Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New York Pentimento

I wrote this post a couple months ago and kept it in the backlog. Now it seems more apt than ever.

Back in June, the New York Post, with unusual eloquence, wrote, "Does it feel some days as if New York--wealthy, successful, seemingly at the top of the world--is slipping back into the bad old days of crime, noise, dirt, rudeness? Like pentimento rising from an old canvas..."

I love the word pentimento. In her memoir of the same name, Lillian Hellman defined it beautifully: "Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter 'repented,' changed his mind."

Is the city changing its mind about the sterile suburbanite it has become? Perhaps it is repenting, a word that also means to regret.

Graffiti and panhandling are both on the rise. Subway rats are running amok. Fines for turnstile jumping have increased. Flashers are flashing. Transgender prostitutes are coming back to the Village. The crusties have returned to the Lower East Side. Even the squeegee men have come home to roost (and squeegee women, too).

Something is happening.

Entropy persists. Nature reigns in all her chaos.

where gum once was, gum-ghosts remain

An upscale cafe moves onto 9th Avenue and sends a worker out front with a metal brush and a can of Ajax to whisk eons of dirt from the cracks. A boutique hotel employs a man to steam-scrub each black disk of gum from its piece of pavement.

Scrubbing against the chaos, keep on scrubbing. The gum comes back. The grit returns. Whatever you do, weeds and wildflowers will invade your manicured garden. Just as, from the sands of a nuclear desert, irrepressible seedlings emerge.

At this very moment, they are breaking ground.


Anonymous said...

yesterday I saw a Washington Mutual man in a tie and white shirt cleaning graffiti off the side of the building--how far we have come!

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay.

I posted some photos last month of the GumBusters squad cleaning the sidewalk in front of Walgreens on Union Square. Lord knows what this service costs. I watched them for several minutes. They seemingly used (wasted?) gallons and gallons of water ... making our sidewalks safe for walking; making Walgreens safe for shopping!

When I walked by this spot the following week, more gum was on the sidewalk....

boweryboogie said...

i can't speak for midtown, but downtown, graffiti art and sticker-posting is definitely on the rise. and i love it!

chartreuse velour said...

did you see rachel weisz in vogue? she says about the east village where she now lives, "There are just very authentic little pockets of life going on."

is "the world should revolve around me" your favorite song?

Jeremiah Moss said...

nice one, chartreuse, i'm going to use it.

Anonymous said...

Not to be controversial, but does absolutely everything need to be mourned? Gum on the sidewalk? I mean, do you die a little inside every time you see someone clean up after their dog, remembering a time in the city when there wasn't a law requiring it?

letsgomets2008 said...

Jeremiah- theres all this talk about return to gritty Manhattan of yore but I'm curious to know- in your opinion do you really think the pendulum is swinging that way?

Jeremiah Moss said...

i think there has been a shift and it began before the crash. do i think we will return to the grit and creativity of yore? i am not that optimistic.

i don't think we'll see the rampant violent crime of the 70s--which i do NOT want to see return.

once you tear down affordable low-rises, they don't come back. those mom-and-pops won't come back. poor people, working class, and starving artists aren't going to suddenly move into abandoned condo towers, as much as i might fantasize about it.

do i think the pressure on those of us who value the creativity, the guts, the iconoclastic nature of new york city will ease up a bit? i hope so.

maybe we are just getting a breather. in my hopeful moments, the breather will be longer than a few months. i'd love to get a good decade out of it before the pendulum swings back. let the city repair itself for a while.

i could really use the break. and so could many of us.

what do you think?

letsgomets2008 said...

agree that something is changing- as if New York has reached the breaking point and can no longer sustain all these banks, cheesy chain stores and suburban values... after all it's still the most diverse city around.

I think the developers just cashed in and over calculated the long term relevancy of these things, much like the investment houses over extended themselves with mortgage mania.

I do think it's a fact though that as the economy worsens people turn to crime, and I'm not sure if sex and the city fans from North Carolina are going to pay 4K a month for their condo when they feel like they might get mugged down the block in front of Duane Reed.

I think the foreign wealthy will still play here as our dollar is weak. But being the capital of world culture that's probably a good thing.

Maybe normalcy will survive meaning that non money obsessed creative types and working natives can get a reasonable rent below 100th. That would be great and I think would help restore the unpredictable feeling of vibrancy I remember the city having growing up, without the race wars and widespread poverty

But again I'm not an expert on the cycles of New York... I'm 26 and have only lived in Manhattan a few years, but I grew up nearby and would constantly come in to see family so I like to think I'm informed. Your blog helps!

