Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Playboy with Zukin

In the April issue of Playboy magazine, Professor Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, published an essay in the Forum section entitled “How the City Lost Its Soul.” An editor from Playboy asked me to write a response to that essay, and they published my letter in the June issue.

In the letter (below), I call 9/11 "the last nail in the coffin of New York's soul."

I wanted to continue the dialogue with Sharon, and give her the last word. So we did that over email, where I started off by asking her if she thought I was being a bit hyperbolic in my Playboy letter.

click twice to enlarge and read

SZ: I think you do well to state issues boldly (as I tried to do). I don't think we disagree on anything vital. That being said, you probably exaggerate the effect of 9/11. The leveling of the Twin Towers, when the city's loss of life and innocence made its exceptionalism more palatable to the heartland, did not mark the beginning of the end.

The end of the gritty, noir New York begins instead in the very heart of darkness: the 1970s. Landlords, banks and industries walked away, and a certain part of the middle class--children of the suburbs and those whose hearts had never left the city despite their education--began to move back to neighborhoods their grandparents had fled. That was when the manufacturing economy, which anchored so much of the city's old physical structure, lost the politicians' support and gave way to loft living, gentrification and dreams of new development. We didn't know it at the time, but this is when the corporate city began to celebrate the urban village in order to promote new investment.

JVNY: Maybe "The End" has come in stages. The seeds were sown in the 1970s and germinated through the 80s and 90s, but we've seen the full flowering in the 2000s. And 9/11 gave it a boost. I don't want to let go of this notion that the 2000s, in particular, have been out of proportion in terms of immense, rapid changes to the city. Other urban scholars have argued against this, saying it's "change as usual." Where do you stand on that question?

SZ: Cities are always changing. And New York, especially Manhattan, has a bad rap for tearing down and rebuilding all the time. But something was happening in the 2000s. Global capital flowed into New York real estate. Chain stores like Costco, Target and Ikea changed their bad opinion of the inner city and wanted to get into New Yorkers' pockets. Young people--especially white college grads--flooded into the city to make a career in art or finance. These were all forces for change.

there are also some naked ladies in the June issue

JVNY: These days, young white college grads get automatically labeled gentrifiers, or yuppies, or (in my own parlance) yunnies. But they've long come to the city, and many contributed to New York's "soul"--the Beat poets, the abstract expressionists, etc. Today, it seems like many of the young people (not all) who come to New York don't want to live in a city, they want to live in a suburbanized fantasy of the city. What's going on with these people?

SZ: Tastes change. Young people today have grown up surrounded by shopping malls and branded stores. Maybe they don't care about preserving the old city but they do care about sidewalk cafes. And let's face it, this is the image the city government and real estate developers want to project.

JVNY: Sidewalk cafes. Now that it's spring, they're proliferating like weeds, making the sidewalks narrower and the street noise noisier. I used to like the presence of sidewalk cafes, until there were too many of them. Maybe that's part of the growing up with brands thing you mentioned, maybe there's a generation of people who want LOTS of a thing, repetitions of the same. That's how brands work. They flood the mind with copies of themselves. I think about, and worry about, this kind of stuff and its effect on the city, but you seem unfazed by it all. Do you remain optimistic about the changes, or is that a shrug of resignation I hear?

SZ: I'm not unfazed, I'm angry. But changing tastes reflect consumer culture. It's hard to change that. The only solution is to change the laws--for zoning to keep old buildings in place and build low-rise affordable spaces, for rent controls to keep individually owned stores and residential tenants where they can build communities. Whether it's a Latino grocery in Bushwick or a bagel shop in Williamsburg, let it put down roots.


Barbara L. Hanson said...

Goodness, what muzzy thinking. I won't address the issue of New York's "innocence" (what?), but her muddying of facts is absurd.
People began returning to their grandparents' neighborhoods in the 1970s? Hooey. That decade was known for so-called white flight, riots and looting, "Ford to City: Drop Dead" headlines, and the like.
Her conclusion is to be expected after reading what came before: the standard blah blah about change, with an extra flourish of neighborhood stereotyping.

Anonymous said...

I think it's offensive how you talk about young people. I cam to New York for the same reasons that people have been for decades, not force replicated copies of my tastes on people and recreate the city as a "suburban shopping mall". I really don't think you know what you're talking about, and I don't understand how you can think it's okay to advance such inane and condemning theories about my generation.
NY hasn't "ended," but I wish your indulgent nostalgia would.

Anonymous said...

