In early September of 1978, I moved to New York City from northern Connecticut to attend graduate school. Two months earlier, the Rolling Stones had issued their (arguably) last good album, Some Girls, which concluded with “Shattered”, Mick Jagger’s poison pen letter to his adopted city of the moment. Although Mick and I didn’t travel in quite the same circles, I recognized the squalor he gleefully cataloged in that song: “Rats on the West Side, bed bugs Uptown... People dressed in plastic bags, directing traffic”. It might have seemed like piling on,but when Jagger sang, “What a mess, this town’s in tatters”, it was hard to disagree. Toward the end of the song, Jagger issued a sneering invitation in the impudent manner of the Stones at their finest: “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple / Don’t mind the maggots”. So I did. I bit the Big Apple. I didn’t mind the maggots. I kinda loved them.
A great many books have been written on the decline and resurrection of New York and other major American cities in the last decades of the twentieth century. I wouldn’t presume to speculate on the causes that have been and continue to be debated by urbanists, demographers, sociologists, economists, and historians. I know simply that I arrived at the right time – when New York was in a flux of transformation but still open enough to harbor penniless grad students like me. It won’t do to mythologize the crime, poverty, and collapsing infrastructure that constituted daily life for so many of its citizens. The squalor that bohemians on the Lower East Side willingly embraced was an unromantic fact of life for others dwelling in neighborhoods not quite so hip or edgy. On the whole, it’s a damned good thing that New York cleaned up its act and the crime rate fell. Everyone benefits from lower crime rates and cleaner streets, even if those benefits tend to accrue disproportionally to the less needy. I, in my picturesque brownstone neighborhood in Brooklyn, enjoy the fruits of that melioration to this day. Even so, I can’t help feeling slightly nostalgic. Hearing my first blast of salsa music emanating from the dark alley behind the filthy window of my dormitory room on 110th Street was its own sort of invitation: Welcome to Nueva York.
I came to New York to study for a master’s degree in librarianship at Columbia University but soon discovered that what really mattered was not the university but the city it was in. Making it into the Ivy League from a background of public schools and state colleges had been a big deal for me. It took me about two weeks to become thoroughly disillusioned. First of all, the advanced study of librarianship turned out to be so unbelievably boring that if I hadn’t started slacking off to attend screenings of foreign and classic movies at revival house theaters around town, I wouldn’t have lasted into October. (Try reading Interface with the School Media Curriculum and see what it does to your psyche.) Secondly, I fell in with a couple of classmates who confirmed what I already suspected, namely, that the coursework was mostly bullshit anyway and the thing to do was browse as hastily as possible the assigned “literature,” which was in any case unreadable, and turn in the sort of proficient, superficial papers that, as former English major types, we could write in our sleep. Meanwhile there was a great city to explore on our way to a degree that would grant us life-time admittance to the congenial and accommodating world of libraries.
Allowing for youthful hyperbole, there was enough truth in my friends’ admonitions to free me, at least in part, from the grind of my grad student lucubrations. Even one of my professors (and there were a few witty, learned humanists like him on the faculty) counseled us, “Don’t let us browbeat you. Take an afternoon off to go up to the Cloisters. There’s a big city out there. Get to know it.” Yes, a whole world of urban squalor was waiting for us just outside the confines of Columbia University. In fact, much of that squalor was within the university. The sheer physical shabbiness of the campus never ceased to amaze me. I was a scholarship student, but all these other parents were paying princely sums to send their children to study in classrooms that were palpably falling apart, like much of the university itself. The main reading room of Butler Library was a majestic, soaring, three-story vault culminating in a coffered ceiling hung with glittering, three-tiered chandeliers. Or should have been. In what seemed almost a deliberate policy, the huge windows were so blackened with grime that the decrepitude of the interior was effectively masked, or to put it more simply, you couldn’t see how shitty the place really looked. Like the city government itself, Columbia University in 1978 couldn’t afford basic maintenance.
Over at the Business School, the attitude was no doubt different, but in my circle, no one went into librarianship for the money. The students and, later, colleagues I befriended tended to be much like me. For us, librarianship was a means to an end, and the end was a life devoted to books and culture – never mind that we still had to work for a living, with all the frustration and compromise that entailed. The frustration derived principally from the lack of time – time to read all those books and absorb all that culture. Although the frustration never fully abated, I never doubted that I chose the right place to be frustrated in. I couldn’t see all the Mizoguchi movies I wanted to at Bleecker Street Cinema, but I could see some of them. Even better, I could talk about them with other would-be intellectuals who, like me, stayed in this broken-down, dangerous city to engage in the running debate about film and literature and art and music and (sometimes) politics that defined our lives.
