Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sante's Lost City

The following comes from a 2004 interview with Luc Sante in The Believer. I recently stumbled upon it and thought I'd share some excerpts.

In the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, no golf courses, no subdivisions. We thought of the place as a free city, where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter. Downtown we were proud of this, naturally.”
--Luc Sante, from "My Lost City"


photo: Chronogram

THE BELIEVER: In the essay “My Lost City,” you describe 1970s New York as a place of danger, authenticity, personality, and color—a city for outcasts.

LUC SANTE: All I know about 1970s New York City is that it’s where I grew up, and you always have an umbilical connection to the time and place of your growing up. It was cheap, didn’t have too many people in it, you could go to the movies or whatever on the spur of the moment, you could get by without working too much and especially without involving yourself in the corporate world. It was a wild, one-in-a-million conjunction of circumstances, a sort of black pearl of world history, when New York City was at one and the same time both the apex of Western culture and the armpit of the Western world. So you had to deal with junkies now and then—I would far rather deal with junkies than with lawyers or developers.

BLVR: How can New York regain its personality? Or are we getting the city we deserve right now?

LS: The city we have now is the one we deserve, the coagulation of money. I’m very pissed off because I love cities and yearn for them, and I can’t live in them now—and not just because I can’t afford to. My ideal city is more like the city (New York and Paris come to mind, but it sort of applies to all) that existed up to and including the 1930s, when different classes lived all together in the same neighborhoods, and most businesses of any sort were mom-and-pop, and people and things had a local identity. The sort of city where—I’ve just been reading Richard Cobb on 1930s Paris—a burglar, a banker, a taxi-driver, an academician, a modiste, and a pushcart vendor might all fetch up together in a corner banquette at the end of the night. That won’t happen again unless we have some major, catastrophic shakeup, like war (at home) or depression, and do we want either of those?

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great excerpt - I'm reading the entire article. Sante manages to say it all in a few words. -- Dan

Anonymous said...

He's absolutely right.

NY in the 70s was free.

It had bad points, but it was indeed better than the Suburban Mall that Giuliani and Bloomberg have created.

I truly prefer junkies on the LES and bums on the Bowery to the lager louts and B&T scum who habituate there now.

Lisanne! said...

We have a depression now. But the classes are still isolated. Maybe we need more time. Or maybe we are too far removed from from each other today.

John said...

I was strolling through midtown the other day and saw an entire multi-story building gaudily transformed into something called "PoP Tart World." People should be protesting that thing, not a mosque downtown. This is well beyond corporate chains coming into New York-like the Olive Garden I noticed in Chelsea yesterday (how many million of real Italian restaurants does nyc already have?)--these are sort of mini-malls where you can have a three-dimensional "experience" with the brand. It's basically like corporations masturbating right in the heart of the city.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

My post was eaten up by whatever Google demon...Grrrrr :(

Anyway, I think I said that Sante in Low Life showed us that life on the Bowery was more interesting and vital then it is now with all the wealth and riches. May Giuliani and Bloomberg rot in hell.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, although everything he says about NYC in the 70's was true for the country at the time too. Every city and town had unique businesses that reflected a local community, and while there were fewer options of stuff to buy and information to access, there was a wonderful freedom to that.

Anonymous said...

I know we view our youth through a distorted lens, but this comment made me wonder how distorted it can be (referring to NYC):

..didn’t have too many people in it...

In the 1970s, New York was the second-largest city in the world!

Susan May Tell said...

great!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I also grew up in NYC in the 1970s and there were, contrary to whate he says, golf courses within the city limits. We even went sleigh riding at one of them during a snow storm. I also had a junkie try to sexually assault me while walking thru the lower east side as a teenager. I am getting a little impatient with the glorification of the grittier side of NYC in the '70s. It was a dynamic mixture of good and bad, and remains so today.

City Of Strangers said...

Jeremiah - Just read the 'My Lost City' article - very interesting and worth reading in full. It is somewhat amazing to think of that New York now - to remind oneself that this is how it used to be (another good reminder is Jim Carroll's 'Downtown Diaries'). And, as someone posted above, this was true to a great extent across the country - and the world. As late as the middle 80's, I was squatting in Bloomsbury, London, in a place that would cost millions now.

