Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How to Be a New Yorker

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?

Jen writes:

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."


Caleo said...

Again, it's not change as such, but the speed of it and what is being replaced that is disturbing now.
Yes, change is inevitable, but when the city becomes a suburb, the very inversion of everything the city represented, it hurts.

LorenzoStDuBois said...

So... I know this question is definitely how NOT to be a New Yorker, but I need to know:

Where can I find Village Voice copies? I can never find them. I live in the UWS and work Downtown and never see the blasted things anywhere. I can't well buy them at a newstand, can I. Any tips?

Anonymous said...

Your "Wisconsin" remark nailed it. For the first time, at least it seems so, we live in an era in which gentrifying Americans who come to New York don't wish to adjust to the New York life and add to it. They've come with the premise that they actually hail from a superior way of life and want to bring it with them.

In old days, New York took in those masses yearning to breathe free. It was the city of refuge for misfits. Now the only thing we have close to that are those scum hobo's-by-choice youth in Union Square and on Ave A, who exploit innocent dogs to get change. Way back when, we had Patti Smith. Now this is all we can do, folks? And don't get me started on the trust-fund fake-artiste hipsters.

The triumph of the Nuvo Mommy Culture is what really burns. These are the people we entrust to raise our children as New Yorkers with a sense of what it means to be a real New Yorker. Instead these are the people at the forefront of making New York a suburban country club with oversized strollers, ridiculous names for their children, and a constant need to grab attention in public, thinking they deserve adulation for being mommies who let their kids run around and violate other people's personal spaces.
But it's OK you know because they are liberal. Well I'm a liberal and I think your kid should be TOLD what to do, not asked nicely like an equal. Sit down, shut up, and eat the arugula. No chicken fingers here, pal.

God almighty what happened to this city?!

esquared™ said...

just wanna excerpt some quotes from those where I can relate on being a New Yorker...

"All over town, cops walked the beat and everyone knew their names. In that city, you did not smoke on the subway. You wore galoshes in the rain. Waitresses called you honey. You slept with windows open to the summer night.

That New York is gone now, hammered into dust by time, progress, accident, and greed. Yes, most of us distrust the memory of how we lived here, not so very long ago. Nostalgia is a treacherous emotion, at once a curse against the present and an admission of permanent resentment, never to be wholly trusted. For many of us, looking back is simply too painful; we must confront the unanswerable question of how we let it all happen, how the Lost City was lost. And so most of us have trained ourselves to forget.
Growing up here, you learned one bitter lesson: Whenever something was destroyed for the crime of being old, what replaced it was infinitely worse." -- Pete Hamill

“At home or away, we are homesick for New York not because New York used to be better and not because she used to be worse but because the city holds us and we don’t know why.” ~ Maeve Brennan, The Ailanthus, Our Back-Yard Tree (from The Long-Winded Lady: notes from The New Yoker)

and this is fitting in how NYC is becoming:

"if everybody in the city were sorted out and set going in the right direction, New York would be soon be a very quiet place." ~ Maeve Brennan, Lost Overtures

i have more but don't wanna fill-up this comment page

that article will definitely resound more for the "new" New Yorkers -- but their New York is not my New York

Brendan said...

It seems like you have a very rigid idea of what New York is supposed to be like that excludes a lot of what it is and always has been. Back yards? Barbecues? These are very firmly established parts of New York.

It's not like they're making more back yards. If anything they're building over old ones.

James Campbell Taylor said...

This is an argument that is sort of at the very heart of this blog. But as much as New Yorkers often like to flaunt the fact, a real New Yorker probably would not question what it means:

Marty Wombacher said...

For me, New York's always been about the night. So when the sun goes down and work is done, I go out and try to seek out my own personal New York. That's what's it's always been about to me. Things change and places close, but I try to find things that amuse and stimulate me in this city and there's still plenty. Original ideas and places are shrinking, but I'm trying to embrace them while they're still here. That's all I know what to do. Am I a New Yorker? Who knows, I'm just busy being me.

Anonymous said...

Starbucks ..... disappear??

Anonymous said...

Starbuck's ain't going nowhere.

Little Earthquake said...

Ignorant, xenophobic commentary is still acceptable so long as it's against white Midwesterners. When you can no longer conveniently blame the Irish, the blacks, the Italians, the Hispanics, the Jews, or the Arabs, it makes sense to choose a more politically correct target on which to vent (and project) your own "seething hatred."

the G said...

"The thing about New York is it's based on the idea of change"

I see this come up a lot in the comments here, and it always burns me up! I have spent my whole life here, and I have never, ever felt this to be the case. New York has always felt, to me, like an old city, and growing up in the 70s & 80s it always seemed that everything I was experiencing had been set in place in the 40s, or maybe before. That the city had always been more about basting itself in its own unique history than about changing. And it was that age & history that made it feel different than any other city in this country I've ever been to.

