Where is New York At #47

A guy at my Manhattan watering hole, a theatre director and Soho resident since the 70’s, claims this is the most interesting time to be in New York sicne, well, the 70’s. “Everyone’s moving out of the city, no one knows what’s going to happen . . . ”

I don’t see the 70’s, or what I know of the 70’s in New York, just yet. If anything Manhattan and central Brooklyn feel like more of the same – more gentrified, less life around the edges, more of a homogenization I’ve never seen in New York before. Wall Street still pays out the big bonuses, and another bar regular who runs a high end catering business says business is up, that his Wall street clients are back splashing out for the big events.

Yet everyone I know is broke. Not desperate, not yet, but I wonder where they’ll be if this continues for a year.  In my corner of central Brooklyn new cafes, increasingly upscale, are opening up and middle class white folks with babies are moving in even as the great condo binge edges threatening to transform the neighborhood crawls to a stop – some days a half dozen workers show up to work on a fifty unit building, and a 20 unit building completed last year sits empty, threatened with foreclosure, on the chopping block for a million and a half – for the whole building. Yet despite the recession, and the increasing gentrification, the still mostly working/ lower-middle class black folk in my neighborhood, by and large have retained the optimism they picked up after Obama was elected. Though I wonder too how much longer that will continue if things continue . . . .

A friend with relatives down on Wall street said the feeling is that the street will not return to anything like its pre-Crash level anytime soon. In the Atlantic, Richard Florida (the Creative Class guy), writes that New York will have to re-define itself beyond Wall street once again.

Regardless, I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time reading New York. I’ve never seen the city so withdrawn, so homogenized – so like everywhere else.  Nathan Kensinger, in his excellent post, The Bloomberg Era Pt. 1, maps out a scale of development that  rivals the changes brought about by Robert Moses. I was away for most of the development period, returning for a few months at a time and often with a year or so in-between, and so experienced these changes almost second-hand. Beyond the deflation that came with Bush’s re-election, I did notice a change setting in in late 2006 – people I knew here began to withdraw into smaller and smaller circles, my favorite bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan became more homogenized, and that wonderful New York quality of random contact and possibility began to go on the retreat. And many people I knew started leaving the city, a process which is still going on now.

Yet that cycle is over, and another is about to begin. If New York feels sometimes like just another city now, I’m sure that in one year, two, it will be something else entirely.

Guy down on Wall street last summer:


  1. one of the most thoughtful pieces on NY’s soul and its journey.

    Last night at a meet and greet at someone’s (expensive and new-recently built) apartment on St. Marks for a young woman running against an incumbent / 19th district, I saw many young people from different parts of the world speaking with intelligence and clarity of our nation’s and our city’s state of being.

    It seemed the randomness of bumping into one another happens now in cyber space. To be in a room of strangers who showed up to meet the candidate was exotic. The younger people there had the energy. The older folks were divided between thoughful/supportive/tired and angry-critical-cynical. (I was thoughtful and even offered condolences to the young candidate.)

    I,however, am, sadly or exhaustedly or angrily or agingly, withdrawing into the last sentence of an old Talmudic story of the old man who describes how in his youth he wanted to save the world and then he got older and wanted to save his country, then older and his city and then older and his family. and now aged and facing death, he just wants to save himself. In Buddhism as in other spiritual paths, saving oneself often leads to saving the world. I can only hope in this state that proves true.

    • Ha!

      A wise saying indeed . . .

      Well, I’ve gone through political disillusionment many times. Sometimes one can only think about saving oneself.

      The curious thing about our age is the lack of an overarching narrative, sense of purpose, a lack of idealism. I don’t know that the tea party people really count. We had it in Obama for awhile, but he’s just one guy – real idealism would come from something larger.

      Hey, no one knows where this will go, what narrative will emerge. And every time I thought I had NYC down, it changed in ways I hadn’t expected. I’m glad to hear young people are still thinking about things though – there’s still energy out there, thoughtfulness – perhaps at some point it will cohere.

    • As an addendum – I was thinking yesterday about your comment that random encounters seem to happen only in cyberspace now. NY does seem (uncharacteristically) withdrawn now, but I have a feel it is transitory. The recession, demographic change . .. I’ve seen it happen before in other cities. People can only gape at their gadgets for so long – people need real people in the end. And why be in a place as overwhelming (and expensive) as NY if you don’t meet people in the flesh?


  2. Agreed. And judging by the many young people shouting woo woo below my window at 3am there is definitely a desire to step outside one’s window 7.

    However, I remember (christ and where are my dentures) in order to see that movie I had to go out to a big place and sit with other people in that big place to see it. If there was a performer in town I had to experience them live, not on youtube…. the lack of any other way of experiencing story forced social contact and might I add social skills. (ok not always but there was more opportunity)

    At this particular juncture which includes only one sip of espresso, although I see people seeking to go out to be part of a larger world I also see intimacy embedded in a place where we are just souls. Perhaps that is actually all for the better? Perhaps we are all in training to become like the guardian angles in Wings of Desire.

    Regardless, I am hoping your sense of transitory is true and on my second sip I am encouraged by the people at Bluestocking just hanging out, the counter guys at Veselkas talking to me and others who linger at 2am over scribbled meanderings, and everyone on the 14th street crosstown who talks with me about everything including the driver’s style of driving.

  3. CO – I do feel sometimes that all this change HAS to be headed somewhere, that there has to be some reason or direction to it, even if we can’t see what it is. I just can’t believe it’s all about going in circles – even if it is.

    NY is STILL more social than many other places. London was terrible, totally alienating. Always reserved, technology and the supremacy of the City (London’s Wall street) had just made it more so. It was a relief to come back here . . .

    But London may have changed by now. I am curious to see how NY changes in the next year or two . . . if the desire for the ‘live’ experience will return. These things go in cycles I think, depending on mood, economic circumstances, demographics.


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