Anonymous said...

The late 70s get a bad rap. Although the crime rate was significantly higher than it is today it wasn't anywhere near what it was in the late 80s/early 90s. We were in the midst of an awful economic malaise - city services were being cut everywhere(including cops, who were actually getting laid off), unemployment was through the roof (not just here but nationwide) and there was just a general sense of downtroddenness. We hadn't seen such morose times and hadn't experienced such a feeling of lawlessness (justified or not) since the 19th century. The 70s felt so bad for so many people because nobody had ever experienced such a rapid decline in a city. In fifteen years New York went from a shining, gleaming metropolis - the crown jewel of America - to an archetype of blight and rampant crime (again, justified or not). But statistically the late 80s/early 90s (well into the start of the gentrification era) were a lot worse. They just don't get the same bad rap as the late 70s do because I suppose people were just used to high crime by then, or perhaps the era simply wasn't as theatrical or colorful as the late 70s.

Still, if history is any indicator the economic fortunes of this country act in tandem with those of New York. When times are worst this city is at its grittiest, edgiest best. If this economic downturn pans out into a full-blown collapse you can kiss the gilded age of New York goodbye. Just when I was about to give up and head upstate this delightful series of events has unfolded before my eyes in a matter of days. There may be hope for us yet.

Anonymous said...

i just found your blog... having a nice read through.
i grew up 30 minutes out into Long Island. i was in Manhattan once a week by the time I was 13, twice a week by 16, every day by 18. i do consider myself a native new yorker, even more so, i consider myself from NYC. i was grateful for my escape from Long Island, but by the time I had approached 30, it felt like the pieces that I hate in LI had followed me there.

As NYC became a giant shopping mall, I continued to pass the graveyard of my youth, watching neighborhoods collapse, mom & pop stores shut down, Herr Giuliani instructing us on who ought to take precedence in an area & who should move out & taking extreme measures to make sure places that catered to thinkers would be closed down...-mourning what I felt had helped mold me into an individual & not an American clone striving to wear what my neighbor did, have a car like they did, white picket fence fantasies while digging for gold in a trophy husbands pocket.

i was a bit conflicted watching these changes & I suppose that I still am. rents kept rising, the best parts of neighborhood spirit & artists flocked to Brooklyn. I constantly found myself pointing out buildings & places that no longer existed & the more I magnified that, i realized that I was jaded. jaded had been there, jaded had done it all. I could no longer find excitement, partly because the city made sure that I had seen it all, partly because the new comers weren't topping what I had seen, and I just couldn't see myself aging with NYC.

So I left. I moved into the opposite world & set off for Europe. I've been gone for 4 years. The last time I came home I couldn't even figure out where the Green Door used to be on St.Marks. Finally I remembered it was at 15 & was able to recognize where I was..

I'm coming home for good this Spring.
NYC, complete with gentrification is still the best city on earth. but i gotta say, it still makes me angry when I think about NYC as such a sterile place. I find myself sticking to Brooklyn when I visit. It boils my blood thinking about those rich kids that I dated, or who date me, because I was what they weren't & they were slumming it & all those guys are residing in the East Village, or LES. i
know this is all over the map, but reading through your blog has brought up a lot of crazy feelings in my head & i had to rant.

in the end, i do think that there will be balance again. while there was high crime back then, it did breed a sincere batch of people with nerves of steel & something always ready to roll off their tongues. there weren't any sterile bohemian thrill seekers driving up rents & moving into your neighborhood. with crime rates coming up, i do believe that they'll all race home to where ever it is they came from & we'll be left with people who have that integrity that we're used to.

baker said...

been following you for only a month or two. love the site. im a nyc history buff myself and this post is what i have been thinking about as of late so i figured i would comment.

i believe we are headed back into the days of the late 80s early 90s. for the last 3 years i have lived on 29th street and 9th avenue. in the last 6 month i have seen an undeniable amount of crime and drug use. 3 apts in my building (including mine) burglarized. junkies on the block. junkies on the corner being picked up by paddy wagons.

im not afraid of these developments, but i get a bit caught up in how people can help resolve this? there is no answer, as you said, nature prevails.

the only thing that is exciting about this is what i have dubbed 'urban darwinism' meaning...
anyone who moved to nyc because it was clean, gentrified, safe, etc may not feel fit to live here anymore and will therefor move out.
thus thinning the herd and maybe rent prices will slip a little further?