For once, I had some time to kill the other day, so I wound up at the Museum of Natural History, looking for the old Indian canoe in the south entrance hall. It’s just one of those things you expect will always be there if you grow up in the city. I remember peering over the side when I was small to see if any of the 17 plaster warriors inside were wearing P.F. Flyers as my brother claimed (they weren’t). When my own kids were small, I’d take them to see it on rainy days. And, of course, in Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger was savvy enough to use it as a symbol for a child’s anxious yearning for permanence in an ephemeral world. Everything could change, you could change, but the Indians would also be in the 77th Street lobby, rowing away without ever going anywhere.
Except now the canoe had been raised 15 feet off the floor, and the braves were gone. No more Medicine Man in bear skins by the bow, no more Duck Head guy near the stern. The guard said they’d cleaned the boat up as part of a “restoration” project a couple of years ago and decided to get rid of the mannequins, who were not really, you know, ethnically correct anyway because they were all from different tribes. There had been a little thing about it in the papers a while back. I must have missed it.
As a son of the city, I’ve tried to never to become overly attached to landmarks. Real estate is too valuable here. Great bars come and go, movie theaters where you once saw films that changed your life become Duane Reades selling lipstick and fiber supplements in aisle four, famous newspapers stop their presses and loyal neighborhood dry cleaners close after 50 years and everyone just shrugs.
But even by those callous standards, the last few years have been tough ones for New York nostalgists. Shea and Yankee stadiums are being torn down this year. Astroland in Coney Island has apparently closed for good. And in 2006, CBGB, where I bought my first beer about 30 years before and caught my first real break as writer a decade later, was shuttered after a marathon Patti Smith show.
Of course, it’s hard to mourn the past in a town where someone is always honking and telling you to move. And not all change is bad. For those of us who were actually here in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s hard not to feel a little jaundiced when younger people who’ve moved in from the suburbs start bemoaning the old, more authentic Times Square and the pre-Giuliani Lower East Side. I don’t miss the kids who robbed me at gunpoint on East 81st Street on Christmas Eve, 1981, or the crack dealers who shot 10 people in one night in Southeastern Queens, 1987; I don’t miss dog turds and piles of garbage on the sidewalk from the sanitation strike of the Lindsay years; I don’t miss the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst murders or the Crown Heights riots or being afraid to go in the park after sunset; and I certainly don’t miss Donald Trump—not the least because he refuses to go away.
Still, it’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of melancholy, a sense that part of what gave New York its distinct character and made it a city unlike any other is vanishing. A building is just bricks and mortar, it’s true, but it can still be a repository of common memory, a shared living reference point while it’s still standing. That’s the roller coaster I rode with your mother on our second date; that’s the club where I saw the Ramones for the first time; those are the bleachers where the 12-year-old boy named Jeffrey Maier reached out and deflected Derek Jeter’s fly ball into the stands during the 1996 New York-Baltimore American League Championship series, making it into a homerun and leading one wag to remark that it was the probably greatest play ever made by a Jew at Yankee Stadium.
Once the wrecking ball swings, you can try to hold on, but those memories go out into the air and ultimately start to dissipate. As one of the firefighters on Rescue Me lamented about not getting laid as much
post-9/11, “People forget.” Schrafft’s ice cream parlor and Hubert’s Museum celebrating human oddity in Times Square closed decades ago. Gage & Tollner, Scribner’s and Doubleday’s bookstores on Fifth Avenue and Billy’s Topless on Sixth went away more recently. Hey, whatever brings a tear to your eye. The Second Avenue Deli had to close after its owner was killed in ‘96; eventually it reopened on Third Avenue, but it wasn’t the same. Neither was the Nedick’s I tried the other day in Midtown. History becomes just a faint scorch mark on the sidewalk. I didn’t even know until recently that the park near my house was, 110 years ago, the home field of the Brooklyn Superbas, the forerunners of the Dodgers.
On the other hand, maybe all the ghosts don’t go away. Great cities have a way of reasserting themselves, for better or worse. Old spirits sometimes seep up through the newly laid asphalt. Familiar patterns re-emerge, with scarcely a flicker of historic consciousness. Hawkers with heavy accents stand outside the retail shops on Orchard Street call to passing customers the way another generation of immigrants did back in the late 19th century; gangs roam the turf where the Five Points once stood; A Greek social club in Astoria closes and an Albanian one opens. The Mets can evoke 1962 in the way they strand men in scoring position sometimes, and the Knicks still can’t win a championship without Willis Reed. And the other night, a kid I know—well, actually, my son—told me he saw a band called Sister Helen put on a show he’ll never forget in the backyard of a little club in Bushwick called Goodbye Blue Monday. With any luck, the place will last at least another summer.