Like the last anonymous commentor, I'm a young person and I dreamed of New York as a kid, but not as a place where I could duplicate the suburbs. In fact, most of the things I loved about the city were images from its grittier past. I certainly don't want any part of the sex & the city superficial whitewashing of the place.
However, I'm not offended by how Jeremiah talks about my generation. Everyday, I see hordes of the "yunnies" he mentions, that care about nothing but themselves - greedy, superficial, privileged people. That mentality is spreading in 2010, without a doubt. The city is often used as a way to claim some notion of cool without actually giving a damn about the place or its longtime residents. Nevertheless, I share the last commentor's frustration with being grouped in with these people, labelled a "hipster" and thought of as a selfish, stupid person, without any chance to prove myself. Perhaps, eventually, if the economy crushes the condos, the suburb-style living, and bloomberg NY altogether, an we stick it out, then Jeremiah will know some of us aren't "yunnies" after all.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i absolutely know not all young people are yunnies, which is why i said "not all" in my question to Zukin.

i think what i was trying to say there is that many young people who come to NYC get branded with these labels, and sort of bear that burden, and get unfairly lumped into, what is unfortunately a very real trend among "millennials," for lack of a better word.

and that's got to be a drag for a 20-something person who comes to the city with the hopes of having something different than their suburban histories--only to find that banality has already been recreated here.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, the problem is that Jeremiah is obsessed with the East Village (plenty of things less worthy of obsession out there, to be sure) and likes to project it onto "New York." Yes, the Village isn't what it once was, but were he to expand his horizons to Brooklyn and Queens, he would find a lot of that same grittiness, combined with "real neighborhoods" and working class people, along with non-"yunnie" young people contributing to the cultural life by creating art and music, just like the good old days. These places are also in New York. It's a good thing that New York, the actual city, is a lot more versatile and complex than Jeremiah's concept of its demise. Really, there is something out there for everyone, if not on some particular intersection one chooses to fixate on. If you lock in like that, you are headed for disappointment.

The young people posting above me should only be offended if they think it's worth their time. Probably not. Most of what you see here is nostalgia for one's youth. The best you can do is walk on by, and try not to repeat his mistakes - i.e. when *you* are in your thirties, don't start bitching about how everything sucks, and used to be better 15 years ago when YOU moved to NY. Don't make up new slurs to describe people who are younger than you. In other words, even if there's no consistent argument or logic to be found here, but mostly rants and personal hurts, there's wisdom to be gained here too.

Prophet Debunker said...

The REAL problem is that Jeremiah is obsessed with himself and his own percieved 'New Yorkness' His endless 'hunkered down' nonsense is an ongoing insult to real real New Yorkers who lived through the tough times and survived. He came here in the 1990's and he does not know the real New York. His blog - though of occasional interest, is one endless (fictional) glorification of himself as some mytyhical 'Uber-New Yorker' He is NOT, never was and never will be. I long for the day that he and his ilk will crawl back to their bumfuck little towns, suburns, whatever, and let real New Yorkers carry on what this city was, is and will continue to be despite the pseudo-nostalgic corcadile tears of those who never saw it, or lived it as it was. Please, please Jeremiah Moss (your self admitted fictional name) GO HOME!!!

Barbara L. Hanson said...

The assumption that everyone who lives here came from somewhere else is vastly amusing. I'm a fifth-generation native, thanks.

Unknown said...

If you think that the young people who have moved here over the past decade and are creating art and music are doing so on the level of previous waves, you must have really crap taste.

I'm saying this as a 24 year old born and raised and still residing in the city.

All people are doing is importing the cultural hallmarks of their origins... white trash as irony in early hipsterdom, then the waves of rural/pastoral-worship, lately the folk-pop that they probably grew up listening to from the backseat of their parents' car... none of them are doing much that is original or creative or, more importantly, tapping into the vein of NYC culture.

The artists and musicians, in my opinion, are just as annoying as the yunnies. This city is experiencing a dearth of creative spark... but I do believe this is just a part of the typical rollercoaster ride that is involved in the evolution of cities and subcultures.

Caleo88 said...

First, a big thanks to Jeremiah for his blog and the work that goes into it.
To the 1st Anonymous:If you're not one of the people Jeremiah is talking about, then there's no reason to get offended. But maybe deep down inside, you see the YUNNIE in yourself and it bothers you.
If you don't like Jeremiahs "indulgent nostalgia" then don't read the blog. It's really that simple.
To the last Anonymous: If you've been here more than 10 years, then you cannot argue that NYC hasn't changed.
Brooklyn is still gritty ???
You mean like Williamsburg. I remember getting off the L train at Bedford to visit a friend in 95', and the platform was empty. I was the only person getting off the train. The streets were deserted, there was a pizzeria and a couple of deli's and not much else. My pal rented an entire basement in an old warehouse for 600 a month. It's just a little bit different now.
Until the late 90's, a young person could move to NYC, quickly find a dirt cheap apt., and get away with only working a part time job and still save money. The rest of your time was free.That doesn't happen anymore unless you're a trust fund brat.
Don't heap contempt and misery on Jeremiah because you missed the good times. And make no mistake about it... the 80's and early 90's were GOOD TIMES.And they are long gone, as are the people and places that made it so.
If you think the hyper renovated NYC of today even remotely resembles what existed more than 15 years ago you are fooling yourself.
SO please don't hate Jeremiah because you MISSED IT ALL. Sorry Suckers, but at least we have memories...all you have is envy.

