Leaving New york

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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My wife, Nancy, and I are both New York born and bred. She longs to return there and to Manhattan – “the City” – in particular. I do not. It’s a topic that comes up from time to time [increasingly so, as we near retirement], and we took it up again, just the other day, after we’d finished watching the new mini-series about New York, “Pretend it’s a City,” directed by Martin Scorsese and featuring essayist and critic, Fran Lebowitz. Beyond its being funny in a wry, very Jewish way that is familiar and enjoyable to both of us, Lebowitz’s acerbic commentary, in which she compares the City and its denizens of decades past with them as they are today, got me thinking about my own somewhat complicated feelings about the place.

Nancy grew up in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, while I was raised on Long Island’s “Gold Coast” [“East Egg” in The Great Gatsby], about 25 minutes drive from the City, sans traffic. Nancy had never lived anywhere else, until we moved to Springfield Missouri in 2000, while I had spent a good part of every summer up through my thirteenth birthday with my family in Israel, as well as four years in Ann Arbor as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, from 1986 to 1990. Nancy always has had a connection to the City that I’ve never really had, and despite having lived in Manhattan for most of the 1990’s while working on my PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, I’ve always thought of the City as an adult playground rather than any kind of proper place to live.

East and West Egg

When I was a child, in the 1970’s, the City was where I went with my parents to see a musical or play or to go to the museum or eat in restaurants. My main impression of it was from the Upper East Side of Manhattan – specifically, Yorkville – where we had an apartment that my father had bought in order to entertain business clients and which our family used as a pit-stop for all of our Manhattan goings-on. The area, stretching from 79th to 86th street, was heavily Czech, Hungarian, and German at the time, and this was reflected in the restaurants that we frequented whenever we “went in,” which is Long Island-speak for going to the City. Mocca especially, where we would eat paprikas csirke  and goulash and palacsinka and hear Hungarian spoken, and where I would feel as if I had been transported to the country of my mother and grandmother.

Old Yorkville and Mocca

As a teenager in the 1980’s, the City was the place to get fake driver’s licenses that would gain you access to bars and nightclubs if you were underage. [You got them at the sex shops that – along with porno theaters – lined 42nd Street, stretching from Times Square to the Port Authority bus station.] It was the place where you partied in those bars and nightclubs. It was the place where you walked down 10th street between First Avenue and Avenue A late at night to buy dime bags of pot. It was the place where teenagers whom I might have known but who weren’t me went to have sex with prostitutes. It was the place where you went to do adult things, when you weren’t yet legally an adult.

Times Square and Palladium Night Club, 1980’s

Things weren’t much different when I was in graduate school or at least not for the first part of it. In the early ‘90s, the City had very much the same profile as it had in the previous two decades. It was a dirty, crime-ridden, porn and prostitute-soaked place, with an electric and somewhat dangerous nightlife centered around notorious bars and clubs. It also was home to the finest restaurants, museums, theaters, and concert halls in the world. In this rich and extreme duality, the City represented the pinnacle of adult experience, sublime and subversive. On one night in the mid 90’s, you would have found me in a jacket and tie at Lincoln Center, with a date, sipping champagne on the balcony of Avery Fisher Hall, and on another my friends and I would be stoned, drunk, and sweaty, slamming to Thrash metal at the Roseland Ballroom. Intense, mind-stretching days spent studying philosophy with some of the top philosophers in the world at the CUNY Graduate Center almost always ended with revelries at Rudy’s Bar on 9th Avenue and 43rd street – one of the filthiest, cheapest dives around at the time – and even more revelries later at our respective digs. There’s a reason why I took almost ten years to get my PhD. I was having too much fun not to drag the thing out as long as I could.

One of my friends needed an ambulance after seeing this show at Roseland.

But, the City really wasn’t my favorite place, even then. As much as I enjoyed being able to see art shows like the Fauve Landscape exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of art and to drink and hang out at places like the legendary [and sketchy] Holiday cocktail lounge on St. Mark’s place, once a watering hole for W.H. Auden and Allen Ginsberg, I preferred taking the train out to East Egg and meeting up with a childhood friend, who at the time was also living in Manhattan, while pursuing a PhD in English literature at NYU. We might spend the day at Sagamore Hill or Planting Fields Arboretum or Old Westbury Gardens – places we had frequented since we were young children – and the evenings parked at the beach in Sea Cliff, where we would sit for hours, listening to music and talking, while gazing out at the Long Island Sound, or down at the South Shore, on the boardwalk at Jones Beach.

