New York is one of those few rare places where you can read about a place in the city one minute — an old building where someone once lived, an abandoned music venue, a corner where that one special scene in a movie from decades ago was shot — then find yourself actually there the next. Buildings are not just buildings. Streets are not just streets. At least, not to some people. At least, not to me.
The Apthorp. Macdougal Street. 52 West 8th Street. 315 Bowery. The Hotel Chelsea. I could write you a long list if I wanted to, a list of places that are not just addresses and buildings and random New York streets. They’re places that mean something. They hold memories, even if they aren’t really mine. The place didn’t make the place; the people who came before me did.
On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself standing on a random sidewalk, perhaps insignificant to 80 percent of the world, still, closing my eyes, trying to cull memories that are built on second-hand information from my brain. And then I open them and stare at another luxury development and wonder where exactly it is I am doing and what exactly it is I’m doing there. I try to place the people back into the picture and start to wonder why it’s becoming more and more difficult to feel even a tiny bit of spark of inspiration, a tiny bit of understanding of what things were like before this very moment.
These are supposed to be haunted streets, haunted with our ancestors’ spirits, those living and dead, those related to us not by blood, but by spirit. The dreamers and artists and thinkers and poets. These are supposed to be haunted streets, but it’s getting harder to feel their spirits, harder to close my eyes and truly feel, harder to summon energy of a time I can’t help but think I’ve missed out on.
Joan Didion once wrote, “I am trying to place myself in history. I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it.” I came to New York to be a part of history. To revisit history. To make my own history. But history is quickly being renovated or torn down or overshadowed by high rise buildings that may sparkle in the sunset but still sit empty, homes to nothing more than investments, at the end of the day.
I wonder if anyone in the future will feel the same way I feel now. I wonder if the places that are significant to me now, the places that I will tell stories of, will mean anything years from now, or if they’ll all be whitewashed beyond recognition, the way CBGBs is now a men’s clothing store and the Palladium is now an NYU dorm and Pearl Paint now houses $16,000 a month condos. Will it still feel the same? Will anyone care?
The city giveth and the city taketh away. The only constant about New York is that it’s always changing. Maybe I sound very young and very romantic and very naive, but I know this. I have known this. I have known that, in so many ways, this city is better — I know that I should be grateful, that I should be acknowledging how wonderful it is that crime rate is down and I don’t have to push a dead hobo from my doorway when I leave for work in the morning or worry too too much about getting mugged on the subway — but I can’t help but wonder if better is always actually better. Or, if it is, who is it really better for?
This usually happens right around the time I notice how goddamn quiet it is, how homogenized things are beginning to look, how alone with my thoughts I am. I live in New York. Isn’t it supposed to be dirty? Isn’t it supposed to be loud? Aren’t I supposed to be making calls to 311 every other day, while knowing in the back of my mind that this is what I signed up for? Because, really, this is what I signed up for. I signed up for the scary and the tough and the gritty and the unpleasant and the bad that’s supposed to make the good all the sweeter in the end.
I still believe that New York is the greatest city in the world, still believe in its infinite possibilities. I wouldn’t have stayed here for as long as I have if I didn’t. But New York doesn’t feel like a city for the very young very often anymore. Is cleaning things up really making this city better? Do we need another brunch place that specializes in vegan avocado toast or a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks or, as I saw recently, scrawled on the window of what was once an Urban Outfitters (I know) whose doors had been shut to make way for new businesses, another fucking bank? Do we need another bucolic residential development or another new high rise that only a handful of people can afford to live in?
I’ve been searching for history, but it feels like it’s slipping away from me.