If there’s one thing I felt after reading the excellent New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg ( eds. Marshall Berman and Brian Berger, University of Chicago Press, 2007), it was a compulsion to challenge the statement that newcomers to New York hear so often: the real New York is over. I hear from my older friends that alas, I’m too late.
I think of memoir as akin to heroin. It’s addictive, downward cycling, and everything gets fuzzy and careless around the edges, the more you let yourself go into it. Or so I imagine – like many of my generation, I’ve never even smoked a cigarette. I am too young to have lived the gritty, affordable, ecstatic, and supposedly, more real New York of the 1970s. And yet to read any New York memoir book, of the true and real days, New York always seems to be “over” for the person writing. For the rest of us reading their tomes, well, we shouldn’t even aspire to know. We should just give up and move to the suburbs, and things would be better (worse?) again.
Art scene, jazz scene, drug scene, sex scene, work scene (or various combinations thereof) were all in their purest, headiest, form prior to 1975, so don’t bother. No matter that the authors of these tomes missed out on the agricultural scene, industrial revolution scene, labor scene, skyscraper scene, and the construction of Grand Central Terminal. If you didn’t make the Civil War Draft Riots in 1863, you missed some mighty fine martial law, racially motivated murders of children, and class warfare, but you know, not everybody’s going to get the true New York experience, eh? Do I hear any enthusiasm for the New York Slave Revolt of 1712? Is Paris ever over? How about London? While I am enamored by the past and those elements that could enrich our lives today, I’d be hard pressed to say that the past had more relevance than current experience. We are points on a timeline – who rates a mention? Who does not? And what is our loss when we do not remember?
I’ll start working on my gripes about the future now, so I’ll be ready.