07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Lost World Of New York Art

"Come back, come back, O glittering and white!"

That is the lofty lament which closes F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1932 farewell to his New York, "My Lost City." Upon his return from Europe to a metropolis left in tatters after an earlier financial meltdown, he rode to the top of the newly erected Empire State Building and was dismayed by the realization that "the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits."

In the year 2009, with visual grids, portraits still and moving, and endlessly reconfigured bits of "kinetic" motion burned onto our frontal lobes from anywhere and everywhere - on our home screens and at the movies, in taxicabs and at the entrances of subway stations, on our laptops and our mobile communication devices of choice - the dreams generated by negative space, the bewitching limitlessness of that which is just beyond our frame of reference, must now be laid like a scrim over a relentlessly and exhaustively charted real world. But 77 years after Fitzgerald's melancholy remembrance, the fact remains that something is always being lost to those of us who call New York our home.

On a very basic level, the idea that we live in the Center of the World is now ad copy, or a prayer murmured by Graydon Carter as the Ambien is kicking in. To paraphrase Citizen Kane, pleasing irrelevance, as it must to all cities in a de-centralized world, came to New York. Now, it seems as if nothing comes to pass unless it's officially sanctioned, only fitting for a city in which it has become increasingly impossible to live without an income in the 6-digits at the very least. The possibilities of an unofficial culture are few, and anything spontaneously generated is either extremely tentative or just as extremely brief, unless it has some kind of entrepreneurial tinge. Very little seems to happen until we've been told that it's happened, that it's in the process of happening, or that it's about to happen by an unharmonized chorus of voices on media outlets and certain social networks whose names are so frequently invoked that I will refrain from doing so here. How am I today? I'm checking my Blackberry.

Not that this particular Blackberry owner disapproves. The pulverizing ambience of the city is modified or effaced by iPod, concentration is regularly punctuated by texts and e-mails and re-shufflings of schedule, and the predominant urban vibe is centered, self-possessed, economical in matters of money as well as energy intake and output, lonely but not crushingly so. The non-stop communication is far from ecstatic, and comes on like an orderly, clear-eyed, eminently purposeful buzz. Men and women still lead lives of quiet desperation, but the quiet seems more prominent than the desperation. And amidst all this absorbing and buffering and filtering, there seems to be a slightly sharper awareness, among the equipped and fully mediated, of the legions of citizens who lack the mental or economic means to get in on the vibe. Sharper, at least, than it was when I arrived here 28 years ago. On the other hand, sales of Jack Welch's Winning and Straight from the Gut may have taken a dive, but the corporate mentality lives on and seems to have infected the world of not-for-profit arts institutions like the swine flu.

To put it simply, New York has become a rather dull and venerably becalmed place. Now that it really is possible to observe the spectacle of the city from an insulated distance, the famously frantic pace feels lulling, not unlike a Michael Bay action sequence with the sound off. Every gathering seems to have its purpose and proper form, and the sections of town where a measure of unpredictability lives on - Williamsburg, Washington Heights, Flatbush, Marcus Garvey Park on Saturday afternoon, Film Forum - are welcome aberrations. While a wide-open city like Buenos Aires seems like a place where anything could happen, New York seems like a place where certain things might have a chance of happening if the CEO - I mean the Mayor - signs off.

I suppose that to some degree, New York remains a "medieval city," as Brian Eno once put it, always working itself out as it goes along. But the issues being worked out are now relatively unexciting ones. Which developer will have the least amount of disrespect for which neighborhood? Which bank will move into the latest vacated storefront? Are the pharmacists nicer at the Duane Reade on 102nd and Broadway, 106th and Broadway, or 111th and Broadway? Will Gwathmey's hideously glass-skinned "Sculpture for Living" on Astor Place really stand as is for the duration of its 99-year lease, or will it get a reverse makeover that would bring it into some kind of parity with the neighborhood around it?

Of course, something always feels like it's over for someone in New York, from Howells to Dreiser to Fitzgerald to Leibowitz. And I will freely admit that something is probably beginning for someone younger than myself, even during this moment of disconcerting tranquility, which, I suspect, will be increasing exponentially in the coming decades. It is pointless to dwell on the loss of anything in a city whose identity is based on ceaseless change. Nonetheless, I thought it might be interesting to tell a few tales of a New York that is now over and done with, my own lost city.

