Friday, January 05, 2007

CHAOS THEORY. Adam Gopnik reports on Mayor Bloomberg's big plan for the City's next 25 years. Just as my eyes were glazing over -- "It is hard for people who don’t know what the city was like in the seventies or the early eighties to understand [blah blah blah]... Despite even 9/11... [blah blah blah]... New York is in good shape, and getting better..." -- Gopnik takes an unexpected turn:
What seemed a little odd about the plan, and the speech, though, is that the one thing that leaves many New Yorkers worried, or at least uneasy, was nowhere mentioned—perhaps because the Mayor doesn’t notice it, perhaps because that worry is a little metaphysical and almost poetic, resistant to oratory or city budget numbers. It is the sense that the city’s recovery has come at the cost of a part of its identity: that New York is safer and richer but less like itself, an old lover who has gone for a face-lift and come out looking like no one in particular. The wrinkles are gone, but so is the face. This transformation is one you see on every street corner in Manhattan, and now in Brooklyn, too, where another local toy store or smoked-fish emporium disappears and another bank branch or mall store opens. For the first time in Manhattan’s history, it has no bohemian frontier. Another bookstore closes, another theatre becomes a condo, another soulful place becomes a sealed residence. These are small things, but they are the small things that the city’s soul clings to...
Gopnick is a little overcautious and over-poetical, which is understandable -- he's a establishment type and the territory he's approaching here is very far from where such people normally like to be seen. The earlier, blahblah part of the essay is their real comfort zone: how wonderful that Starbuckses have replaced the crack houses, and that Disney took Times Square. No one wants to speak against safety, comfort, and the good will of the tourists who swell our economy with their vacation budgets.

In fact, if the subject is broached at all, it is always in the triumphalist terms taken by James Traub in 2003, when he suggested that now that New York had "got its swagger back" thanks to Saint Rudy (and "if that was Yuppified, I'd take it"), we could will "more theater, more cafes, more bookshops" into being and make the transformation complete: clean streets, and a cultural renaissance in the bargain!

Such types do not consider that the bargain went a little differently: the economic boom came with high rents, and the high rents made cultural activity much more difficult at the cheap end, where dreams are born. Ateliers, theatre and dance studios rentals are prohibitively expensive; so are apartments, and it's hard to attain the kind of critical mass that breeds a bohemia when you have to work all day just to sustain a marginal existence, and take two trains to an affordable crib far from anything. The evidence is all around us. The dirty 70s birthed punk-rock, hip-hop, Martin Scorsese, etc; our clean and sober era gives us the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and artisanal cheese shops. Our venues are mostly expensive barns that need star acts to keep afloat. Showcases are a luxury. New York is more than ever a place where the Best of Everything does a four-night stand, not where it is manufactured.

That is what they wanted and that is what they got. I rather expect it will only change when things get tough again -- when the tourists forsake us, when another President tells us to Drop Dead (rather than doing his own four-night stand, as Bush did in 2004 with the Republican Convention), when the bottom falls out of the housing market, when people can come to New York with practically nothing and make something out of it.

No one wants to think so, because we have been taught that economic growth is the wellspring of all good things, and that we can have it all, even a Traubian renaissance. It is hard to tell a booster that some kinds of growth come from the mulch born of decay. Our businessman mayor's plan contains many necessary items, but some things you can't plan -- especially if you don't really want them, not at the cost they would demand, and you couldn't admit it in polite company if you did.

But even if you did want them, and had the bad taste to say so, it wouldn't really matter, because if they came they would come the way such things always do -- by accident, and against our best intentions.

UPDATE. Comments on this one are fascinating. Don't misapprehend me: I'm not trying to tell you how much better it was back in my day. I wouldn't have minded coming of age in the New York of Allen Ginsberg and Marlon Brando, either, or that of Warhol and Lou Reed. From what I can tell, most postwar sub-generations of New York had something we don't have now. You may disagree. But I do wonder what features of this era future sub-gens will look back upon with nostalgia and admiration. Bottle-service clubs? Dave Matthews in Central Park? Hopefully I can hold my position long enough to find out. In every sense, things can always get worse.

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