Our Commerce and Our Freedom, or Why I’m Leaving (for) New York

June 25, 2021   •   By Travis Diehl

New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation

Thomas Dyja

THE BRONX WAS burning — or at least it had burned. During the 1970s, a rash of landlord arsons fueled the spectacle of the bombed-out borough; the rude, toothless, ungovernable New York City seen in films like Wild Style was an emblem for a country in decline, like Detroit today, the era’s “American carnage.”


In an Alphabet City apartment, artist Ann Magnuson poured a boxful of roaches into her cat’s bowl. Then she bought a ticket to California. So did an ABC executive, after his pregnant wife was almost hit by a stray bullet and a falling brick in the same day. But beneath the mythical grit, Growth had already taken hold. In between the fallow lots, Bronx residents banded together in communes to save what was left and rebuild the rest. When California Governor Jerry Brown made his third run for president in 1992, he swung through the South Bronx for a photo op with a ruined building. He couldn’t find one. On the night of the Rodney King verdict, mere weeks after Bill Clinton trounced Brown in the New York primary, it was Los Angeles that burned while New Yorkers watched on TV.


Thomas Dyja, author of New York, New York, New York, moved from Chicago to the Upper West Side in 1980. He began this book in 2013, “angry at the closing of Big Nick’s, a pretty lousy burger place and longtime symbol” of his neighborhood. The book focuses on, as Dyja’s subtitle has it, “Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation.”


Rushing through 40 years of city history in under 400 pages, Dyja’s history is a pixelated montage, embellished with oaken references to Elaine’s and the Yankees, but also indebted to Google searches and online newspapers for its density of anecdotes about artists and ABC execs, among hundreds of minor socialites and city officials. Dyja arranges this teeming account around four mayors and several eras, “each bigger, faster, and sleeker than the one before, each one more merciless and beautiful”: Renaissance, Reconsideration, Reformation, and Reimagination. As for the mayors, although we occasionally learn where they eat dinner, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg appear less as people than as public-facing metaphors for the changes they wrought or took credit for.


Instead, the book’s main characters are concepts, which Dyja even capitalizes: Growth, Information, and Lifestyle. As characters, such themes can’t inspire the empathy or contempt of, say, the wistful physicists in Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb or the worldmaking California magnates in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. This works insofar as it demonstrates Dyja’s main thesis: that events in a city as grand and grotesque as New York owe less to individual actors than to intractable tides. In his telling, the gravity of gentrification, and the surges of people into and away from the city, seems like a gentle rippling of frontiers.


So what can Dyja’s book tell us about the future? Dyja’s almost panicked epilogue recaps the last eight years — during which the comedic Trump turned to id; violent NYPD tactics, police murders, white supremacy, and anti-racist uprisings reached a new intensity; and COVID-19 truncated New York City’s third modern boom. After a year of lockdowns, it may seem like the physical networks of cities are less important than their digital counterparts — as if home is wherever the work is. Workers lucky enough to be nonessential fled Manhattan for the countryside, and the city once again came to symbolize pestilence. As of this writing, Curbed’s list of businesses felled by the pandemic includes 500 entries. Then again — and for those same reasons — maybe now is as good a time as any to leave for New York.


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New York, New York, New York opens in 1978 as newly elected Mayor Ed Koch, born in the Bronx, a guitar-plucking resident of ’50s Greenwich Village, toured the sour wreckage and animal shit of Downtown. “The Koch era was the Renaissance,” Dyja writes, “dazzling, greedy years that spiraled back down amid crack, AIDS, and a social gout of too much too fast.” By 1980, it was “possible to imagine a New York that wasn’t dark, dangerous, and depressed.” Forbes published its first “Forbes 400” list of wealthy Americans in 1982. Trump Tower opened in 1983, the same year that the Bloomberg Terminal rose to prominence. Enabled by computers and deregulation, banks invented new ways to bundle and resell mortgages and junk bonds. As Dyja puts it, “America began to make debt instead of things.”


