Jeremiah Moss | Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul | Dey Street Books | July 2017 | 28 minutes (6,876 words)
As someone who was evicted from her East Village apartment in 2005 — and who now finds herself worried about losing her place in gentrifying Kingston, New York — I was excited to see that Vanishing New York blogger “Jeremiah Moss” (the pseudonym for psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury) had a book coming out.
Since 2007, Moss’s blog has catalogued the shuttering of one New York City institution after another, and staged demonstrations (which he himself didn’t attend, for fear of outing himself) to try and save them. Where his blog has tended to focus mainly on the East Village and lower Manhattan, his book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, is more comprehensive, looking at the city as a whole, one borough and neighborhood at a time. It traces what he’s labeled today’s “hyper-gentrification” to the Koch era, and explores the problem in historical, economic, sociological, psychological, and personal terms.
Although Moss has been making his living for years as a shrink, he came to the city more than twenty years ago with the hope of becoming a writer. Having garnered glowing endorsements from veteran New York chroniclers like Luc Sante — not to mention the rare earnest blurb from Gary Shteyngart — it seems he’s now truly arrived.
Below, the first chapter, “The East Village.” — Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor
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I came to New York to transition. To become a New Yorker after a lifetime in one small town. Riding the train into Penn Station upon my arrival, I caught a glimpse of the red neon sign atop the New Yorker hotel and thought, That’s where the great magazine is published—and where my poems will appear. It wasn’t and they didn’t.
But what did I know at twenty-two years old? In my black Doc Martens, black jeans, black turtleneck, black leather biker jacket, I wanted to be taken for a real New Yorker. I wanted to pass—not as something I wasn’t, but as the person I’d always known myself to be. A city person.
The city has the power to rejigger you completely, body and mind, rearranging your neural pathways and setting your heart to a different beat. It speeds up your nervous system, making you sharper and more savvy—if you let it. I welcomed my own urbanization, loving the smells of my neighbors’ cooking and the crush of a subway crowd, savoring insider knowledge about important things, like how to order a bagel, how to hail a cab, and in which booth at Chumley’s did F. Scott Fitzgerald schtup Zelda on their wedding night. (If you take New York into your cells, you pick up Yiddish, too, sparking your sentences with schmuck and kvetch and plotz.)
During my first years in the city, I would learn much more about passing, for I also came to New York to undergo another kind of transition. It was here that I made the passage from female to male, living a queer and transgender life in the days long before Caitlyn Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair and trans athletes starred in Nike commercials. This book is not that story, but it bears mentioning because it is inevitably intertwined. Every person views the city through a prism of personal experience and, as different as all those prisms may be, for a long time, New York was able to accommodate every type. The city made space for all varieties and combinations. Queer and trans culture is one facet of my prism. So is poetry and literature—another pursuit that brought me to New York—and, later, a career in psychoanalysis. All of it informs my approach to the city. So does the working-class ethnic culture from which I come, mostly Italian, but also Irish dosed with Jewishness by close association (my Irish Catholic father, raised in a Jewish neighborhood, worked the rag trade, a schmatta salesman with a Hebrew Chai dangling from a gold chain around his 1970s neck).
I came to New York because I needed the city, and New York is for people who need cities, for those who cannot function outside of one. Open and permissive, insulating you with the sort of anonymity you can’t find in a small town or suburb, the city allows us to expand, experiment, and become our truest selves. In the New York of the early 1990s, there was no better place to perform that labor than the East Village.
For over a century, the East Village provided an uncommon space. It was, among other things, a long-sought-after refuge for those who never quite felt at home anywhere else. Reclusive misanthropes and creative exhibitionists, builders of junk towers and makers of psychedelic gardens, poets, punks, and queers, activists and anarchists, dominatrices and drug addicts, graffitists, nudists, and underground cartoonists all found a home in the East Village. A barricade of deviance and grit kept much of the straight world out, protecting the neighborhood’s unconventional character. But at the end of the twentieth century, the East Village was invaded, its territory seized, and those of us who’d found our first true home between Astor Place and the East River were displaced. For many, that displacement was physical, one kind of eviction or another. For many more, the displacement has been emotional, a jarring dislocation of the psyche.
