For more than forty years, I have been engaged in an unrequited love affair with the city of New York. This twenty-two square mile island supports the grandest experiment in the human epic. Nowhere else in the world can more than one hundred cultures coexist in relative harmony, surrounded by water, and confined to a mere fourteen thousand acres of man-made landscape. Life in New York is a daily spectacle of carefully choreographed movement of the masses scored with a symphony of ambition and disparate intentions.
I lived in the city for the duration of two brief episodes and, along with several friends, continued to maintain an apartment on the lower east side (today, the East Village) for several years afterward. My work finds me in Manhattan quite often and as I wander through my old routes and avenues I find myself, in unison with all relics of the beat generation, lost in lamenting the past.
Most of my hideouts have faded into folklore and mythology. I enjoyed espresso every New Year’s Day at the Café Borgia for thirty years. Several restaurants have since occupied that space on the corner of Bleeker and MacDougal following the departure of Borgia ten years ago.
I spent each of those same New Year’s Eves at the Gramercy Park Hotel until Ian Schrager converted it to a shrine unto himself. That classic block of old New York served as a fabled refuge for artists, poets, and serious actors since the beginning of the twentieth century. I remained a guest at the Gramercy for one more year during the occupation of the conquerors. Upon returning to my suite at the conclusion of the New Year’s celebration, I found the entire lobby densely populated by disheveled, cross-eyed beautiful people and every elevator reeking of vomit (so much for elegance).
During the optimistic eighties I contributed to the promotion of the most popular club band on the contemporary circuit. The Human Switchboard was quite often a showcase band at CBGB’s where Bleeker meets Bowery. I will truly miss that smelly, smoky, baudy sanctuary.
Many of my favorite eateries have also vanished and have been replaced by franchised, formica carry-outs. Fond memories of Christie’s, Maxie’s Restaurant, even St. Mark’s Pizza have been exiled perhaps to this paragraph alone.
I have never been resistant to change. In fact, I welcome progress and try to influence it where I can. All change, however, is not beneficial. New York is gradually becoming a commercial strip mall. The Village was, at one time, a medina of independent designers and unique and courageous boutiques most of these have been replaced with brand name stores and label outlets.
Art galleries have evolved into art hotels which simply rent space to any self-proclaimed artist with a trust fund or an advertising budget. There is no longer a hierarchy of talent or even a qualified jury. The resulting effect is a glut of mundane, uninspired art.
New York was once heralded as a place where anything could happen even if only for a moment. Today, the only thing that happens in New York is the continuation of events which already happened.
Greed and indifference have broken the back of the urban spirit, imagination is paralyzed. I am, by definition, a capitalist. I am, however, able to perceive the profound contradiction between financial success and greed. Greed is insatiable and therefore can never experience true success.
When Emma Lazarus composed the final stanza of The New Colussus, she wrote:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
From this miasma of human sewage emerged the greatest, most resilient species in Darwinian classification, the New Yorker. To theseindividuals New York owes her identity and, with it, her gratitude. Further, among these huddled masses are the cornerstones and capitals of New York’s future. I fervently hope I live long enough to witness or even participate in the renaissance.