Sunday Pages: New York Nostalgia

Old haunts, old pieces of writing.

Dear Reader,

Like Humphrey Bogart, our eldest son was born 1) in New York City, 2) on Christmas Day. He hates the latter fact. Yesterday, I drove him down to the city of his birth, to make sure he still takes pride in the former.

We left the city 16 years ago, when he was five months old. Unless you are fantastically wealthy, New York is no place for a baby. All of the charms of the place—the bars being open until four, the movie theaters showing films you can’t see anywhere else, the fact that owning a car is optional, the great swell of dense, diverse humanity—are immediately irrelevant to new parents. Bars are out, movies are out, cabs aren’t built to accommodate babies, and the kook on the subway with the crazy eyes is not quite as colorful when you’re wearing your infant in a Baby Bjorn. But our son is old enough now to understand and appreciate what makes NYC so great.

A lot changes in 16 years. The Crescent Coffee Shop is still there, in our old Astoria stomping grounds, manned by the same Greek brothers who served up delicious egg sandwiches and French toast a decade and a half ago; it is now called The Crescent Gourmet, but remains a coffee shop—the best one in all the land. But the Italian restaurant where we had takeout the day we brought our baby boy home from the hospital is gone, its façade hidden behind scaffolding. The parking lot where we kept our car has been developed. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, the Continental Bar, on Third Avenue, which was always a hole in the ground, now actually is a hole in the ground. It was still there a few months ago! New York is like that Avengers movie: some unseen hand snaps its fingers, and half the city vanishes, as if it never existed.

But then, this constant change is the one essential fact of New York. Back when his namesake president was still alive, Washington Irving, who coined the terms Knickerbocker (naming the city’s basketball team 150 years before it had one) and Gotham (bequeathing the city’s definitive history book its title), lamented the loss that accompanies these rapid changes. In said history book, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace quote an editorial in Harper’s Monthly that ran in 1856: “New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.”

In the introduction to Low Life—which is the best summation of the Big Apple that I have ever read—Luc Sante writes that New York “would seem on the face of it to be founded on progress, on change, on the bulldozing of what has faded to make way for the next thing, the thing after that, the future. The lure of the new is built right into the name; it is the part of the name that actually registers, since the ‘York,’ a commemoration of a colonial lineage, carries no resonance and exists only as a vestige. . . New York has no truck with the past. It expels its dead.”

As part of my own little nostalgia tour, I took my son to what was, when I was in my early twenties, my absolute favorite part of the East Village—the pinnacle of cool. In 1997 or 8, when I was in my mid-twenties, I wrote about this inner sanctum, a long paragraph in an unfinished novel that never quite fit with the rest of the book:

New York, for me, can be distilled to a single block: St. Mark’s Place between Second and Third Avenues. Punks in torn fishnets and pink mohawks and jackboots; cheap nose-rings and sunglasses and rings shaped like snakes; tattoo parlors, used record stores, Kim’s Video, Coney Island High; white kids from Bergen County begging quarters; aphorisms chalked like body outlines on the pathogenic sidewalk by someone called De La Vega; T-shirts bearing uncouth slogans; The Grassroots Tavern, my favorite bar; a graffitied Gap, egregiously misplaced, where the staff outnumber the clientele; second- and third-hand clothes and Tibetan artifacts and unloved compact discs and bandanas and incense, on makeshift racks and shelves, spilling from the storefronts, obstructing the walkways, slowing down traffic; St. Mark’s Ale House, St. Mark’s Hotel, but not, curiously, St. Mark’s Church (it’s two blocks north, on East 10th Street). People occupy the street at all times, any hour of day and night: crazy people, hip people, poor people, angry people, drunk people; people in black, in Salvation Army coats, in schoolgirl uniforms, in army fatigues, in sartorial combinations selected for optimum ugliness; people not in a hurry, hanging out here, feeding on the squalor, handing out fliers, yelling, screaming, singing, laughing, smoking, drinking, living, enjoying themselves, exalting all that is great and bemoaning all that sucks in this twisted world. . . and the whole depraved thoroughfare is named for one of Christ’s apostles. The center of my New York is a fixed point—a manhole cover, maybe—right in the middle of this beautiful, profligate block. The rest of the city radiates from that focus and does not extend north of 14th Street or south of Canal. Those are the boundaries I recognize. Fuck the Theatre District and the Great Lawn and Wall Street—this is New York.

Needless to say, the St. Mark’s Place of a quarter century ago that I described with such affection is lost and gone forever. You can see the traces, sure, just as it is possible to glimpse, in the current iteration of Madonna—gaunt, gap-toothed, yoga-bodied—the fuller, rosier, more Italian-looking prototype who made out on the roof of her apartment building in the “Borderline” video. Search & Destroy, the anarchist clothes shop, is still there, but Trash & Vaudeville and Religious Sex are not. Grassroots Tavern and Coney Island High are long gone; there’s nowhere on the whole block to sit and have a proper beer. Indeed, alcohol in general seems to have given way to weed as the drug of choice, as what seedy stores remain are stocked in the main with gleaming glass bongs, which interest me not in the slightest (but fascinated my Gen Z kid). There are no record stores anywhere, or bookstores, or video stores, no raunchy t-shirts in the windows, and none of those cool punk people remain. Unlike, say, 42nd Street, which underwent a Disneylandification process under Benito Giuliani, St. Mark’s has not been corporatized; The Gap is also a memory. No—worse even than that, this has become a block that has no resonance at all, an unassuming street my son might mistake for any other in the strange, sanitized East Village of 2021, where bicycles outnumber cabs.

A Google search reveals that De La Vega—who I assumed, in my youthful forays around the NYU environs, to be late Boomer/early Gen X, due to the worldly wisdom of his aphorisms—turns out to be born in 1972, just like me. His chalk inscriptions, which never failed to buoy my spirits all those years ago, are nowhere to be found on St. Mark’s today. But then, unlike statues or skyscrapers or subway lines, those etchings were never meant to last. De La Vega knew better than to seek permanence—which, paradoxically, is what makes him immortal. In New York, there is no medium more appropriate than chalk.


Photo credit: The author, yesterday. An East Village church undergoes renovation. This is on the corner of East 7th Street, where we once lived.