The East Village was not always the East Village. The neighborhood east of Bowery and bookended by Houston Street and 14th was simply the northernmost section of the Lower East Side until the early 1960s, when it was carved out and renamed to sound more like its fancier neighbor to the west. The New York Times dates the origin of “East Village” to 1964. In that year, the guidebook Earl Wilson’s New York reported: “artists, poets and promoters of coffeehouses from Greenwich Village are trying to remelt the neighborhood under the high-sounding name of ‘East Village.’” Beatniks, following the likes of Allen Ginsberg, had moved east years earlier, pushed out of Greenwich Village by rising rents after World War II. Willem de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionist painters came in the early 1950s, followed by galleries. The real estate industry, smelling a trail of money flowing eastward from the Village proper, took the name “East Village” and ran with it in those first days of proto-gentrification.
I came to New York because I needed the city, and New York is for people who need cities, for those who cannot function outside of one.
The headline of a 1964 Times article proclaimed, “The Affluent Set Invades the East Village; First Wave Is Lured by ‘Atmosphere.’” It sounds like the beginning of the end. Still, the “uptown rich” weren’t all that rich. Bohemian bar owner Stanley Tolkin described it at the time: “First there were the artists. Then there were the teachers and writers, and little by little, we had everyone—advertising men, doctors who live in walk-up tenements, lawyers just starting out, construction workers. They all seem to work at something during the day. But at night, they change their clothes and become Beatniks.” In today’s East Village, it’s hedge fund managers, millionaire celebrities, and marauding dude-bros, but they don’t become beatniks at night. That would be a blessing. Instead, stubbornly, they remain themselves.
The neighborhood’s radicalism, however, was not invented in the 1960s. The streets had long been home to Jewish lefties and Italian agitators, theater people, avant-gardists, anarchists, artists, mobsters, as well as the very poor. In the late 1800s, Tompkins Square Park served as a space for riots and demonstrations against economic inequality. Justus Schwab’s Saloon on East First Street was “the most famous radical center in New York,” in the words of early feminist anarchist Emma Goldman, who frequented the place. In her memoirs, she called Schwab’s “a Mecca for French Communards, Spanish and Italian refugees, Russian politicals, and German socialists and anarchists.” In that tradition, a century later, the neighborhood was full of hippies, bohemians, queers, and punks, along with poor and working-class Ukrainians, Poles, and Puerto Ricans, drug dealers, junkies, and murderers. The most dangerous part was Alphabet City, the blocks between Avenues A and D, where landlords left buildings abandoned and set them ablaze for insurance money. With orange flames lighting the night sky, the easternmost section of the East Village became a postapocalyptic landscape of empty lots and forsaken tenements, hollowed husks turned into bordellos, Halleluiah churches, heroin shooting galleries, and squats. Creativity flourished in this war zone of crime and grime. David Byrne credits life on Avenue A with the creation of Talking Heads’ 1979 album, Fear of Music, especially “Life During Wartime,” a song, he told biographer David Bowman, “about living in Alphabet City” while thinking of Baader-Meinhof, Patty Hearst, and Tompkins Square. Among locals, Avenues A, B, C, and D stood for Adventurous, Brave, Crazy, and Dead. (In 2016, writer George Pendle told the Times they now stand for “Affluent, Bourgeois, Comfortable, Decent.”)
In the 1980s, the art establishment moved in, bringing commercial galleries that attracted a new wave of change, a process critiqued by Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan in their 1984 paper, “The Fine Art of Gentrification.” An Art in America article of the same year described the East Village as a “unique blend of poverty, punk rock, drugs, arson, Hell’s Angels, winos, prostitutes and dilapidated housing that adds up to an adventurous avant-garde setting of considerable cachet.” That cachet, Deutsche and Ryan wrote, “conceals a brutal reality.” Namely, the city’s strategy to exploit the art scene for gentrification, for the housing of “a professional white middle class groomed to serve the center of America’s ‘postindustrial’ society.” Artists and gallerists, the authors argued, were complicit in this process. At the same time, many East Village artists led the fight against gentrification in what became an era of fierce resistance. Today, when people talk about gentrification, they often blame artists, labeling them as frontline gentrifiers. As I’ll explore more in a later chapter, the relationship between art and gentrification is a complicated one, with artists often used as scapegoats to distract from the real culprits.
The Gap moved to St. Mark’s Place in 1988. Taking the former space of the beloved, grungy St. Mark’s Cinema, it was met with “there goes the neighborhood” outrage. One local painter tossed a cinder block at the Gap’s plate-glass window, but failed to break through. Angry young men urinated on the store and agitators slapped stickers to it that read: “Why are you here?” and “Go away.” In an ominous, Orwellian tone, the Gap’s assistant manager told Women’s Wear Daily, “They think we are destroying the East Village image, but like everywhere else, they will accept it” (emphasis mine). That same year, just five months after the Gap’s arrival, Tompkins Square Park erupted in riots two blocks east. Protesting a new curfew and the removal of a homeless Hooverville, activists carried bedsheet banners spray-painted with the slogans: “Gentrification Is Class War” and “Gentrification Is Genocide.” Police on horseback beat people with nightsticks. Protesters smashed their way into the Christodora, a former settlement house that had just been redeveloped into luxury condos. Occupying the lobby, the protesters chanted a new call to arms: “Die Yuppie Scum.” The battle for the East Village was on.
