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Salvaging New York’s Lost Soul

Review: “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul”
By Jeremiah Moss
Dey Street Books, 2017

Steven Wishnia Aug 19

Issue 227

Jeremiah Moss’s Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul is a scream against the city’s “hypergentrification,” a 420-page screed of lucid analysis and crystalline prose.

Moss, the pseudonymous publisher of the Vanishing New York blog, moved to the East Village as an aspiring poet in the early 1990s. He’s enraged that he caught just the last gasps of the city he dreamed of before its soul was murdered. Twentieth-century New York, he says, was “noisy and dirty, a cacophony of cultures and classes, juiced by the energies of liberated people,” a home for “immigrants, laborers, bohemians, and queers,” its tone set by “working-class wiseguys and neurotic intellectuals” who spoke an argumentative and funny “language of toughness mixed with warmth.” Twenty-First-century New York has replaced that with “the icy aura of contempt,” morphing into a sterile, overpriced morass of glass-box offices and luxury high-rises, frat-boy bars and suburban chain stores.

He’s doubly enraged because this was not the result of natural processes, not even the inexorable hand of the market. It was a deliberate assassination, he contends, a campaign of economic, ethnic and cultural bleaching, driven by the corrupt ideology that the purpose of the city is to serve the rich.

The enraging thing about the changes in New York over the last 10 or 25 years is that they have gone in only one direction — relentlessly upscale.

What real New Yorker hasn’t kvetched about this? There are thousands of individual examples, from Williamsburg to Willets Point, from Surf Avenue to 125th Street, but Moss collects them all in one place, with shocking statistics on how fast and extreme the changes have been. After Mayor Michael Bloomberg rezoned West Chelsea to allow high-rise development, the opening of the High Line’s second section in 2009 “heralded a mass extinction event, like the impact of the K-T asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.” Within one month, four of Tenth Avenue’s gas stations and auto-repair shops would be gone. Bloomberg gave the nearby Hudson Yards luxury development between $500 million and $1 billion in tax breaks. Within five years after Williamsburg was rezoned in 2005, more than 170 buildings had been demolished, replaced by a wall of tax-subsidized luxury apartments. Thousands of small businesses now close every year, unable to pay triple, quadruple or even octuple rent increases — or because landlords and banks prefer chains for their brands’ perceived value, and even charge them lower rents. (Moss endorses bringing back rent regulation for commercial spaces, as well as the milder Small Business Jobs Survival Act that has been bottled up in the City Council for years.)

His analysis has some shortcomings. He doesn’t mention the state’s 1997 gutting of rent stabilization, which gave landlords a legal method to charge astronomical rents and thus a massive incentive to drive out tenants, and doesn’t dwell much on how wholesale harassment then became a business model for investors in “undervalued” buildings. He makes the accurate observation that the 9/11 attacks were a critical turning point, but can’t quite put his finger on why that happened, positing a vague ‘Americanization’ of the city on top of the election of billionaire Bloomberg and his “luxury city” vision.

But he makes numerous perceptive observations. Real-estate developers market neighborhoods’ authentic culture “in order to sell it to an invading culture that would then destroy it.” (Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner advertises a Lower East Side building he harassed the old tenants out of as the place where Allen Ginsberg wrote “his famous poem ‘Elegy’” — which must be the Google Translate version of “Kaddish.”) Where it once took a decade or more for hypergentrification to hit a neighborhood after young artists and queers started moving in, “today it happens overnight.” He lists myriad examples of the new colonialists’ arrogant “sense of Manifest Destiny”: white people moving to Harlem and calling in noise complaints on the African drummers in the park, a yuppie on the Lower East Side repulsed by the smell of pickles from Katz’s Deli and Mayor Bloomberg telling the auto-repair shops of Willets Point that “this land is too valuable for you.”

Moss and those of us who complain about all this are often denounced as cranks wallowing in nostalgia, left-wing reactionaries resisting any kind of change. But the real issue is what kind of change. Yes, I miss the Brighton Beach Avenue of my childhood, of bakeries with fresh rye bread with caraway seeds, massive kasha knishes from Mrs. Stahl’s. But now you can get Russian black bread and Georgian baguettes baked in a circular oven, and street peddlers vend handmade potato, pea and cabbage knishes for $1.50. That’s different from the Coney Island bodega where I used to get a bottle of seltzer to drink on the beach being forced out and replaced by a theme-park restaurant that charges $4 for a bottle of water.

The enraging thing about the changes in New York over the last 10 or 25 years is that they have gone in only one direction — relentlessly upscale. If they were simply that the “working-class wiseguys” now speak in Spanglish or Jamaican patois instead of old-school Brooklynese, and the “neurotic intellectuals” are black, Puerto Rican or Chinese instead of Jewish, it would still be the city we loved. My encapsulation of this would be the used bookstore on West 18th Street, an intellectual oasis for the low-budget literate, that got replaced by a body-waxing salon. Moss’s is Café Edison on 47th Street in Times Square, a classic Eastern European Jewish coffeeshop, that got pushed out for a chain called Friedman’s Lunch — named after Milton Friedman, the intellectual godfather of modern free-market fundamentalism.

“Remember? New York of agitators and nonconformists, of creation and disruption, of people who were aware and worked to wake the rest of America with writing, art, politics, and social justice,” Moss writes near the end. “That is the city for which I am nostalgic, and outraged, and cranky as hell. Aren’t you?”

If you care about the soul of New York City, you must read this book.

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Photo: THE CONSERVATIONIST: Jeremiah Moss speaks to a packed room at Housing Works Bookstore in Lower Manhattan. Credit: Xavier Guerra.