Monday, March 02, 2015
Everything Was Within Reach
"New York isn't your fantasy.
You're the fantasy in New York's imagination."
~ John DeVore, New York Doesn't Love You
There is a time-honored genre of literature that masochistically trucks with the fatalism and rejection of living in, loving and eventually leaving New York City. I know this is a real genre, because the fact that there is an anthology proves it. Writers especially, perhaps due to the ephemerality of their profession, seem to have an axe to grind when it comes to leaving New York. It's not that no other city generates this passion; rather, no other city has fetishized and memorialized this ambivalence to such an extent. To these writers, leaving New York is tantamount to an admission of failure, and they passionately rationalize the ways in which they have not failed. But New York evolves, like any other city, and it is worth asking if the reasons for leaving these days are substantially different from those of previous decades.
Joan Didion's 1967 classic essay "Goodbye To All That" sets the confessional tone that is implied in all of these narratives: "But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York." Didion's narrative concerns the years required for the imperceptible shading from wide-eyed ingénue to a vaguely numb and indifferent denizen. Her prose is compassionate, and wears the weariness of experience lightly: "It was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces...Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen". In the end, she does not fling New York away in disgust – she accompanies her husband to Los Angeles for a sabbatical away from the city. As a result she leaves New York almost accidentally, like remembering a few days after the fact that you forgot your umbrella in a restaurant, then deciding it wasn't worth the trouble of going back to get it.
Contrast this genteel regretfulness with John DeVore's recent aphoristic punch-up, "New York Doesn't Love You":
New York will kick you in the hole, but it will never stab you in the back. It will, however, stab you multiple times right in your face.
No one "wins" New York. Ha, ha.
You will lose. Everyone loses. The point is losing in the most unexpected, poignant way possible for as long as you can.
Complaining is the only right you have as a New Yorker. Whining is what children do. To complain is to tell the truth. People who refuse to complain, and insist on having a positive outlook, are monsters. Their optimism is a poison. If given the chance they will sell you out.
DeVore lives in a different New York from Didion: he doesn't really elaborate on what success might actually look like, for himself or for anyone else. Your plan, whatever it may be, will go wrong. Fifty years of water flowing underneath the Brooklyn Bridge will do that.
The fact that people ever talk about "making it" in New York – or what I call the Curse of Sinatra – is to confuse means and ends. Success doesn't go any further than not failing, and preferably you are failing less often than you are not failing. After 15 years in the city, most of the people I know who have succeeded (by failing less often than not failing) have, like some ragged tribe of castaways, burrowed themselves into fortunate living circumstances, and know that they can never leave, no matter how gross or expensive their neighborhood has become, because there is a snowball's chance in hell that they will ever get such a good deal anywhere else in town, at least anywhere within a 20-minute walk of a subway station. Forget the street preachers; in New York, real estate is the only form of salvation.
It's a little-known fact that Franz Kafka also wrote his own paean to leaving New York. I know, I know, Kafka hardly ever left Prague, but bear with me, because I propose that what we have here is the urtext of the genre.
By way of introduction, I'll note that we should approach Kafka most cautiously when he beguiles us with an innocuous title. Nowhere is this as effortless as in the posthumous ‘A Little Fable', which I reproduce here in its entirety:
"Alas," said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into."
"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
That sudden, implacably violent turn in the narrative: Where the hell did the cat come from? Wasn't the mouse's destiny to run into the trap at the convergence of the ever-narrowing walls, which even it saw quite clearly? The final six or so words are the literary equivalent of a punch in the face. But unlike the mouse, we are survivors of this tale, and as such have the luxury to go back and re-read it. At which point we realize our naïveté – from the start, the mouse wasn't in conversation with us, but with the cat. Kafka's compression is so extreme that time folds in on itself. The mouse exists in an eternal state of, if I may invent a tense, always-already-about-to-be eaten.
Of course, in order to keep the story short, the mouse must get eaten, but the trace that lingers, like smoke, is the mouse's incomprehension at its imminent fate. For the expectation of one doom, dogmatic and resigned, is usurped by another, wholly unanticipated one. The mouse may think, ‘Well, here's this cat, he seems a fine fellow and I'll tell him the sorry tale of my life of quiet desperation', whereas Kafka, never one to get in the way of a universe that gladly does the murdering of its own accord, simply allows the cat to get on with being a cat when presented with such an opportunity as a trapped, frightened mouse.
The sharpest irony in this little tale, however, is the cat's message. It is a death sentence masquerading as advice, and presented as if it were the simplest thing to do. As if the mouse could just turn around and walk off into a new direction. I like how Kafka chooses language as the means by which the cat ‘toys' with the mouse. In contrast, the only action is that of being eaten. That part – death – is silent. The cat plays the straight man in the pas de deux of narrator and executioner. The truth is that there is no other direction in which the mouse can go; the fate of the mouse is not just imminent, but, in the form of the cat, it is also immanent.
