SEPTEMBER 30, 2017
IF ANYTHING DISTINGUISHES a city as a living, breathing construct of civilization, it is change. Anyone who experiences a city of any major size, be it as a place where they live, work, play, or just occasionally visit, has to notice the constant changes: from afar, the evolving skyline; closer up, the new buildings; on the streets, the increasing traffic; on sidewalks, the diversity of people.
There is no stopping or even slowing change. Certainly not in a world of 7.5 billion, where hundreds of millions of people are moving to cities every year, and in the United States, where the urban population at present is about 80 percent (250 million) and continues to pace the nation’s growth.
But what is the nature of the changes we are now witnessing, and how are they already affecting the hapless city dweller?
According to Jeremiah Moss, the change in his beloved city of New York over the last several decades has been decidedly and depressingly convulsive, if not worse, destroying in his view what had made New York the world’s urban paragon — the Big Apple, Batman’s Gotham City, call it what you will. The change is engaging and exciting, but also exasperating, and it makes life in the city a challenge for most.
Moss is more than exasperated. He feels himself to be under siege. Think of his Vanishing New York as a dispatch from the front lines of a war zone, where the resident population is losing badly and the cityscape is being ravaged. Most of New York’s residents, in Moss’s account, are collateral damage in a market-driven economy. For all its liberal pretense and Democratic voting record, Moss sees the city as a capitalistic coven, where if you can’t meet the increasing rent, fuhgettaboutit, you’re outta here.
Labeling Moss’s tome a lament would be too kind. More accurate would be a polemic, unrelenting in exposing the raw greed that has compromised the once-proud city, strip-mining its architectural and cultural landmarks, and sapping its historic promise of community and congeniality for aspiring diverse populations. In short, the city’s transformation is no less than an apocalyptic tragedy, which Moss condemns with a New Yorker’s in-your-face, unbridled passion. Watch out for spraying spittle.
Moss’s book is very much in the tradition of Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with a more acerbic outrage suited to our nasty, barbaric times. However obnoxious his rant may be, you have to pay attention. And if, like me, you were born in New York and have lived there a good portion of your life, you have to be concerned. You are witnessing the compromise of a singular civilization, cultivated over centuries by waves of immigrants in pursuit of the American dream.
Page after page, Moss documents the rending of the city’s historic and cultural fabric — landmarks crumble, mom-and-pop stores close, rents soar, while toothless legislators talk on and on about “more jobs” and other economic benefits to an undiscerning mainstream media. All this as hordes of tourists from the suburbs and distant shores clog the sidewalks in search of a New York that is no longer.
If New York is fucked, as an unrepentant New Yorker might say, can Los Angeles be far behind? Yes, a gaggle of citizens have rallied to protect the rich architectural and cultural history of the aging adolescent City of Angels from the ever-avaricious real estate industry. And there is a rising tide of concern over the lack of affordable housing and the homelessness epidemic. Nonetheless, the city is vulnerable to the twin social diseases of greed and social inequality, some of which has been traced to a festering New York.
Can we stave off disaster? Moss ends his volume with a wish list, offered somewhat like a slip of paper to someone on the gallows. He warns, among other things, against squandering subsidies on tourist attractions and catering to corporations instead of spending them on desperately needed housing and public services. But is anybody listening?
Even if not, there is another reason to read Moss’s book. His glimpses of New York can be engagingly personal and eloquent, such as the chapter on storied Greenwich Village, once the cultural hub and heart of the city, home to artists and so-called bohemians, real characters. This was where I, as a youth, hung out with the “M and A” crowd, from the sui generis Music and Art High School. It was our sanctuary neighborhood, and only a 15-cent subway ride from school and parents.
That was in the early 1950s, some 40 years before Moss arrived in New York as an aspiring poet and free spirit. He naturally sought out the Village, but because the rents there were already expensive, had to settle elsewhere. Nevertheless, he frequented the Village, posting himself, among other places, in the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street. That’s where I, as a neophyte reporter for The New York Times in the 1960s, wiled away many an evening, and where I wrote articles under a pseudonym for the then-prickly Village Voice. By the time Moss stumbled into the tavern, I was long gone.