From the Village to the Thalia in 10 Minutes - In the winter of 1981, my friend Peter Gizzi and I were standing in Washington Square Park poring over the Village Voice's film section. There was a double bill of His Girl Friday and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek at the Thalia. Which would begin in 10 minutes. We were in the Village, the Thalia was on 95th Street and Broadway. "We can make it," said Pete. "I'll drive." The vehicle in question was my girlfriend's Honda Civic.

The drive itself was uneventful. Which is miraculous since Pete's elbow was resting on the horn the whole way, during which he occasionally slowed down to 75. I made a game but not completely successful attempt to get into the spirit of things and play Jack Hawkins to his Long John Silver. In the unlikely event that the car exists today, my teethmarks are probably still lodged in the dashboard.

"We made it." But what about parking, you might wonder. Not a problem. Pete swerved into a space and jumped out. "Hey, aren't we sticking out a little?" I whined. "Go around to the right," instructed Pete impatiently. Have you and your friend ever picked up the back of your girlfriend's car and dropped it into a parking place? Probably not.

We woke up the guy at the box office, bought our tickets and rushed into the packed theater just as the credits of the Hawks film started rolling, in an ungainly 16mm print about 27 generations removed from the original negative. Not that we cared, any more than we cared about the Thalia's funhouse rake which guaranteed that anyone sitting anywhere had to crane their necks to see the screen. What has been lost, you might ask? Honda Civics? Good riddance. My girlfriend? Good riddance to her too (although I'm still sorry about messing up the wheel alignment). The Thalia? It's still there, cleaned up, elegantly re-configured, and renamed after Leonard Nimoy. The possibility of driving 91 blocks in 10 minutes? So much the better. And Pete remains my closest friend. But since the early 80s, when Ted Turner unveiled TNT and systematically restored the Warner Brothers, early MGM and RKO libraries, tolerance for imperfect film images under imperfect conditions has decreased to near zero. This is a good thing, I suppose, but it's also a reason for people to refrain from congregating. The arrival during the same period of a dreadful Canadian-based company called Cineplex Odeon, who told us that we were all longing for "the return of the elegant theater" and raised ticket prices to prove it, only made matters worse.

"Dead, but not gone" - Words written on a postcard by Samuel Beckett from a convalescent home right before his death, and a fitting premature epitaph for The Village Voice. Great writers are still filing, but as it has been frequently noted, the paper is now an indifferent assemblage of ads and personals with some actual journalism and criticism slotted in for good measure (I believe that the office is now a concrete enclosure to the right of the swing set in Washington Square Village). Such was not the case in the winter of 1980, when I started an internship at the Voice with Andrew Sarris and his second-in-command, Tom Allen. Tom was a card-carrying auteurist (forever on the lookout for damning evidence against Pauline Kael), a vocal admirer of George Romero and John Carpenter, a soft-spoken devotee of unshaven legs on girls, and a Jesuit monk. When his brotherhood moved from the South Bronx to Jackson Heights, another intern and I drove up to help him move some boxes. "You can't miss the building," he said, "because there's nothing across the street and nothing on either side of it." He was correct: a lone structure in a continent of rubble. "The Voice is basically a left wing-rag," he told me, "but I stay on because of Andrew." Was it a great paper by the early 80s? Probably not, but no one can tell me it wasn't lively. As I remember it, the publisher, David Schneiderman, might have been mistaken for an office boy had he not been the only guy in the joint who showed up for work in a suit. Swarming around him were, among others, the sweet, gnomic Richard Goldstein, the forbiddingly austere intellectual swashbuckler Alex Cockburn, the benignly somnambulant Geoffrey Stokes (Vladimir Estragon to readers of the food column), a young and puckish David Edelstein, and a not-so-puckish James Wolcott, who once spent an afternoon singing an aria in praise of De Palma's Blow Out from the middle of the office. And Stanley Crouch. It wasn't physically possible to look out of place at the Voice, but Crouch came very close. Was it the swaggering walk, the thundering voice, the absolute confidence in a sea of proudly affirmed neurotics? Or was it the professorial sweater vest? My favorite moment at the Voice might be the time a hysterical man whose name I forget was ejected by security guards after trying to throw a chair at Crouch, who gave his would-be aggressor some extra taunting on the way out. Or was it the weekend that Tom was away on Jesuit retreat, Andrew came down with a temperature of 107 and went into the hospital for a year, and I threw all the film files into my duffle bag and lugged them to my apartment for safe-keeping because the paper was threatening to go on strike? The rivalries and the factionalism, the odd blend of leftism and confessional therapy, the bright cloud of sardonic humor that hovered over the whole enterprise at all times - all gone, as is the column to which Tom devoted so much care, entitled Revivals in Focus. Within a very short time span, most of the revival houses in the city were either dead or dying and, before long, really and truly gone.