In 1994, Mayor Giuliani came into office armed with a paramilitary police force and a zero-tolerance campaign. He waged war on the squats and the “communist” community gardens. Avant-garde art spaces were destroyed, including the anarchist sculpture garden Gas Station/Space 2B (at Second Street and Avenue B), evicted by a 900 percent rent increase. The Gap on St. Mark’s Place survived (until 2001) and more chains followed. A Barnes & Noble opened at Astor Place in 1994, complete with a Starbucks. Another Starbucks moved in across the street in 1995 (followed soon by yet another), and across from that came Kmart in 1996. Politicians and developers licked their chops while residents blanched. Said one local to the Times, “I hate the thought of stepping over Kmart shoppers on my way to buy bagels on Sunday morning.”
We saw the warning signs, but had no idea how bad it was going to get. Throughout the mid to late 1990s, the East Village spirit fought back against Giuliani’s bulldozers and the tanks of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), but eventually the spine snapped. By the 2000s, the crime rate had dropped, following a nationwide trend, the charred skeletons of tenements had been retrofitted into new buildings, and too many of the more charismatic residents had died from AIDS. Cleaner and safer, after a century of agitation and creation, the East Village was now prepped for the next phase to begin.
When a notice appeared in the window of the shuttered Second Avenue Deli (forced to close by a rent increase after fifty-two years) announcing that Hooters was “Coming soon to your neighborhood, old-school East Villagers flew into collective apoplexy. It was 2006 and we were reeling from the neighborhood’s seismic shift, a change that had come so quick, many of us walked in a daze of disorientation. For a while, I kept stopping, looking around, and asking myself: Where am I? I went to bed one night in a bohemian enclave and woke the next day in a mean-spirited, suburban high school hangout. Now Hooters was moving in? And into the beloved deli opened by Holocaust survivor Abe Lebewohl, of all places. Pastrami and chopped liver would be replaced by Buffalo hot wings and cheese sticks. In the Molly Picon room, dedicated to the star of Yiddish theater and films such as Yidl Mitn Fidl, young women hired for their breast size would soon be serving in short-shorts. A protest blog appeared, titled “Hooters Out of Second Avenue Deli.” An angry mob began to brew, but then the notice turned out to be a hoax, a kind of protest itself, sending up the ugly new character of the twenty-first-century East Village, with its blocks of chain stores and gangs of frat boys, where the arrival of Hooters felt unbelievably believable.
In 1994, Mayor Giuliani came into office armed with a paramilitary police force and a zero-tolerance campaign.
The Florida-based chain restaurant never came to that spot, but a branch of Chase Bank did, installed just two blocks away from the next-nearest Chase branch and a block or two from several more banks. Today the Second Avenue Deli’s Yiddish Walk of Fame remains, out of context and rapidly fading. Carved in stone on the sidewalk are names from the days when this strip was the Jewish Broadway—Fyvush Finkel, Ida Kaminska, Lillian Lux, Ludwig Satz. The names are worn down, ignored and flattened by the crowds walking past, grabbing cash from the ATM before making a beeline for the next pitcher of beer and bucket of Buffalo hot wings, easily had without Hooters at one of the many laddish sports bars that have sprouted along the avenue.
The East Village has long attracted a youth population from outside the mainstream. They were lefties, Beats, hippies, and punks, queer artists and scruffy castoffs. But in the 2000s, the young people who took over the neighborhood came straight from the mainest part of the Middle American stream. They are “basic bros” roaring out of sports bars in beery packs, dressed in alpha-male hot pink polo shirts, looking like the preppy villains from a John Hughes movie. In plastic Viking helmets, they howl in the streets. Woooo-hoooo! We, the holdovers, huddle in our apartments as the night reverberates with woo. The girls we call “Woo Girls” because all they do is woo, stumbling out of hot pink Hummer limousines, waving giant balloon penises overhead while they vomit Jägermeister onto our doorsteps. How could this happen here? I moved to New York hoping to avoid these people for the rest of my life. As legendary downtown performance artist Penny Arcade put it, “The ten most popular kids from every high school in the world are now living in New York City. Those are the people who most of us who came to New York came here to get away from.”