The single term of David Dinkins, still the city’s only Black mayor, bridged two eras with Retrenchment. In 1988, as Reagan’s second term drew to a close, the stock market “corrected,” and Dyja quips that “New Yorkers talked (constantly) about getting sober, letting go, and letting God as part of a general purge and quasi-spiritual awakening.” But then the Cold War ended, and Democrats and Republicans lay down together under the money trees. Rudy Giuliani, who rose to political prominence by supporting a racist NYPD strike outside Dinkins’s City Hall, oversaw a Reformation driven by cynical culture wars and dizzying dotcom flash. David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS, Rush Limbaugh moved to town, and debates over multiculturalism and political correctness reached dog-whistle frenzy. This period of high tech and low crime was the culmination of both the reforms and hedonism of the previous decade. The rhetoric of a revised, reborn, refurbished city lured folks back from the suburbs and caused rents to spike by a third. “[M]aking inequality visible was the whole point,” Dyja writes. Hence the Reagans’ limp sympathy for the poor and Giuliani’s explicit admission that, if people couldn’t afford to live in his New York, he’d prefer they leave.


Y2K fizzled, and the planes stayed in the sky. The real punctuation on the millennium was 9/11. This second terror attack on the World Trade Center also broke the spell of New York as a city for New Yorkers — it belonged, as Giuliani put it, to “the rest of America” — and signaled the city’s Reimagination. Rising inequality and gentrification, underlaid with racial tension and corrupt government, became hallmarks of contemporary society at large. Michael Bloomberg, a “technocratic, philanthropic billionaire […] wove City Hall into his personal empire, reimagining New York to look very much like him: visionary and strategic, driven by data and good taste, rich beyond measure, and fatally detached from those it left behind.” With galling honesty, Bloomberg called New York a “luxury product.” Giuliani, ironically, had broken the mob, but now shadowy Russian and Chinese clients laundered their money with cloud-level park-view condos they would never see. “[I]t was all happening so quickly,” Dyja writes, “like a ravishing.”


One era’s solutions ripple outward, shaping the next era’s problems — nowhere as dramatically as in housing (or what the rich call “real estate”). Gentrification in New York has often featured opportunistic masterplans or a pointed lack thereof — by which individuals do indeed impel the tides. Koch called for “urban pioneers.” SoHo “happened” in the shadow of a forthcoming expressway. Landlords tolerated squatters while dreaming of eminent domain checks; when the expressway plans were scrapped, legislators gave artists in commercial buildings a special exemption. Again and again, artists were the bellwethers. The 40 or so artists of Colab (John Ahearn, Kiki Smith, and Jenny Holzer among the more famous) staged the Real Estate Show in the Lower East Side at the end of 1979 and the Times Square Show the following year, a confluence of “all the city’s artistic undergrounds,” from David Hammons to Fab Five Freddy. In both cases, writes Dyja, “the set for all this art, drugs, and sex was made possible by rock-bottom real estate prices” in sections of New York “left intentionally to ruin by landlords waiting for the next opportunity.” After police foreclosed the Real Estate Show, the city let Colab swap their squat for a city-owned vacant on Rivington at one dollar a year. The Disneyfied new Times Square involved a “Bowl of Light” concept that, across three administrations, would groom the neon sleaze of the ’70s into the marquee LED daylight of today by “requir[ing] minimum sizes for commercial signs and a new standard of light intensity.” A few symbolic (and, emphatically, heterosexual) sex shops and porn theaters were kept for flavor.


The most severe unintended consequence of New York’s successful urban experiments was “Jane Jacobs–style gentrification.” The urbanist’s arguments for diverse, walkable, interconnected, organic neighborhoods made Greenwich Village unaffordable; her preference for reusing old buildings, rather than demolition (still the style in Los Angeles), saw cold-water tenements and unheated machine shops transform into brownstones and salons. Old building stock with creaky hardwood and cracked tile became a status symbol. Indeed, as Sarah Schulman has shown, the worst ripple came as AIDS gutted a generation of gay New Yorkers, their deaths abided, even welcomed, as a way to raise rents on queer enclaves like the West Village.


Dyja underscores how quickly the cause of saving neighborhoods from destruction became an exercise in branding. Hardcore rap, no-wave punk, downtown graffiti — these movements and scenes were, in reality, vanishingly brief, followed by long tails of nostalgia. The East Village blew up in 1983; by 1985, Dyja writes, “Veselka would still serve late-night pierogis, noise rock would still be played at CBGB. But new bohemians would find the price of romance baked into their rent.” Throughout Dyja’s account, people live to see their neighborhoods become (capital-L) Lifestyles. Heard of Dimes Square? Then you’re probably priced out already.