They Knew What They Wanted - I wound up working at New Video, one of the first video rental stores in the city, a cavernous walk-down on MacDougal between West 3rd and Bleecker. Steve Savage, the enterprising owner, had the bright idea of hiring NYU film students to man the counters. If someone came in pining for Sophie's Choice and every copy was out, we were able to suggest something else and discuss it at length - sometimes for so long that we held up the line of customers, who included a good portion of the downtown art world, half of Talking Heads, the proprietors of several clubs that were shuttered years ago, Fred Schneider from the B-52s (who I remember glancing at a Post cover proclaiming the death of Soviet Premier Konstantin U. Chernenko and saying, "I am gonna miss that guy..."), record executives, film executives, several coke dealers and a sweet little old lady and her husband, newly retired, who became free spirits and refused to be bound by the obligation to reserve in advance. Some nights they were in the mood for a comedy (I suggested a black comedy and the lady said, "What, you mean with Richard Pryor?"), some nights a romance, on one occasion a mix of gay and straight porn. On one particular night they had a very definite idea of what they wanted. "That war movie." "Which one?" I replied. "You know...the one with that actor...?" "The Deer Hunter?" I said, grasping at straws. "No, we saw that. No, the one with the other actor...they're on a mission...with the music..." I was out of suggestions when she finally had it: "I know - Acropolis Now!" If they're still alive, I wonder if they can plan far enough in advance to maintain a Netflix queue.

Noo-AH - Another one of my favorite customers was Bleecker Bob, a man of great appetites, an apparently sour disposition, and zero propriety. "You got any noir?" he'd loudly ask. Bob spoke in a thick New York accent, the kind you have to search for now, and it would come out as "noo-AH." "What noo-AH you got?" We gave him whatever we had, which wasn't much - The Big Heat, The Maltese Falcon, The Lady from Shanghai, Gilda, Touch of Evil, and only a few others. It didn't take very long for Bob to run through the noir collection because he would come in every day, sometimes for a double header. "Gimme some noo-AH - whaddaya got?" Before long we were down to the dreaded neo-noir. "I watched that Body Heat shit - that's not noo-AH, that's shit. Gimme the real thing." Trying to squeeze blood from a stone, I sent him home with Bertolucci's The Conformist. He was back within the hour. "What the fuck was that? I want some noo-AH!"

One day, Pete walked into the store carrying a great big yellow-and-red Tower Records bag. "Uh oh," he said when he saw Bob, and hid the bag behind his back. "Hey, that's not funny," said Bob. "Seriously. It's no fucking joke. Lemme use your phone." He grabbed the phone, called his store, and gave instructions to ban Pete for life. Bleecker Bob's, formerly on the corner of Washington Square West and 8th Street and relocated to a more spacious set-up on West 3rd, was central to the New York music scene. It was true that chain stores like Tower were putting the independent stores in serious jeopardy, but the ban on Pete was lifted the next day.

The truth is that Bob also had a big heart. When my friend's brother came to town primed for a manic freak out if he couldn't hear a certain recording then and there, Bob sent it over within minutes. A couple of years later, Bob asked me to come aboard with him. He wanted to start his own video rental corner, which came to naught. Then he offered me a regular job in the store when I needed the work. I reported to two counter men who were fixtures at the place - one was placidly embittered, the other was dryly affable. A customer came in, looking for a Gruppo Sportivo album. I looked at placidly embittered and dryly affable. They looked back. I went to the filed records, and couldn't make sense of the order. "Is it in alphabetical order?" I asked. "No, it's by label," muttered p.e. "Okay. Which label?" "Sire," said d.a. I found my way to Sire, and was lost once again. "Excuse me, but...are they in alphabetical order?" "No, it's by spine number," said d.a. "Here, I'll get it. You sit over there."

I lasted one night. Bob promised to start the video corner, but it never happened. I expected his record business to last only a little while longer. 25 years later and counting, video stores are a thing of the past, the entire Tower chain has folded and Virgin Megastore has recently followed suit, the Voice is a ghost, the Bleecker Street Cinema and Poe House and the Village Gate and the Provincetown Playhouse are gone, but Bleecker Bob's is still selling vinyl on West 3rd between MacDougal and 6th Avenue.

And Bob, there's plenty of noir on DVD.