Part 2: History in the Time of Forgetting: New York As It Was

In the time of forgetting, every event seems new.

By chance, I was in New York this past election day working on a radio documentary. There is still a quiet shock that ripples around the city when national election results come in demonstrating once again how right-wing America is.
For New Yorkers it doesn’t bear thinking about too closely. Because the only inference they can draw from it is that their sense of importance in shaping the national debate is in terminal decline. The New York Times really doesn’t shape the national discussion any more, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News do that.
Another truth New Yorkers don’t want to face is that their own city isn’t all that liberal either and hasn’t been in a very long time.
This past election day while I was working in New York I was also quietly celebrating an anniversary. It was exactly 25 years ago that I had left the city and moved to London. Every minute of the last days I lived in Manhattan, the place where I was born, stays with me. Let me tell you a story from that time:

“Is God Punishing Us?” That was the question roiling New York’s news media 25 years ago this month. AIDS deaths were up by more than 20 percent – Rock Hudson had just died of the disease – an earthquake had recently killed 10,000 people in Mexico. 20,000 had been buried in a volcanic eruption in Colombia. Hurricane Gloria, the biggest in two decades, had just blown through town. “Coincidence?” WNBC wanted to know, or “Is God Punishing Us?”
I watched the report sitting in my wife’s soon to be former apartment at the corner of 1st Avenue and Second Street, amid suitcases and the detritus of departure – I was emigrating to London – my ruptured ankle ligaments encased in a plaster cast, a souvenir of jogging into a pothole along the East River promenade.
When you prepare to move on from the city of your birth, the place where you have made your adult life, every moment is filled with doubt. Emigration is an act of despair as much as hope. You spend your time cutting for sign, making sure the new track you are about to set out on is the right one.
“Is God Punishing Us?” confirmed for me that I was doing the right thing. In the New York where I had begun my adult life that was not a story you would have seen on the news.
But my New York had changed. It was exactly ten years since I had moved to east 12th Street between Second and Third Avenues to start a wildly unsuccessful career as an actor. A few months earlier Martin Scorsese had filmed Taxi Driver on the block. The pimp with long-hair who inspired the Harvey Keitel character in the film still oversaw business from a little stoop across the street from my building. The streetwalkers still turned tricks in an abandoned Citroen 2CV in a rubble strewn lot adjacent to my place.
It was a street where you could get a graduate degree in life studies and still be able to walk to mid-town for auditions or cross-town to Dover Garage and shape up for a taxi-driving shift.
Twelfth Street in 1975 was a place where all assumptions about your life and the lives of others were challenged. It was that rarest thing in America’s physical and social geography: a place where different classes, ethnicities and ages lived in an approximate sense of economic equality. Old, young, Puerto Rican, Irish, Jewish, Black, Italian, from the suburbs, or whatever our place of origin we were all roughly in the same economic boat at that moment: broke or nearly there.
From wherever you came, on Twelfth Street your primary identity was the block. Parents, class you were brought up in, none of it mattered. Only rarely in American history is there time and place for this kind of social interchange: the armed forces in the Second World War was a place where social structures were broken down (except for black soldiers). The middle of the ’70’s – that often maligned decade in New York – was another.
My block was a place to be honorably poor. Manhattan intellectual life still had space for that concept. People understood the risks of the artistic life. You could be possessed of greatness and still die penniless and unknown. There was respect given for choosing the harder path.
By 1985, Twelfth Street had long been closed to me. Gentrification. The whores had been moved on, the 2CV carted away and NYU built a dorm on the vacant lot. Over the years, I moved further and further east, eventually landing on Seventh Street between C & D.
I wouldn’t see urban destruction on the scale I saw every morning walking out my front door until my first reporting trip to Sarajevo. To the west to the north to the south, blocks of abandoned buildings hovered over rubble filled lots where arson had done its worst. To the East was a housing project called Saigon by the cops. The nights were frequently punctuated by gunfire from its gloomy precincts. No one knew, and except for maybe the Village Voice, no one in the media cared. It certainly didn’t trouble New York’s Democratic mayor Ed Koch too much.
What had once been a liquor store on the northwest corner of 7th and C had been vandalized, the remains of refrigeration units and display cases had been strewn into the intersection, where they lay like guts on a slaughter house floor. They cluttered the intersection for almost a year before the city got around to carting them away.
