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.