It used to be the bridge-and-tunnel crowd coming in from Jersey and the outer boroughs to party on the weekends. At least they were part of the orbit around Manhattan, the ethnic and working class Tony Maneros and Tess McGills of the city’s gravitational field.
The new people are much farther flung. And they don’t go home at night. They live among us, in bigger apartments with better appliances. Youth-oriented condos extend the dormitory experience into adulthood, each building outfitted with postcollege amenities. On East 13th Street, the A Building became notorious as frat-house party central for young bankers. The Daily News captured a typical scene: “The roof’s perfectly manicured lawn becomes a happy hour ballfield where losing Flip Cup teams have to play Dizzy Bat—they chug beer from a plastic baseball bat and run circles around it while their friends cry, ‘Watch out for the wall!’”
While the former East Village had hardly been a tranquil country hamlet, it did have a quietude. The sidewalks weren’t overcrowded. Tourists didn’t dare to visit. There were bars, but it wasn’t Bourbon Street. New York University had dorms, but the student population wasn’t a swarm. As East Village poet Eileen Myles wrote in her essay for the book While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York, “there were more of us than them so the problem was fortunately contained. They were actually still part of what there was.” NYU’s presence remained in relative balance through the 1990s, until it spread like a virus, its students multiplying by the thousands in new dorms, overflowing into old tenements. “Then by the 21st c. they were living in our buildings,” writes Myles. “They were wandering (or running) through the halls of the building at night with their beers or also in their bathrobes between apartments with their cups of tea. They were incredibly loud. The way they talked. Like no one was living here.”
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By 2007, the East Village was the second-most complained-about neighborhood in the city, with 4,957 noise complaints called in to Mayor Bloomberg’s 311 phone line. By 2011, the East Village was number one on the Post’s list of neighborhoods with the most bars, topping out with 474 liquor licenses. One resident told the paper, “It’s like a red-light district. It’s honking cabs all night. It’s like a bad, disturbing dream.” People started to crack up. Frustrated, sleep-deprived residents dumped buckets of water from their apartment windows onto loud bar and restaurant patrons below. They tossed eggs. They unzipped their pants and urinated. Sometimes, driven to murderous rage, they dumped broken glass and scalding-hot oil. But the party never ended.
During one skirmish in the summer of 2015, newcomers besieged Italian restaurant Ballarò. The manager reported on Facebook: “I was offended, degraded and treated like shit by a group of 15 drunk people without any valid reason. They were screaming ‘BOO, YOU SUCK!’ at me and my wait staff because Taylor Swift wasn’t playing on our sound system. I then played two Taylor Swift songs for them to placate them.” Swift, by the way, had just been named New York’s official Global Welcome Ambassador. The gang “started screaming that the songs I played weren’t the right one and I was told that, ‘this place is shit, the music and the people here suck.’ I was then told to, ‘go back to your country with that fucking immigrant face.’” The gang finally left—without paying the five-hundred-dollar check. Ballarò has since shuttered.
A new breed of young people has come to the neighborhood and conquered. As East Village author Sarah Schulman put it, “This new crew . . . came not to join or to blend in or to learn and evolve, but to homogenize.” Even celebrities complained about the homogenization. Chloë Sevigny told The Daily Beast in 2014: “walking around the East Village, I just want to cry at the state of it. There are so many fuckin’ jocks everywhere! It’s like a frat house everywhere . . . where are the real weirdos? The real outcasts? They’re a vanishing breed here.”
When I first moved to the city, making the great financial mistake of a master’s degree in creative writing when the last thing a poet needs is a master’s degree, I was living up on East 26th Street in a miserable NYU graduate housing unit dominated by dental students, in a nondescript part of town called Bellevue South for its proximity to the infamous madhouse. I felt painfully out of place, a young poet among aspiring dentists, all jammed in the elevator clutching their grisly, grinning tooth molds. I got romantically depressed, drinking cheap red wine while listening to John Coltrane and working on my Frank O’Hara knockoff poems when I wasn’t cleaning toilets in uptown apartments for a few dollars an hour. On good days, I’d hike downtown with a notebook in my bag, a knife in one pocket and mugger money in the other, not quite breathing until I got below 14th Street, when I crossed that blessed threshold between Nothing and Everything.
The streets had long been home to Jewish lefties and Italian agitators, theater people, avant-gardists, anarchists, artists, mobsters, as well as the very poor.