“Is God Punishing Us?” The better question biblically would have been, “Is God Abandoning Us?” Loisaida had surely been abandoned by the city and the banks to junkies and then arsonists. And yet, and yet, the community remained. People squatted the abandoned buildings, most of them were not crazy, just resourceful. Some homesteaded – my roommates had put sweat equity into saving a city-owned building and had earned a stake in its ownership. The street was alive. Halfway to Tompkins Square, the sheriff of 7th Street kept eternal watch on the block seated on a folding bridge chair outside his church, a Spanish pentecostal congregation. We nodded to each other, made pleasant conversation, exchanged gossip about crime.
Weird things happened. One summer the short, round bottle people turned up. By day they roamed the city collecting bottles for their deposit value. By night they set up a little encampment, grilled their dinner, slept on the pavement. Next they began dragging back sheets of corrugated tin and began building a favela … the anthroplogy department of NYU should have come over to document what was going on. When the favela got too big the police arrived and the short, round bottle people disappeared.
I don’t tell these stories out of nostalgia. I tell them because Alphabet City in 1984 was where I could afford to live and in that incredibly mixed neighborhood whose only homogeneous feature was everyone’s lack of money I learned a great deal about the way people not of my class or color lived and thought. It informed my work as an actor, and later on, when I became a foreign correspondent, gave me the experience to reach deeper into cultures completely alien to mine and report back on what I learned.
By 1985 things were changing rapidly. Money, some of it dirty, some of it just overflow from the first bout of Wall Street “overexuberance” began to filter into the neighborhood. Suddenly some artists were getting rich. “Fame, I Want to Live Forever” was the motto of the newer kids coming to the city to make culture. Pursuing a lonely vision in honorable poverty was for chumps.
Julian Schnabel opening a restaurant on Tompkins Square that I couldn’t afford to eat in was one sign of Alphabet City’s impending gentrification. Trucks delivering sheetrock outside rundown tenements on Seventh Street was another.
Those of us who had lived through the worst, swapped horror stories of landlords evicting people, running down services so that tenants simply gave up. We laughed when we heard of hastily installed new bathrooms in “luxury apartments” collapsing into apartments beneath. Hollow laughter.
One day the sheriff of Seventh Street was not there and the next day a sign in Spanish telling folks he had passed away was placed on his bridge chair along with a small bunch of flowers. Other floral tributes were soon added. No one took his place.
My New York was disappearing by the hour.
Now that money was involved, the news media began to pay attention to the neighborhood. WNBC ran a longish item on gentrification in the East Village. At the center of it was an interview with the Ukrainian tailor who had a little shop on Seventh between First and A. He had hemmed some skirts and trousers for my wife. We knew his story. He had lost his family to the Nazis, then after the war been deported East by the Soviets, escaped, made his way to America in the early 50’s and set up his little shop. He had stayed in the East Village when it had been abandoned to its fate: drugs then arson. Now he was crying into the camera, holding a piece of paper. A letter informing him his lease was at an end and his rent was going up by thousands of dollars a month. He couldn’t possibly pay it. He had nothing to live for but his work and now it was being taken from him. The man had survived Hitler, Stalin, junkies and firebugs but could not survive the force of gentrification.
The camera lingered on him to close the piece. When it switched back to the studio, Chuck Scarborough and his co-anchor, Pat Harper, ad libbed a bit along the lines of “whenever there is progress some people get hurt.” Yeah, the people who did not abandon the neighborhood when it went downhill and who fought to keep families and community together.
This was “liberal” New York 25 years ago. I knew it was time to go. I didn’t think the city would miss me. New York is a real place but it is also an idea. Immigrants and colonists who come to New York shape the reality to fit their ideal. Others would come and re-make the city into their ideal image of it but for me it was over.
I watched “Is God Punishing Us?” those final nights I made my home in New York. My memory tells me Rev. Jerry Falwell was one of the “experts” weighing in. Jimmy Swaggart may have been another noted theologian involved – his show was popular in New York and he had yet to be found consorting with a hooker in New Orleans.
By the way if you want to know the answer to the question “Is God Punishing Us?” The answer was, “Maybe” and the series won an Emmy.

(c) Michael Goldfarb 2011
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