Friday, March 4, 2011

Half A Day In New York

Been a really weird day so far. I walked all the way across town to have an expensive but delicious deli breakfast -- corned beef hash with three eggs, onion bagel, toasted, schmear -- and found myself lost in what New York now is as I walked there and back through Murray Hill in the biting 20-degree temperature with the wind ripping through me. Who lives in these exquisite brownstones? Besides people in Woody Allen films and the very rich? A question that would come back later. 

Came back to the hotel and went through a bunch of rigamarole with the bank: they wanted me to report the theft to the NYPD, which I thought was a good idea, and the woman I talked to when I finally found the right number told me I could just make a report at the local station house around the corner and they'd send it up to Harlem. But no: the cop at the station (first time I've ever been in one, oddly enough) told me I had to go to Harlem and report it there. Had no idea how to get there, either. "You got a car?" As if. 

I wasn't about to go up there, so instead I decided to go to this gallery which had had a show I read about in the New Yorker which dealt with some stuff I'm researching to see if they had a catalog. They will have one, the girl at the desk told me, but it's in the early stages of production. 

Looked at a couple of other galleries on that block, but only went into one which was a tedious bunch of snapshot-quality pix of Chinese people in dorms and various druggy Danes doing drag and drugs, all by some Danish guy. Dull. Even some of the stuff I saw in Berlin was more interesting than that. 

I was depressed enough by the people I was seeing in the street, especially the 20-somethings who looked like they'd come to New York to do art or act or something but had gotten crushed by the economy. An awful lot of dog-walkers, all wearing the same knit Kurdish caps, although they were young Americans. And old guys -- my age -- standing on the corner as the wind drove down the avenues trying to hand off discount coupons to fast-food joints. 

But not far after I'd left the gallery block, I came upon something wonderful. I read the sign and then I climbed up some stairs and found myself on the High Line. This is an abandoned railroad line that's just been sitting there, in this industrialzed riverside stretch of mid- and downtown, forever. Someone who'd been to Paris and seen a very similar project there suggested turning it into a park. I've never been on the one in Paris, although I've walked past it enough, but this was great. It's got art installations, and the first one made me realize why the High Line is such a good idea. The guy's got a white metal plate on which geometrical shapes are cut through. This is on a stand. A few feet away and absolutely parallel to it is another stand with a cube on it. A square has been drilled into the cube. If you look through the square hole in the cube, you can align the cityscape perfectly with the white shapes. so that you're seeing details of the view without their context. Absolutely brilliant. I walked on, and then came upon a sound installation which played a different New York bell every minute of the hour. Some are famous, like the starting bell at the New York Stock Exchange, some obscure, like the Zen temple one I heard. There are tables and chairs around, and some places that look like they might sell food when it's not 20º out there. A great place to sit and have lunch and listen to bells. 

The first installation had reinforced something I already knew: New York is beautiful from a distance, or regarded as an artwork, but not so much close up. There were some amazing views of the river, the decaying old docks, and just random views up obscure streets. What's below is a part of Manhattan most people have no reason to visit, with wholesale button companies, the floral district, and, where the thing ends, the meatpacking district, which, thanks to some Mafia-owned underground gay bars, has blossomed into the Unaffordable Restaurant District. I fled as soon as I descended onto Gansevoort St., and found myself in the West Village, which has become gag-me chic and littered with outlets of companies I'm sure New Yorkers think are oh-so-sophisticated, but which I recognize as stores I walk past in the mall going from the supermarket to the wine store back in Montpellier. I wandered on, because I wanted to see what SoHo and TriBeCa look like today. I wish I hadn't. 

It wasn't just the guy talking on the cell phone who turned the corner too fast in his SUV and hit the young woman crossing the street full-on. That was awful, but it could be rationalized by the way things are here: everyone in a hurry (a problem dating to the 18th century which I doubt will ever be fixed) and utterly self-absorbed (a problem that's been coming on strong for the past few decades). No, I'd been walking down once-familiar streets. Once they'd had the signs of furtive enterprise, with gallery names and names of projects on the doorbells, a lot of industrial stuff on the way out -- wholesale cardboard boxes, shirt factories -- and the occasional business on the ground floor selling fashions crafted in one of those lofts, a couple of Italian bars that wouldn't let you in, a record store or two, an organic restaurant, and, on the side streets, huge galleries showing important artists who usually had studios not more than a couple of blocks away. There were three bars: the Greene St. Bar, the Broome St. Bar, and the Prince St. Bar, just so that when you felt like a drink with your friends, you didn't have to walk too far: they're essentially a block apart. When things started changing and expensive (but independently-owned) shoe stores and the like started moving in, they endured. So did the Kitchen, the avant-garde performance space, where I'd seen so many people in the course of a festival a few months before I moved to Texas in 1979. And Dean and deLuca, the gourmet grocery. That was still cool and there really was a Dean and a deLuca, who were real guys selling fancy food to artists whose stuff was beginning to sell. 

Well, I already knew the Kitchen was down where I'd gone to the gallery because I passed it and a friend of mine is playing there on Friday and Saturday when I'll be in Montreal. It, like everything else, was priced out of the neighborhood. And...was it still a neighborhood? Was anyone living in these lofts? Well, of course they were, young and rich. Who were they? Who cares Downstairs, cheek and jowl, were brand stores. One after another, flying the flag for something you can find in the mall, with "limited edition" shit you can't get in the mall that still has the logo. More extensions of French chains. Precious little restaurants, some of which, actually, might be okay; I didn't stop to read a menu. (That corned-beef hash was still with me.) Finally, I was walking up one street and I saw a flag: OK Harris. All right! That was a great gallery. I hadn't heard much about them of late, but then, I haven't followed the New York art scene lately, either. I got closer and closer and was about to cross in the middle of the block when...I saw it was a cigar shop. With little rooms where you could smoke. No trace of the gallery. No trace of the Greene St. Bar. No trace of the Prince St. Bar. The Broome, thank god, endures. I almost went in to have a beer in celebration. I think that was where I saw the graffito in the men's room that said "Congratulations: you're in the one place in this neighborhood that does not appear in A Woman Under the Influence." Someone knew the end was nigh in 1979. It has arrived. Long ago, I suspect; I wasn't paying attention. 


  1. This is about as sad and accurate a picture of Manhattan as I have read in a long time and accords with the way I currently experience it also. I'm sure there are different perspectives; I just don't happen to share them and I do believe that things have changed for the worse in New York. And although it's nice that you enjoyed and found some focus and distillation of your experience on the High Line, I think that's also a sad, overly precious and self-conscious exercise in New Yorker-New York Times prescribed "culture". Reporting a crime in New York is hellish. Years ago when my car was stolen (off the street on East 84th just east of First Avenue, as I recall), the local precinct police's first words to me were "well, what do you expect, you parked on the street?" I hope the rest of the trip before your return to Montpellier goes better. What you wrote about the local outlets of European chain-companies was funny. Curtis Roberts

  2. Man, it must be difficult having Joseph Roth and Walter Benjamin dogging you everywhere you go. How do you get yourself into such little jams? I would think that your sensibility could help you avoid the culture shock of finding yourself in a theme park for 20-somethings. On the surface, that's what New York has become, but you know, but I never took you for a guy who buys retail. Where is that perceptive eye that I know you possess? Hopefully Texas will be comfort food for you and on your return trip to the city, you can see pass the fluff.


Site Meter