One afternoon, I came upon Astor Place, gateway to the East Village, and felt a sense of wide openness. The thieves’ market bustled around an empty parking lot with junk for sale on dirty blankets. St. Mark’s Place looked like a bazaar in Marrakech, a cluttered and inviting souk spiced with incense. A jazz trio played. Punks went in and out, hair stretched high into impressive, neon-colored Mohawks. Dealers whispered the rhythmic incantation, “Smoke, dope, smoke, dope, shroooooms.” It was love at first sight. I had found my home, the place I’d been searching for, and moved in soon after. Much more recently, however, Astor Place has become unrecognizable.
“Undulating.” That was the word that starchitect Charles Gwathmey used for his newest creation, “Sculpture for Living.” A twenty-one-story glass condo tower with a “limited collection of 39 museum-quality loft residences” priced from $1,995,000 to over $6,500,000, it began rising on Astor Place at the dawn of the new millennium. The East Village had never seen anything like it. This “green monster,” as critic Paul Goldberger called it in The New Yorker, looks like a vertical fish tank, humming aquamarine. “It doesn’t belong in the neighborhood,” Goldberger concluded. “By designing a tower with such a self-conscious shimmer, the architect has destroyed the illusion that this neighborhood, which underwent gentrification long ago, is now anything other than a place for the rich.”
Gwathmey’s Sculpture for Living not only undulated, it dwarfed everything around it. Astor Place was no longer the open space I had encountered years before. Completely out of scale with the lowerrising nineteenth-century stone and terra-cotta architecture that surrounded it, the tower seemed to have migrated straight out of the dark caverns of Midtown, hailing the horrifying start of Astor Place’s transformation into a corporate office park that realtors would rename Midtown South. The New York Observer marked the moment in 2004 when they wrote that “the gateway to the once-bohemian and still hardly wealthy East Village” was now “poised to become downtown Manhattan’s next important driver of the luxury real-estate market.” And it was Cooper Union that put the tower there.
The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art had been offering a tuition-free college education since its founding in 1859. To do so, the school relied in large part on their real estate holdings, especially the millions in rent and tax monies from the Chrysler Building, built on land owned by the school. But in 2001, running at a deficit, they launched a plan that would put the Gwathmey tower on their parking lot, and then build two more like it, a “wow factor” academic building and a corporate office complex. The plan came with boutique zoning changes. The goal of the rezoning, explained the Times, “was to maximize the amount of usable office space in the new tower” and “to allow commercial development on land restricted by law to educational and philanthropic uses.” In 2002, Bloomberg’s City Planning Commission approved the scheme and added a plan of their own—to demap Astor Place itself, wiping away the historic street and visually joining the condo tower with the corporate tower to come. To no avail, East Villagers fought the plan, arguing that “the large-scale development would turn their eclectic, artistic neighborhood into a sterile business campus.” A decade later, the office tower went up. At 400,000 square feet and skinned in black glass, 51 Astor Place became known to locals as “The Death Star” for its dark and hulking resemblance to Darth Vader’s planet-killing space station. An anonymous satirist started a Twitter feed for the building called @51deathstar, describing itself as “Destroyer of neighborhoods. Unloved. Empty inside. Midtown South.” The imagined voice of the building tweeted snarky messages like, “Hey East Village! Sorry I had to destroy you. My dad made me do it and he’s kind of a dick.”
When I moved to the East Village in 1994—though it had already changed, as any old-schooler from the 1970s and ’80s will attest—the place was still full of poets, queers, and crazies. Young people came mostly to live as outsiders, to read their poems at St. Mark’s Poetry Project and the Nuyorican, shoot pool in the dive bars, and go mad in Tompkins Square Park. I used to run into Allen Ginsberg squeezing the organic fruits at Prana Foods or slurping a bowl of soup at Kiev, the Ukrainian coffee shop where I’d order a buttered bagel and cup of hot water, dipping my own tea bag to save money. (Ginsberg wrote of the place in a 1986 poem: “I’m a fairy with purple wings and white halo / translucent as an onion ring in / the transsexual fluorescent light of Kiev/ Restaurant after a hard day’s work.”) In the window of the Cooper Square Diner, I’d see Quentin Crisp, hair tinted purple, silk scarf around his neck. They were already aged, these legends, and would not last much longer. Ginsberg went in 1997 and Crisp followed in 1999, both dead before the decimating changes of the twenty-first century could sweep them away.
