In the gorgeous, headlong afterword to his Low Life, Luc Sante characterizes the New York City of the early 1960s as a place that “[i]n the theater of its streets and in the works it broadcast to the world…displayed a soul that was democratic, quick-witted, independent, mocking of authority, skeptical, inquisitive, forward-looking, not easily fooled.”
I didn’t come along until 1968 – until after Sante judges the moment passed, that is – but this is in every sense recognizably the city I knew as a child. Whatever else it was in 1974, New York City was a place canny with immigrant nous, proud of its scars, possessed at some elemental level of termite persistence and an eye for the main chance.
I don’t want you for a second to get the idea that I’m overlooking the million crises and defects New York inherited as it slouched into the Seventies. I also remember the desperation and the ugliness, the blocks-long stretches laid waste, the sense of depopulation and even of exodus. But these were its virtues, and they were real ones.
Here’s what really brought me up short, though, in reading this passage: I tried to construct a parallel sentence characterizing present-day New York, and found that I couldn’t. I just couldn’t hear what the city has to say, couldn’t quite connect with its living soul. And it’s not as if I don’t walk its streets every day of my life, ride its subways and buses, hang out in its parks (or for that matter, on Web sites dedicated to discussing and dissecting its ways).
I want to say that this is about the replacement of the crass and grimy corner Te-Amo with a Starbucks that might as well be in Denver, and of course it is. It’s certainly about the shattering of a once-shared mediascape into a million little niche channels and narrowcast outlets. It’s about the overwriting of so much that was pungent and unique about this place by an ur-suburban, anywhere milieu of Irish setters and strollers and SUVs, and the architecture appropriate to them. And it’s probably got not a little to do with iPods and cellphones and Blackberrys, what they do to unmediated personal interactions at close range, the self-absorption they more’n likely do foster. I’m sure you can tick off all the usual suspects just as easily as I can, remembering all the while that just being clichéd does not necessarily render a sentiment untrue.
But it’s one thing to be able to identify the causes of a change like this, and quite another to come to a genuine reckoning with it. And reckoning, I think, is what’s called for, because when a city loses its singular voice this is certainly something beyond repairing with a single gesture, most especially when those gestures are in themselves banal, unimaginative, misguided and worse. I can’t imagine New York City without a collective sense of itself – or rather, I couldn’t, until I read the Sante passage. Now I’m not so sure what to think.
We know that the city rediscovers itself and what is best in itself at moments of crisis – September 11th being the obvious example in recent memory, but no less the blackout of 2003. To me this is evidence that everything I’m missing is still here, slumbering latent in the DNA of the place however rarely brought to light. And this is – will have to be – reason enough for hope. If only there were other ways of getting to it.