Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Broken Pavement Relic

Stole into New York City for a long weekend, something I'm planning to do on a regular basis, as that town's vibe recharges me like nothing else. I enjoyed it, of course -- I always do. Yet with each visit, the city I knew and loved fades further and further away. It's not enough that Manhattan became an island for the rich and dumb long ago. Now, as if to cement this social fact, numerous glass towers are rising throughout the city, non-descript mirrored monoliths announcing the dawn of the next architectural age, a little taste of what most of Manhattan will look like come 2065, assuming the bio-nuclear-germ wars haven't spread stateside.

Ah, fuck. It's probably inevitable. Giuliani swept the city clean of undesirables, setting the stage for Bloomberg, under whom the mallification of the borough steadily grows. It's not a city for starving artists anymore. Those days are gone. If you are young and ambitious, you move to Manhattan strictly to make money and connections, otherwise there's no place for you. The pigs have resoundingly won. Makes the go-go yuppie 80s seem like a hippie haven by comparison.

One night I was in a wine bar between Avenues B and C, once an area that only the bravest souls dared enter after dark. Now, parts of it resemble the Upper West Side, which is no bad thing in itself, yet a certain blandness exists. I remember going to see experimental theater and music gigs in that neighborhood, where someone's studio apartment served as a stage and the audience either sat on the floor or stood against cracked walls. Today, you take a corporate client or expensive date to any of the upscale restaurants there. I told the bartender, who was easily twenty years younger than me, of the Tompkins Square Park riots of 1988, when cops and anti-gentrification activists clashed in the East Village, random beatings, blood, broken glass, screams and sirens on the corners and down the dark streets, including the one we were presently visiting.

I remember that moment well. I was writing for the neighborhood weekly Downtown, and two of my colleagues, Sarah Ferguson and Dean Kuipers, were swept up in the chaos and police violence, the aftermath of which I walked through, a silent energy still in the air. Some of the local activists declared victory as the cops took a PR hit in the NY media. But that was a momentary rush, false hope fed by street fighting adrenaline and the hazy idea that developers would avoid such a trouble spot, keeping their money uptown where it belonged.

I glanced at the wine bar's menu prices, then at the polished wood decor, and said to the bartender, "Well, you can guess who won that battle."

Decidedly. Besides, who wants to live in an affordable, culturally-mixed, creative neighborhood? Where would the glass towers go?

But all this moaning comes from an aging ex-Manhattanite, whose views of the city are meaningless in the face of relentless change. I suppose whatever melancholy I feel has more to do with the slow death of my earliest dream and desire, where raggedness and danger played major roles, and one felt fully alive despite having nothing. Yet this is private mourning, since many of the young faces I saw last weekend seemed quite happy with the city's current state. Not all of the New York I knew is gone, but it's getting close. I'll keep going back until I recognize nothing, a gray ghost floating through glossy future time.