Saturday, December 1, 2012

On the Death of Cities

 It’s happened again. I was forced to wolf down my breakfast while happy tourists watched.
My neighborhood, Little Italy (or, as the arrivistes call it, Nolita) has given up. What used to be a neighborhood of truck stop diners when I moved here 25 years ago has become a neighborhood of high-priced restaurants, bars and boutiques. Where hordes of shoppers descend on lower Broadway and Soho by day and hordes of drunken bridge-and-tunnel wannabes and Upper East Side yuppies descend on the cheek-by-jowel bars by night.
If you want a relaxing, decent breakfast in this neighborhood, you have to pay $50. Actually, you can’t even find breakfast in this neighborhood anymore. Breakfast has been replaced by brunch. You know what the difference between breakfast and brunch is? A sprig of parsley, a water-down cocktail and a half-hour wait for a table.
The one surviving establishment in this neighborhood that could reasonably be called a “diner” (remember those?)—which I will not name, because I don’t want it to become even more crowded--is struggling to survive, with its two harried Chinese waitresses, its Arab owner and its Mexican cooks.
The two Chinese waitresses are always screaming because the place is always packed at all hours of the day with nouveau-riche young bankers with their caterwauling babies and tourists from the nearby Holiday Inn who kid themselves that they’re still experiencing the New York City of Studio 54 and Taxi Driver.
The mild-mannered middle-aged man sitting next to me at the counter politely asks me if there’s anything interesting in the newspaper I have with me and I bark back at him. “I don’t know! I can’t read it because I have to balance it on my head! This neighborhood is fucking unlivable!” I’m immediately embarrassed by my response to this poor, unsuspecting soul, but that’s what this city has turned me into: one of those angry, old “Get off my lawn” types that I probably used to make fun of when I was younger.
They say that Hurricane Sandy has forever altered the landscape of this city, but there’s been an equally dangerous, insidious force repaving the landscape for the last 30 years: gentrification.
In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein talks about how we live in an era of “disaster capitalism” where natural and man-made disasters periodically alter the landscape so capitalists can swoop in and remake whatever’s left over into something more expensive and more profitable.
Republicans have been arguing for the last 30 years to “let the market” dictate what happens. “The market is always right!” They keep saying.
But what most of us are left with—those of us who aren’t rich enough to live in gated communities, those of us who moved to the city because it used to offer something different from the stultifying sameness of the suburbs—what we’re left with is a diminished quality of life.
I don’t know why people keep coming here. They could have the same experience if they stayed home and went to the shopping mall. They’ve turned this city into fucking Cleveland!
You could get better service for breakfast if you went to McDonald’s—which is what I’m sure they’ll be turning my neighborhood coffee shop into in the not too distant future.