The first time I visited New York was in 1978. According to Fran Lebowitz this was the real New York. If judging by my visit, to a then very seedy Times Square, as an indication of New York in its prime, that thought is a little scary. Henry Miller seemed to lurk in every corner.
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The next time I saw the City was when, newly graduated from college, my wife and I drove through on our way to our new life in Connecticut. As we passed through on the Queens Expressway, a charred tireless hulk of a car smoldered on the shoulder of the road. We didn’t stop; in fact we kept driving until we reached the Peyton Place safety of Fairfield, Connecticut-a picture-perfect New England village among green meadows dotted with white clapboard houses and picket fences. We lived in a neighborhood among young locals our age that had never ventured the hour drive into the City in their entire lives. “For god’s sake, why would you go there?” they would ask, authentically confused.
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Brooklyn in the 70′s
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Although my new job in Greenwich remained at a safe distance from the City, we craved to explore the riches of its museums and experience its vibrancy. We had a few “urban pioneer” friends living in Greenwich Village (an efficiency with a dining table that folded up to reveal his bathtub) and Tribeca (who actually lived in Tribeca then?) that we would occasionally visit; for lunch, for a museum, or a
club (not the subject of this blog), a concert in St. John the Divine, even a Pink Floyd laser light show. Sometimes we would venture into SoHo and we would occasionally brush against the broken-tooth neighborhoods like the Bowery. Places you would never consider going to were the Meat Packing district, Brooklyn, or, God forbid, Queens. The City was big; a scale that as a young man from a small town in West Texas found difficult to understand. I once walked from Times Square to the Twin Towers thinking they were close. My feet hurt for days. Highline Now
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We would always return from the City invigorated- but glad to be home safe with our cocker spaniel and cat, Elliot. One time, we rented a large
Lincoln Town Car (this was the 80’s) with some of our New England friends and left for a night on the town. At the first stop light in the City we were swarmed by window washers looking for tips. When I assured them we did not need clean windows, one stated “No, not you, in your stinkin’ linkin’ Town Hoome!” It was a few blocks before my wife crawled up from the floorboards. Then, during a wedding, we returned to our car to find the windows smashed and the car emptied of its contents- including our luggage. Despite the urban drama, we felt brave; we felt young- and my Keith Haring T-shirt bared witness to our cultural bravado for many years after. Twin Towers
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New York has changed much over the years- the Twin Towers are now gone, The Singing Cowboy is the scariest thing a tourist can run into in
Times Square. I return now frequently. In fact, my children now know the City well, favoring the more edgy neighborhoods like the Bowery and East Village. “Edgy” of course, is a relative term; that is, if edgy means hipsters among retro bars, industrial-esque boutique hotels and experimental restaurants with artisanal popsicles. I was almost run over by a pack of European tourists on bicycles in the Bowery. Brooklyn is now home to hipsters and “makers”. I went bowling there last week. New York City Subway in the 80′s
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Of course, all cities evolve, but now as New York gentrifies, even neighborhoods like Brooklyn are becoming too expensive for those plebeians that made them cool. Actresses and Google executives pay off tenants to create homes worth tens of millions- in Brooklyn. As Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires stash their money in 100 million dollar apartments and developers build high-rise condos where there was once tenant housing, I wonder if New York is going the way of Venice. Will it remain a real city where people work, live, struggle and die, or will it become a place to visit for tourism; a place to wonder at museums and shopping; and of course, why not do it with an aerated olive chocolate foie gras popsicle?
The Bowery’s Graffiti Palace slated to be converted into Condominiums
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Even so, I’ll continue to return, for there is nothing like rising from your bed to the view of spires punching through the misty clouds on a cold, rainy day; those built by heady architects such as Stanford White, Cass Gilbert, and Van Alan; spires that were there for Hopper, O’Keeffe, Pollock, and Warhol; Sinatra and Bob Dylan and the Ramones; and Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, and even, Henry Miller. My son now sees the City as his right of passage. It looks like he’ll be living in Queens.
McKim Mead & White, New York City Municipal Building
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