"New York is about change" just seems like a thoughtless cop out. More like LIFE is about change, but NYC, not so much. Until now.

In general, change is inevitable.

"What's new is the rate at which the old is being wiped away."

That's the sad part.

Anonymous said...

I have no issues with NYC changing. As many have pointed out, NYC has always evolved during its lifetime.

What I do have an issue is that NYC is simply changing into what the rest of the country is. People no longer move here to become part of NYC: they move here to change it to where they just left from.

allen vella said...

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."

For this native born NY'er (Astoria '55), this is what really bugs me..I know and accept change, but boy is it coming faster with each decade...and the homogenization doesn't help..the new real is quite different from the (historical) Old, and I don't like it mostly. Plus the social, and economic divide...oh don't get me started....
love your work, thank you.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

I get the idea that NYC is built on change. I suppose that's what keeps the city full of surprises. I've always thought of it as a place that celebrates individuality and uniqueness - the more different, the better. So many cultures jammed in together, yet retaining their own identities.

But lately, this is exactly what I've been missing. Where did all the wild creativity go?

Brendan said...

Increasingly I think all these complaints about specific cultural things (cupcakes, bike lanes) are distractions from the only thing that matters, which is the rent.

If the city is affordable to all kinds of people, then whatever culture emerges from it will be vital and exciting, even though it will constantly be changing and some old-timers might not like it.

The "new" New York is bland and boring because it's not affordable for ordinary people. If working class people and artists and writers and radicals could afford to live in the glass condo towers, they would give rise to exciting communities, even though they're ugly on the outside. (Maybe some day, under different economic conditions, that will literally happen.)

Austin Scott Brooks said...

I really Like this excerpt "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"

This seems like a really cool book. Though I embrace change. I love that New York can both remain the same and constantly change. This characteristic is a part of it's charm and uniqueness.

Melanie said...

Love you both--Jen Doll and Jeremiah. Happy Holiday!!
I am a Real New Yorker and proud of it!!
@Goggla--the wild creativity is within you!!!

Ed said...

I realize that Jeremiah had to link to the article, given the subject matter and the fact that he was quoted, but I found it hard to get through the relentless string of cliches that made up the piece.

Some "Old New York" institutions stuck around, they just became hollowed out and really crappy. Like the Village Voice, for example.

Ed said...

Not everyone even here has gotten this, but the difference between the gentrifriers (and yes, these are mostly the same elites that destroyed the various Midwestern cities that they came from, who are now here to do the same), and past wave of immigrants, and the current wave of poor non-American immigrants in the Outer Boroughs, is that this is not so much immigration as colonization. A privileged group is coming in from the outside and using superior firepower, in the form of real estate money, to run roughshod over local customs and traditions.

And yes, these were local customs and traditions. People didn't start saying slogans such as "New York is all about change" until this started happening. The knock on New York in the 70s and 80s, when I was growing up, was that it was an old city being bypassed by the rest of the country, which was entering a new suburban future.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ed, on your first comment (and your second too), but mostly on your first comment. Was trying to be polite to the author of the article, hence did not say it.

Also, anyone who writes an article on how to be a New Yorker and needs to justify their existence in NYC, most likely isn't a New Yorker.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i warned Jen that you guys would be tough, but you held back! she was all prepared.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

The blandness of a lot of new stuff is so depressing, as is the tunnel vision of many newcomers. My lovely eighty-something neighbor says she's tried to talk to some of the newer residents on our block but they just brush her off. How boring it must be to only talk to people like yourself. Much of the joy of being in the city is in the random connections you make with people who are nothing like you at all.
I'm used to being a misfit, & the ever-more sanitized city is just making me prouder to be one! I am an easily pleased misfit though, & still find things to enjoy here.

Anonymous said...

The Village Voice article is so bland, much like what has happened to NYC, that it doesn't warrant a scathing remark from your readers.

Anonymous said...

jeremiah& friends, the "midwestern obsession" is not only wrong but a waste of time. the entire world is swallowed up in chain stores box stores etc. from arabia to central america to main street usa (this happened 30 yrs. back), & recently NYC. from armani, tiffany, starbucks, p.j. changs to walmart, home depot, subway sandwich, mac donalds (depending upon the social class of the people), look @the the world. the newer folks in nyc (midwestern wisconson) may like this. but they did not create it. you give them more power & air time than they deserve. i am sure that the box stores/chain stores are in immigrant areas. in addition: there were always back yards in NYC. (& bikes). do not like bike lanes & other bloomberg changes. but why keep talking about these blond mid west people? are they responsible? no! move on to some indian mexican arabic asian areas, & do a study on the suburbanization. most of the people there will be thrilled to have walmart. whether its a midwesterner or a persian, the majority want this. otherwize these stores would not exist. it would not be in fashion to criticize fat dark third world people eating @ burger king, & bringing the baby to walmart. would it? how is this different? only white folks w/$ can be made fun of? and BLAMED for corporate expansion?