Who was “Mizoguchi” anyway? I couldn’t have answered that question in college. The University of Connecticut had a decent English department, but the only culture in Storrs, Connecticut, was the Wilbur Cross Library and a rock and roll club on the outskirts of town. Thus, I graduated with a head full of literature but void of any sense of its place in the wider cultural landscape. And here I was, in my first couple of years in New York, meeting opera queens, balletomanes, apprentice filmmakers, and aspiring artists, none especially successful or likely to be, but all putting to shame my rigid literary monoculture. Clearly, I had some catching up to do, so I undertook a process of self-education in the arts, which began with exploring that awfully grand neo-classical building on upper Fifth Avenue that I had passed a couple of times on the number 4 bus on my way to Grand Central Terminal. Oh, right, that’s the Metropolitan Museum! Initially, I thought it was the Museum of Natural History, just as I thought the Bronx was Brooklyn, and Brooklyn the Bronx. I learned fast, however, and one of the things I learned was how to navigate by points of the compass. In the suburbs, I hadn’t known north from south. That won’t get you very far in New York City.
Far from being intimidated by its august classicism, I got very comfortable very quickly at the Met. It seemed to me the best way to learn about art was not to read up on it (which I did anyway) or attend lectures or take classes but to go out and look at the stuff. Sometimes that “stuff” could be fairly challenging. Although I knew I was supposed to like him, I could never hurry through the Mondrian galleries at the Museum of Modern Art fast enough. One day I decided to slow down, and it happened. Those severe rectilinear abstractions, which I had thought so dreary on my previous visits, suddenly sprang off the walls, and I saw those pictures for what they were – liberating, mysterious, infinite. I probably would have had that epiphany sooner or later. Living in New York and immersing myself in all that Kulchur just accelerated the process.
Being young and too impecunious to travel, I was fortunate enough to work at the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries, where my colleagues, mostly clerical staffers, were from Bangladesh and the Dominican Republic and Iran and Poland and China and Jamaica. The cataloging departments, where I initially worked, were like the U.N. without the lofty pretensions. My co-workers might not have spent much time in the Mondrian galleries at MoMA, but they had perspectives about the world broader than the white suburban one of my upbringing. With their heavy accents and the native dress they sometimes wore and the unfamiliar foods they brought in for lunch, they had overcome obstacles that I could barely imagine. Also, there were Black people and Hispanics and white ethnic types from deep in Brooklyn who said “axe” for “ask” and “liberry” for “library.” They were all my fellow citizens, which I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t come to New York City. Hence, the calamity of that endlessly reproduced Saul Steinberg print, which became fixed in the public imagination as an image of New York arrogance and self-regard, showing the rest of the country as a minor outpost to the Republic of New York. No, no, no! New York was the echt American city. Everything that was good and bad about this nation of immigrants, we had here; we just had more of it.
New Yorkers can be as provincial as anyone else. You haven’t missed out on life if you happen to live in Rhode Island. Still, the intensity and diversity of life in New York, even in the crime-ridden, dirty and decrepit seventies and eighties – maybe especially then – were inescapable. Where else could I step out of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue for my afternoon coffee break and happen upon Keith Haring, then a scruffy graffiti artist, covering the plaza in front of the building with a menagerie in chalk of his fanciful stick figures? Or watch another painter, who I now realize was Rackstraw Downes, occupying for several consecutive weeks a corner of Broadway and 110th Street and patiently working up a meticulous cityscape of that unlovely spot? Yet the images of New York from that period that stick with me the most are the black and white studies of empty, seemingly abandoned streets in lower Manhattan by the German photographer Thomas Struth. Harsh, uningratiating but somehow dreamily poetic – that will always be my New York.
There was, of course, the rather gargantuan problem of street crime. Admiring the handiwork of New York’s wondrous street artists wasn’t the first thing you thought of if someone was holding a knife to your throat or holding the elevator door open for you so that you could be mugged inside. I don’t know why I was exempt when so many of my friends and acquaintances had been variously robbed, assaulted, threatened, and molested. Certainly, I found myself in uncomfortable situations, but I was determined not to concede my freedom of movement to any criminal, real or imagined. With very few exceptions I went wherever I wanted whenever I wanted and probably had more close calls than I ever realized. (Poorer people in poorer neighborhoods, it goes without saying, suffered that much more.) I did make a point of keeping twenty or forty dollars in my pocket as tribute money for potential predators and left my wallet at home whenever possible. In response to all that crime, a certain set of New Yorkers became accustomed to trading horror stories at parties and social gatherings of their brushes with criminal violence; having such stories to tell did bestow a certain minimal street cred. More realistically, others got the hell out and stayed out. Who could blame them? The tipping point for a friend of mine was when burglars broke into his apartment and stole not only his stereo equipment but the forty-seven cents lying on top of his desk. He might have stayed if it had only been the stereo, but the forty-seven cents, he explained, was just tacky. As for myself, I learned not to panic or freak out when confronted by aggressive or threatening people – a lamentably necessary survival skill that, I'm happy to say, many younger New Yorkers have never had to acquire.
