NEW YORK—Things that I once loved (Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, brownstone terraces on hot summer afternoons, cold beer and fried eggs on 59th and 5th at 5 a.m. after a night of carousing, the Sherry-Netherland) and miss today have grown ever more monumental upon reflection. I suppose it’s normal, missing things you loved when you were young, yet I still can’t get over how the people have changed; for the worse, needless to say.
The city is at its best very early in the morning, the asphalt glistening after the rain, or the water trucks washing the avenues, the streets empty and as still as a movie set. In the old days, on muggy nights people used to sleep on the fire escapes in their underwear. Returning from a nightclub, especially when up in Harlem, I’d see the “wops” and the “micks” sleeping in their shorts and hail them goodnight. You’d get the occasional F-word in response, but it was rare. Now the F-word is a verb, an adjective, an adverb, a noun.
The Italians and the Irish are now gentrified and have moved to the suburbs, and if they saw their children sleeping in their underwear outdoors they’d scream bloody murder. Everyone has air-conditioning nowadays, and the only reason for sleeping al fresco is to get away from the chill. The current runaway best-seller is a gem, Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, a Scots-Irish Ohio native who grew up poor in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs since the ’70s. Vance became successful in Silicon Valley after the Marine Corps and service in Iraq. I loved his book, especially the part about pajamas. Poor people don’t wear pajamas, he writes, they wear underwear or sleep naked. Rich people wear pajamas. I concur. I never saw anyone wearing pajamas sleeping on the fire escape when I was young.
Fire escapes are still around in the houses greedy ones haven’t destroyed and replaced with glass, but the Latinos, blacks, and Asians who live in them now have air-conditioning. And they have TVs, and headphones, and lots to complain about when their cable breaks as Con Ed digs up the streets to repair old wires. Nothing, of course, has changed more than the small-town feeling the old New York had in spades. The city used to be a collection of small villages and different ethnic communities. There was Germantown, Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem, all connected by wide avenues and drives along the banks of the Hudson. (I’m talking about Manhattan.) Then untalented, stupid, butcherlike architects and city planners decided to improve the place, displacing storefronts and other points of congregation where a merchant could sell his wares and keep an eye on the baby sleeping inside. The biggest criminal of all was Robert Moses, the man who not only ruined New York and wiped out whole communities by laying down asphalt turnpikes for absolutely no reason except what he saw as progress but also planned to do away with Greenwich Village and replace it with a five-lane highway. Thankfully, the monster croaked before any more catastrophic modernizing could occur. But the place has been Disneyfied forever.
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