Jeremiah Moss's Vanishing New York
By Seth Kamil
I first arrived in Manhattan in the summer of 1989, but it was very much a homecoming. With deep family roots in New York, I felt more comfortable here than almost anywhere else in the world. My parents were born here. All four grandparents spent most of their lives in the City and its suburbs. My fondest memories involved driving across the 59th Street Bridge in my grandfather’s Lincoln Continental. We would hit the Horn & Hardart Automat on 42nd Street & 2nd Avenue (or, if “Poppy” was flush, Katz’s Deli) and then drive or walk around Manhattan. See Times Square. Visit his sister who lived in the Amalgamated Houses in Chelsea. The day often ended with egg cream sodas at Moishe’s on the corner of Bowery & Grand Street. Having struggled his whole life economically, my grandfather always had a kind word and some pocket change for the homeless who gathered there. But, only a child, I remembered the men who tried to wash our car windows, the grime, and graffiti, as somewhat scary. This was the mid-1970s.
Two decades later I moved to New York, around the same time Jeremiah Moss arrived; like him, already in love with the City. I came for graduate school. A PhD program in American Urban History at one of the bastions of neighborhood tension, Columbia University. Almost immediately I took the advice of my adviser, historian Kenneth T. Jackson, and spent as much time as possible exploring the city. In 1991, having lived in New York two years, I started Big Onion Walking Tours with another graduate student.
Vanishing New York, the new book by well-known blogger Jeremiah Moss, is a powerful series of observations of a changing Manhattan landscape. Focusing primarily on the city below West 23rd Street and East 14th Street as well as Time Square, Moss outlines how aspects of the city he loves are fading away. With brief nods to Harlem and select areas outside Manhattan, Moss argues that the uniqueness of the city is being whitewashed by a tidal wave of wealthy, oblivious and milquetoast Caucasian migrants. These smart-phone-carrying, headphone-wearing zombies are taking advantage of a landscape that has been crafted for their pleasure by the last four mayoral administrations. The forces at battle, loosely described, are the newcomers and the wealthy WASPs of Park and Fifth Avenue, who seek to profit from every morsel of land and extract every drop of blood and life from their prey. The victims are a vague, amorphous group of immigrants, squatters, artists, gay men with AIDS, and a smattering of black and Latino New Yorkers. The Antagonists are economic vampires. The Victims are small businesses and artists devastated by exponentially spiked rents. There is an occasional nod to selective history as evidence, but Vanishing New York is a personal assessment of modern Manhattan as Moss sees it.
This is a powerful David vs. Goliath image. However compelling, it is both over-simplified and lacking on many fronts. Moss focuses on narrow segments of Manhattan with little regard for ethnic succession, non-white class differentiation, the experience of New York’s women, or consistent historiographical reference. It is very easy, but incorrect, to write off tensions among the Victims. Placing a superficial veneer over the business patterns of ethnic neighborhoods without acknowledging the tension between nonresident business owners and ethnic residents of other backgrounds obscures the complexity of these places. Moss seeks theory and historicism to support his observations and prove his thesis. One should not start with a result and then seek the data. The data should lead to the results.
But Moss’ greatest weakness is a lack of understanding as to why old-time businesses close. Yes, many small businesses close due to spiked rents. But many also close for generational reasons as well as changes within consumer patterns. How many of these small business owners still lived in the neighborhood? How many saw the rent doubling as the last straw for a failing business that was lacking the next generation to continue the tradition and evolve the storefront? How many were no longer viable and were open only because the shopkeeper did not know what else to do? Exploring and sharing the stories of New York has been my primary passion and livelihood for nearly three decades. Over the decades I have spent numerous hours listening to residents and business owners who have shared their personal perspectives on live and work in the city. Every story is unique and different. They do not fit into a single catch-phrase or a convenient “box.” Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant, for example, was killed by the Atkins Diet more than increased rents. Di Palo’s survives because they have embraced the diversity of their location and the sixth generation is committed to keeping the Little Italy institution alive. In September 2017, Matt Umanov Guitars “called it quits” after more than five decades on Bleecker Street. Umanov, who owed the building, said it was time to retire and spend time with the grandchildren.
Over the centuries so many of us have come to New York to be a part of the center of the Universe. Moss begins Vanishing New York explaining that he lived his early life in a small town and “wanted to pass… as… a city person.” He arrived in uniform — all in black from his Doc Martens to his biker jacket, too late for the heyday of punk. About 150 pages later, he recounts getting razzed by a local on a bus trip return: “Still reeking of my own backwater, I had not yet become a New Yorker. I would have to keep working at it.” I never considered the feeling of having to work at belonging here. With its magnificent diversity and provincialism, one is a New Yorker or just not, I think.
