Memory is a terrible thing.
I’ve lived in New York for so long, I can’t walk down a single street without some memory sending me into a nostalgia K-hole.
The most recent incident was yesterday.
A friend of mine was going to a meeting at 110 Greene Street. I explained to him that there used to be a great restaurant across the street called Greene Street Café (where I worked very briefly as a busboy in the early ’80s) that was also a comedy/jazz club where people like Mario Cantone got their start.
I went back in the afternoon to look at the space (which is now a Sonos high-end audio store) and the skylight from Greene Street Café was still there. I also gave the poor salesman who was there a half-hour history lecture.
I talked about how SoHo used to be a fun neighborhood, filled with restaurants and nightclubs, unlike the sterile high-end shopping mall it is now. There’s not a single restaurant in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District now, except for the below-ground Lure Fishbar. You see, the real estate powers-that-be discovered that they could get more money for their apartments if there weren’t any restaurants on the ground floor. (The preferred tenants are luxury boutiques.) This is why, when the boutiques close at 8 o’clock, SoHo is a virtual (and dangerous) ghost town. But as soon as you cross to the west side of West Broadway, you’re basically in a different neighborhood, with restaurants, delis and, God help me, actual people on the street!
It’s increasingly hard to even find any information on the Internet about this former SoHo, but I did come across this article in The New York Times from 1981 about all the restaurants in SoHo.1
I also came across a video of an HBO comedy special that was filmed at Green Street Café in 1983 with John Candy, Bill Maher, Paula Poundstone and Carol Leifer.2 You can see the high-tech industrial lighting that was popular in the ’80s3 but, more importantly, you can see people having a good time!
Any stray piece of information can send me on a similar Internet search. Seeing a TV interview with Sandra Bullock, who used to be a waitress at Canastel’s, can send me on an Internet search for when Park Avenue South was the new Restaurant Row (late ’80s. See also: Café Society, America). Even though I could never afford to go to those restaurants, it was nice to know they existed.
I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the early 2000s, when West Chelsea was the last gasp of New York nightlife, but there you go. I remember my weekly jaunts to The Eagle, having to brave the hordes of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes going to Marquee or the various discos on West 28th Street (or going to the previous Eagle in the ’90s and having the brave the hordes of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes going to Lot 61), but there you have it. Now The Eagle is the sole survivor on West 28th Street (for God knows how much longer), surrounded by super-luxury apartments. (An apartment by the High Line recently sold for $60 million5, breaking a downtown record.)
It turns out that the High Line was the biggest real estate giveaway in New York City’s history.
Except now, even that is being surpassed by Hudson Yards, whose looming behemoths I can see rising from as far south as the West Village.
Jeremiah Moss has already written the definitive book about New York’s gentrification, Vanishing New York6, which should be required reading for anyone who moves here now, and I’ve written about it many times on this blog myself, but that doesn’t stop the feelings from recurring, like a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I now watch Seinfeld as an exercise in nostalgia, because authentic New York characters like Kramer (who, of course, was based on the real Kenny Kramer) could never afford to live here now. (Even back then, it wasn’t clear what he did for a living!)
The sad thing is that people who move here now think New York was always this boring, expensive suburban shopping mall. They’ve never known anything different. Indeed, that’s why most of them moved here in the first place!
And that’s a shame.