Pangs of New York

Jon Foro on July 31, 2017


"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." --Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver

Granted, Robert De Niro's psychopathic vigilante took a hard line against misconduct, but you can't say he didn't have a point: In the 1970s, a plague of crime rotted the Big Apple from its core, making it almost unlivable and certainly undesirable to residents and tourists alike. We know this to be true from films such as Escape from New York, The Warriors, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

But a funny thing happens when M&M's World, naked-yet-non-threatening cowboys, and Times Square Elmos replace the adult theaters, prostitutes, and drug dealers: Folks get little wistful over the "lost soul" of the city. And they should. The trade-off is harsh - "gentrification" is good for the economy, tourism, and expanding the restaurant selection, but it can be a death knell for the character of a place as the small businesses and long-time residents are gradually pushed out. And as change accelerates - or at least seems to - the cycle of nostalgia is getting compressed to the point that, in some cases, 15 years ago counts as the Good Old Days.

Here's a short list of recent books (including one novel) celebrating, lamenting, and occasionally decrying the evolution of New York City over the past three decades.


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Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin
If you've ever eaten at Shopsin's General Store, you know right away that you've stepped into a time machine, or at least an alternate universe. The menu - which is possibly a physical manifestation of the inner workings of the restaurant's proprietor, short-order cook, and chief crank: Kenny Shopsin - can be kindly described as comprehensive, impervious to (ill-advised) substitutions. Imagine growing up in the center of that, or just read Tamara Shopsin's memoir, a delightful and clever collection of vignettes, photographs, and illustrations of Greenwich Village life in the 1970s.

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Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 by Lizzy Goodman
Please Kill Me documented the time when the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads prowled the Bowery in the early 70s in search of success, someone to offend, or something to break. Meet Me in the Bathroom takes the same “oral history” approach – collecting the memories and words of the people who lived it – to pick up the story in 2001, when The Strokes, Interpol, The Killers, and dozens of other musicians and artists brought new energy to rock & roll in the wake of 9/11.

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Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul by Jeremiah Ross
For more than a decade, Griffin Hansbury, aka Jeremiah Moss, has lamented the modern transformation of New York on his "bitterly nostalgic" blog, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. For the book, Moss takes us on a tour of a city "city in the process of going extinct," where self-induced "gentrification has traded its own vibrant culture and landmarks for chain stores, condos, and artisanal cheese. Calling it snarky and cantankerous doesn't do it justice.

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St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street by Ada Calhoun
Journalist and New York native Calhoun knits together stories, essays, photos, and personal accounts to document a 400 year history of what is considered one of the most culturally significant streets in the United States. Whether you are a native of New York or a dreamer, this book will have you yearning for the streets of the city and the unique spirit of St. Marks. – Penny Mann

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Christodora: A Novel by Tim Murphy
Murphy's spellbinding novel crafts a tale that is as ambitious as it is focused, sprawling as it is intimate, and as warm-hearted as it is gritty. The story revolves around the Christodora, an East Village apartment building whose tenants bear witness to the ever changing city. From the devastation of the 1980s AIDS epidemic to the influx of drug addicts and alcoholics to the transformation of boho artists to yuppie ones, Christodora is a page-turning epic that crackles with life – in all of its messy, addictive, artistic glory. -- Al Woodworth

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