[Marxism] A Reason to Root for Dubai on the Hudson

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 24 21:13:07 MST 2013

NY Times November 22, 2013
A Reason to Root for Dubai on the Hudson

It used to be that if you lived in Greenwich Village, one thing you 
could count on was that a black reflective-glass office tower was not 
going to be built next door. Well, after half a lifetime of wanting to 
live in Greenwich Village, I now do, and a black reflective-glass office 
tower has, in fact, been built next door. It’s part of a cluster of 
shiny futuristic-looking things that surround the old Cooper Union 
building like enemy spaceships. Emerging from the closest subway stop, 
at Astor Place, you can be forgiven for wondering how you ended up in 
downtown Houston.

The old easygoing Village ambience has been getting economically 
stimulated out of existence for decades, but it’s going faster than ever 
now. Every time I walk across Eighth Street, I can’t believe what has 
happened to it — how one of downtown’s last reliably funky and 
ramshackle shopping streets has been utterly neutered, scrubbed and 
wine-barred. My local diner on University Place shut down because it 
could no longer afford what was said to be a rent of 40 grand a month. 
It sat empty for months and months, though we don’t suffer for dining 
convenience. There are now two Pret a Manger premade-sandwich joints in 
my area, as well as a 7-Eleven with rolling corn dogs in the window.

Nothing says nowhere quite like a 7-Eleven. Except maybe a Jamba Juice.

I could go on. Remember Cedar Tavern, the storied old bar where de 
Kooning and his pals got lit? Well, it moved a few times over the years, 
but its final incarnation was erased from sight by a ticky-tacky condo 
building with cheapo metal windows. The apocalypse is complete now that 
a European Wax Center — “Walk In, Strut Out” — has opened on the ground 
floor. Highly personal services are the last righteous stand of retail. 
Nearby, a sign went up for a joint called Sweat Shop. In addition to 
baking customers in an “infrared sauna,” it promised “lipotropic and 
glutathione injections.” Not sure what those are, but I’m guessing 
they’re not available on Amazon. (Update: They are, in fact, available 
on Amazon. I just checked.)

So totalizing has the homogenization of my neighborhood been — the Duane 
Reades robotically mass-producing themselves, the tutti-frutti explosion 
of frozen-yogurt chains or, of course, the complete collectors’ set of 
bank branches — that the Blockbuster video-rental outlet that closed 
last year felt like one of the neighborhood’s last cherished links to 
its bohemian heyday. Because, you know, at least it had a copy or two of 
“Shakespeare in Love.” It is now a real estate showroom.

If this is sounding like yet another lament about how the great island 
of Manhattan has been reduced to a soulless playground for investment 
bankers and multinational franchisers, well, it’s kind of unavoidable, 
isn’t it? Even some bankers feel this way. They didn’t move here from 
Shaker Heights to live in a shopping mall, either. On his blog, 
Vanishing New York, Jeremiah Moss does an excellent job of cataloging 
all that’s constantly being sacrificed to the god of rising rents, and 
even if you don’t share his outrage and acute sense of loss, it’s hard 
not to occasionally indulge in nostalgia for an urban experience that 
you probably never had.

But as someone who has lived here more or less continuously since 1968, 
I try to line up against sentimentality. Who wants to live in a museum? 
I like it here precisely because things don’t stay the same forever, and 
let’s face it, the European Wax Center is not to blame. Jane Jacobs may 
have saved a lot of nice old buildings in her day, but the urban ecology 
she championed was wiped out years ago, and nobody knew that better than 
she did. In her old downtown ’hood now, there are no doubt more 
derivatives traders than artists, so of course the demand for body 
waxing has eclipsed that of Doc Martens merchants. This is not even the 
first time that artists have been chased out of the neighborhood. In 
“The Village,” John Strausbaugh’s lovely history of the neighborhood, he 
quotes a Times article from 1922 describing how “New York is being 
destroyed as an art centre by the usurpation of studios and the 
dispossession of artists.” He also cites a 1927 Christian Science 
Monitor article that was headlined this way:

Values Increase So That Only Those Who Can Write Fluently in Check Books 
Can Afford It

Something big and interesting happened between then and now — actually, 
two big and interesting things. First, there was the Great Depression, 
which took the shine right off New York’s shoes, though the city bounced 
back strongly. For evidence, do a Google search for that film clip from 
1939 that went viral a few months back and marvel at how immaculate the 
city looked. The beautiful municipal buses, the well-groomed people in 
hats and dresses. Even the streetscape in Chinatown looked as neat and 
tidy as a doll’s house. The years immediately following World War II may 
have been the pinnacle of New York’s wealth and power. In “Manhattan 
’45,” Jan Morris’s portrait of an ascendant city, she cites a Gallup 
poll in which 9 out of 10 New Yorkers considered themselves happy. Think 
about that for a second — hordes of happy, upbeat New Yorkers. Of 
course, you have to consider what had just happened in the world. 
Nothing boosts morale quite like being on the winning side of a world 
war. But New Yorkers had special reason to feel good about themselves. 
Their city was where the future was happening.