Ed said...

I grew up in New York, but lived in a city in the Midwest for a few years in the 1990s while going to grad school. And in early 2004, I began noticing the same sort of smug, philistine people that had populated the wealthy suburbs of that city were showing up everywhere in New York. So for me the big change took place around that time. I find it hard to believe it took place in the 1970s when I was in kindergarten.

Also, I don't want to lose the 1990s. The yunnie response to criticism of how the city has changed in mostly bad ways, "BUT IT IS SO SAFE" does not have as much force if New York stayed recognizably New Yorkish for about nine years after the big drop in crime. Which it did.

But this is an ongoing process, even in the last few months I noticed that a few places that seemed to be holdouts had either become overrun in their turn, or had closed. So even now there is a change in atmosphere in that if you don't like what is going on there is no place to hide when you are here, except in your old apartment.

Overall, I think what we are witnessing is the local consequence of the growing wealth inequality that is taking place all over the US. Alot of what people think of bohemian culture was really middle class. What we are getting is a city divided between wealthy people in about two thirds of Manhattan and one third of Brooklyn, and really poor people living in what are basically slums everywhere else, with the only real middle class neighborhoods the essentially suburban areas in places like Staten Island and northeastern Queens.

Roberta said...

There have always been arrogant, privileged people roaming the streets of NY with a strong sense of entitlement, although in the 2000s the demise of rent stabilization has prevented the young, creative and politically conscious from creating a community in this City. There is far less diversity now then there ever was and that's not just "indulgent nostalgia." Bring on the naked ladies!

Anonymous said...

This whole sentiment is excellently summed up by the Kills song "What New York Used To Be."

Obviously they have a sense of humor about it. In the same way that New York is no longer "what it used to be" neither are drugs, love, tv, etc. (i.e. all the things that are awesome when you're young, and leave you chasing the ghost for the rest of your life.)Don't turn bitter when you get older, kids! Try to take it in stride.

As to the person who assumes that those of us criticizing Jeremiah as are jealous because we missed "the good times" - well, I doubt that's true. My impression is that his critics tend to have been here longer than he has, and find his preaching just a tad hyperbolic and myopic. He has the zeal of the convert. It's either 80's East Village or bust. Everything else is a deviation from purity. I was here for the alleged "good times" of the 80s and 90s. I had fun then, and I'm having fun today. Even in the early 90s, before things got "safe," there were people bitching about how NY is not the same. Of course it's not! It always changes. And there are always certain kinds of people who think they are witnessing the real deal extra special decline, for real this time, and nobody else can see it, arghhh!!!!

Sorry that your Belgian fries dude is going to have to close up shop. New York will go on. As to why people like me read this blog, well, we love New York, and this blog often does a great job documenting the things we love. But it's like the Wall Street Journal - we read it for the news, not the editorial page.

Anonymous said...

I studied with Sharon Zukin at CUNY and am always delighted to hear her views!
Myself, I was born in NY (Flatbush, Brooklyn to be exact) and now Manhattan, making for 62 (!) years of urban life. Of course I see changes, some for the better, but I no longer feel it it "my" city. We used to resist the big-boxing of NY until Bloomberg and his associates came in to cash in.
This was always a city for everyone, not just the (young) wealthy. And I wonder, where are these young kids getting the $ these days - I guess the recession hasn't hurt "them" (I mean their parents).
What I dislike the most is the smugness of (some of) these people who somehow feel "superior" to those of us who worked our way up on our own (not via $ parents). I don't get it.

Caleo88 said...

I find the natives telling Jeremiah he doesn't have a right to feel bad about what is happening to the city cute. I moved here in 88, so as far as Barb and the prophet are concerned, my opinion can't possibly count for anything. But to set the record straight, the incredible cultural explosion that took place in NYC in the Seventies, and lasted until the 90's was definitely NOT the product of native New Yorkers. The overwhelming majority of the artists/musicians/weirdos were from elsewhere. So try to have a little pity for the (relatively) latecomers. And my son, born 2 years ago at Bellevue, is a native. So I'm the father of a native.But I'm sure that doesn't count for anything to the benighted natives.
It's funny, but the natives I know generally consider the fact that I've lived in the city for 23 years to count for something.
To Jeremiah, Keep on Keepin' on. I love your blog.

jewcas said...

