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“Old” vs. “New” New York

December 1st, 2013 by Dustin Parmenter · 1 Comment · Thoughts

                It seems that the subject people living in New York most enjoy talking about at bars and coffee shops is, of course, the terminal uniqueness of New York living – its workaday joys, trials, tribulations, etc. – or, if one or more of the conversants has been here too long, the discussion inevitably turns towards their various stages of planning in the inevitable move to Los Angeles. Though I typically find the latter conversation to be a bit of an eye roller, the former conversation can often be bearable, and even pleasant if you’ve lucked out with the right crowd. I find it especially engaging when in the company of native New Yorkers, who are generally cynical enough to avoid the jading that seems endemic to so many transplants; they’ve absorbed the city’s rhythm without having to constantly reflect it onto passersby, adopting its very fabric as an undershirt rather than as conversational armor or weapon.

                My coworker at the metal fabrication shop – I’ll call him “L” – is 19, and a native of Park Slope. On lunch and cigarette breaks, he’ll sometimes talk about how much the city has changed. Though I have to actively restrain myself from wondering just how much of this change he’s actually seen or comprehended with his being less than two decades old, I’m always interested to listen to his laments over a pastrami sandwich, e.g. the rapid gentrification of his neighborhood, a white yuppie’s laughable and insulting fear of native minorities, the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program, and how his brand new tech high school in Greenpoint was the last bastion of Brooklyn’s rough-and-tumble yin. He’s grateful to have graduated without a rap sheet, and glad that he no longer has to deal with being patted down going into and out of school every day, or routinely harassed by police officers at nearby subway stations, but there’s a certain note of longing in his elocution of the phrase “hallway race riots” that makes me smile into my sandwich, and cease to question his credibility.

                Native or not, his line of argument is almost always the rule in discussing the lost merits of a pre-Bloomberg, pre-Giuliani New York City. The recent death of Lou Reed prompted much discussion of this “lost era” of cheap rent, a truly underground youth counterculture, and the irreplaceable grit of the Lower East Side that my generation is still looking for all over, from the Bronx to Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights. I’ve always thought it curious how often people – read: mostly young, urban(e), mostly middle-to-upper-middle class white people – desire the veneer of decay or blight without being conscious of its actual human consequences, and how that same desire tends to be coupled with a failure to appreciate renewal in terms otherwise than gentrification. I suppose many desire hardship, or at least its semblance, so that they can tamp down their overweening privilege and feel like they’re a part of nothing less than their own American dream of intemperate individuality, of hardship (real or imagined; and what’s the difference, anyway, for most?) overcome, and ultimately, freedom from want. But I think we’ve all met those in their late 20s and 30s who seem to have needlessly transfixed themselves in this pose of hardship for far too long; they either refuse to make constructive personal or professional choices, or fail to see that their stasis is a consequence of a quixotic quest for a lost cultural authenticity, or both. That this adolescent obsession with the new or the novel – or worse, the “avant garde” – generally expresses itself in consumption of new and used clothing, the latest product at the end of the latest “green” distribution line, the banality that is now craft alcohol, and the latest in exotic drugs, instead of in the act of creation, is – at least in the eyes of this writer – is now not only a defining aspect of the “Millenial” generation (if such a thing indeed exists!) but a seemingly permanent feature of American youth culture. I don’t dispute that New York City has changed in the past 30 years, but I know that people – especially young people – haven’t, and that we more than anyone other age group are responsible for influencing our surroundings.

                My friend Dan, while sitting outside a poorly chosen bar (they had better specials on oysters than they did on drinks) perhaps too near to the Williamsburg Bridge, recently remarked – and I paraphrase – that New York City was an interesting place to live because “it somehow manages to stand on a cultural past that at this point it is almost completely disconnected from, and yet it is still an enormous, writhing, and impossibly influential thing.”  I like Dan – more importantly, I respect some of his opinions — and I wanted to believe not only in his tipsy eloquence, but also in the substance of what he said after that handful of boilermakers. But his words were too neatly said, and too easy to buy into for me to trust in the moment; sure enough, his words the next day sounded very much the comment of someone who’s lived here less than a year. And the preponderance of young people I’ve met in my first three months here are not at all from here, and don’t intend to settle here; I am certainly one among these tourists.

                For the most part we now arrive in Brooklyn more than any other borough, and even relative newcomers such as myself no longer bat an eye at the thought of things like pre-dawn lines for the latest innovation in pastries, thousand dollar rents for bedrooms the size of a clean coffin, six figure salaries for entry level positions at tech startups that make apps that won’t exist in three years, and dreams made and murdered by crowdfunding. New New York (read: Brooklyn) is more than the sanitized playground for white people that Lena Dunham’s Girls is selling, but not much more; that’s the New York City I know. It’s certainly still that “enormous, writhing, and impossibly influential” thing, and that people like me move here is both the cause and effect of that condition. I moved here for want of opportunities in the Midwest; the only thing I still bat an eye at here is the things over which money and prestige change hands and names. Only when I’ve looted enough of both will I remand myself to a place of lesser pretense, expense, and noise; of greater malleability, potential for growth, and need for renewal. Because this city is only so much money, and there’s enough young, creative, ambitious, hardworking individuals to keep this city regenerating itself for decades – for every one of us to leave, there’s at least one more sucker to take up the same space – and the same obviously can’t be said for those other places. For the sake of everywhere else, I hope I won’t be the only one to leave after five years.

The other day, when L and I were taking off our welding jumpsuits to knock off work for the afternoon, he looked at me with a cocked head and the devil’s own grin, and said:

“You know, I was biking over the Williamsburg Bridge yesterday and I saw this scissor lift some construction crew left there, and I realized how if I was wearing this outfit I could probably drive it right into the back of a truck, no problem, and sell it for around $10,000 cash. Because the thing is, when you’ve been here long enough, working this kind of gig, you can throw on a jumpsuit anywhere, put a few traffic cones down, and suddenly no one at all notices you – it’s like you’re invisible.”

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