Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review - Vanishing New York

Back in the late 80s, I was a college student and part-time touring Deadhead. At the end of an opening set in Landover, Maryland that apparently did not sit well with a woman sitting a few rows behind me, she screamed CASEY JONES!!!!! PLAY SOMETHING FOR THE OLD DEADHEADS!!!! My friends and I just rolled our eyes, old people, am I right? (and little did she know, but a few years later, her wish would be granted). 

I harkened back to that night at the old Capital Centre while wading through Jeremiah Moss’s polemic-cum-nostalgia-laden tome Vanishing New York. For years, Moss has maintained a blog of the same name, chronicling the demise of “old” New York and its increasing gentrification and homogenization. Moss is that aging hippie screaming for a performance of an old hit record,  the grimy old days of New York City epitomized on HBO’s The Deuce and iconic movies of the late 70s and early 80s like The Warriors and Escape From New York.

Moss is no neutral observer and he is unabashed in his criticism of what he sees as the suburbanization of a city he clearly loves and a way of life he has seen leach out with the opening of every new Starbucks (a jaw dropping 307 in Manhattan alone) and the shuttering of everything from mom-and-pop auto body shops to kosher delicatessens redolent with the aroma of sour pickles. 

Moss’s argument is well-researched (he cites everything from serious works on urban development to modern-day bloggers and the index runs nearly twenty pages) and his knowledge of the people and businesses he profiles borders on the encyclopedic. Lengthy discourses on the history of the Chelsea Hotel, the San Gennaro parade in Little Italy and the Bowery, among many others, put the reader in the beating heart of a city that is messy, loud, opinionated, and unwieldy but that, in Moss’s view, has largely been neutered of its attitude, replaced instead with an influx of wealthy foreigners, suburbanites, and others who have sanitized its streets and replaced people urinating on the streets in front of CBGB with a cascade of chain stores that would not look out of place in any random suburban shopping mall. 

At 400-plus pages, Vanishing New York is not bloated so much as exhausting. It is almost as if Moss feels the need to settle every score and pay his respects to every shuttered store front lost to gentrification. It may be cathartic, but it is not always compelling. There may be a twinge in Moss’s heart for the HoJo’s in Times Square, but is New York a lesser place because it no longer exists? It may not be great that 7-11 opened in the East Village, but is it any more right that vandals threw bricks through the store front windows or is that just a sign of New York’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude? 

In venerating the good old days, Moss yadda yadda’s past the spiraling murder rate, hollowed out neighborhoods and mismanagement that led to New York’s near-bankruptcy in favor of a halcyon view of a renegade city where all of your artistic and carnal desires could be met, anonymously, and rarely with consequence (his passing references to, for example, the spiraling AIDS crisis of the early 80s does a disservice to that period of time. For a far fuller, and fairer accounting, I recommend Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City). And do not get me wrong - I am largely on his side when it comes to retaining neighborhood integrity, affordable housing, and all the rest, but to elide the fact that the city was teetering on the brink of complete collapse because you are upset that Starbucks has invaded every nook and cranny of Manhattan is unfair. 

Indeed, Moss seems uninterested in acknowledging any of the value that tourism brings to New York or the flush city coffers that have afforded safer streets (if not a better functioning subway system). It is almost as if Moss wishes to have all the benefits of the hip, bohemian and artistic vibe that pervaded many parts of lower Manhattan but is blind to the cost of allowing that to happen. And what of the good that has come from redeveloping abandoned warehouses, buildings, and neighborhoods? Why is that a societal failing? Shouldn’t we be applauding things like the clean up of the area along the Gowanus Canal or the Chelsea piers that were once heroin shooting galleries and have been improved and made safe and appealing? 

Moss is not above setting up a straw man or two either - his chapter-long harangue against tourists drifts into the ad hominem and the idea that native New Yorkers ALWAYS follow the lock step rule of walking TO THE RIGHT and never EVER look at their phones while on the street seems, well, unrealistic. He can also be a bit overly dramatic, as when he wanders into a Target in East Harlem, describing the air as “synthetic, reeking of greasy, freezer-burned cookie dough” that left him “disoriented and dizzy.” It is only when he escapes back to the “real” part of East Harlem on 116th Street that he regains his equilibrium. 

Moss also ignores that fact that the people themselves chose the leaders he reviles. Giuliani was elected to two terms and Bloomberg three. Neither of these men could have implemented many of the changes Moss bemoans without the support not just of voters but Democratic council members who represent the very neighborhoods that Moss mourns. It is a completely fair criticism to say that Bloomberg gilded the lily to get that third term, but at the end of the day, people still chose to put him back in office. So too Giuliani. For Republicans to win in a city where they are outnumbered by a roughly 5:1 ratio says far more about the weakness of Democratic leaders than it does about either Giuliani or Bloomberg (who changed his party affiliation midway through his time in office). Again, I am not excusing their conduct, and in particular around policies like “stop and frisk,” but ultimately, both were elected in a city where credible Democratic candidates had built-in electoral advantages they were unable to capitalize on.