I wonder what became of Warhol Van Gogh, the psychotic artist who’d draw your portrait for a dollar. She drew mine while eating falafel on St. Mark’s Place. On bad days, I’d see her raving in the middle of traffic, head freshly shaved from Bellevue, dressed in a pale blue hospital gown. What happened to the other muttering madwoman who walked up and down First Avenue in Chinese laundry slippers, to the man who sat screaming on a milk crate outside my building but always made way for me, or to Marlene Bailey, better known as “Hot Dog,” who drunkenly entertained the sidewalk bums outside Odessa restaurant (the “old” Odessa, site of a thousand late-night omelets and “Disco Fries,” now shuttered)? What happened to Baby Dee, the transgender street artist who wore angel wings while she pedaled a giant tricycle and played the accordion? What happened to performance artist Gene Pool, aka the Can Man, who rode around on a unicycle dressed in a suit made of aluminum cans? He got a write-up in the Times, where the journalist pitied him for trying to get noticed in a town chock-full of eye-catching characters. “There’s just so many people who look so odd and they’re not trying to be noticed,” Pool told the paper. “It’s just their normal getup.” You can’t say that today; the New York character is vanishing fast. (This morning, however, I did see a bewigged drag queen rolling down Second Avenue on a Citi Bike. Hello, polar bear.)
Wherever these people went (Baby Dee left for the Netherlands, Pool’s gone to Chicago), they took with them the distinctive feeling of the place, a feeling of existing on the edge, in a space apart. For several years, when I’d come home from the dull uptown office job I had then, when I crossed 14th Street and veered east, I felt the everyday world lift away like a heavy winter coat shucked off. The crowds fell back. I relaxed, loosened my tie, and slipped into my true skin. I was not the only one. Stepping into the East Village, we saw others like ourselves—poets, oddballs, punks, queers—still a revelation after a lifetime of lonesome singularity. We read their signs and flags, messages broadcast from haircuts and jackets, from slogans on buttons and T-shirts, and we felt not alone. This is a big deal. For some of us, this is everything. Especially at twenty-two years old. But even at forty-five.
When I moved to the East Village in 1994—though it had already changed—the place was still full of poets, queers, and crazies.
A neighborhood is an emotional ecosystem, and when it is destroyed by gentrification, it’s trauma. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, has a name for it. She calls it “root shock,” a traumatic stress reaction that can increase anxiety and depression. She writes, “Root shock leaves people chronically cranky, barking a distinctive croaky complaint that their world was abruptly taken away.” I must be suffering from some version of it, because I’ve been cranky since 2001.
With significant buying power, the East Village’s newest residents have helped remake the neighborhood to suit their tastes, wiping away pieces of the long-standing cultural fabric like crumbs from a table. So much was lost during the first several years of the 2000s, it would require a whole book to hold it. Along with the people, we lost too many of our Polish and Ukrainian coffee shops, our cobbler shops and Laundromats, our theaters and performance spaces, record stores and bookstores, bodegas and dive bars. Before they pulverized the Blarney Cove to make room for a 240,000-square-foot luxury development, I had a last drink and listened while the barflies complained, “All the old bars we used to hang out at are gone. The Ukrainian Club. That’s gone. Verkhovyna. That’s gone. Vazac’s was great, but now it’s been yuppified. I mean the hipsters. When they changed the Christodora to condos, that’s when it all changed. Giuliani kicked ’em all out, back when he was, whattayacallit, the mayor.” Everywhere you go, you hear these litanies—if any oldtimers are left to deliver them. We keep almost losing Ray’s Candy, a wonderfully grimy little hole for egg creams and hot dogs. We lost St. Mark’s Bookshop after fighting to save it a thousand times. We lost Love Saves the Day, where Madonna got her glitter boots in Desperately Seeking Susan, and Lucky Cheng’s with its sharp-tongued drag queens, and the original Holiday Cocktail Lounge, where W. H. Auden pickled his liver while scribbling poems. We lost the gorgeous little Variety Photoplays, a theater that opened as a nickelodeon in 1914, went XXX in the 1960s, starred in Taxi Driver, became a jack-off house for gay men seeking liberation, went off-Broadway legit, got bought by NYU, lost the fight for landmarking, and was demolished in 2005 for a heartless glass tower by the Toll Brothers, infamous pioneers of mass-produced McMansions, the worst of suburban luxury schlock. I can’t list them all. But if you ask me to name the most painful loss, at the moment of this writing, I would say it is De Robertis Pasticceria & Caffe. A perfectly preserved Italian-American pastry shop, unchanged on First Avenue since 1904.
