Wednesday, January 3, 2007

We tripped the light fantastic: Adam Gopnik, also in this week’s New Yorker, muses on what Michael Bloomberg’s plans for the city might mean for the future of New York. The old New York, on which I will have to trust authorities like Gopnik, was the kind of place where heterogeneity was not just prized but literally part of the city. The new New York is just a much more dense suburb:

What seemed a little odd about the plan, and the speech, though, is that the one thing that leaves many New Yorkers worried, or at least uneasy, was nowhere mentioned — perhaps because the Mayor doesn’t notice it, perhaps because that worry is a little metaphysical and almost poetic, resistant to oratory or city budget numbers. It is the sense that the city’s recovery has come at the cost of a part of its identity: that New York is safer and richer but less like itself, an old lover who has gone for a face-lift and come out looking like no one in particular. The wrinkles are gone, but so is the face. This transformation is one you see on every street corner in Manhattan, and now in Brooklyn, too, where another local toy store or smoked-fish emporium disappears and another bank branch or mall store opens. For the first time in Manhattan’s history, it has no bohemian frontier. Another bookstore closes, another theatre becomes a condo, another soulful place becomes a sealed residence. These are small things, but they are the small things that the city’s soul clings to.

By a city we don’t mean, or just mean, a place where many people live; we mean a place where many kinds of people live, all more or less on top of each other. Though Mrs. Astor knew nothing of the Lower East Side, and the Lower East Side could only dream of Mrs. Astor, they were still nodes on one grid. In the course of any even semiconscious wandering through the city—much less the kind of conscious wondering that marks the city’s poetry and literature from Walt Whitman to Alfred Kazin and beyond—each group bumped visually and tangibly into the other. Only twenty-five years ago, a walk from Tribeca to SoHo and the Lower East Side would show as many kinds and classes—rich, aspiring, immigrant—as it had a century before; now that walk is likely to show only the same six stores and the same two banks and the same one shopper.


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