Moss is deeply critical of the powerful forces of gentrification that are changing New York. While deeply aware of the tensions created around race, economic disparity, and tourism, Moss does not see himself as a force of gentrification or his role as a white male with a steady income. The book starts and ends with a brief discussion of his rent stabilized East Village apartment. But he does not bother considering he displaced another to acquire his home. Embedded in the concluding pages is also the dilemma many of us experience. Virtually every aspect of living in New York is tiring. Sometimes we just seek convenience. For myself as well as Moss, this includes occasionally shopping at box stores while knowing it is bad for the mom-and-pop storefront.
Red flags are raised in the discussions of Chinatown and Harlem. Moss proclaims rapid gentrification in all aspects of the Lower East Side with the exception of Chinatown. He writes “Chinatown, though it’s slipping, is the only downtown neighborhood having any success resisting hyper-gentrification today.” That one sentence is all that is given to one of the largest ethnic neighborhoods in contemporary Manhattan. It is also untrue. Following 9/11, the economic crash of 2008, and Superstorm Sandy, the Chinatown neighborhood is being transformed just as quickly as the surrounding areas. Many mainland Chinese are being displaced by powerful financial forces from other parts of Asia. It’s just a little harder to see Asian gentrification in a neighborhood of superficial visual uniformity. But there are more than a dozen Asian languages spoken in “Chinatown” and the tensions cross linguistic, political, cultural and “old country” ethnic lines.
Moss brings his white privilege to Harlem as well. Lamenting the closing of Southern “Soul Food” restaurants, he does not understand who those restaurants serve. He recites a New York Times article from 2008, when Bloomberg administration city planning director, Amanda Burden, was at the Apollo with a local companion. Expressing that there was nowhere decent to eat nearby and they should go “downtown.” Moss claims this is the moment when Burden then decided 125th Street had to change and there should be “a million different eateries around here”. Moss asks, eateries for whom? Listing five soul food restaurants, Moss makes the assumption that black Harlemites desire nothing but Soul Food and it is what the residents want. I would assert most people, regardless of background or residence, desire a variety of good and reasonably priced eateries. A decade ago much of Harlem was an epicurean desert. There was no Red Rooster let alone many opportunities to find a decent cup of coffee. Sylvia’s primary customer base are tourists and it receives a steady income stream from its line of supermarket sauces. Sylvia’s is great — but it is expensive. With most main dishes costing $15 plus, it is beyond the financial ability of many Harlemites. Moss understandably has a disdain for chain stores and restaurants. But does not widen his perspective to consider that, at times, they fulfill an important community need. The global chain IHOP is the most popular restaurant in Harlem these days. It is also one of the more reasonably priced. But that doesn't register in Moss’ narrative. He expresses a tacit notion that black people prefer soul food. His language is often racially charged. For example, getting his “belly full of fried chicken and waffles from Sylvia’s” before strolling over to Bobby’s Happy House to meet the owner who “favored velvet suits topped by a black fedora.” Furthermore, Vanishing New York lacks an attempt to understand some of the basic issues facing the non-white working people living and working in transitioning neighborhoods. Moss expresses his deep love for the corner bodega. But he fails to understand that he has the wealth, mobility and options to drop into a bodega for a quick drink or snack, but has a variety of options for preparing a proper meal. Blasting the now-defunct East Harlem Pathmark, Moss neglects to mention the utter lack of reasonably priced milk or fresh produce in neighborhood bodegas. This a common concern among lower income residents throughout the city and has been for years.
Moss is constantly searching for an idealized New York that, in large part, never existed or was dead and gone by the 1990s. I was most struck by the line, “Over time, I would discover the few authentic places of the Village that remained uncontaminated.” Again, these places were in existence and functioning before Moss discovered them. Is it not possible that upon entry he himself “contaminated” these sacred spaces? He almost gets there, but only in the future tense. He writes “And what about me? I'm a white, educated, middle-class professional. If I leave my rent-stabilized apartment, where will I go? Someplace, no doubt, where I will be a gentrifier.” Thus highlighting one of the most constant and glaring limitations of the work. Neighborhood gentrification is much more complex than simply increased rents.