Or so it seemed. Unfortunately — and this is Big and Interesting Thing 
No. 2 — the future took the high road out of town shortly thereafter. By 
the end of the 1950s, it was becoming clear that another kind of 
depression was settling in on New York. This one was not great. It was 
long, slow and unrelenting, draining New York (and cities all over the 
country) of wealth and vitality.

You can call it suburbanization or deindustrialization. It was both. In 
New York, it wrecked many neighborhoods, including working-class parts 
of Brooklyn and the Bronx, while leaving a few others, especially the 
Village, in a glorious in-between state that is remembered quite fondly 
today. Through the 1980s, the Village held on as a gorgeous ruin, 
hospitable, once again, for writers, artists and all the stuff they 
loved: bookstores, theaters, art galleries, record shops, secondhand 
purveyors of all stripes, gay clubs, pool halls, outposts for marginal 
political groups, nutty merchants catering to obscure, unprofitable 
hobbies and a million grubby cafes and dive bars. Plus, a vibrant street 
life populated by beatniks, dope dealers, con artists, street-corner 
thugs and sex workers who didn’t have to worry much about cops.

A lot of this survived into the 1990s, when I got out of college and 
moved back to New York. In those days, in my 20s, with nothing but time 
on my hands, my favorite activity was to tromp all over downtown for 
hours on end, a copy of The Village Voice folded under my arm, stopping 
at as many bookstores and record shops as possible. Occasionally, an art 
gallery. The magazine rack at Spring Street Books was a sacred shrine. 
In the days before the Internet, this is how you kept up with culture. 
You had to put the time in. You had to cover ground. To me, this was the 
most precious aspect of city living. Little else about New York’s 
vaunted cultural landscape mattered to me. I rarely made it to the 
theater. I went brain-dead in museums. Going to see bands was mostly a 
drag, and I felt conspicuously uncool in nightclubs. But simply walking 
around downtown, ducking into that narrow little basement record shop on 
Cornelia Street whose name I can’t remember, or Rocks in Your Head in 
SoHo — that’s what I loved most about the city, and almost all that 
stuff is gone. I’d trade the whole Internet to have it back.

As everybody knows, if you want to find new and interesting things 
happening in the city today, you have to look beyond Manhattan. You 
know, to like, Brooklyn, the world’s favorite urban concept. It’s quite 
funny to go overseas and experience the extreme envy and fascination 
everybody has with Brooklyn. Every city has ginned up a bunch of their 
own Brooklyn-y fare now, and I’ve got nothing against it — the 
conceptual knockoffs or the actual borough. Who doesn’t love rows of 
pretty renovated brownstones? Or pizza with hand-fermented heirloom 
toppings? I like premium denim workwear. I like skateboards, unicycles 
and couples who chop their own firewood together. I even like the 
breweries that make dark, viscous beer that, if you closed your eyes, 
you’d swear tasted like the sweepings from a barn. I’d take it over a 
Bud Light any day.

The problem is, even in Brooklyn, these adorable enterprises hardly 
compensate for the vanishing framework of old urban life, like my coffee 
shop on University Place, or the deli a couple of blocks from there, 
which, to be honest, mustered only a mediocre $1.99 
bacon-egg-and-cheese-on-a-roll, but at least it didn’t come with frisée, 
and anyway, that deli served a broader function than the Pie Face that 
replaced it. Do you have a Pie Face near you? I don’t even know what it 
sells. Cupcakes, I think.

But as I said, I really do have faith in the city’s endless capacity for 
change and transmutation, and so I see reason to hope. The other day, I 
found myself over in the far West 50s, near the river. Have you heard 
about the high-rises they’re building over there? On the old dirty 
waterfront, Dubai on the Hudson is rising, which fills me with equal 
amounts of awe and revulsion. This is not a New York City I know or 
understand or could ever love. But I also see a possible bright side, a 
way that Dubai on the Hudson could revive the Manhattan I do love — by 
acting like a giant magnet to attract all the Hot Money. It’s going to 
have to go a lot further, of course. In addition to fancy penthouses, 
they’re going to need more of those for-profit schools that promise 
Mandarin fluency in kindergarten, floor-to-ceiling touch screens and 
P.E. classes taught by Olympic gold medalists. They’re going to need 
helicopter pads, submarine launches — all the better to appeal to people 
for whom the quaint Village is too tight and personal and lacking in 
private routes of escape.

All of which could — could, I say! — leave my little neighborhood 
eventually looking a little sad and archaic again. Picture this: As an 
aggressively futuristic Manhattan is built on the Hudson, the higher-end 
chains start to depart and recongregate where the disposable income is 
higher and newfangled leisure activities abound. Rents drop. A general 
sagging sets in, returning the Village to something like it was in the 
1970s. Nothing will ever bring back my record shops and bookstores, but 
maybe the downdraft spurs the creation of new oddball things that my 
children will grow to love. Because right now, if I look around, I don’t 
see much to inspire nostalgia in future generations. It’s hard to 
imagine anyone getting misty-eyed about Pie Face.

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