Sea Cliff and Old Westbury Gardens

The apartment I lived in for most of my time in New York City was in Hell’s Kitchen, on 47th street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. It was on the fifth floor of a walkup, and the bathroom soon developed a hole in the ceiling from which rain would fall freely [and which our landlord would never fix]. It also was repeatedly broken into and burgled, which led my roommate and I to flee to Astoria Queens, where I spent my last two years in New York, prior to moving to Missouri in August, 1999. We suspected that the burglaries were actually an inside-job on the part of the landlord, who wanted us out so he could raise the rent, as Manhattan’s gentrification of its shittier areas – Hell’s Kitchen included – was well-underway by the mid 90’s.

The “cleaning up” of the City seemed to happen with a remarkable and relentless speed. As if overnight, the crackhead-hooker-porno-theater gauntlet that was 42nd Street, between Times Square and the Port Authority, was gone. Rapidly disappearing were the sleazy dive bars, which were replaced by stylish craft beer and high-end drinking establishments. The cheap, grimy coffee shops and diners were closing in favor of hip, “artisanal” eateries, with only a handful of old classics like Cozy Soup and Burger remaining. Roseland closed permanently. The bizarre smoking ban [bizarre because no one who ever went to or worked in a bar in the City – and I did both quite a lot – was looking for a healthful experience] was only a few years away. And all the while, the prices of everything, everywhere were going up and up and up. Even had our landlord not driven us out, my roommate and I would have had to leave Manhattan anyway, and if we’d stayed together at our income-level at the time, we soon would have had found ourselves priced out of Brooklyn and Queens as well.

Today, the Disneyfication and billionairization of the city has been so overwhelming that it is almost unrecognizable to anyone whose history with the place stretches prior to when these developments began. Indeed, so total has it been; so far has the City drifted from the dangerous, and exciting edge that it once had; so completely has its transformation into Dubai-on-the-Hudson been effected that the old, tough, gritty New York itself has been turned into a demented sort of tourist attraction. Rudy’s, the place where I used to watch people throw up on the floor and where a week wouldn’t go by when you didn’t see someone you knew drunkenly cheating with someone else you knew [who also was probably cheating], is now a tourist trap that surreally sells merch and has a “Valentine’s Day Collection”. CBGB’s the legendary bar in which New York punk rock was born and bred, exists now as a tasteless skin for an East Village Target location and as an online store. The Holiday has been turned into a hipster shrine, where you can eat venison chili and drink artisanal cocktails. Come to New York and See How Cool It Used to Be! Perhaps they can open a “Dirty New York” multimedia “experience,” where you can walk through life-size dioramas of 42nd street filled with junkies and porno theaters, pick up animatronic hookers under the 59th Street Bridge, and simulate taking a leak in the infamous toilet at CB’s. Oh, wait, it seems they already did the CBGB toilet thing in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013.

42nd Street Then and Now

Of course, the high-end City remains, and Manhattan still boasts the best restaurants, museums, theaters, and concert halls in the world. If you are rich enough – and in the City today, being a mere single-digit millionaire is not rich enough – you can live a sophisticated, rarefied life there. But beyond the question of money, the cost is still too high. Even if you are rich, everything in the City is harder to do than everywhere else. There are too many people packed into too small of a space. Crosstown travel is still a pain in the ass. Apartments, no matter how big, are still too small for families of more than two people, and who wants to pay millions of dollars for digs only slightly larger than a two-car garage? Despite their physical proximity, getting to a decent beach or substantial green area [other than Central Park] by way of public transportation is a day’s work. And if you are inclined to do so by car, you are confronted with the City’s gridlock traffic and with the fact that a dedicated spot in a parking garage attached to your apartment will add thousands to tens of thousands of dollars to the apartment’s price. Otherwise, you can spend half of your life trying to find street parking every day, due to street cleaning regulations.

The truth is, my real love is the good old American suburb, the first of which was Long Island’s own Levittown. Walking to the pond, skates slung over my shoulder, to play hockey with the neighborhood kids after the first winter’s freeze; trading baseball cards down at the school bus stop on Spring mornings; riding bikes with my friends into the night on long summer days; the clumsy, thrilling first assignations with girls at the mall, when I was too young to drive but old enough to be interested in girls; my first car and the cruising I did in it; skipping school and spending the day at the beach, where we’d meet up with other teens, who also were skipping school; hanging out after varsity practice, reclining on the hoods of our cars, looking up at the sky as it went purple and blue and the first stars appeared.

And on those occasions when “the suburbs had no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth,” I always could “go in” and enjoy an excursion into luxury or debauchery, depending on the kind of restless dreams they were. But whichever they were, I always found that a small dose of the City here and there was more than enough, and it was always with a sense of satisfied relief that I found myself on the Long Island railroad afterwards, heading back to East Egg; to a house and a yard and a beach and green spaces and quiet nights.