It is almost impossible to have a debate about the issues Moss raises because his argument is at its core, emotional and subjective. No one wants an 82-year-old woman who has lived in her apartment in Little Italy for 50 years to be evicted because the building has been sold to a greedy redeveloper or the family-owned business that dates back three generations to be bounced because the owner triples the rent, but the utopian city that Moss envisions, one that has the Goldilocks-blend of just enough social services thriving small businesses and a creative art scene but is hospitable enough for the economic growth and tax base necessary to pay for it seems far-fetched. 

Moss’s nostalgia for the authentic New York he yearns for is also one step removed. He arrived in New York in the early 1990s, just as the first waves of gentrification were lapping at the shores of Times Square but (in his view) had already crested in the artsy parts of SoHo and the Lower East Side. He did not live through the 70s and 80s, the “Bronx is Burning” years, the heyday of peep shops and porn theaters on 42nd Street, or the graffiti-riddled subway system that nearly brought the city to its knees, but he longs for that edgier time when trash piled up because of municipal strikes and tourists considered leaving the city without having been mugged a successful trip. I don’t get it. And ultimately that vision of the city, one that embraces chaos, and an anything-goes mentality is easy to conjure in your mind as idyllic if you did not live through it but is also impossible to argue against because nostalgia tends to sand away the ugly parts of the past, leaving behind a more favorable memory than lived experience. 

And while Moss chronicles seemingly every instance of rapacious real estate development and suffering by the small businesses they evict, he has nothing to say about the truly poor and needy neighborhoods, the gang-infested city blocks where much of what little violence that still occurs in New York happens and what can (or should) be done about it. Nor does he credit the work of city leaders or (gasp) the New York City Police Department in making the city a more welcoming, safer place. Moss wants none of it. In his telling, areas like Coney Island were doing just fine, thank you very much, before the churn of redevelopment swooped in and remade them. 

In this critique is also an implicit acceptance of a certain level of societal dysfunction, of middling services, decaying infrastructure, and dilapidated buildings in favor of retaining a frisson of authenticity which, like the nostalgic past, is a subjective view of urban living that cannot be argued against because of its emotional appeal - you may not find the eccentric who cannot be evicted because his apartment is rent-controlled or mice in your building annoying, but Moss does not, both are totally defensible and you will never convince one that the other is correct. 

And Moss has nothing to say about larger economic questions. Bodegas will never be able to compete with big box retailers in selling goods because they lack the purchasing power to demand lower prices from manufacturers. But what about consumers? Is it a net good if someone can buy a tube of toothpaste or a can of soup at Target for less money than the corner store? Is Uber evil or has it given people living in the outer boroughs where taxi drivers would rarely venture a transportation option previously unavailable? And what of the taxi medallions that used to sell for more than one million dollars but are now essentially worthless? Is it good or bad that Uber and Lyft have reconfigured that market? I don’t know, I’m not an economist, but it seems to me there is a middle ground here that Moss refuses to consider. In painting in such stark terms, Moss also becomes an unreliable narrator. His tendency toward the binary, to the point where he suggests a walk of just one block can straddle the line between the “real” New York (eyes up, pedestrian tango, fill-in-the-blank desirable food aroma) and the “hyper-gentrified” New York (sanitized, glued to your iPhone, and hogging the sidewalk) undermines what are reasonable critiques of gentrification. 

For all Moss’s sturm und drang he does not get around to offering up any of his own solutions until the very end of the book and even then, his ideas are not fleshed out in a way that they can be critiqued meaningfully. Moreover, citing San Francisco, as Moss does for several of his 12 proposals, as a template for staunching gentrification seems curious as that city is probably one of the few that exceeds even New York’s rapid growth. Other suggestions, like an “insider benefits” program so New Yorkers can skip lines at museums reek of just the type of entitlement Moss spent the previous 400 pages railing against. Others, like restricting rent hikes and imposing vacancy taxes seem more reasonable, but at the end of the day, would any of it really matter? Moss’s thesis is that New York’s soul has been hollowed out and sold to the highest bidder, with Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, and increasing swaths of Queens and the Bronx felled by hyper-gentrification. Has the horse not already left the barn or is Staten Island our only hope? (just kidding, like a true New Yorker, Moss does not even acknowledge Staten Island.) 

Put me in the “if there is one thing that you can count on is change” camp that Moss hands a scant few pages of rebuttal at the end of his book. The boom and bust of the stock and real estate markets that provide much of the financial life blood of the city practically guarantee it. I do hope Moss gets some measure of return to the city he romanticizes and not just his cri de coeur of what it has become.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 


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