Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Vanishing

I picked up a book of New York photography the other day from a guy selling books on the sidewalk. I got it for five bucks. This guy was not an established book vendor --it looked to me like he found a box of books someone was throwing out and decided to sell them. Ah, enterprise! Ah, New York!

So, anyway, I lugged this thick book home and discovered happily that it included a long foreword by Tama Janowitz, whose short story collection “Slaves of New York” helped define the city in the go-go ‘80s.

Janowitz started off writing about change, and quoted this excerpt from Harper’s Magazine:

New York is notoriously the largest and least-loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years altogether. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew. If he chances to stumble upon a few old houses not yet leveled, he is fortunate. But the landmarks, the objects which marked the city to him, as a city, are gone.

The kicker is that this passage was written in 1856!

New Yorkers have made a career out of lamenting change, especially lately, as real estate skyrockets, the city gentrifies and rent hikes drive out small businesses. There’s a blog called Vanishing New York that tracks the disappearance of the city’s streetscapes -- and simultaneously, some allege, its character. I lament change myself, having recently scanned photos of some of my favorite disappeared landmarks.

It is true that prosperity brings a certain blandness to New York’s streets. The mom-and-pop stores and restaurants are undoubtedly threatened here, and I dislike the glass-and-steel storefronts and condo towers too. But it’s also true that we’ve preserved much of our history, compared to many other cities, where it’s been long bulldozed.

No matter how uncomfortable, change is a fact of life -- one of the few ultimately dependable facts. And as Tama Janowitz wrote, “Yes, everything changes here, and rapidly too. That’s how it’s always been. And that’s why we like it.”

(Photo: The Skyline Diner, Upper East Side, 2005. Now gone.)


Anonymous said...

Steve, what a well-written post.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post-- Maeve Brennan wrote many short short stories about changing NYC --she moved from apt to apt as neighborhoods changed and buildings she once lived in were torn down. I watched 3rd Avenue change from blocks and blocks of beautiful row houses to giant skyscrapers --it happened with terrifying swiftness!

Anonymous said...

nice post.. i have that book somewhere, one day i'll actually get to reading it. in 50 years people will look at pictures of nyc and probably ask "why did they need so many banks, drugstores, and coffeeshops?"

Anonymous said...

Everything changes, but also everything stays just the same. I loved Slaves of New York. Wow. Haven't thought about her in ages.