The LIRR Station in Manhasset and the Entrance to the Village Where I Grew Up

That City. The place that as a child seemed a kind of urban, adult fantasyland, redolent of the old world from which my parents and grandparents had come; that as a teenager, I sought under the influence of heady, sometimes dark imperatives; where throughout my twenties, I stretched the collegiate experience far beyond its normal length and pushed the boundaries of intellect and lifestyle and taste. That place is gone forever. Now, in my middle age, the City has shrunk to a place that I visit occasionally in search of high culture and in order to reconnect with those few friends who remain there. Even when visiting my parents, who still live in the house in which I grew up, we rarely “go in.” And in raising our daughter, Victoria, here in Springfield Missouri, Nancy and I chose for her the suburban life that I so cherished growing up and for which I still feel so much affection.

Sitting in the park by our house with my daughter, when she was eight years old.

16 comments

  1. I know the Times Square area fairly well. When I was in high school in New Jersey in the early 60’s, I used to go to a great bookstore there, maybe it was called “Paperback Forum”, I’m not sure. There was nothing like that in New Jersey. It’s no longer there of course.

    Then in the summer of 1965 I worked for a few months in the Port Authority Bus Terminal sweeping floors. I worked the evening shift from 4 PM to midnight.

    In 1973 I worked for a few months in a Orange Julius (they don’t exist any more, I believe) on 42nd St. between 8Ave. and Times Square. By 1973 the area had gone downhill and I recall once a customer threw an Orange Julius at me because he didn’t like how I made it and then waited for me outside at the end of my shift. My co-workers, almost all of them latinos, had to escort me to the subway station to protect me.

    Then in 1991 I stayed for about a week in a fairly cheap hotel a half block from Times Square with my then Chilean girl friend while we were visiting New York. By 1991 Times Square had already been “cleaned up” a little, but not entirely. There were still cheap traditional diner type eateries where you could get a decent breakfast.

    I didn’t visit New York (or the U.S.) from 1991 to 2005. I had to meet a family member who worked in the Times Square in an investment bank (a big change!) there after he left work and since I arrived early, I looked for a cheap bar
    to have a beer in to kill time. No more cheap bars. I found an overpriced tourist trap, not elegant, but very Disneyfied to use your term and had a beer there.

  2. My memories of New York are from when I was a graduate student in New Haven. We would take the New Haven railroad when we wanted to visit the big city.

    People used to say “New York City — a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.” New Haven seemed to be at just about the right distance.

  3. I feel similar things about Vancouver, where I grew up. Except for the north shore mountains and the beaches, many parts of it are unrecognizable. And the cost of living there is completely ridiculous. I enjoyed living and going to school in Montreal as a young adult, it was a more colourful and vibrant city and cheaper to live near the downtown. It seems to me that when you get to a certain age the charms of the big city lose their lustre. I prefer living in a small town in Northern BC, away from the freeways, the traffic, and the crowds, and closer to the coastal wilderness, where the ecosystem is still in good health.

    1. Yes, when we visited Vancouver I was struck by it’s beauty, but I literally laughed out loud at the place, when I saw how expensive everything was. I thought, “Are you people out of your minds?”

      1. We here in Vancouver went through a similar gentrification process during the 80’s and 90’s, along with the skyrocketing real estate primarily caused by the Asian influx escaping Hong Kong going communist in 1999. I was fortunate to grow up (a decade earlier than you) in one of the safest, most peaceful areas of the city (Kerrisdale), which is still the same, although with a very different demographic. And thank you for todays blog post. Most interesting and nostalgic rousing.

  4. Suburban kid lived in the City during college, but really prefers the suburbs … ok.

    And for the record, New York City is always different than it was remembered and is still as great but in different ways, because it’s the people, not the city, that make it great.

    1. Don’t like the people now either. A good part of the Lebowitz doc addresses that. The ethos of the place has changed dramatically and for the worse.

    2. A real life Manhattanite here. Born in Manhattan in 1961 and lived there until 1999, except for 2 1/2 years when I was in Ann Arbor. And I can tell you unequivocally that, first the gentrification (starting ~ 1980), and more recently the billionaiirization, has murdered New York City. But unlike DK, it was my real love.

  5. For me, for most of us, New York City is a vast collage of images and stories, many of which bear only a tenuous relationship to the city itself and its various temporal manifestations. Like this idealised representation (written by Rodgers and Hart in the 1920s and sung by Blossom Dearie thirty years later).

    https://youtu.be/A0r63K_wYu4

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