Hello New York, a city that is essentially American yet part of world culture with its starring role in so many films and TV shows. From Taxi Driver and Manhattan, to NYPD Blue and Seinfeld, its streets and buildings have become such a part of all our memories that we can share the nostalgia felt by New Yorkers as their restless city changes around them.
It was when Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint closed down that I learned what it means to be from New York. A beloved restaurant on the Upper West Side, Big Nick’s had remained in operation for half a century, even as the neighborhood gradually lost its grit, rents rose and ATM vestibules of national banks replaced family businesses on streetcorners. In addition to burgers, the lengthy menu advertised a farraginous assortment of food – everything from pizza to veal, ostrich burgers to baklava. On Thanksgiving, you could order a whole holiday dinner: roast turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and cranberry sauce. The restaurant stayed open all hours, and locals knew the 1,000-square-foot space, though a tight squeeze, was a great spot for a meal after midnight.
But tonight, walking along Broadway, I find the storefront dark and the door locked. There is a sign in the window that reads, “After 51 years, we have lost our lease after two years of difficult and torturous negotiation.” The building owner has raised the rent from $42,000 a month to more than $60,000. An older man, Oliver, has dismounted from his bicycle and is reading the sign. He is wearing faded black jeans and his face is lined and creased from years of smoking. The weathered quality of his face makes it hard to guess his age.
For Oliver, a longtime New Yorker and photojournalist, the closing of Big Nick’s is yet one more sign of a great city’s ongoing Disneyfication. “You don’t know New York,” he tells me, equating the metropolis with its gritty past. “People who have come to the city only in the past ten years, they don’t know what it means to live here. When I see tourists coming out of their hotels and making faces at the garbage on the street, I think, ‘Yeah, what do you expect? This is New York!’” As we talk, other passersby stop to read the sign and express their disbelief over the restaurant’s closing. Some share stories of good times. “I just read about this in the paper 20 minutes ago,” says a balding man with a gray fringe of hair. “I’ve been coming to this place for 30 years.”
How does this place stay open?
Alyson Cambridge, a tall elegant opera singer, lives just around the corner. Tonight she shows up with a girlfriend, both slightly inebriated and dressed casually in sweats, planning to satisfy some late-night hunger pangs. When they hear the bad news, Alyson and her friend join in the general lament. It is close to midnight and I am in the midst of an impromptu wake. Two young men and a girl of college age approach our little group. “That’s so sad, man,” says one of the men after reading the sign. “Fifty-one years.” His male friend gestures incredulously at a magazine shop next door. “How does this place stay open?”
Some say you aren’t a real New Yorker until something that used to exist – a favorite diner, an independent bookstore, a third-generation family tailoring shop – is more real to you than the thing existing in that place now. It doesn’t take long these days to achieve that feeling. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city has added 40,000 buildings and 450 miles of bike lanes. One-third of it has been rezoned. But even so formidable a mayor as Bloomberg is unable entirely to remake the city in his image, erasing all traces of what came before.
And then, too, there is the collective memory, as preserved in motion pictures, books and other artifacts. I have seen photographs of earlier decades, when the subway cars were covered in graffiti and the Twin Towers were still standing and murders in the city numbered 3,000 a year. More appealing are the films of Woody Allen, Manhattan of course, with its luminous black-and-white shots of iconic buildings, but also Annie Hall, Manhattan Murder Mystery and many others in which the city itself receives top billing in the cast. These representations of New York instill a longing for lives unlived in a city that is forever gone.
Which is to say that New York cruelly encourages the nostalgia it makes absurd. More even than most large cities, it is a palimpsest, endlessly written and rewritten, but in each new script that is laid down some letters from the old one bleed through. Letters, words, and sometimes whole paragraphs – certain parts of the East Village, for instance, and the Art Deco magnificence of the Chrysler Building. These hints and fragments almost trick you into believing you could, through a supreme act of will or perception, resurrect the city as it once existed. This is ridiculous, of course, not only because it is impossible but because there is no end to it – in order for any past version of the city to exist, a still older version had to be razed. It is destruction all the way down.