Over the next several decades I witnessed the city’s gentrification from a comfortable distance in Los Angeles, and, when bicoastal, from a placid Washington Heights, in “Upstate” Manhattan. Meanwhile, Moss and millions of workaday New Yorkers were suffering daily, being priced out of their apartments and enduring the demise of their beloved neighborhoods, shop by shop, eatery by eatery.
Indeed, finding a few flavorful places in the Village, such as the White Horse of my youth, was, for Moss, “a dangerous and painful affair.” Every time he fell for what he considered an authentic bar, cafe, or restaurant, “it was snatched away, given over to a successful restaurateur to be gutted and glamorized.” He likened the transformation to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers: “The old places look like themselves, sort of, but there’s no soul inside.”
Moss also rails against the city’s heralded High Line, the pricey, landscaped reimagining of a derelict elevated track that ran above the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, bordering the Hudson River and its once-teeming docks. This is a slice of the city I knew well, for prior to joining the Times, I actually worked as a food inspector on the railroad line, checking out produce in refrigerated cars.
When the promenade opened, it was hyped by the city and praised in the professional and popular press. I was skeptical, raising the question of how it would serve the already-besieged neighborhood of old, and was promptly marginalized for my heresy by the fawning design media. But my instinct is confirmed by Moss, who describes the High Line as a “hyper-gentrification juggernaut.” Chelsea is now one of the priciest residential zip codes in the city, while the Meatpacking District has been consumed by high-fashion retailers and expensive restaurants topped by trendy offices. The colorful meatpackers went away, along with the low-income housing, the SROs, and the LGBT hangouts that had made the dockside neighborhood into a distinctly diverse and tolerant environment. Moss mourns the loss, as do I.
Having fallen in love with the city’s past, there is nothing for Moss to do but to stay at the end of the line, in a denuded Coney Island, walking with ghosts and trying to find a place that serves egg creams.
For someone born and ill-bred in New York, having written indeed of its problems but also its premiums, Vanishing New York is a depressing read, from the introduction to the implacable final chapter, which offers Moss’s faint encouragement to keep seeking “the unexpected spectacle and the chance encounter.” Yet the memories persist, like the smell of cooked cabbage in a tenement hallway, or the delectable aromas from the ovens of the corner bakery, where as a neighborhood waif you were given a free roll and a gruff slap on the head.
As for the compelling cityscape, it was revealed to me in fleeting views from an elevated subway car hurtling through Brooklyn into Manhattan, as if on a magical flying carpet to Baghdad-on-the Hudson. And to climb aboard, all you had to do was follow my father’s instructions to duck under the turnstile, to save a nickel. Which was to be rubbed against another nickel, to buy a hot dog off the cart that was always there on Orchard Street. For two cents more you could get sauerkraut.
Above all, I remember, once upon a long, long time ago, a clamorous New York, shining bright and beckoning, with constant wonders and possibilities for those who ventured down its spirited streets. As a child of the Depression, born to a Jewish immigrant family that had fled a stifling, scary Europe, the city presented the promise of the future, or at least the prospects of reasonable rents and free seltzer.
The latter, I recall, was to be had out of a dispenser at the accommodating Automat on West 57th in midtown Manhattan, where we waited for our paramours to finish their classes at the Art Students League across the street. As the popular folk song of the ’60s has it, “Those were the days, my friend, I thought they’d never end.”
When next in New York, I hope to meet Moss, the modern Jeremiah, whom I consider a kindred tough-love urbanist, and with whom I’d gladly share a free seltzer or an egg cream. Better yet, each of us would get a beer, into which we could cry for a lost but not forgotten New York.
Sam Hall Kaplan is a distinguished print and broadcast journalist, author, and teacher. His books include The Dream Deferred: People, Politics and Planning in Suburbia; the best-selling L. A. Lost and Found, an architectural history of Los Angeles; and the collection of essays L. A. Follies.