Squalor, acrid smoke, moth-bitten second-hands suits, woefully hookers, overflowing dented garbage cans and massive $100 a month lofts in Soho.
Some of these things are still with us (not the apartments) but much has been replaced with swanky W hotels, hand tailored suits, sorted and recycled garbage, tiny $2,800 a month studio apartments in the East Village, no-smoking laws, and a day that begins punctually at 7:45. The imagineers at Disney have replaced the hookers with Snow White and multi-million dollar auctions at Christy’s have replaced the street art and graffiti of Lower Manhattan. For some, it was all over when the legendary birthplace of punk, CBGBs, was turned into a high end clothing store.
The cleaning up of New York is to be celebrated, but there’s a thin line between putting a nice shinny gloss on an environment and its embourgeoisement. When Frank Sinatra sang “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”, he didn’t have in mind a well typed resume with a highly stylized cover letter.
Suddenly, New York may not be the best choice for the artistic struggler. To be a functioning artist you need the right place, the right ambiance and you need to be able to struggle while not being overwhelmed. New York’s virtue lay in the places between the Upper East Side and Battery Park. These nooks and crannies were safe havens for artists to explore. There was Alphabet City, segments of the Bowery, and even Tribeca, but now the nooks and crannies are quickly disappearing.
The growth that we’ve seen under Giuliani and Bloomberg is to be celebrated. New York City has become the most popular tourist spot in the world. It seems that even hardened New Yorkers find themselves mesmerized, like tourist,s by bright lights of Times Square.
Inevitably these veterans of Old New York start to reminisce and realize that their scrubbed down, cleaned up, physically fit city has lost its energy. A friend of mine told me the other day:
“Good lord there are almost no New Yorkers in New York anymore…they’re all from Iowa.”
Well, how can anyone make it or be creative in this pristine environment? What about the old days? We tend to glorify Dylan, Baez, Ginsberg and Rothko. We wax nostalgic about the energy of the old place. But remember, for every Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Julian Schanbel, and Grandmaster Flash there are hundreds if not thousands of equally talented souls who died sad and anonymous deaths on the not-so-glamorous streets.
Point in fact it was never easy to make it in New York. Squalor has never guaranteed success; chain smoking at the Purple Onion never guaranteed creativity and ingenuity. Tending bar at the Mudd Club never promised visibility. The truth is, New York was almost as impossible then as it is now. Then, as is the case today, you had to network, deal with the power-brokers, hold meaningless jobs and share miniscule apartments with 3 roommates.
When Sinatra claimed if “I can make it there I can make it anywhere” it wasn’t the glorification of the famed New York ambiance. It was in fact a mission statement for survival in the Big Apple: If you can be proactive in New York then you will succeed. New York is the biggest opportunity and the most horrific obstacle in your way all at the same time. It’s obviously better to show up with a few million bucks in your pocket, but it’s crucial to show up with your own proactive capacity. And that’s what New York is really about. Corporate or not, it demands that you lead and not be passive.
Picture Credit: Darwin Bell