An infinite treasure-trove of objects to draw
“What I fell in love with was the density of experience here,” says James Gulliver Hancock, an Australian artist who came to New York three years ago and began drawing the buildings. From his studio in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, he would ride out on his bicycle seeking buildings to draw. Once, he illustrated an entire block of the Lower East Side. Now people commission him to illustrate particular buildings. New York, he says, provides him “an infinite treasure-trove of objects to draw.”
James readily admits to an early fascination with New York through precisely those images that he now recognizes as romanticized – first Sesame Street as a child, then, later, films like Rear Window and West Side Story that depict the drama of “people living on top of each other” and which are set in versions of old Manhattan. To a child of the 1980s like James, the cities they show are unreal cities, echoes that New York has shed as it changed, phantoms lost to time. He began to draw buildings in an attempt to make the city his own, to get beyond media representations and understand something of its essence. “New York has been so romanticized that it’s hard to grasp,” he says. “Drawing really made me stop and look at these things and make the city my own.”
Part of the essential magic of New York consists in the number and variety of serendipitous encounters one has here. New York is positively brimming with serendipity. It is the city’s great natural resource of which there is an inexhaustible supply. Inspired by James, I decide on a walkabout of the Upper West Side, a neighborhood depicted in so many films and television shows that it is hard to come to grips with in real life. In its current posh state, some critics find it altogether too sedate and lacking in street life. But I am determined to put aside these preconceptions and make it my own.
The scenario feels strangely familiar
It is a warm day. Generous summer light falling on The Apthorp, a sort of palazzo-style apartment building legendary for its opulence, puts me in mind of the Mediterranean. The Apthorp was built in 1908 and has been the residence of several famous people, including Al Pacino and Nora Ephron. Above a three-story vaulted entrance leading to a private inner courtyard – replete with evergreens and fountains – statues representing the four seasons stand vigil. Perhaps it’s only the Renaissance Revival architecture, but when, a block later, I stop at a sidewalk bookseller’s tables and spot a hardbound copy of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri in English translation, I am primed for the purchase.
“You must be a true scholar,” the bookseller says when I pick up the Leopardi. He has a shock of graying hair and a paintbrush mustache, laughing eyes and wide white teeth. The scenario feels strangely familiar, and all at once it comes back to me. While visiting the city two years before, I stayed in a nearby hotel and made an impulse purchase from a sidewalk bookseller. It was a bilingual edition of the complete Canti of Leopardi. “Best book on the table,” the seller told me then, a comment which launched a discussion of Italian literature. Was this the same man?
“Oh yes, I remember you,” says the bookseller, who introduces himself as Enrico Adelman. In Italy, he tells me, Leopardi’s prose is even more highly regarded than his poetry. He relates the scene in Fellini’s film Amarcord in which an Italian culture buff explains the hierarchy of poets: “Dante Alighieri, qui,” he says, holding his hand very high. “Leopardi, qui,” he continues, holding it a little lower, and then, upon a moment’s further consideration, “o . . . qui,” raising it even closer to Dante’s level. ”They beat me to it,” Enrico says, looking at the book in my hands, which is more than 1,500 pages long. “That was my dream. I was going to retire to Tuscany and translate the Zibaldone.” ”How about this,” I tell him. “Every two years I will come by to take your Leopardi off your hands.”
Small miracles like this can occur in every city, of course, but in New York they occur with prodigal frequency. Throughout the five boroughs, people find ways to establish intimate connections to the city, hoping for their own miracles. Young people hold exclusive parties in rooftop water towers. Urban explorers dodge trains in order to catch a glimpse of famous graffiti murals on the walls of underground tunnels. “Newcomers to New York City really want to own it, to make up for all the years they’ve missed living here,” James tellls me.
Rising rents forced him to shut down
In my case this is certainly true. I visit an illegal bookstore in Manhattan whose white-bearded proprietor once owned a legitimate shop before rising rents forced him to shut down. After that, he moved his operation to a private residence. The location of his shop is a closely guarded secret among those in the know, who treat it like a sort of clubhouse. When the owner is feeling contented, with the late-night crowd milling about and Tom Waits or Bob Dylan on the stereo, he falls into conversation with his customers, chatting in worldly-wise tones and smoking a calabash pipe with an immense white meerschaum bowl.
What James said about the density of experience in New York rings true. The public city – Times Square, the Empire State Building and all the rest – can fit on a postcard, but within and behind that tourist city are thousands of private cities, all happening at once and at times overlapping, layers on layers – deep strata of experience, of time, of human lives. Cities of the living and cities of ghosts.
If you want to commune with the ghosts of old New York, you would do well to visit the bar where they slake their thirst. On the ground floor of a five-story red-brick tenement off Cooper Square sits McSorley’s Old Ale House. Inside, sawdust litters the floor and on a Saturday night seasoned locals stand at the bar cheek-by-jowl with college students and tourists. Decorating the walls from floor to ceiling is an astonishing profusion of memorabilia – framed portraits of American presidents, American flags, old political posters and playbills, lithographs and engravings, ancient newspaper clippings. There is a framed front page of the New York Herald bearing word of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Somehow he carries 20 mugs at once
Patrons have a simple choice: light or dark. McSorley’s pale ale and black lager come in 10-ounce mugs and you get two mugs for five dollars. This counts as a good deal in New York City, and McSorley’s attracts all kinds, serious drinkers and lookie-loos alike. I order the black lager and a man with gray whiskers carries the foaming mugs to my table. I take a swallow and watch him deal next with two tables of rowdy college students; somehow he carries 20 mugs at once and sets them down to cheers without spilling a drop.
The bar’s precise date of founding has been lost to time; some accounts say 1854, while city records seem to indicate McSorley’s opened its doors a few years later, in 1858 or 1860, though the records may be incomplete. It is said that Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt drank here. What is certain is that many notable men down through the ages have warmed themselves on mugs of the house ale. In 1940, when Joseph Mitchell wrote about it for The New Yorker, it was already the oldest drinking-house in the city. Tradition dies hard here. The biggest change to take place at McSorley’s in recent decades was the admission of women in 1970, who for most of its history were politely but firmly barred from the premises. And then, too, there are no more cats. Lounging felines were once a mainstay of the establishment, but no longer – at the insistence of the city health department.
In his day, Mitchell described its patrons as local Irish and German workers: butchers and brewers, carpenters and bricklayers, the core of which were “a rapidly thinning group of crusty old men, predominantly Irish, who have been drinking there since they were youths and now have a proprietary feeling about the place.” The clientele has changed, but McSorley’s is still a place you can find refreshment after a hard day’s work, or pass the better part of a lazy Saturday. With the lager warming me and history staring down from the walls, I can almost feel the spirits of Tammany Hall bosses and Bowery pensioners gathering close to have another round and swap stories of old times.
It’s like a family studio
Sometimes the ghosts generously move aside to make space for new tenants. I am curious about the place where James makes his art, so I take a train into Brooklyn to visit the Pencil Factory. The Pencil Factory is a six-story art deco building on Greenpoint Avenue. It has large windows offering an abundance of natural light, a roof with concrete parapets and huge terracotta reliefs of yellow pencils lining the top-floor row of windows. It is called the Pencil Factory because it was built in 1924 to house the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company. The company closed its Brooklyn offices in 1956. Decades later, the building was converted into commercial loft space and over time a community of illustrators, designers and other creative types sprung up there.
When I visit, I am greeted at the door by Alex, a resident artist. He leads me upstairs to one of loft spaces that are used as studios. Each room is between 400 and 500 square feet and occupied by two or more artists. This room holds a leather sofa, work tables, and other pieces of furniture brought here by the artists according to their needs. “It’s like a family studio,” Alex tells me. Everyone knew each other’s peculiarities and work habits. Some days, Alex says, he would come into the studio and hear James at work even before he saw him: The Australian would be on his knees sanding down a wall print to give it a weathered look, the repeated abrasions echoing in the hall.
Alex and I talk for more than an hour, enjoying the sunlight spilling through the windows set into the twelve-foot-high wall, and afterward he takes me up to the roof, which offers an uninterrupted view of lower Manhattan. From here, it is easy to see how one could fall in love with the buildings. It is the vista Langston Hughes spoke of, remembering in 1925 his first sight of Manhattan four years earlier: “New York is truly the dream city – city of the towers near God, city of hopes and visions, of spires seeking in the windy air loveliness and perfection.” Confronted with those yearning towers, I can’t resist taking a few pictures.