One day in 2007, I sat down to chat with Annie De Robertis, who first went to work for her grandfather at eleven years old, folding cake boxes and filling cannoli. I met her in the café on a quiet Friday afternoon. She was reading about corrupt city politics in the Post and wondering out loud if she should go back to Bari, her grandfather’s hometown. She wore her iron-gray hair short, with lavender eye shadow that matched her top. We talked about the neighborhood of her childhood, when every street was filled with Jewish and Italian businesses. And we talked about the newest people of the East Village.
Annie shook her head as she described impatient young customers who whined about waiting in line, ignored her help as they talked on cell phones, and then wanted service “right away, right away, right away.” But worst of all, she said, were the Starbucks people. “People come in and tell me I don’t know how to make cappuccino,” she said, incredulous. She’d been making cappuccino for fifty years. “They tell me, ‘Starbucks makes it this way.’ I tell them, ‘I’m here before Starbucks.’ They want flavors. I tell them, ‘I got flavors. You want a flavor? I’ll put it in.’” Put it in? They look at me with a look of disbelief. “Do these people really think the coffee bean grows in flavors? Like it comes in hazelnut and mint? These are people with college educations. But they want Starbucks. So I tell them, very nicely I say, ‘So go to Starbucks.’”
At the end of 2012, Starbucks planted itself just two blocks away from De Robertis on First Avenue, taking the space of what had been Mee Noodle, a Chinese restaurant frequented by Allen Ginsberg, who always ordered the steamed flounder in ginger sauce. Just nine months later, the De Robertis family put their building up for sale. After 110 years of serving crisp cannoli and perfect cappuccinos, providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere, they announced they would be shuttering. Customers flocked to say goodbye. When I talked to third-generation co-owner, and Annie’s brother, John De Robertis, he shook his head mournfully and said, “Where was everybody for the last ten years? Maybe we didn’t have to do this.”
Let me hold this moment, my final visit, in present tense. I am sitting inside De Robertis on the day before the last day in December 2014. It is morning and the café is quietly busy. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. John and his son, also John, are prepping for the day, wrapping black-and-white cookies, folding cake boxes, answering the phone that keeps ringing. “Tomorrow we’re closing. Tomorrow afternoon!” Over the speakers, 106.7 Light FM is playing Christmas carols. Sinatra sings “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” A couple of old guys, the last of the die-hard regulars, are talking about hunting. “I still got the two rifles,” says one. “They haven’t been fired in forty years, but I still got ’em. And the thing is, I never shot nuttin’. I tried shootin’ deer, but I couldn’t. They looked too nice.”
A hale and hearty fellow bursts into the shop, announcing himself as Murray the Syrup Man. For years he’s kept De Robertis stocked with Torani flavors—almond, vanilla, hazelnut. He bellows, “I gotta give the whole family a hug goodbye! God almighty!” They hug him, one by one, and then out he goes, saying, “Good luck to your family. You’ve been a great tribute to New York City. I’m not kiddin’ ’bout that.”
One of the old guys says to his pals, “Everybody’s talking about what’s happening to New York. They all got the same feeling that the city has changed. And not for the better.”
The baker comes up from the basement with trays in his hands. Up comes the last batch of black-and-white cookies. “No mas!” says the baker. Up comes the last batch of sfogliatelle. “Finito!” says the baker. Up comes the last batch of pignoli cookies. “Last one!” he says, waving his hands like an umpire calling safe. A lone European tourist asks how many pignoli cookies in a batch. John the junior tells her, “One thousand three hundred and fifty-six,” with a grin that says he’s pulling her leg. She marvels at the large number, repeating it softly to herself as she exits, “One thousand three hundred and fifty-six. One thousand three hundred and fifty-six,” committing it to heart.
A bite here, a bite there, and soon the entire city is devoured. Death by a thousand bites.
Above the cash register, along the Wall of Fame, the faces of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese look on. Mike Tyson makes a fist. In the flesh, actor Michael Badalucco, who played David Berkowitz in Summer of Sam and about a million gangster types for TV and movies, walks in and calls out, “I want the last pignoli cookie!” He and the senior John talk about where you can still get real Sicilian food in the city. “Joe of Avenue U,” Badalucco says. “The best. That’s my place. The best, the best! Listen to me. You take the F train, and stay on the back of the train, all the way to Avenue U. They cook with spleen! Everything fresh. Forget it.”
I ask John how the new Starbucks on 13th Street affected his business. He tells me, “One night, there was just one person in here. I left work and I was walking past that Starbucks. I looked inside. The place was packed. And I thought, Well, this is what people want now.” He shakes his head. “What can you do? Starbucks took a bite out of us.”
A bite here, a bite there, and soon the entire city is devoured. Death by a thousand bites.
