New York City is dying.
That’s right – has been for decades. Ever since they let the Irish in, apparently. Here’s the medical chart.
1830s – pigs in the street 1850s – too many Irish 1860s – draft riots 1900s – skyscrapers 1930s – Hooverville 1950s – white flight 1960s – dirty hippies 1970s – President Ford to NYC: drop dead 1980s – “Escape from NY” 1990s – too many tourists 2000s – terrorists Today – too much money
New York, as much of America, is a land of extremes. Achieving Balance is just not in our wheelhouse. It’s either a time of total anarchy with its attendant violence, dangers and freedom, or we go straight to gold-plated ice cream.
The current plague, too much money, is bringing with it ills such as hollowed out luxury buildings, lack of neighbors, the death of the mom-and-pop shop, and closed bagel stores, as chronicled in this recent Harper’s article.
I, too, regret these things.
The author of this article wishes you to believe he’s a hard-headed realist, and not some mopey nostalgist. Maybe he’s a bit of both. Like him, I’ve seen the same changes, but unlike him, I’ve moved around a lot. I haven’t been sitting on my butt in an apartment I rented in 1975 on the Upper West Side, watching the world collapse around my ears. And, unlike him, I recognize the upside of a cycle when I see one. You think the plague of “too much money” is going to last forever? You’ll be back to stepping on crack pipes and waterbugs before you know it.
Here are a few vignettes to regret or anticipate, depending on what side of the fence you’re on.
Fourth of July
During the Time of Anarchy (roughly 1963 through 1992), Independence Day turned some NYC neighborhoods into war zones. Truckloads of firecrackers were on sale, cheap. Celebration generally began on June 30th as local gang members shot live rounds of ammo from rooftops in an excess of patriotic spirit. Small children were given lit cherry bombs to lob at will. If you were noise averse, you got out of town for a few days. When you returned on July 7th, you’d be greeted by the acrid smell of gun powder and sides streets littered with small mountains of spent firecracker papers.
On the plus side, it was exciting: minor details were not considered important, and no one gave a crap if the pizza man smiled at you. We were just trying to preserve all our limbs.
Well, yes! During the Time of Anarchy, apartments were cheap. You could’ve purchased a building on Central Park West and 83rd street for 10 thousand. Not 10 billion – 10 thousand. Still, back then, if you couldn’t get a job you still couldn’t make rent. Sure, rent on a one-bedroom in a nice neighborhood was $400 bucks a month, but that was also how much you were making.
“Affordable housing” has always been a New York city obsession. The Gilded Age robber barons of 5th Avenue have morphed into the millennial billionaires of 57th street, and there are still people living in cardboard boxes.
So what’s the solution? If you are a working stiff, like a bartender or wait staff or nurse or firefighter or security guard, you probably won’t be living in Manhattan these days. That doesn’t mean you won’t be living in Manhattan ever. You can also still afford to live in other parts of New York City – or even, gasp! Jersey!
Side note: housing usually becomes a lot more affordable after a big Wall Street crash.
No matter what the era, you can always get good street food in New York City. Currently, during the Plague of Money, the official choices are world-class. The street carts are pricier in midtown, but still a darn good deal. In the Time of Anarchy, the only officially licensed street food was dirty-water hotdogs, leathery knishes, and burning chestnuts. The unofficial street food, though, was legendary. You could buy almost anything from a granny on a street corner. She’d be sitting on a folding lawn chair, you’d ask what she was selling, and she’d reach into the cooler by her side. Whole steamed Maryland crabs, dulce de leche, fried dough sticks — it was all delicious, and the health department was not involved.
Public Sanitation habits
It’s way, way better now. I haven’t seen a trash-nado in over a decade! Pooper-scooper laws have done their work, and hardly any drunks pee openly on the third rail these days. During the Time of Anarchy, spent drug paraphernalia and used personal hygiene items would boldly sit on park benches and public bus stops for all to see. That’s a thing of the past, if you overlook the occasional condom draped discretely over a twig in the park. We haven’t had a real garbage strike since Hector was a pup, and our street cleanliness is at least a C-minus in most places.
So here’s to the Time of Anarchy. We remember it fondly. When it returns, however, we’ll be recalling how great everything was when there was Too Much Money and the trains still ran on an almost hourly basis.