Violence was unpredictable, but everyday squalor was a reliable constant, and never further away than the nearest subway station. It didn’t matter if you had a million dollars and lived on the toniest block in Brooklyn Heights; you still had to ride the trains. I didn’t mind the graffiti, the boom boxes, the panhandlers, the junkies; I just wanted the trains to arrive on time, which they didn’t. Before graduating, I got a part-time job at the Brooklyn Public Library, which entailed a long ride at rush hour on the 2 or 3 train, also known in those days as the West Side I.R.T. And I remember in the summer of 1979 standing on the platform at the 96th Street station, waiting for a transfer to the uptown local and thinking, Why aren’t people dying? It was ninety-eight degrees down there. As each express train disgorged more passengers than could possibly fit on the late-arriving, unairconditioned local trains, the platform became a honeycomb of suffering, sweating humanity. The roar of the trains, the shriek of metal on metal, the rats scurrying on the tracks, the smell of creosote and urine rising in the air, the enforced tactility of all those bodies joined like a massive, slow-moving amoeba: anywhere else, they would have been dying. But this was just another rush hour, quite routine, until I figured out that it would be quicker walking the remaining half mile to my dorm room, not that tunneling my way to the exits was much easier. Although I doubt he ever dropped a token in a turnstile, Mick Jagger had it right once again when he sang in “Shattered,” “To live in this town, you must be tough tough tough tough tough tough tough!” As for me, I looked around that subway platform not with despair but with pride. Whatever else you could say about these people, they were tough. And I was one of them.
Riding that rat-trap subway system in the late seventies and early eighties reinforced another lesson that living in New York was teaching me: Give up the idea of lasting physical comfort. You’ll never obtain it on a middle-class salary in this city, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Indeed, the notion of creaturely comforts taken for granted in the suburbs where I grew up, came to seem almost contemptible. New Yorkers sweated in the summer, froze in the winter, clambered up and down staircases to wait inordinate lengths for graffiti-scarred subway trains, jostled each other in the narrow aisles of wretched supermarkets to pay exorbitant sums for bad produce, shared cramped, overpriced apartments with roommates they didn’t like, waited in long lines for the simplest things – a movie ticket, an ice cream cone, a library book. I might have taken my spartanism a little too far. When she moved into my top-floor Park Slope walk-up in 1980, my girlfriend had to convince me that buying a second-hand air conditioner to get us through the suffocating summer wasn’t a fatal moral compromise. I'm glad I listened – not something I did with notable consistency in my hot youth. Decades on, New York is a much more amenable city, but I still live in an apartment about the size of an average living room, I still have to descend two flights of stairs, ascend a third, and descend a fourth merely to get to my subway platform at the Atlantic Avenue station. It’s water off my back. My early years in New York imparted to me a Zen-like ability to master my aggravation. Necessarily so. Otherwise, I would have been hyperventilating with rage ten times a day – unlike many of my fellow citizens, who hyperventilate with rage more or less continually. Anyone who has ever attended a screening at the movie theaters at the Museum of Modern Art will know of which I speak. It’s a rare showing (or used to be – many of the regulars have died out) in which a squabble doesn’t break out over sight lines or talking or even fiercely held opinions about Gene Kelly musicals. Sometimes the squabbles are the main event.
The New York that I moved to in 1978 wasn’t quite the New York of a few years earlier, lovingly evoked by Luc (later Lucy) Sante in a 2003 reminiscence for the New York Review of Books that might have indulged in a faint nostalgie de la boue:
Apart from a few ill-advised forays into Washington Square and Bryant Parks to buy drugs from scabrous junkies, I, a bourgeois at heart, avoided the aggressive bohemianism embraced by Sante and her East Village cohort. The outer edges of Park Slope, where you could still be, as I was, propositioned by drug-addicted prostitutes, were rough enough for me. Sante was hanging out with people who lived defiantly on the margins. What I discovered, however, was that my bourgeois circle of librarians, junior architects, urban planners, and part-time artists had wit, intelligence, and creativity to spare. They were from all over the country and all over the world, and many of them were gay. What drew us together was the overwhelming fact of New York itself. We all knew the city was in terrible shape, and most of us wished it were more livable, especially those of us who, in a few years, were to become parents. Yet we found in each other a correspondence of sympathies unavailable in our places of origin. Maybe we just liked being mildly pretentious together. New York is a city of subcultures. The subculture of middle-class, left-leaning, slightly-cool-but-not-obsessed-about-it readers of the New York Times who turned to the arts section first was mine.