Few can escape the reach of the new gentrification. I can get all the master’s degrees I want, dress in khakis (yes, from the Gap), and earn the middle-class living that my working-class family wanted for me, but I am not safe. In 2008, the East Village was rezoned, in part to put a cap on new building heights, protecting the area from more high-rise development. In 2012, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated a segment of the neighborhood a historic district. I inspected the map to see if my home would be blessed with protection. It wasn’t. By a hair’s breadth, my building was left outside the boundaries of the historic district. I suspect it just wasn’t pretty enough to make the cut. Vulnerable to real estate sharks, it can be forcibly emptied and demolished.
And then my worst fear was realized: my building was sold.
Men in designer suits and slick hair knocked on my door one day, pretending to be architects hired to make minor improvements. It was a ridiculous ruse. My old landlord’s greatest “improvement,” in two decades, had been to fix my leaking toilet with a drinking straw he pulled out of a Coke can. As he ushered the men inside, I stood stunned in the doorway. Before I could stop them, they took pictures with their iPhones, opened my closet door, and poked around my bedroom. When I waved at them to get out, they told me, “Relax, dude, everything’s fine,” like I was a psychiatric patient in need of de-escalation. Everything was not fine. The new owners have been doing what they can to get rid of me and all the other “stabies,” that impolite term for rent-stabilized tenants. They gut-renovated one apartment, installing it with a pair of fashionable young women who pay $4,000 a month for 400 square feet. They alone are blessed with a washing machine and dryer, which they use daily, causing my apartment to vibrate like a bed in a trashy motel.
I can’t say that I love my building. It lacks personality. It’s crooked and sags in the middle. Every time a truck rumbles past, the whole thing shakes. The hallways haven’t been painted since the Carter administration. In my apartment, the radiators clang and weep all winter long. Mold blossoms through the bathroom tiles. The ceiling leaks. When the seasons change and the temperature shifts, the place stretches and yawns, opening gaps and cracks through which come creeping brazen, dust-colored mice. Still, it’s my home. I’ve lived over half my life in this place. It’s part of me. “An apartment in New York City tells many truths,” wrote Sarah Schulman in Rat Bohemia. “It shows where you really stand, relationally. It shows when you came, how much you had and what kind of people you knew.” Most of the people I knew when I came have left. They got priced out, kicked out, or just got tired of tenement life. But I remain.
The East Village still has a few things worth staying for. There’s the Village East Cinema, with its antique marquee spelled out in three-dimensional letters, so the winter snow gathers along their tops like white hats. There’s the ravioli at John’s of 12th Street, since 1908. There’s Moishe’s Kosher Bakery with its windows full of hamantaschen and rugelach. And the lunch counter swivel stools at B&H Dairy, Veselka, and the Stage, fresh challah bread and chicken noodle soup. (As I write this, I’m afraid of jinxing these places. In fact, the Stage has since been evicted, but I won’t delete it. Change happens
so fast, the revisions are too much to keep up with.) We still have a couple of bookstores, a few places to get a real egg cream, and a last record shop or two (at this writing, another is about to close). The Astor Place barbershop remains, and I still get haircuts there, though there’s less hair now to cut. And there is the East Village light, that buttery glow that spreads itself across the fire escapes in the evening, making the tenement bricks blush like rose petals. So I stay, but more and more, I wonder why. Is it only stubbornness that keeps me here? My former psychoanalyst used to tell me that had a “constipated personality,” likening me to Bartleby the Scrivener in Melville’s novella. “I would prefer not to,” she’d quote. “That should be your motto.” Maybe so. I will not budge. I would prefer not to.
Recently, one of my upstairs neighbors dusted off his old piano. In the evenings, when I return from work, I hear him playing overhead as I climb the stairs. I pause outside my door, listening, keys in hand, as he struggles through a Bach concerto. These days, it’s Number 5 in F Minor, a sad and lovely piece that, for a few minutes, reminds me of why I stay—in this neighborhood and in this town. E. B. White wrote, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” blending it “with the excitement of participation.” In this nightly scene, my neighbor is alone at his piano and I am alone at my door. Yet, in our private worlds, we are connected, participating in this moment together. It’s these two seemingly opposite states—alone and connected—that hold me. Even in the howling crowds, as the city crumbles and dies all around us, now and then, here and there, if we’re paying close attention, we can still find pleasure in the gifts of New York. It’s just a hell of a lot harder than it used to be.
Excerpted from Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, by Jeremiah Moss. Copyright © 2017 by Jeremiah Moss. With permission of the publisher, Dey Street Books/Harper Collins. All rights reserved.