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New York's soul lost? 'New York Calling' fills in some gaps

At the discussion Wednesday, “Is New York Losing Its Soul?”, the first public program keyed to the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibit, panelists expressed varying degrees of dismay over homogenization and rising rents, as well as a general feeling of impotence.

There’s a growing consensus that much of Manhattan and certain gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods suffer from what Jane Jacobs called ‘over-success,’ as the ‘pioneers’ (of their social class more than anything else) are priced out if they weren’t lucky or smart or well-heeled enough to acquire permanent digs.

So, were things really better back in the old days? After all, moderator Clyde Haberman reminded attendees, decades ago lots of neighborhoods were unsavory and unsafe.

Perhaps we’re remembering some kind of 1980s-1990s interregnum, when neighborhoods got ‘nicer’ but not overpriced, safer but not sanitized, and it was easier for some New Yorkers to live a bohemian life. And we don’t quite know how to get that back, or what comes next.

Adding more layers

So the lively New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger, is particularly timely. As with the discussion on Wednesday, the book is light on crucial urban planning issues like housing policy, but it adds many worthy nuances and layers regarding the past 30 years.

In his introduction, City College political science professor Berman observes, “Yet New Yorkers have a wonderful capacity to live through disintegration, to build up even when they are burning down.” He reminds us of decades of plagues—a heroin epidemic, another epidemic of fires (largely the result of landlord-generated arson) he dubs “urbicide,” then homelessness and crack.

He explains some of the causes of deindustrialization, notably the Port Authority’s decision to move the waterfront trade to New Jersey and the Defense Department’s decision to close the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He sees the birth of graffiti and rap a creative, idealistic response to suffering. (And today's rap?)

Old dread, new dread

“But something is happening that I never could have imagined: a metropolitan life with a level of dread that is subsiding,” he writes, noting that he tells people they can find grounds in their life “for more than enough dread.”

Indeed, dread pops right back up: “People who worked through the dark years to keep these neighborhoods alive are falling victim to their own success. When they their neighborhoods on the front page of the Real Estate section of the Sunday Times, they feel both swollen with pride and stabbed with dread.” (Another writer marvels about lofts on the Bowery. The Bowery!)

Among the photos illustrating this passage is one of a fence on Carlton Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets in Prospect Heights warning, “Ratner: Hands Off Our Homes.” Poet, journalist, and photographer Berger peppers the book with unsentimental black-and-white photos of today’s New York, augmented by some evocative archival photos. (Remember graffiti-scarred subways?)

Beyond Manhattan

Berman allows that young people can’t afford Manhattan like his generation could: “The good news is that today’s younger generation, unable to live in Manhattan has learned to explore the city as a whole with a zeal and energy and resourcefulness that my generation, obsessed with Manhattan alone, never even dreamed of. I can’t blame them if they are mad; I’d be made in their place. Still, they can get here on the subway (and on the PATH, and on the LIRR)…”

True, in May the New York Times pointed to the emerging arts scene in edgy Newark. Still, Newark's in another state.

Essayist John Strausbaugh warns, however, that “the artists and the bohos” flee the metro area altogether when they can’t afford Jersey City. Yes, things change, but, he writes, “Manhattan will be a very different place when downtown’s unique character has been totally flattened.”

Philip Dray recalls fierce neighborhood activism in gentrifying Williamsburg, but laments that now, at community meetings, “mostly we are just a support group these days, trading horror stories.”

In the boroughs

There are wide-ranging but inherently limited essays on each of the outer boroughs; Berger’s tour de Brooklyn is the strongest, acknowledging from the start “the constant leaps of disjunction required to catch even glimpses of the whole.”

As for Atlantic Yards, Berger is scathing: “Whatever happens—and the game is so rigged in favor of Ratner, it seems only the courts can stop or restraint him—the wounds are already deep, laying bare the mendacity that defines illiberal city (and state) politics.”

He juxtaposes the 1976 loss of 2500 jobs at the Schaefer Brewery in Williamsburg with the promotional material for the new luxury condos at Schaefer Landing, which promise "a life of comfort and luxury.” And he contrasts the endemic poverty in the Red Hook Houses with the skyrocketing real estate market just blocks away.

What next?

So what should we do? Should there be massive investment in better transit, allowing increased density in places like the Bronx, as planner Alexander Garvin has suggested? How much density should there be at transit hubs or when housing is built over railyards? (Garvin recommended a far more participatory process than unfolded for Atlantic Yards.)

How slow was the Bloomberg administration (and its predecessors) to step up, even after massive investment beginning with the Koch administration reclaimed and repaired all those abandoned buildings the city took over? Those questions should be part of future debates.

The book does offer some incisive political reporting. Veteran cop reporter Leonard Levitt offers a tough piece on the New York Police Department. Village Voice writer Tom Robbins’ essay, titled “The Other New York Awaits its Leader,” describes the contours of mayoral politics. Is a reference to “the other New York” an ethnic or a class rallying call? The lackluster Freddy Ferrer resurrected it only in the last days of his lagging 2005 campaign against the wealthy incumbent, Bloomberg.

A peaceful crossroads

In the book's apt closing piece, Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema recalls how he got his start, writing a foodzine aimed at fellow musicians, and salutes the role of immigration in vastly improving the city’s culinary range and quality.

Some thought his initial effort to critique such humble restaurants as condescending, but the effect, he writes, has been the opposite; the eateries have expanded their customer base, while both eaters and purveyors get a chance to learn more about each other. “By seeking out ethnic restaurants, we voluntarily meet immigrants on their own terms,” he concludes.

A worthy point, but the book prods more questions: how hard are the lives of such immigrants, and are they more willing than the rest of us to live through urban privation (and code-violating housing) to send money home or save for the next generation?

Culture critique

Several essays are contrarian. Film critic Armond White traces Spike Lee’s films from “black striver” to “arrogant middle-class success.” Meakin Armstrong provides a pugnacious survey of city literature, tough on Jonathan Lethem, warmer to some lesser-knowns. There are surveys of gay culture and sex and art galleries and jazz and rock over the decades.

I would like to have seen the pieces by a graffiti tagger (warning of “Gestapo-style law enforcement”) and on drug culture (surprisingly affectionate, despite the regret) matched by some less boho topics, like the role of community development corporations in repairing neighborhoods, the evolution of political machines, changes in education policy, and city parenting then and now.

Then again, it's a book, not an encyclopedia.

The soundtrack

While I was writing this, I put on heavy rotation "Back in the Old Days," Josh Roy Brown’s song on the album JP3, by John Pinamonti (of "The Burrow" fame). Among the lyrics:

These streets were once like my backyard
And now they’re just some corporation’s game

But I remember a time
When we didn’t mind the crime
Or the wino on the corner
Sticking his hand out for a dime
And the neighborhood looked
Like it had just been through a war
And we always knew where we could score
Back in the old days

A mixed blessing, to be sure.