Peter Blauner is a novelist and television writer living in New York. He can be reached through www.peterblauner.com.
OUT OF SIGHT, BUT NOT OUT OF MIND
We asked a handful of prominent New Yorkers what they miss most about their neighborhoods. Responses included everything from people, places and practices to general vibes—and, in one case, the refusal to wax nostalgic.
Sirio Maccioni, consummate host to a breathtaking array of celebrities, presidents, kings and cardinals at his famed restaurant, Le Cirque, longs for the pastime of his youth: “When I first came to this country in 1959, I worked at the Stanford Hotel on 32nd Street. I came as a student but I had to work on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for cash flow. After work, I would walk to Times Square. In those days, Times Square was great. They had great movie houses that showed all the big movies. That was the only thing I could afford. It was the beginning of Japanese and Italian cinema and I loved all the New Wave movies. Now, Times Square is a different place.”
With the disappearance of old art-house movie theaters, the city is losing many of its iconic buildings, said Seri Worden, executive director of the preservation group Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts: “The Beekman Theater on Second Avenue was a really beloved neighborhood landmark. It’s where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are standing in line in Annie Hall. It was this fantastic 1950s modernist building with ribbon windows, very horizontal, with a tilted glass façade and a marquee that said ‘Beekman’ in cursive letters. It was torn down in 2005 by Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
Another movie theater that is still standing but was highly altered is Cinema 1 and 2 on Third Avenue across from Bloomingdale’s. It was built in 1962 and had an amazing interior with Danish copper chandeliers and blue Venetian tiles on the exterior. The owner became nervous about its landmark status and ended up taking out every detail on the inside and stuccoed over the exterior. What else has changed? It’s hard to get lunch in this neighborhood. Our offices are on Madison and 69th Street, and there aren’t a lot of food options. It’s all retail. The Gardenia diner was the only place to get lunch that was close and now it’s gone.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney has seen many transformations since she entered Congress in 1993: “There have been a lot of changes. All the Republican officeholders on the East Side have left. Since I’ve come into office, we have changed the entire East Side from red to blue! We have lost some of our great institutions, like Bill Green, former Mayor John Lindsay and Elinor Guggenheimer. Areas like Yorkville have lost their historic German and Eastern European flavor. It’s very sad that places like Kleine Konditorei have disappeared. Most of the classic restaurants serving French haute cuisine are no longer here: Le Côte Basque, Lutèce, La Caravelle. And you can’t even find an egg cream anymore! On the bright side, the squeegee men are gone that used to pester us on 96th Street. And people no longer put ‘No Radio’ signs in their cars so their windows don’t get smashed.”
Betsy Gotbaum, the New York City public advocate, grew up on the East Side but now lives across the park: “There was something called Columbus Bakery and now it’s this God-awful pizza place where you have to order by the inch. They think that’s clever, but how do you know how many inches you need for two people? Then there was this wonderful store for tablecloths and linens on 82nd and Columbus, Pondicherri. Now there is a gallery in its place and it’s so sad. Columbus Avenue has changed tremendously, but we still have this mom-and-pop grocery called Zingone’s. Thank God they own the building, so they won’t be forced to leave. They grow vegetables and herbs, they give you recipes and if something is really good they will tell us. It’s like an old New York gem. And Park West Pharmacy is still there, where the kind of treatment you get is not that kind of Duane Reade coldness. I’m very lucky that we still have these around. But forget about Broadway, that’s all gone!”
Unlike his fellow New Yorkers, legendary writer Gay Talese, who has lived in the same townhouse on East 61st Street for 50 years, refuses to wax nostalgic: “I don’t miss anything, because everything I love about New York is still here. I still go to the same neighborhood restaurants. There’s Gino on Lexington between 60th and 61st. They opened in 1945 and some of the waiters still seem to be working there. They have the same zebra wallpaper, the same fake flowers, the same policy of no credit cards and no reservations. I go to the same jeweler, the same place to buy ribbons, the same barber shop. I know the names of the doormen on Park Avenue, I know the names of the neighbors, I know the names of the sidewalk supers. People become familiar with each other, and when somebody dies, we can talk and reminisce and reflect sadly on their passing. You won’t read about it in a New York Times obit, but they go on to their ultimate reward, which is a kind of eulogy by the people in the neighborhood who knew them.”
Interviewed, conducted and condensed by Anne Gehris.
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