Friday, January 11, 2008

Where Has All The Strangeness Gone?

Roosevelt Island and Queensboro Bridge, October 2007

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 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?

Roosevelt Island and Queensboro Bridge, January 2008


Chris said...

I guess it depends on what kind of history you're looking for. Here in California anything older than a hundred years is ancient. The string of missions along our coast are some of the oldest structures east of the Mississippi. For me, walking the Freedon Trail in Boston is a trip further back in time than I could have conceived as a young kid growing up in Los Angeles. A trip to Europe *really* puts things in perspective. I found Athens to be remarkably like Los Angeles - dense, smoogy, sprawled from mountain range to mountain range - but for the two-and-a-half-thousand year old Acropolis rising from the city's heart.

Nothing stirs up spirits of the past quite like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking up the face of El Capitan, or trudging up Mount Shasta. Of course, these are all Western examples, but I think you take my meaning - I guess that human history has just never resonated with me to the same degree as natural history.

Still, for my money, you can't do much better on the East Coast than Portland. I stand behind that recommendation 100%.

Oly said...

Philly and Boston are prime examples of cities that still give a healthy respect to their history.

New York is an entirely different monster.

And it has everything to do with the death of Jackie O.

There currently is no face or power behind the historic preservationist movement in NYC.

And it's one of my biggest peeves and heartbreak always.

Montreal is another great city to see a great balance of old vs. new.

NYC will have nothing left soon.

Earwig said...

I agree entirely, HH. I spent much of my childhood in a Virginia suburb and watched new houses wipe out forests and farms. I was appalled on many levels, but could never get past how bankrupt the new developments felt. In destroying the history of the place, they destroyed the soul of the place.
A recent trip to Italy shed some light on this for me. Italy, it seems, builds solid houses and, once they are abandoned, keeps them until someone cares to restore them. It was somewhat disorienting to see crumbling, abandoned buildings in prosperous parts of town. Yet, when someone gets up the gumption, they rebuild one of these properties and move in. The result is a place rich in history and in spirit.
Why do we have such a hard time grasping this?

Tree said...

Last one out, turn off the lights.