Look i think this at times is an interesting blog but i need to point something out. If you came to ny in the 70s 80s 90s or for the art/music then u have no right complaining about "yunnies" becuase you the exact same thing. You guys were young people coming here for a good time right? And you know what native nyers hated and still hate u guys to. You will never be real new yorkers if you came here in your late teens or 20's for the art and lived in the east village. Im not discriminating against newcomers im discriminating against artists. Iv known plenty of asian new comers that are natives in my book. I think the main point im trying to make here is you guys have no idea what real new york is or was. I apologize for generalizing but here i go If your 30+ in New York, white and all the people u kno for the most part are white liberal, artists, who live in Manhattan then your prob not a native and prob don't even know what one is. And by the way all these sites saying that there no real ny left are probably speaking from the perspective of a white person because for the most part the hood is still the hood. Its middle class white NY that disappeared. A lot of people moved to long island florida.

jewcas said...

Im not tryna say anything as an insult just pointing something out. Im a jew from ny if i move to a place in mexico full of people from america and live there for 23 years does that make me a Mexican? People need to stop taking it as an insult when people say ur not new yorkers.

Caleo88 said...

Nice name jewcas. But don't tell me I'm a yunnie. I'm not a trust fund brat, and no one EVER payed my rent for me. I moved to New York to live in the greatest city in the world. I DID NOT move here to transform the city into a giant suburban mall. The fact is that most natives FLED the city in droves in the 70's and 80's for L.I., Jersey and Westchester. The natives who were left voted for Giuliani TWICE, and I know natives who would have crowned him king for life if it had been in their power.
I have worked with natives that LOVE what Bloomberg has done. I could go on and on, but I came to NY to work and live and build a family here, which is what I've done. And I don't think the "hood" needs you to speak for it.

jewcas said...

i don't think i called you a yunnie

Caleo88 said...

No jewcas, you didn't call me a yunnie, but you said we are the same thing. And that if I moved to NYC in my 20's I can never understand what NY was or is. And that I can't ever be a real New Yorker.
those are your words exactly, and it's the most ridiculous bunch of crap I've seen in some time. Let's get one thing straight.
I AM A NEW YORKER. I might not be a native, but I was born in NY state and have lived in NYC my whole adult life.
I'm a working stiff who has created a family here and I certainly love this city more than all the mighty natives who left it.
And as far as your logic goes, since my son is a native, I guess he understands the city at least as well as you do. Maybe even better than you. And he's ONLY 2 YEARS OLD.

jewcas said...

I disagree. Growing up is what shapes you into who you are. High school is the cutoff point in my opinion. People who grew up in new york and move to north Carolina for the rest of there lives are still New Yorkers. And stop with all this mighty native crap i never said anything good about natives or anything bad about non natives. All i said was your Not a New Yorker. I Don't give a shit about natives You didnt accomplish anything by being born in nyc it means nothing. most people online ranting about how great natives are fucken idiots and never held no weight in nyc. There just bullying new comers to feel better about themselves. Nyc is a culture. No matter where i move in a nyer and my mentality will come with me. If i met you i would probably instantly be able to tell your not from here from talking to you. Theres no shame and i don't appreciate you calling my opinion a load of crap. If i moved to China chinese people would prob never consider me Chinese.

laura said...

jewcas, you are correct, in "someways". i am 4th generation new yorker. (my great grandparents arrived around 1900). i cant relate to any other place expect some smaller n.e. cities. BUT there are people who were born in new york, & guess what? they went to an out of town college, stayed in a smaller town, or the country side. or loved hippy culture since the age of 18, stayed in oregon. or moved to a suburb in another state, & thru time forgot new york. they are provincial in my eyes. i cannot relate to those people, & they cannot relate to me! then there are people who did growup in the suburbs, or small town america & never fit in. they left for new york, never to return to the heartland. some are famous, some ARE new york! look @ andy warhol, truman capote, halston, etc etc. they made new york. things are not as simplistic as you think. i cant see jeremiah living in a small town or a suburb. he does know new yorks history, & does a great job documenting. i may not agree w/some of his perseceptive, as i remember new york when it had a middle class. (before the degeneration of the 60s/70s). i dont know about dirty east village bars, but i do know for that generation (genx? slacker?), these places were where art happened. & art is also happening now on flatbush ave brooklyn & bed sty. again i say, it is not the new mid western folks who changed the city, its the developers buiding box stores, & too many skyscrapers.