It was amazing - and oh, how we took it for granted! No one wanted to live in the heart of the city then. But I couldn't live that way now. Most of these frontiers, including the LES, were for the young. They really weren't easy. And the period he writes about was a transitional time that was bound to change. For better or worse.

I do miss the mix in cities that Sante mentions. New York has really lost that in the last few years. I thought the recession would bring back some normality, but if anything it's made the city more mono-cultural. An interzone no longer! But that's the world we live now . . .

T.

Caleo said...

Sante sums it up beautifully. And as City of Strangers said, we all took it for granted. I certainly did.
It certainly was challenging, and youthful exuberance helped smooth out the rough spots of life in the city up until the mid 90's.
I lived in an SRO on 23rd and Lex until 1996, and every week, even every day, could be a dangerous adventure, as crack addicts were still very much a presence on the streets.
But I loved every minute of it. I cherish the memories of it. I was lucky enough to be a healthy young man who was capable of defending himself, so women and the elderly might view that time with less enthusiasm. But the city treated me very well, and I will always love Her for it.

Z-Styles said...

I wish I could have been there and known the New York where you could go to the movies or whatever on the spur of the moment, where you could get by without working too much and especially without involving yourself in the corporate world, the wild, one-in-a-million conjunction of circumstances that I had hoped for when I was finally able to move here in 2004, only to lose my apt to a predatory equity landlord and be disenchanted by legions of Carrie Bradshaw wanna-bes roaming every street corner. I wish there was one last place in america where chain stores hadn't choked out all the mom n' pops, and where a sanctuary of street life and pedestrian culture with a bit of humility was always ensured.

That said, I don't understand how people are saying that they miss the "adventure" of crack addicts. Please think about the folks that have never seen NYC as a giant disneyland, of neither the boho-artist flavor or the refined-frat boy variety. From the experience of people who grew up here that I have talked to, who's moms and dads and brothers and sisters actually were crack addicts or prostitutes or homeless in Tompkins Square, or who grew up being treated like trash because they lived in a neighborhood of burnt out buildings, that shit is nothing to long for and it sucks when privileged outsiders make it into their personal pseudodrama.

I wish that everyone on here who longs for community oriented neighborhoods and affordable, population-dense, culturally dynamic living felt empowered enough unite and fight back against neoliberal land grabs and lifestyle commodification, so that we could create the cities that we love and want to live in, without having to re-create the neo-colonial dynamics that some people get so misguidedly lusty over.

Z-Styles said...

I wish I could have been there and known the New York where you could go to the movies or whatever on the spur of the moment, where you could get by without working too much and especially without involving yourself in the corporate world, the wild, one-in-a-million conjunction of circumstances that I had hoped for when I was finally able to move here in 2004, only to lose my apt to a predatory equity landlord and be disenchanted by legions of Carrie Bradshaw wanna-bes roaming every street corner. I wish there was one last place in america where chain stores hadn't choked out all the mom n' pops, and where a sanctuary of street life and pedestrian culture with a bit of humility was always ensured.

That said, I don't understand how people are saying that they miss the "adventure" of crack addicts. Please think about the folks that have never seen NYC as a giant disneyland, of neither the boho-artist flavor or the refined-frat boy variety. From the experience of people who grew up here that I have talked to, who's moms and dads and brothers and sisters actually were crack addicts or prostitutes or homeless in Tompkins Square, or who grew up being treated like trash because they lived in a neighborhood of burnt out buildings, that shit is nothing to long for and it sucks when privileged outsiders make it into their personal pseudodrama.

I wish that everyone on here who longs for community oriented neighborhoods and affordable, population-dense, culturally dynamic living felt empowered enough to unite and fight back against neoliberal land grabs and lifestyle commodification, so that we could create the cities that we love and want to live in, without having to re-create the neo-colonial dynamics that some people get so misguidedly lusty over.

Anonymous said...

I hear the comments and what some folks are saying about some counter points to Luc's piece.

