Vanishing New York

By MARILYN LESTER**** From the moment the Dutch set foot here in 1624, New York has been a place ever-evolving. Ours is a city that dynamically reinvents itself – a place where change is a way of life. Until recently, that change has been dynamic – like a brightly burning flame, helping make New York a premier, global center of art and culture. For most of its history, New York has been fueled by the fire of passion for multiculturalism and the arts, befitting a cultivated, literate and invested population. But a recent series of closings struck a chord among many concerned New Yorkers that sent waves of shock over social media. Within the space of a week, the long-established French Roast on Sixth Avenue shuttered without warning. Manny’s, once a mecca for musicians on West 48th Street’s now defunct Music Row, although closed since 2009, was scheduled for demolition. And The Riviera Cafe, which anchored the corner of West 4th Street at Seventh Avenue South for 48 years, announced its imminent closing and shuttered its door on August 31st, amid much sadness. Just recently, Webster Hall, a historically significant nightclub, theater and event hall in business since 1886, where many classic albums were recorded, announced its last concert. This East 11th Street venue has been sold to a corporate conglomerate, AEG, which is closing the Hall for renovation. Reopening is at least a year away, with the name and feel changed, with its uses less varied.

And closer to home, the Metropolitan Room will exit its long-established home on West 22nd Street, a victim of ever-rising rents.

 And although the Metropolitan Room, unlike a long line of now defunct cabaret rooms will reopen, that time and place has yet to be determined.

The demise of these latest victims of a vanishing city is further proof that Manhattan is not only changing, but losing its intellectual, cultural and artistic identity – a further extinguishing of the fire that’s fed the city’s lifeblood and soul. That so many outlets can no longer survive is a tragedy within a much larger catastrophe.

Heretofore, the success of New York’s evolution entailed the juxtaposition of the old against the new. Change was gradual, preserving the socio-economic balance of the city, particularly in supporting a healthy, robust middle class. In this milieu a city of arts and culture thrived beside a city of commerce. “Mom and Pop” and specialty shops successfully competed with large department stores. In this equitable environment the arts were vigorously incubated. Artists, writers, actors, dancers, musicians, filmmakers and anyone pursuing a creative muse had the opportunity to do so without struggle, or a least a struggle with a potential payoff that made hardship worthwhile. But now it’s undeniable that damaging social and economic change is with us. “Few cities in the U.S. embody the growing divide between rich and poor quite like New York and San Francisco,” reported Kevin Short in a 2013 Huffington Post article.“In just the past 20 years, both have changed from economically diverse melting pots to exclusive playgrounds for the rich.”

Songwriter/singer David Byrne wrote in 2013: “New York is in danger of losing what remains of its creative soul as the wealthiest one percent usurp the cultural resources that once made the city a repository of ideas and information. A culture of arrogance, hubris and winner-take-all was established.” And in his new book, Vanishing New York, author Jeremiah Moss examines the gentrification of the city in the twenty-first century. He writes, “For generations, New York City has been a mecca for artists, writers, and other hopefuls longing to be part of its rich cultural exchange and unique social fabric. But today, modern gentrification is transforming the city from an exceptional, iconoclastic metropolis into a suburbanized luxury zone with a price tag only the one percent can afford.” Wholesale change has wiped out much of what once defined the character of this culturally vibrant town. Neighborhoods have disappeared along with familiar staples of record shops, book stores, cabaret rooms, off-off and off-Broadway theaters, supermarkets, specialty stores, diners and neighborhood restaurants. Gone is the graceful pace of evolution of the past. The baby went out with the bathwater.

A defining factor in the current evolution of our city is the phenomenon of the absentee resident. In 2011 The New York Times reported: “Since 2000, the number of Manhattan apartments occupied by absentee owners and renters swelled by more than 70 percent.” According to the US Census Bureau, 30% of apartments between 49th and 70th Streets, between Fifth and Park Avenues are vacant for at least 10 months a year. Clearly, if New York City is viewed as no more than a financial opportunity, there is no incentive to view it as a true home, as a place of social activity. The result is that New York City is losing its claim to be a world capital of arts and culture, yielding instead to Wall Street and real estate interests. There are those who cite such complaints as sour grapes of an older, and possibly out-of-touch generation. Yet, is it really satisfying to spend endless days at the gym, or in Starbucks or binge-watching on Netflix? Is this a soul-nourishing quality of life? Or will there be a wake-up call, a realization that there is more to life than being able to buy bath salts at two o’clock in the morning?

The loss of passion and soul is at the heart of the matter. If there remains denial of or disdain or disinterest in the importance of intellect, history, literacy and the arts, the vibrancy and spirit of the city will die. The fire will go out. Without a will to maintain and build upon a vigorously creative community, there will be nothing of cultural substance to pass on to the next generation. From the earliest days of life on earth our ancestors sat around fires as storytellers, passing on history and cultural traditions, even as artists created records of life on the walls of caves. Historical milestones, social progress, creative achievements – all of these were religiously passed from generation to generation to generation. Buildings eventually crumble, but art, in the words of Pablo Picasso, “washes the dust of daily life off our souls.” Such things really do matter.

If New York is to remain a leading city of the world, and a beacon of cultural vitality, it needs to transcend its present single-focused culture of commerce. In the words of Dolly Levi to money-mad Horace Vandergelder: “And on those cold winter nights, Horace, you can snuggle up to your cash register. It’s a little lumpy, but it rings!” This cautionary declaration is more than apt. There needs to be a strong determination of political, social and ethical will to pass on the fire and the passion and advocacy for the humanities and the arts. There is an obligation for those who understand the ramifications to make sure the fire isn’t extinguished. If the artistic and cultural life of a city dies, its identity also dies. We risk becoming, as Lewis Biggs, co-founder of the Liverpool Biennial, identifies, “a crowd of shopping individuals.” The social effects of culture and the arts have far-reaching consequences. Passing along this heritage ensures that social cohesion, community development and civic awareness remain part of a healthy, creative social identity and a thriving environment pulsating with life.

To read more about Vanishing New York, visit Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York Blog: