In this week's Village Voice, on stands today, Jen Doll publishes a big cover story entitled "How to Be a New Yorker." It's a follow-up to a 1964 book with the same title by Joan and Leslie Rich and it's good fodder for debate about what being a New Yorker really means.
I offer the following excerpt, not just because I'm quoted in it (and get in a dig at Little Wisco), but because it covers the nostalgic part about living in the city, from both sides of the story. Which side do you take?
Lament the way things change, even as you know it is inevitable. Despite our hard-edged reputation, we are, in fact, a bunch of nostalgic saps. Tough guys on the outside, pure mush in the middle. And we hate change, we really hate it, even though change has been a New York constant since before New York was born. In How to Be a New Yorker, the Riches write: "Long ago we realized that New York is the only place for heart-on-the-sleeve romantics like us, who shed tears over old monstrosities coming down, like Pennsylvania Station, and new ones going up, like the World Trade Center. Far from choosing Manhattan for its rigors and challenges, we live here because it's the only place we've ever found that's sentimental enough for us."
To be a New Yorker is to complain about how things are not the same as they used to be, whether you're Theodore Dreiser writing in the 1900s or Sandee Brawarsky writing about the Bowery in an essay titled, precisely, "Oh, It's Not What It Used to Be" in The New York Times in 2000. (Now, in 2011, it is even further from what it used to be.) As Colson Whitehead puts it in "City Limits," his intro to The Colossus of New York, "You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now."
Maybe we're losing our edge, our character, our authenticity. Or maybe we're just being New Yorkers. As Whitehead writes: "To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves. . . . New York City does not hold our former selves against us. Perhaps we can extend the same courtesy."
Do no harm. Jeremiah Moss, the writer behind Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, expresses a frequent complaint: "Newcomers to New York want backyards, bicycles, and barbecues. They want Greenwich Village to be like their hometowns in Wisconsin," he says. "Underneath this—and not very far underneath—there's a seething hatred of urban life. They don't like the dirt or the smells. They don't like the kvetching and the neuroticism. They don't like the layers of history. They want to tear it all down and make it clean and new."
In some ways, New York is the Madonna (Ciccone, not the Virgin) of cities, constantly re-envisioning itself—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, and always in a way that draws a crowd of people who follow their city's lead and reimagine themselves as well. "What's new," says NYU professor of English Bryan Waterman, "is the rate at which the old is being wiped away and replaced with this homogenized reality with a really high entry point."
Progress is varied and debatable, as is what we have to lose through change, and the two will be in conflict until the end of time. Until then, it's up to us to defend the stories and histories we see as integral to our future, whether that means standing up for art, architecture, businesses, neighborhoods, culture, people, politics, and ways of life, or simply not doing anything to hurt them. Let the layers of history exist. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the most anti-New York behavior of all would be stagnation.
"The thing about New York is it's based on the idea of change," [Milton] Glaser says. "It doesn't cling to its own history and has been free to invent new ones. Some changes are horrible, others lead us somewhere. They're discomfiting because no one likes change, but eventually, you end up somewhere else, and you discover you like that place. You may hate Starbucks, but it's done something, and eventually it, too, will disappear. This endless capacity for reinventing itself defines the city and also the opportunity that exists here."