Welcome to the NEW (york)

In Land rights, Misc., New York City, Urban Planning / Space on May 10, 2007 at 11:32 am

It has been a while since I have been able to post, and though there has been a great deal happening throughout the world, I wanted to ease back into the game with something closer to home. A recent article in New York Magazine touted the history, progress and virtues of the soon-to-be realized Highline – a brand new park being built atop an abondoned elevated railway that will turn these ruins into an oasis floating a couple stories above the fray, snaking it’s way through 20 or so blocks of Manhattan’s westside. It’s an amazing concept, a first in public spaces, and something everyone is looking forward to next summer. More importantly, like everything involving land/real estate in this town, it will change the character of the neighborhood. The existing tracks, though, are too decrpit to be built on, so they will have to be removed and replaced with new material. A passage describing the consequences got my wheels turning:

What you’ll get, in other words, is a thoughtfully conceived, beautifully designed simulation of the former High Line—and what more, really, do we ask for in our city right now? Isn’t that what we want: that each new bistro that opens should give us the feeling of a cozy neighborhood joint, right down to the expertly battered wooden tables and exquisitely selected faucet knobs? And that each new clothing boutique that opens in the space where the dry cleaner’s used to be—you know, the one driven out by rising rents—should retain that charming dry cleaner’s signage, so you can be reconnected to the city’s hardscrabble past even as you shop for a $300 blouse? And that each dazzling, glass-skinned condo tower, with the up-to-date amenities and Hudson views and en suite freaking parking, should be nestled in a charming, grit-chic neighborhood, full of old warehouses and reclaimed gallery spaces and retroactively trendy chunks of rusted urban blight? Isn’t that exactly what we ask New York to be right now?

There were 2 great places I used to go to all the time, and they were both the kind of lovable shit-holes that drew me here in the first place. One of them was called Smalls. It was a tiny, basement Jazz club in the West Village that had sets running from about 6pm to 6am. The only people I knew who “worked” there were the 2 guys who took your cover charge – $10 for as long as you felt like stayin – the bands that set up their own equipment and sound before each set, the owner who cruised around chatting up the crowd and the musicians, and his white dog named Snow who was usually relaxing by the stairs. All the mix-n-match furniture was most likley drug in off the street, but was worth it’s weight in gold on the weekends when lines regularly wrapped around the block to get in – the place was the size of a closet, and people crammed into every crevase of the place, so to keep distractions to a minimum they only allowed people in before or after each set. Best of all, they didn’t have a liqour license so it was all BYOB. Most of the bands who came and played their sets were exceptional, but the real shit came during the jam session between the hours of 2-6am, when everyone was runnin off of alcohol and balls. The crowd, too, was something special. Jazz-holes are typically arrogant, pretentious fucks, but most regulars at Smalls were inviting and intellectual, but God help you if you decided to carry a loud, drunken conversation or make some other type of noise during one the sets. I often thought this is what it must’ve been like when the jazz greats of old roamed the streets, ducking in and out a smoke-filled stages, pushing their craft to the break of dawn in front of attentive and demanding crowds.

The other was a dive on 7th Street called “Bar 81”, but the real name was “Verchrovnia”, and it was one of the many Ukranian places in that part of the East Village. Walkin by it on the street, it looked just like anywhere else, only dirtier. I ventured in one night because the bar adjacent, Blue & Gold, was full of annoying fucks – including the bartender – and I felt like a change of pace. This new bartender was excellent and attentive, giving buy-backs every 4th drink and doin the whole small-talk thing they’re so good at. The crowd was all locals and their friends, some lived in the building upstairs, but most on the block or the surrounding ones. Like Blue & Gold, they had a pool table with questionable flatness, except here it was respected in a way that every bar table in the city should’ve been. No one put a drink near the thing, no matter how drunk; the crowd waited for the shot before walking in front of/behind the shooter, and they always gave enough room to make a comfortable shot regardless of the crowds in the rest of the bar; and most importantly, the sign-up list was law. Playing a game of pocket billiards in any other bar usually involves heated, tedious, and ultimately futile discussions on who is next to play with everyone getting pissed and no one getting to play, but not here. You sign your name, the whole place knows and anyone trying to jump in gets the treatment. At midnight on Mondays they locked the door, took buy-ins and played a long, tournament-style money game called Killer that went until god knows when, and anyone who got knocked out got a free drink. All the regulars were exceptional players, even the semi-crazy guy D-Mon, and I took great pride the one time I beat the reigning master, Al, at a game of 8 ball. The money you saved with the cheap drinks was always swallowed up by the juke-box which had one of the finest selections I’ve ever seen anywhere, and no matter how crazy it got, you could somehow always hear the music.

