8 Million Stories: The Disappearing City

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:10

    I HAD SOME time to kill the other day, so I wound up at the Museum of Natural History, looking for the old Indian canoe in the south entrance hall. It’s just one of those things you expect will always be there if you grew up in the city. I remember peering over the side when I was small to see if any of the 17 plaster warriors inside were wearing P.F. Flyers as my brother claimed (they weren’t). When my own kids were small, I’d take them to see it on rainy days. And, of course, in Catcher in the Rye, Salinger was savvy enough to use it as a symbol for a child’s anxious yearning for permanence in an ephemeral world. Everything could change, you could change, but the Indians would also be in the West 77th Street lobby, rowing away without ever going anywhere.

    Except now the canoe had been raised 15 feet off the floor, and the braves are gone. No more Medicine Man in bear skins by the bow, no more Duck Head guy near the stern. The guard said they’d cleaned the boat up as part of a “restoration” project a couple of years ago and decided to get rid of the mannequins, who were not really, you know, ethnically correct anyway because they were all from different tribes. There had been a little thing about it in the papers a while back. I must have missed it. As a son of the city, I’ve tried never to become overly attached to landmarks. Real estate is too valuable here. Great bars come and go; movie theaters where you once saw films that changed your life become Duane Reades selling lipstick and fiber supplements in aisle four; famous newspapers stop their presses; and loyal neighborhood dry cleaners close after 50 years and everyone just shrugs.

    But even by those callous standards, the last few years have been tough ones for New York nostalgists. Shea and Yankee stadiums are being torn down this year. Astroland in Coney Island has apparently closed for good. And in 2006, CBGBs, where I bought my first beer about 30 years before and caught my first real break as writer a decade later, was shuttered after a marathon Patti Smith show. Of course, it’s hard to mourn the past in a town where someone is always honking and telling you to move. And not all change is bad. For those of us who were actually here in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s hard not to feel a little jaundiced when younger people who’ve moved in from the suburbs started bemoaning the older, more authentic Times Square and the pre-Giuliani Lower East Side. I don’t miss the kids who robbed me at gunpoint on East 81st Street Christmas Eve, 1981; or the crack dealers who

    shot 10 people in one night in Southeastern Queens in 1987. I don’t miss dog turds and piles of garbage on the sidewalk from the sanitation strike of the Lindsay years; I don’t miss the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst murders or the Crown Heights riots or being afraid to go in the park after sunset. And I certainly don’t miss Donald Trump—not the least because he refuses to go away. Still, it’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of melancholy, a sense that part of what gave New York its distinct character and made it a city unlike any other is vanishing. A building is just bricks and mortar, it’s true. But it can still be a repository of common memory, a shared living reference point while it’s still standing.

    Once the wrecking ball swings, you can try to hold on, but those memories go out into the air and ultimately start to dissipate.

    As one of the firefighters on the television show Rescue Me lamented about not getting laid as much post-9/11: “People forget.”

    Schrafft’s ice cream parlor and Hubert’s Museum celebrating human oddity in Times Square closed decades ago. Gage & Tollner, Scribner’s and Doubleday’s bookstores on Fifth Avenue and Billy’s Topless on Sixth went away more recently. Hey, whatever brings a tear to your eye. On the other hand, maybe all the ghosts don’t fade away. Great cities have a way of reasserting themselves, for better or worse.

    Old spirits sometimes seep up through the newly laid asphalt. Familiar patterns reemerge, with scarcely a flicker of historic consciousness. Hawkers with heavy accents stand outside the retail shops on Orchard Street calling to passing customers the way another generation of immigrants did back in the 19th century; gangs roam the turf where the Five Points once stood. A Greek social club in Astoria closes and an Albanian one opens. The Mets can evoke 1962 in the way they strand men in scoring position sometimes and the Knicks still can’t win a championship without Willis Reed. And the other night, a kid I know—well, actually, my son—told me he saw a band called Sister Helen put on a show he’ll never forget in the backyard of a little club in Bushwick called Goodbye Blue Monday.

    With any luck, the place will last at least another summer.

    Peter Blauner is a novelist and television writer living in New York. He can be reached through www.peterblauner.com.