whose disappearance Moss decries (I decry it too, nearly every day) Giuliani was very popular, largely because he’d turned the city into one that people could safely walk through at night again. This adulation, as Moss points out, disappeared in the second term, when Giuliani capitulated to his fascist tendencies and among other things tried to launch a war on jaywalkers (the NYPD wouldn’t enforce) and to shut down “offensive” public museum shows (he failed), but it’s important to note that at times the so-called Undesirables have been as complicit in the “vanishing” of New York as its elites.
Moss unapologetically calls himself a retrograde nostalgist; a person who specifically laments the loss of authenticity “resenting its replacement with a ‘State of Fun.’” He arrived in New York in 1994, and at one point claims that he got here too late. He writes: “There is nothing nostalgic about fighting to preserve the economic cultural diversity of a city. It has more to do with the present and future than it does with the past.”
This argument — Moss’ version of the Jane Jacobs quote that “old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings” — is tacked on at the end of the book, along with a wish list of policy actions. But as I paged through story after story of lost cafes and extraordinary underground sex clubs I was never fully convinced Moss was using the past to envision a new New York, with new ideas, as much as angrily mourning the loss of the old one, his view cast firmly backward to a better time.
I miss New York, too, and too often find myself beginning sentences with “when I arrived here 20 years ago…” but the problem with large-scale nostalgia is that it is mostly a white man’s game. As our ‘Make America Great Again’ administration demonstrates, too much is a dangerous thing. In a book that is largely about the ravages of gentrification, itself a direct result of not just of privilege, but white supremacy, it’s important to note that the luxury of nostalgia is its own particular form of white privilege. I don’t doubt Moss’ intention, nor do I disagree with it in spirit. But what is sometimes left out of his stories about the glory days of New York, where poets, queers, crazies, and feminists were able to live side-by-side, is a larger picture of the city in which they flourished. He says little about how some of the aspects we claim to miss most about New York were rooted in poverty, or about the other side effects that came with inhabiting a more-affordable city that, as Clyde Haberman recently described it, was in the midst of a “near-death experience.” Haberman was referring to 1970’s New York, a period which has been the subject of intense romanticizing in the last few years thanks to the skyrocketing real estate prices of current 21st century New York.
This July marks the 40th anniversary of the 1977 blackouts, during which parts of decaying city erupted into riots and mass looting. This July also marks a month in which my social media feeds are continually filled with horror stories from people trapped in trains and stations by the MTA. That dysfunction has more than a few “die hard” New Yorkers I know talking about leaving the city. These are the same people who can always be counted on to post slideshows of graffiti-filled subways.
I sometimes wonder how they would feel if their packed delayed subway ride was combined with a crime rate even just double what it is now, which would still be a fraction of what it was in the early 1990s. Whatever the state of the MTA now, it’s a walk in the park compared to Seventies New York, paralyzed by a fiscal crisis, where 250 felonies took place each week on the subway, and actual walking in the park was all too dangerous.
Some of the frustration with the bring back nature of the book, is that (and I’ve said this elsewhere, in a piece Moss briefly quotes from, though in a different context) I suspect that part of what we are actually missing is the pre-digital world. We no longer interact with New York the way we did before Google Maps. One reason I am aware of shifting nature of streetscapes is because when I first came here I needed them to know where I was, not just for convenience but, as a woman alone in New York, for safety. The goal of nearly every app on my phone is to make my life more comfortable and convenient, and by extension safer. We very rarely don’t know things, any more, or, more importantly, are expected to discover them on our own. I miss that every day, but to the millennials that Moss protests, who arrive here and celebrate the openings of 7-Elevens and Dunkin’ Donuts because they are familiar and remind them of their suburban childhood (possibly the battle for New York’s soul is really the battle between dueling nostalgias) comfort is the world they’ve been raised in. Starbucks is simply the brick and mortar version of an app, and no one leaves home without their phone.
I don’t happen to believe New York has lost its soul. Thousands of people showing up at J.F.K. on a Saturday night, not to mention the yellow cabs going on strike, to protest Trump’s travel ban is not indicative of a city without a soul. I think we’re in for a fight, and that’s okay – if there’s one thing New York’s history of resilience shows is that we are up for a fight. I found hope in the devastating passages about Bloomberg’s zoning laws because it highlights changes we have the power to oppose;if we’ve learned one thing in the last six months it’s that protesting works, if we choose to do it in large enough numbers. The challenge is to decide to do it, and Moss’ book is, hopefully, the swift kick in the ass that will compel more people to show up at their community board meetings and even run for local office. Insert your Make New York Great Again slogan here.