Vanishing New York has a special love for pre-Koch Manhattan. But the city was dangerous and difficult for residents in the 1970s. Talking with a broad variety of New Yorkers who lived in the city during those days, and not those who came later and long to experience the world of “The Deuce” in 1975, no one longs for them to return. Using an oft repeated theme, Moss writes: “It was hard to see in 1993, but 42nd Street, aka the Deuce, was already in the midst of “renewal.” “I had, again, arrived too late.” A few pages later he claims "I am willingly affected with the benign strain of nostalgie de la boule… the sentimental attachment to decrepitude and sleaze.” Many lament the mall-ification of Times Square and miss the HoJo’s. But Moss misses the pimps, prostitutes, peep shows, and sex shops. However, Moss’ romanticized sex workers were, in fact, workers, often in less than tolerable/humane conditions. Instead of lamenting the arrival of Disney on 42nd Street, examine the history and see the irony. Disney and The Lion King housed in the old Ziegfeld Follies... the theater that made nudity family-friendly. It is odd that there are virtually no women in Vanishing New York. There are the occasional female business worker or owner and the waxing poetic about the Times Square sex industry of the 1970s. But women are for the most part left out.
Myself, I couldn’t get here fast enough. My arrival coincided with the city’s recovery from the Crash of ‘89 and the Recession of the 1990s. An impoverished graduate student, I was mostly oblivious to these economic conditions. My first “fancy” meal was at Ratner’s on Delancey Street. I rented a room in a rent stabilized apartment on West 106th Street My roommate & leaseholder was a rising executive at a NYC based film company. Moss and I may have crossed paths. I was at many of the bars and clubs Moss frequented, now closed. But probably on different nights. I went as a guest of my roommate. The same bars but for film opening after-parties. Were we gentrifiers? Were we the destroyers of the East Village Moss loathes?
I lived at five different addresses my first decade in New York. When my Brooklyn-born wife and I decided to make the city our long-term home, we decided on South Park Slope. In 1999, a house there cost the same as a small two bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. We bought from a Syrian immigrant family, who bought the home in 1942 and raised three boys to adulthood. The sons migrated to Long Island to raise families. Both parents died in the house as the sons allowed it to decay around them. Based on Moss’ analysis, we are gentrifiers: helping to remove the cultural and linguistic uniqueness of Brooklyn with our Black Labrador & our Subaru Forester. In Moss’ terms: “liberal-minded people fleeing… the sterility of the Upper East Side, in search of ‘a vestige of an authentic community.’” Maybe. But we also did not have a rent-stabilized apartment and had to make economic and quality-of-life choices.
For nearly three decades I have led tourists and locals alike on historical tours of New York City, long enough to often say, with Moss, “I remember when this place was…” It would be easy to succumb to nostalgia. But, academically trained, I am constantly aware of both the present and the past. Elements of history repeat themselves. To be a tour guide is to see vividly also that faulty memory and desire shape our conception to the past. Nostalgia is the enemy of history. The etymology of the word is revealing. From the Greek - “Nostos” — return home, and “Algos” — pain, it was defined in 1770 as “severe homesickness considered a disease.” For centuries the word had been considered a psychopathological illness with potentially debilitating and possibly fatal medical condition (see “When Nostagia Was a Disease,” for a detailed discussion on the topic).
Some have criticized Moss as just such a crank. There is certainly a longing for his version of the past. But there is also a strong lack of self-awareness and deep internal contradictions. I am reminded of the main protagonist in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”, a screenwriter trying to craft a novel who finds himself magically transported to the 1920s. He spends time with all the “greats” — Hemingway, Eliot, Picasso, Stein, Dali, Man Ray, the Fitzgeralds and falls in love with Adriana…. who herself longs to live in what she believes was the most romantic era in history, the “Belle Epoque.” Pender realizes that one must live and love in the present. It is easy to call Moss a lover of nostalgia. But it is too easy. At the end of his chapter “The New Gilded Age and the Enron Society” he writes:
“To escape, I go into faded coffee shops, dive bars, and bookstores, to refuges of New Yorkers who have not been brainwashed by the ethos of the New Gilded Age. In these places, you can feel the old city, the brash, opinionated, neurotic, human city that once was. In these places I can breathe, rejuvenated by the presence of strangers who are actually present. But every time I get attached, the blessed place is ripped out by rising rents.”
I propose Moss stop trying so hard to “be” a New Yorker. You have traded a small town elsewhere for a small part of a big city. Cross a river and spend more time in the Outer Boroughs. We have many vibrant, local, and diverse communities that are filled with small businesses out here. By spending time where the vast majority of New Yorkers live, Moss would see that these communities are strongly anchored by working people of all backgrounds. That Real New York is based not just in good jobs and sustainable rents, but in a plethora of neighborhood institutions that make them work. The boring stuff, like, the PTA, Little League, neighborhood domino matches, block associations, etc., have defined urban life much more than back alleys, porn shops, bars and clubs. It is these institutions that make New York work. The loss of these neighborhood institutions are much more important than any business Moss wishes would stay open so he could visit once in a while to avoid reality.
Seth Kamil is president and co-founder of Big Onion Walking Tours, holds an M.Phil. in American History from Columbia University, and is a Fellow of the New York Academy of History.