In Dyja’s chronicle, gentrification in New York doesn’t force people to leave, exactly — New York City (like Los Angeles) has relatively strong renter protections and a below average eviction rate, although it bears repeating that plenty of landlords are not above illegally pressuring their tenants, and access to legal aid favors the rich and white. Instead, gentrification changes New York beneath people’s feet until they join a refrain as old and systemic as the city itself: “It is not our city anymore, our city is gone … What do we do? Where do we go?” As early as 1997, Harlem was “no longer for us.”


Harlem is unique in some ways, emblematic in others: Dyja relates how local businesspeople and investors, aided by the political clout of the Gang of Four, attempted to gentrify their neighborhood on their own terms. Many residents successfully kept their homes — but their children couldn’t afford to stay. “The old community,” writes Dyja, “was being made temporary.” The shores shifted. New Yorkers chased an idea of a functional “working” city that Ed Koch told his constituents had never been real.


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“But what was real now about New York,” asks Dyja, “and what wasn’t?” His answer is the numbers — not just money, although money measures Lifestyle — but Information. At first, Koch’s City Hall didn’t know how many cars the city owned. By the ’80s, “quantification had New York in its grip,” Dyja writes sweepingly, “from the Mayor’s Management Reports to your daily mutual funds results, Rotisserie [fantasy] baseball team, or T-cell counts.” Stacks of yellowed paper became intricate databases of real estate, tax revenue, demographics, and crime, stored in “huge, water-cooled mainframes in Chelsea.”


The quantitative shift hit publishing around the same time: huge book advances greeted authors who already had huge audiences and sparked the agglomeration of publishing houses into today’s Twitter-watching “Big Four.” The arrival of The Treasures of Tutankhamun at the Met in December 1978 — “55 minor items, each spot lit, from the cursed tomb of the boy king” — heralded the era of heavily branded, blockbuster museum shows. The Mayor’s Office and the National Endowment for the Arts even started tracking artists: in 1974, “18,182 graphic designers lived in the city, 15,374 painters and sculptors, 7,877 musicians and composers, and 4,382 authors.” The Central Park Conservancy cataloged the park’s 24,000 trees. Better data helped manage the city’s Renaissance. A report released at the end of 1993 announced that “the streets of Times Square were judged 98.9% clean.”


Unsurprisingly, all those statistics had a dark side. Homicides peaked in 1990 (a fact that likely has little to do with policy), but people still felt unsafe. And so, the Transit Police donned their new uniforms, revved their new vehicles, and started putting up numbers. Cops detained people for trivial infractions and ran background checks on everyone they arrested. The feedback loop between racial tension and the perception of criminality sped toward a meltdown. Stop and frisk was still to come. And Information’s economy had its upshot too. As first Wall Street then the dotcom boom created fast fortunes, society atomized. Tech jobs in the Flatiron District (now dubbed Silicon Alley) traded security and benefits for excitement and flexibility, prototyping the “gig economy” perfected by Silicon Valley. At the same time, Yuppie New Yorkers spent more time watching VHS tapes and hunting for good preschools than meeting their neighbors. Hipsters in Williamsburg “had few delusions about a better world,” and so, unlike their hippie parents, didn’t bother with political organizing.


Dyja skims over a project (otherwise detailed in an excellent documentary by Ondi Timoner) called Quiet: We Live in Public, a totalitarian social experiment designed by tech millionaire Josh Harris, where dozens of volunteers lived in the basement of a pair of brownstones for a month, surrounded by cameras — even in their bunks and toilets. Harris was right about the future: we would live alone but in public, volunteer our images, give away the rights to the video. We would validate ourselves with numbers, clicks, likes, and views. And we would all go insane. The sociopathic opulence of ’90s New York, writes Dyja, “made facts a matter of opinion. Re-sorting by class, taste, sexuality, faith, and bank account, people produced their own realities and increasingly clumped with only those who shared theirs.” A trio of well-meant bronzes by John Ahearn commemorating South Bronx personalities caused an uproar from residents who insisted he wasn’t part of the community because he wasn’t Black. “The issue wasn’t that art couldn’t lead us to any common humanity,” Dyja laments. “It was that fewer people wanted to go there.”


