The City is Meant to be Experienced, Not Mourned

As a very new New Yorker last summer, I took to spending extended periods perusing the Census of Places that Matter, a crowdsourced database of significant locations around the five boroughs. When I stumbled upon a promising entry for Florent Morellet's legendarily-eccentric, eponymous diner (founded in the Meatpacking District before it was The Meatpacking District), excitement quickly turned to disappointment when a Google search turned up a New York mag article written just before Florent closed in 2008.

In the article, Morellet is unapologetically forward-thinking. "I came to New York for the reason everyone comes to New York," he explains: "because it is the city of changes. People forget this is what they love about New York. They get old, they get grumpy. They get … nostalgic.” (The article's author notes that 'nostalgic,' here, is uttered "with the same distaste [Morellet] uses when talking about Republicans.")

It is hard to be nostalgic in New York, a city that contains such an intense agglomeration of people, filled with their own desires, beliefs, ideas, customs, and all of the expectations that come with those things. Density creates a permanent sense of ephemerality, and the pace of churn in New York grants the city its most unique characteristics while simultaneously earning it a reputation as a place that renders each individual totally anonymous. To try to hold onto a moment here could drive a person mad.

Still, people try. One can't help but raise an eyebrow upon finishing the article about Florent's closing and reading the first reader comment: "This is why I left New York. Because the great New York that once was is no more." New Yorkers, you see, bemoan their losses as frequently and passionately as they proclaim their love for the city.

I was reminded of Morellet's line about nostalgia by developer Jerry Wolkoff's recent announcement of his plans to raze the building that houses 5Pointz, Long Island City's graffiti mecca, to make way for two condo towers. As 5Pointz is one of my favorite places in the city,  this was difficult news to hear. But Wolkoff has always intended to re-develop the 5Pointz building; the fact that such a place even exists in its current condition is a small miracle in post-Giuliani New York. And while I (and no doubt many others) would like to think I'd choose to preserve the more artistic and culturally-productive use of the site if I were in Wolkoff's shoes, we can hardly hold it against a developer that he is acting like a developer.

The 5Pointz team tweeted a response not long after the news broke that seemed to echo the sentiment expressed by erstwhile MePa scion Morellet: "This is nothing new to us. The show must go on!" And it will. New York has seen countless cultural icons rise and fall. The loss of a cherished community hub is nothing new here, and while it's easy to proclaim the death of the city as we watch individual sites crumble and fade, to do so inevitably robs us of some amount of time in which we could be enjoying the city as it is. While the 'right to the city' is well-discussed, we too often forget that we are not owed anything by the city. We are welcome to take part in it, but we can expect nothing more of it than what it happens to be. The city, as Beaudelaire wrote, "changes shape, alas, faster than a mortal's heart."

How can we ever expect a city to stay the same? It has been pointed out frequently enough that the preservation of the built environment often winds up pricing out the communities that were so strongly associated with them as to make them beloved in the first place. Does it not seem strange that, while we fight to preserve buildings, we experience the city much more intimately in individual stores, galleries, classrooms, temples, and other spaces that are virtually impossible to preserve? And that we then spend a great deal of collective energy mourning those places once they are gone?

Certainly, architectural preservation is not without significant importance. Nor is it possible to totally avoid missing a place that we loved once it is gone. Even the determinedly un-nostalgic Morellet must miss his restaurant and, more importantly, the community that it created. But it is an entirely different thing to miss a place than to mourn it. We can miss something swiftly, but to mourn takes time. The city is unsentimental; it does not mourn us when we leave. Demographics shift; people are priced out, and then back in; everything changes--and in New York, we're surrounded by everything, all the time.

If you focus on the city that was, you will miss the city that is. How we choose to interact with our cities is entirely up to us, but I believe that the city is meant to be experienced, not mourned. The scenery may change, but the show, as they say, must go on.


petersigrist said...

Your descriptions of New York are a pleasure to read. I'm so happy that Where is back. In reference to beloved places, I think they're worth mourning and even more worth preserving. Of course, change can be even better, and innovation is essential, but maintaining great places is part of creating a pleasing urban environment. Allowing developers to replace great places with substandard ones detracts from our living conditions, and a philosophical view of urban change offers little consolation. Cities are experienced, but we have to act if we want to make the experience a good one.

Brendan Crain said...

Mine isn't a philosophical view so much as it is an optimistic one. I think we can miss something, and let its absence influence our experience of the city, but I don't know if it's worth it to fully mourn a place once it's gone. I know too many people who are so busy complaining about how New York "isn't what it used to be" that they've convinced themselves that the city as it is is without value.

I'd never suggest that we should just let bad things happen to good places. We can rally around a site in an attempt to change a developer's mind, but the fact remains that a building's owner often has the final say. But in the end, the community that has grown up around 5Pointz will be much stronger for having had a place to congregate. That's worth a lot, especially for a marginalized group like street artists. I'd rather focus on that than the building's impending doom.

Besides, a building is just a container. It seems more practical for groups to work together to find new homes than to try to preserve the ones they have. Communities shift; that's inevitable. I guess what I'm getting at, though, is that the communities are more important than the physical sites that they occupy at a given moment.

petersigrist said...

I agree that it doesn't make sense to sit around complaining that things were better in the past, and I like the idea of rallying around places to find ways of saving them.

Buildings are containers, but they're also much more, and great places are rare, valuable, and seldom easily achieved. They're often closely tied to a community's identity and, in the case of 5Pointz, years of irreplaceable work. Destruction of such places isn't the end of the world, I just think it's worth preventing if we can; just as great new construction is worth fighting for, as well as the replacement or improvement of sites we don't consider great.

Our communities include the physical sites we occupy at any given moment, and if we don't take care of them, we lose an important part of the community. We can find new places, but why not try our best to keep the ones that people worked so hard to get right?

This doesn't mean that places have to be frozen in time. They inevitably evolve and eventually give way to other places. I just think they're important parts of the community, which leaves me really sad when they're destroyed, and inspired to protect them.

mike said...

I think often people invest a place with more meaning than it actually contains. A place evokes an emotional connection that we have to the community it represents. It is the community that really holds the meaning. The place gives expression to that community and in that way holds the meaning of the group. But the community is not the building. In my mind it is like a church. The building gathers the community and helps it to give expression to its beliefs, but it is not the church. And if what happens in the building doesn't lead people to act differently out in the world, where is the church? Church is supposed to be about moving people to a more loving way of being. It is not spaces that do that. Spaces can move people’s awareness of the grandeur of what they believe in. They can help to evoke a desire to be more. But it is the people who fill the space that make a church what it is or isn't.

I think what you are trying to say is, while the container has importance it is neither the source of the meaning in the community nor is it the end of the community's meaning, it is the expression of the communities meaning. In that it has value, but great art is lost all the time, and art of this type is very difficult to preserve over the long term. It should be not be surprising that it is going away, but, as you suggested, that it has lasted this long.