Sunday, July 1, 2018

Searching For Soul

Last July, Jeremiah Moss's book 'Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul' hit bookstores. Last Thursday, I attended a panel at the Museum of the City of New York, where Moss and three others had a discussion about the impact of hyper-gentrification on the city. It was thrilling to be in a room full of other people as passionate about this subject as I am, as I'm the only person across all of my groups of friends who cares about this at all.

I read (almost) exclusively historical non-fiction about the city these days, and the list of books I've devoured is growing. This is a subject I've been passionate about for a couple of years, and Moss's book helped to clarify exactly what is going on in New York; from the High Line's massive impact on the west side, to mail-order services killing the local shops, to the "glass monstrosities" built on the rubble of entire city blocks, razed for the elite to move in.

During the panel, Moss elaborated on a point he made in the book: the people who are moving into the city now, into areas steeped in historical and cultural significance, don't have a shred of nostalgia for the neighborhood in which they've chosen to reside. For example, folks my age move into the East Village on the wings of trust funds, spend $4,000/month on studio apartments in glass boxes, and turn a blind, ignorant eye to how that section of the city came to be trendy in the first place. Moss said, "Nostalgia gets a bad rap in our current culture," and I couldn't agree more: that's exactly why the soul of this city is slipping away. In this age of instant-gratification and Instagram stories, most millennials won't care if a historic corner store is bulldozed, as long as a shiny new restaurant rises in its place.

However, after the four speakers on the panel had brought their conversation to a close, and opened up a Q & A with the [at capacity] audience, one person made a comment that has stuck with me. Susan Mayer is a 74-year old graphic design teacher who moved into a tenement building on the Lower East Side in her late teens/early twenties. It was the kind of space where the bathtub was in the kitchen, a cubicle in the corner that looked like a phone booth held the toilet, and two faux fireplaces did nothing to heat the $65/month apartment, and it was the kind of place where the whole building was a community, everyone knew their neighbors, and people would stop to say hello.
Susan said, "The soul of the city resides in the lived-in spaces."

From the outside, it's getting harder to see the remains of the old New York, the cultural beacons in the form of bars, restaurants, and event spaces that were the hangouts of so many influential artists, writers, and taste-makers of past eras. I make it my business when reading about any particular area of the city to frequent the neighborhood as often as possible, and to look for remnants of the past. Right now, I'm reading John Strausbaugh's 'The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village,' and I've been hopping off the train at West 4th with my camera every chance I get. My Roaming project has always been about New York from my perspective, and there's been a subconscious shift toward the more historically significant areas within the last year. It's much more difficult to access those lived-in spaces, but I'm hopeful they still exist.

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