When I moved to New York in 1978, I hadn’t intended to stay. My few excursions into the city as a child had persuaded me that New York was a frightening, alien place of which I wanted no part. The city would be to me a way station on my route to a fulfilling career as a university (optimally, rare books) librarian, preferably in a quaint college town somewhere. But something happened. After a couple of months, I realized I could never leave, even if that meant taking a grunt-level job at the Brooklyn Public Library, which is what I did. For me, living in New York answered the question I didn’t know I'd been asking: Where do you belong, Stephen? You belong here, with all the other artsy-fartsy misfits you didn’t know you’d been looking for. When I fell in love with one of those misfits, the deal was sealed. Falling in love in Akron, Ohio, probably would have been just as blissful, but, I don’t know, meeting my girl at the Bottom Line to see Jonathan Richman or Lou Reed just seemed more romantic somehow. Indeed, falling in love with New York and falling in love in New York seemed hardly distinguishable.
The one-bedroom Park Slope apartment that Lucy, an unemployed architect, shared with me, cost me $365 a month – about two/thirds of my take-home salary. Still, that was more affordable than most neighborhoods in Manhattan, which is why I was living in Brooklyn in the first place. A few years earlier, as Sante noted in her reminiscence, landlords were offering two months free rent to fill their ratty tenements in the East Village, but real estate in the city had arrested its decline, and Park Slope wasn’t ratty. Although you could still buy drugs on or around the stretch on Flatbush Avenue, and Fifth Avenue was a long corridor of bodegas and working-class bars, those brownstones were just as beautiful as they had been a hundred years ago, and I wanted in. To achieve that goal, I had to line up on the street with a hundred or so others one blustery Sunday afternoon in December to meet the landlord for a brief showing of a top-floor apartment of a building he owned on Eighth Avenue. The night before, all of us had bought an early copy of the Sunday Times and plundered the real estate section for classified ads, such as the one that directed us to this time and place. That’s how you got an apartment in those days. (Co-ops, as yet, were for the rich. Normal people rented.) I suppose I prevailed over the other ninety-nine prospective tenants because I was a librarian; my landlord figured I'd be a docile and obedient lodger. Big mistake. He tried to have me evicted when he found out my girlfriend had moved in. Incredibly, he had the law on his side. The lease that I had signed expressly – and legally – forbade cohabitation. We got married anyway, but not because of that horrible man. He turned out to be a pretty typical landlord, depriving the building of heat on the coldest days of winter and rarely making necessary repairs. All the tenants hated him. I still get a little sentimental remembering the days when class war between landlords and tenants was the rule, not the exception.
By now, Park Slope is something of a national punchline for haute bourgeois entitlement, and I was priced out years ago, so a part of me will always pine for the seedy newsstand on Seventh Avenue where the grumpy, cigar-chomping owner in his Daily News apron sold the New York Review of Books and pornography, or for the mixed-class, multi-ethnic band of street urchins on our block who embraced on our only child (himself multi-ethnic) as one of their own. Yet as the neighborhood gentrified, life did get somewhat easier. We were, after all, a family. We wanted a little more space, a decent public school, maybe even a washer and dryer, and we got those things without, I think, selling our souls. Now when I walk through Park Slope, I feel like an exile. Do there remain any clusters of financially insecure, culturally voracious civil servants and other denizens of the petite bourgeoisie? Have investment bankers wholly colonized the neighbourhood? To my unending astonishment, Fifth Avenue, where I once saw an undercover cop bust up a drug deal, is chic. Little by little, through the eighties and nineties, the neighborhood gentrified, and I right along with it, until I myself eventually got displaced. The story of Park Slope is, in a way, the story of New York City, and this story has no ending.
When he was a boy, I used to take my son to Coney Island for his birthday in August. One year we brought along a family friend of his, visiting from the suburbs. The barkers, the street toughs, the tattooed hipsters, the Black and Hispanic kids from every rough neighborhood in Brooklyn – David threw himself into that mix without a trace of self-consciousness. After all, we were all going to ride the Cyclone together. His companion, on the other hand, looked terrified. Who were these people? Well, they were us, New Yorkers biting the Big Apple and not minding the maggots.