And inequality continued to Grow. Digital or not, social networks are structurally unfair, since “he who has a lot gets more.” Throughout the book, Dyja gives the sense that public-private collaborations were — possibly are — the only way to save the city, albeit with a bit of melancholy for the noblesse oblige of Rockefeller et al. During the ’78 budget crisis, with Central Park a dirt patch and housing and infrastructure stalled, Koch sought to “use the rich, pushing responsibility onto them for the arts and the parks.” Private-public partnerships were a novel solution. But the neoliberal credos of wealth gradually changed how the city saw itself. By the 2000s, public-private was Bloomberg’s default, leveraged for everything from Times Square to the new WTC and the 9/11 Memorial to Hudson Yards — where, Dyja writes, “Thomas Heatherwick’s sculpture Vessel, a 150-foot, $200 million stairway to nowhere, summed up the aspirations of the age that built it.” Early in 2021, The New York Times reported that Vessel would be closed, and railings added, after a series of suicides. Meanwhile, in Chelsea, where Koch once stored the public’s numbers, private datamonger Google bought 111 Eighth Avenue, the fourth-largest building in the city and former hub for the Port Authority. In practice, public-private meant the privatization of public space — the city as “luxury product.” For Giuliani, then Bloomberg, “the poor weren’t really citizens,” Dyja writes. The “essential act” of democracy was no longer speech, “but purchase.”


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The Ground Zero plan, pushed and pulled by “the Families,” the property owners, and the Port Authority, tried to “balanc[e] commerce and commemoration.” At the rebuilt site, it’s easy to forget that there’s a difference. The below-grade museum and twin reflecting pools are run by a private foundation, and “9/11 Memorial” is a trademark. Visitors enter through an airport-style security screening, a mockup of the patriotic security theater we now endure at United States airports. Jagging down the main staircase toward the bedrock, you pass a gift shop offering flatware and ties patterned with the Trade Center’s signature trident-shaped beams. I visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum shortly after it opened in 2014. Among the school groups and weeping couples walking past a recreation of a damaged Broadway storefront, Chelsea Jeans, installed underground with its actual ruined wares thick with toxic dust and as they were on September 11, I overheard a young boy’s question: “Daddy, why did they destroy the towers?” “They hate us for our commerce and our freedom,” Daddy said.


Dyja’s retelling of the World Trade Center attacks spares us most of the details. The chapter, set off with its own epigraph by E. B. White, includes the book’s most poetic passages. “An evil blossom of smoke, pulverized debris, and human ashes black and gray burst against a mocking sky all Pantone Process Blue as the top half of Tower Two plowed down.” Through the awkward solemnity, the chapter also attempts, awkwardly, to remind us of the book’s major themes: “Corporations quickly became families, strangers trapped in elevators, bunched together on landings, digging through rubble became networks for survival.” But Dyja makes his point. The changes wrought after 9/11, as with previous upheavals in the city, were largely the fallout of data collection, surveillance, and security technology developed in the ’90s. After a spate of high-profile racism, the NYPD’s losses on 9/11 granted it a reprieve. The Event (capital E) doesn’t cause so much as reveal; New York’s problems, again, seem to stem from its past successes.


The snow, the vermin, the cost, the people, the terrorism: the “Why I’m Leaving New York” essay is a genre in and of itself. Then, the virus. On March 1, 2020, New York State reported its first case of COVID-19. And now, green shoots? “Nothing is permanent about a city,” writes Dyja, poetic again. “Cities are intensely natural places in this way; they’re gooey and transient like wetlands, full of life and decay, washed by regular tides that bring rich and fertile new things along with destruction.” The city seems to crest and crash like the stock market, and its residents must look at their social, romantic, and financial circumstances and decide to buy, sell, or hold. Dyja points out how Wall Street rescued the boomers who, after the ’70s comedown, felt sure they would never own homes or have jobs like their parents. Dotcom and tech saved Gen X. And here are the millennials. What will rescue us? Cryptocurrency? Abolition? The Green New Deal? All said, will New York have something to do with it? The future, Dyja writes, is what we make it. At the same time, his vision of urbanism includes precious little agency for individual or collective actors who don’t make epochal piles of money. For us, there are the margins.


Mike Davis subtitled City of Quartz “Excavating the Future in Los Angeles.” Dyja’s book has little power of prophecy, except to say that New York will always be New York — that there have been and will be disasters, of which COVID-19 is something like the third so far this century — and the silt of the next renaissance is there already. This is no City of Quartz. It is simply City, written thrice.


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Travis Diehl is a writer, editor, and critic. He has lived in Los Angeles since 2009.