Before moving here in 1999, I romanticized New York City in my way, naively imagining it America's own Victorian London. I believed I would rub elbows with prostitutes and hustlers as often as artists, dancers and yuppies. I also believed - this correctly - that New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore belonged to a special group of American centers, settlements that proudly wear scars of their younger days and offer exciting local histories on every block. Sadly, even the latter assumption is proving false, or, at least, less true than it used to be.
Yesterday evening, I sat in a West Village pub named after a one-time London establishment. To my left was a hearth, on which a small pile of gas logs "burned" pleasantly. The pub's decor and wood paneling were also counterfeit; the Guinness, fortunately, was not. I divided my time between eavesdropping - on a conversation about the American tendency toward Bush/Clinton rule and, for comic relief, a movie trivia game involving an astoundingly clueless couple - and reading the excellent, but depressing "Mystery on Pearl Street," a piece by Burkhard Bilger included in the January 7th issue of The New Yorker. The article details the story of 211 Pearl Street, a building almost approved for protection by the NY Landmarks Preservation Commission, but instead demolished to make room for a(nother) high-rise condominium and office center.
Early on in the article, Bilger supplies readers with this distressing fact: "New York demolishes more old buildings every month than most American cities have standing...in an average year, about two thousand buildings are torn down." Later, Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, puts it to Bilger thus: "New York, to me, is becoming less and less mysterious. Its ghosts, its revenants, they don't have a place to walk anymore. They are being squeezed out....I don't mean to sound like an occultist, but a little bit of strangeness is important to Manhattan."
In the last six months - SIX MONTHS! - four new condos rose on my block in Astoria, Queens; the footprint of another has just been cleared. From my office on Manhattan's East Side, I look down on Roosevelt Island, once named Welfare Island, and see condo after condo ascending. The papers remind us each month of the "exodus of the creative class," a phenomenon attributed to escalating rents and the ever increasing cost of living, but those are not the only factors responsible.
Personally, I'd rather live in a place where the spirits linger. Is Europe the only refuge?