But aside from that-- he does have a point about this 'not having to work too much' to survive. i've heard and read that from so many other artists at the time. the rent and wages have just completely gone bonkers in respect to each other. how can it be in just the late 60s i'm hearing some apts. were $30?! and how insane is it that you can't even work at a job that's respectable and pay for an apt. and even try working part time to do that. i've heard people say they could work part time and live ok. i work full time and there's no way i can afford an apt in city limits. i live on the border of a far borough. yes i am here because i want to be near creative arts but i come from a working class background small town - but not one of those annoying "go back to ohio" types. i truly relate to the city.

anyway, we should still be able to work part time and live here. something went wrong. rent went too high. wages never grew. that's so F**ed up. other cities you can still do that but there is not as much cultural activity happening. and i am not looking down on those cities, but i was just ready for more.

sorry so long. this topic and luc's writing always gets me riled up.

stef

Anonymous said...

there will be another smaller city to live. things change. i grew up in the 50s, was a teen in the 60s, a student & young professional in the 70s. i was very lucky. i saw the opening scene form "manhattan' tonight after reading this. played it over & over.

Frank G. said...

I like and respect Luc Sante. I liked and respected him when we attended high school together in Manhattan in the late '60s and early '70s. Luc is an extremely talented writer. But the New York that he misses is a myth of his creation.

In the 1970s, New York was in many ways a national embarrassment. Crime-ridden, filthy, and on the brink of bankruptcy, the City of New York had become the butt of comedians' jokes, the subject of derision in political discourse and, worst of all, a place that inspired fear in its own citizens as well as would-be travelers.

At the same time, New York was -- as it is now -- a place where hard work paid off, and where the successful could take advantage of the unique offerings of this larger-than-life city. Sante's notion that one "could get by without working too much" simply begs questions: What does "get by" mean? What does it mean to not work "too much"? For the unambitious, eking out an existence is still possible in New York. But that's hardly a standard to be wistful or nostalgic about.

There is very little about the New York of the 1970s that I would like to see return. It's safer, cleaner, more financially stable and more user friendly for its citizens and visitors who pour money into the economy.

Were there great things going on in New York in the '70s? Of course. But Sante seems to be nostalgic not for the great things but for those things that made the city dangerous, uninviting and on the brink of financial failure. I would not mind having my youth back, but not at the price of returning to the days of rampant muggings, murders and mayhem.

Frank G.

Caleo said...

I will respond to Z Styles since you kinda quoted my post.
First, I did NOT say I found crack addicts adventurous or fun. They were simply a major element of life here in NYC, and you had to deal with them, at least where I lived.
I am definitely not some privileged outsider, and I don't need to be lectured to by someone who got here in 2004 and thinks they have a clue.
I worked my ASS OFF to move here and have always paid my way in this city.
I'm raising a family here now and will be with this city come high tide or low, until the end.
I have many friends who are natives, and EVERY SINGLE ONE misses the old New York in the same way I do.
So get off your soapbox and wait until you've been here at least a solid decade before telling those who have lived here nearly 25 years how they should " remember" the city.
You're just sour because you showed up at least a decade too late... sorry bro, but you missed the bus.

Z-Styles said...

Yes, you are right Caleo, I did magnetize a certain part of your post specifically to make a point about something, and I don't really have any right to tell people how to remember things, nor do I have any more right than anyone else to talk about where the city should be going, after having lived here for not even a decade. My articulation there was perhaps inappropriately incendiary.

It does irk me though when people wax nostalgic for old days and overlook the suffering that happened through all the crack and crime and arson stuff. I wouldn't have reason to think so poignantly about this, except that it has been drilled into me by people who experienced these things directly. As much as I want to believe in the free city of the seventies (or perhaps eighties, or maybe even nineties), the people who weren't having such a good time then have convinced me to look at it differently.

My lamentations aren't as much about having missed the bus as they are about possibilities for the future. As far as anyone can tell, the city that Sante speaks of that had cheaper rents(etc), the city exhuded qualities that almost everyone reading this blog wants misses, arose in direct relation to predatory public policies in which certain sections of the population were completely divested in. It was never meant to last, as it was part of a bigger picture of intentional population clearing and land commodification. I don't mean to soap box this time, or point fingers, I just wonder what it it would take to create and sustain an amazing city that wasn't dependent upon such a system.

esquared said...

I continue to live the low-overhead life, as much by choice as by necessity, and I’ll never buy something new if I can get it secondhand, but even in much cheaper Upstate it’s not as easy as it was in NYC back then, when, e.g., there were used clothing stores in which everything cost three bucks. That life was, in my opinion, better than any luxury–actually it was the greatest luxury.

~ Luc Sante, (interview at days of yore)