After spending a week out in Los Angeles where I caught up with old friends, hung out at Disneyland, and did some promotion for my book (an appearance on the internet radio show The Craig & Robbie Hour), I flew back to New York this past Sunday. There's always a sense of pride and happiness I feel whenever I return to New York after traveling. As I saw the Empire State Building illuminated against the nighttime sky during my taxi ride, I knew I was home.
I decided to crash at my parents' West Village apartment and woke up the next morning to a beautiful view of downtown Manhattan, which includes the almost completed One World Trade Center. I sat there with my coffee and took in the tallest building in New York City, and I remembered how the skyline looked so incomplete with the empty airspace that was left behind after the Twin Towers collapsed. I should have felt happiness that there is finally something there to fill the void. Instead, I closed my eyes and remembered how amazing the view from that window was when the Towers stood there in all their majestic glory. I began to feel sad -- not only for the devastation that came along with 9/11, but also because I realized that no matter how tall and shiny this new building will be, it will never be the Twin Towers. One World Trade Center will always be a substitution -- a replacement -- never really able to completely capture the same symbolization of the relationship between the Towers and downtown Manhattan. I could feel mouthfuls of bitterness being swallowed with every sip of coffee the more I thought about this. It was another painful reminder that old New York is slowly dying.
Of course, the fact that New York is an evolving city is no newsflash to those of us who reside and/or work here. Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg both implemented changes that steered the Big Apple in this direction. The once seedy Times Square is now a neighborhood of flashing neon lights and big chain stores. The "undesirables" that frequented the area have been replaced with hordes of tourists. Yep, there is not a hooker, pimp, or drug dealer anywhere as far as the eye can see. It's anyone's guess where these folks have gone to set up shop, but it surely isn't the Meatpacking District. That area has been cleaned up as well and is now home to several restaurants, a few designer boutiques, and Apple. The city has been rezoned for nightlife. Smoking bans have been instituted just about everywhere. No doubt about it -- it's a kinder and cleaner New York. Gentrification, however, comes with a price tag. And I'm not just referring to the astronomical rents for tiny studio apartments that went for $700 back in the 1990s. I'm talking about the loss of Manhattan's grit and urban edge.
As I walked around the city after I digested my cup of coffee and morning bitterness, I began to note other aspects of New York that have changed. Each observation symbolizes progress and growth I'm sure, but all I could see was the internal score card in my head of old New York vs. new New York. Twenty minutes into my stroll and it looked like new New York was winning. I would have gone on keeping my tally had it not been for the blue bikes that I started noticing out of the corner of my eye. When I shifted my full attention to the bicyclists peddling up and down 8th Avenue that was when I figured out that the Citi Bikes sharing program had finally launched. Naturally, I then saw all the docking stations for these Citi Bikes everywhere I went. There are a lot of them. So now, in addition to lunatic cab drivers, pedestrians are also going to have to worry about rabid cyclists who feel they don't have to obey traffic signals. If you think I'm exaggerating, I actually had one of these bike-renting bandits yell out "Bike, Bike!" as I tried to cross the street. He was making a left turn on a red light in case anyone was wondering.
It's never a good sign when you start out your sentences with, "Back in my day..." People see that as a telltale indicator that you have reached a certain age, and are falling out of sync with a younger generation. While this entry might reek of a curmudgeon who is lamenting the loss of his twenty-something glory days, rest assured, this is about New York losing its edge. Nightclubs are closing...small businesses are folding...Musto was let go from the Village Voice. All the things that made this city great are vanishing. Do you really think a movie like Taxi Driver could be set in today's New York? Hell, Saturday Night Fever couldn't even be told in present-day homogenized New York. I'll repeat: it's a kinder and cleaner New York. Theoretically, it should also be a safer New York. That is what happens when an area is subjected to the gentrification process, right? The recent rise of anti-gay attacks in Manhattan tell me the safer part still needs a bit of work.
I once tweeted that if you didn't know New York City during the '80s and '90s in its gritty splendor, then you didn't know New York. That kind of a statement might irritate some people, but it's how I feel. Old New York is giving way to a city that still has plenty of hustle and bustle, but in my eyes, it's a pale image of its former self. Nothing stays the same forever, but sometimes I still catch glimpses of days that I thought were long gone. Mister Softee trucks can still be found throughout the city. Unless Bloomberg decides that New Yorkers are too fat to enjoy ice cream, we should be seeing them all summer. And going back to the night I flew back from LA, I went to grab a slice of pizza once I got into the city. I didn't go to one of those 99 cents pizza shops; I went to an actual pizzeria. While I was waiting for my slice, the speakers began blaring Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's "Can You Feel the Beat." That, to me, was a pure New York moment. It was as if the city was letting me know that her grit might be on life support, and might occasionally flat line; however, she is still hanging in there. Just like most true New Yorkers, she's being forced to accept gentrification, but she's not giving up without a fight.