That cat, my friends, is New York. You think you're all set up to agreeably drink yourself to a gentle death on the Red Hook waterfront and then you get hit by a bus – or a tax audit. Whichever is worse, really. Or as DeVore puts it, "If New York were a cat, it would eat your face after you collapsed in the kitchen from a heart attack." This is the kind of place where it may take years for indifferent betrayal to fully blossom, but when it strikes, the end is swift.
But these days it really doesn't take years. This is the crucial difference between Didion leaving New York in 1967 and her exasperated descendants throwing up their hands in 2015. New York has changed, and why shouldn't it? The salient bit is that it is no longer the heady cocktail of danger and stimulation that drove a certain kind of artist and writer to come here.
In "Here Is New York" E.B. White proposes a rigidly delineated taxonomy describing New Yorkers: there are the natives, the commuters and the arrivals. White asserts that it takes all three constituencies to create New York as it existed in 1949, and this truth holds today. The natives are the city's institutional memory, and its commuters the blood that pumps economic oxygen into and out of Manhattan, giving New York its rhythm. But what can this last group, the arrivals – which is really the instigator of the very idea of the possibility of a romantic notion of New York – what can it hope for today?
He hasn't left yet, but in his own pre-emptive missive, David Byrne writes about what drove him and his peers to settle downtown in the 1970s:
One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships.
The world of After Hours, Liquid Sky and Downtown 81, let alone the home movies of Nelson Sullivan and Wild Style's director Charlie Ahearn – when going south of 14th Street quite literally meant taking your life into your own hands, when the words Alphabet City actually meant a quantitatively different world from the East Village – this world is no more. On the positive side of this Faustian bargain, we have gained an almost laughably safe city, where you can stumble anywhere in Manhattan and most of Brooklyn and Queens blind drunk because you know an Uber car will show up faster than Lt. Kilgore's napalm airstrike in ‘Apocalypse Now'. On the other side of the ledger, we have a city where the organic emergence of new forms of practice is basically throttled, and the margin for error is nearly zero.
While David Byrne may still be dithering about leaving, others have already done so. The musician and producer (and native New Yorker) Moby penned a similar letter a few months later, and the headline is pretty much all you need to know: "I Left New York For LA Because Creativity Requires The Freedom To Fail". Others have been following suit: in December the venerable Galapagos Art Space, after twenty years in Brooklyn, is decamping to Detroit. In explaining, Galapagos Director Robert Elmes channels Moby:
What drew us to Detroit is the realization that cities need three ingredients to attract or retain artists: time, space, and other artists. In NYC artists have one foot in a full time career and one foot in what is now a dream to find an affordable studio and to move their sculpture studio out of their kitchen because they have an ultimatum from three of their four roommates.
Who can resist upgrading to 600,000 square feet of space? This is what DeVore is really talking about. You spend your time earning the money to earn the access to space, and your principal activity with other artists is spent leveraging the leftover crumbs into something that might approximate artistic practice. That, and complaining. Which is your right. New York no longer abides the leisurely pace of a seeping alienation, à la Joan Didion. And in the end your plans are more likely to be torpedoed by a crappy credit score before you get fed up at not getting that gallery show that always seemed just within reach.
And yet, and yet. If you take a trip out to Queens, almost to the end of the 7 train, you will find the Queens Museum, and inside the museum there is an absolute gem, known as the Panorama of the City of New York. A scale model of all five boroughs, where 1 inch corresponds to 100 feet, the model has almost a million buildings, almost all of them handcrafted. Robert Moses commissioned the Panorama for that most optimistic of mid-20th century occasions, the 1964 World's Fair. A sinuous walkway meanders around this dizzying display, designed to be a replacement of the original simulated helicopter ride, but still evocative of it. As you gently rise and fall around the Panorama, the nearly 10,000 square feet of shimmering urban tapestry has the most confounding effect.
Once you get past the most natural impulse of immediately finding your apartment building and, if you have a job, your office; once you have located the landmarks such as the Empire State Building, and perhaps audibly gasped to see the Twin Towers still proudly anchoring the southern tip of Manhattan; once you have looked for all the things that are known to you, you can then step back and see exactly how much is unknown to you. For the length of one's tenure in New York is inversely proportional to the willingness one has to explore the city, and every neighborhood that's "worth" revisiting quickly acquires its short list of spots. The rest is the equivalent of "flyover country", if it gets flown over at all.
The Panorama takes this provincialism and merrily dashes it to pieces. After you get over the sheer size of Staten Island, your attention glides over hundreds of blocks of housing and industry. Suddenly you are privy to geographies that wholly escaped your attention. A mysterious canal in the middle of Brooklyn; a smattering of islands off the coast of the Bronx. Wait – the Bronx has a coastline? You scan parts of the Queens that you never thought existed. The model has a quiet optimism, a sense that the whole city somehow functions. It is flat – a level playing field. It is democratic. It is meritocratic. It is inviting – enticing, even. What do all those people down there do? It's all so very interesting. More than that, the city, by way of its proxy the model, extends its invitation to you.
You step back from all of this, and even though you know better, you can't stop yourself from thinking: "Goddammit, this town is huge. There's got to be a place for me here, somewhere. I can still make it in New York."
Posted by Misha Lepetic at 12:30 AM | Permalink