Bar 81 took it on the chin a few years ago when their rent doubled. The last time I walked by, the place was something of a posh bistro, though Blue & Gold – and it’s asshole bartender – have stayed strong. Smalls had a much more complicated couple of years. They got shut down just before the smoking ban for “underage drinking” and the jazz moved down a couple blocks to pool hall/venue/ping-pong joint the owner had called Fat Cat. It reopened about a year or so later, but got cleaned up, charged $20 at the door, $6 a drink at the shiny new bar, and they cut their early mornin jams. Just a few months ago, Fat Cat was forced to close, I guess theres only so much room for jazz in this town these days.

I am obviously romanticizing the shit outta these memories, and there are places like these in cities all over, I’m sure. But the fact remains that reliable, affordable, and experimental live music is in decline, and East Village dives are turning into lounges and clubs, destination hot spots with velvet ropes and bouncers with attitudes. As an NYU alumn, I can’t help but blame myself for some of this. I helped feed the insatiable monster that is NYU’s board of directors – the majority of whom are, you guessed it, real estate developers. They’ve been driving up rents and building over history for years, and have, without question, changed the character of the neighborhood by letting stupid kids from the suburbs like myself run around with their parents’ money. But now they are being joined by fleets of cranes erecting gleaming glass and steel condos on every corner. Bowery is a sight to see these days, and it’s merciful that CBGBs got out of there. Could you imagine if that place stayed? 3 years from now it’d probably be wedged between a Whole Foods and a Jamba Juice.

And yes, I wasn’tborn here, so I really have no right to speak on what is and what isn’t New York. When I go back home to Virginia, I’m regularly refered to as “The New Yorker” despite my many objections. Firstly, one has to live here 10 years to get that moniker – I’m going on 7 at the moment – and even then, I don’t think it’s something any transplant can really earn, no matter how long you live here. “New Yorkers” to me are the one’s who were born, raised, and continue to live in the 5 boros, any transplant can attest that city kids are different and locals have something about them that can’t be gotten in any other fashion. That being said, I have been here for a long enough to develop attachments and loyalties, deep ones at that, and have grown old enough to begin shitting on the coming generations.

I went to places like Small’s and 81 because they were authentic places, dedicated to the services they provided, and were bereft of attitude, judgement and – for lack of a better word – bullshit. I find it quite confusing when these places are driven from our neighborhoods to make way for some newer, more expensive joint trying to imitate their personalities and become what they used to be. I feel no desire to trudge out to the latest over-crowded IT lounge that has been christened by the Hipster scene becuase Hillary Duff threw up there, nor do I want to spend $15 to hear another band trying to channel the rebellious and pissed off soul of NYC’s grand old punk scene with their $150 haircuts and impeccibly pre-stressed, nut-hugging jeans. “Isn’t that exactly what we ask New York to be right now?” No. No matter how good the impression is, no matter how hard they try to replicate what New York was, it’ll never be that again, and that sucks.

The city – like the country it represents – has an amoebic identity that shifts with the tides of prosperity and immigration, and I guess we’re seeing the water drift further toward the horizon. Progress – read: gentrification – is unstoppable to some extent, look at Williamsburg for God’s sake, things inevitably must change with the passage of time. But with each step towards a new and better future, we run the risk of turning our surroudings into simulacrum, a theme park based on a dead fantasy, a copy with no original. My home town in Virginia is going through a similar transition now. With the promise of more jobs and better pay, more and more people flood into an area unpreppared for the consequences of its own success. People came for the trees and the solitude only to find strip malls and townhouses, stacked one atop another like some never-ending lego land. We sit in a sea of traffic and breath the exhaust. Some people are drawn to New York by the myth of the artistic, bohemian lifestyle that engenders individuality and creativity beyond all else. But it’s difficult to hone your craft and make your share of a $2500 a month rent and even harder to fight the tide of homogeonization that it comes with. The city has always been drenched in exorbidant prices, and it would be a shame if Manhattan – after such a storied and singular history – ends up in the hands of a single class of people. New York has become safer and cleaner than ever, standard of living is exceptional, public services are effecient(ish), and it is still one of the greates, most diverse places on the face of this Earth. More than anything, I hope that last part never changes. The Highline will be a beautiful, beautiful park. One wonders, though, what kind of a city it will be overlooking.


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