Earlier this year, I got married in New York City. My husband and I aren't from the US, or even have any family there, but keen to avoid a full-on wedding at home in Glasgow, it seemed like the natural choice for us. When we first met in our late 20s, I had a mild obsession with NYC already, and as neither of us had done the 'travelling' thing, decided to do our version of it - one forever memorable month in the best city in the world, staying in a red-brick tenement in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We returned home a few pounds heavier, possibly due to a proclivity for the Dumac & Cheese at Dumont, with the city firmly cemented as a special place for us.
On this most recent trip, I once again wanted to soak up as much as possible. When planning things to do (other than get hitched), I realised what attracts me most to the city is something intangible, the feeling I get when I’m there, rather than specific activities. It’s the idea of old New York; the grubby, gritty place of red-hued drinking dens depicted in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, or the fervently un-fancy diners described by Patty Smith in Just Kids. A place of cheap rents (apparently in the '70s less than $150 a month for an apartment on the Lower East Side, facilitating the lifestyles of struggling artists and musicians), no-go areas and a dangerous, unreliable subway (easy to romanticise when you didn’t have to live it). New York, specifically Manhattan, as it was roughly from the 1960s-1980s. A place that has changed dramatically, replaced many say, with something far less interesting.
Much has been written by people who lived in the city in the ’70s, which seems to have been a special time culturally, lamenting the loss of the chaotic and dangerous but also atmospheric and authentic New York, to a more financially prosperous but homogenised city. There’s something about that decade that seems to capture the imagination. I didn’t witness is first hand (being born in the ’80s, not even close), but I have a longing for it - it's where I'd time travel to, given the option. I can only put this down to imagery from films, photography and books; shabby pre-war buildings overlaid with a stylish ’70s patina, and how the era seemed to define it as a no-nonsense town, separate from the rest of America, it’s attitude abrasive, fun and sexy.
Of the Manhattan streets in the ’70s, James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair: "The variety and velocity of street stimuli dwarfed anything in New York today, where each block is sedated by two banks, a Duane Reade pharmacy, and some other chain-outlet chapel to consumerism, all of which have done so much to de-personalize the horizontal scroll of city life."
Undoubtedly there were downsides to life in New York at that time. Infrastructure was poor; piles of rubbish rotted on the sidewalks; the subway was filthy and dangerous with muggings commonplace; areas of the city so overrun by drug dealers and junkies, that if you unwittingly strolled into them as a tourist, you’d be terrified. You don’t see this now, New York being one of the safest big cities in America. The streets are mostly clean, areas such as SoHo no longer for artists but a shoppers’ paradise. Even the Lower East Side, the last to succumb to the steady spread of gentrification, has had a boutique-and-coffee shop makeover.
In an essay for The New York Review of Books, Luc Sante remembers his time on the Lower East Side in the ’70s: "Our apartments were furnished exclusively through scavenging...When old people died without wills or heirs, the landlord would set the belongings of the deceased out on the sidewalk, since that was cheaper than hiring a removal van. We would go through the boxes and help ourselves, and come upon photographs and books and curiosities...One day something fell out of an old book, the business card of a beauty parlor that had stood on Avenue C near Third Street, probably in the 1920s. I marveled at it, unable to picture something as sedate as a beauty parlor anywhere near that corner, by then a heroin souk."
Most probably, there are many New Yorkers who wouldn’t choose to go back to the bad old days. Perhaps prosperity and loss of authenticity go hand in hand, and that without the element of chaos and obvious dark side, things just seem less interesting. Though for many of the generation who remember the special time that was the 1970s, it must be sad to witness such a drastic change and feel more strongly what has been lost rather than gained. Who knows what New York will be like in 40 years time and beyond? The cycle of decline and improvement may go on as before and neighbourhoods will change once again. It’s nice to think a healthy balance could be found, and that what remains of each neighbourhood’s distinct character doesn’t get lost forever to consumerism.
It’s still possible to catch a glimpse of the past; standing waiting to cross the road in the Garment district, when you glance up and see a huge faded sign painted on a side of an old brick building; on the Lower East Side, stumbling across a hole in the wall luncheonette, the laminate counter top and worn mustard-yellow bar stools transporting you back to 1979. Sometimes, in a certain light, it’s a view down a street, the buildings, restaurant signs, sounds and smells coming together, and for a second you see (what I imagine to be) the cities old soul shining through.
In her essay Goodbye to All That, Joan Didion remembers being young in New York: "I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.". As a (not so young) tourist, this rings true with me in 2013. It’s what inspired to visit in my early 20s and still does today. While the dive-bars have been replaced with Starbucks and sleazy cinemas in Times Square with chain stores, the city still has enough of an edge to be exciting. It may be clean, shiny and glossy in it’s current incarnation, but I like to think it’s beating heart remains the same.
Quoted essays:
Some old school eateries: