Since the Sun has evidently given the Earth a reprieve today, deciding not to subsume the planet in a fiery cataclysm (well, that's kinda how it felt earlier in the week), I dug my bike out of its dust-caked hibernation for the purposes of a spin around my vanishing metropolis.
Motivated by a larger-but-as-yet-clearly-defined idea about Downtown NYC in Flux, I brought my camera with me in the hopes of documenting signs of what I've taken to somewhat presumptuously calling "My Vanishing Downtown". Fueled by three cups of coffee and a banana, I hopped on my bike and came back with the following entry (pics included....click on them to enlarge).
I should point out from the get-go that I did not grow up Downtown. But I did grow up in Manhattan (which makes me somewhat of a rarity in many circles, it seems). While I was born and raised on the rather staid and stuffy Upper East Side, in many respects Downtown NYC did have a profound effect on my development. By the time I was in 8th Grade (circa 1980/81), my imagination had become completely captured by the allure of Greenwich Village, Soho, the East Village and the surrounding areas (the demarkations of which were completely foreign to me at the time...it all blurred into one seething mass of arcane cool and gritty mystery). Having discovered Canal Street with my friend Danny (himself fond of buying Japanese throwing stars from a dubious establishment off West Broadway dubbed "The Trader"..... don't look for it, it's long gone..... and the various record stores that dotted West 8th Street with my friend Rob -- don't look for those either, they're all gone too), I thought I'd gotten a handle on the area, but this was so not the case. In very short order, virtually all my free time was spent exploring the seemingly undiscovered backwater tributaries of Downtown NYC. Even when I wasn't shopping for elusive imported vinyl 7"s with Rob or contraband weaponry with Danny, I'd often go downtown just to wander the streets, soaking up what I considered an aura of inexplicable cool and rich, historic character.
The irony here is that years later, I'd move Downtown, get married, have a child and be, for all intents and purposes, forced to walk around the streets, pushing a stroller around like a dazed Sisyphus. The sad thing here is that seemingly nine-tenths of that same aura of gritty bohemian cool has largely dissipated. The walls of Soho aren't pock-marked with dizzyingly spontaneous bursts of art. Galleries have been replaced by J.Crew Outlets. Mom'n'Pop record shops where I used to prize rare albums by esoteric punk bands have been squeezed out and replaced by wine bars. Storied live music venues, cool bars and cutting-edge clubs have been evicted and replaced by antiseptic furniture stores or soulless cocktail lounges. In many respects, the Downtown NYC that used to so fire my imagination simply no longer exists.
It would be incredibly naive of me to have imagined that Downtown was going to remain untouched and intact like a mosquito preserved in amber, given the apparent inevitability of gentrification. Change is, after all, the only constant in the urban environment. But that process seems to have significantly accelerated in the last few years. Huge, glass tube-like structures have seemingly appeared overnight all over downtown, as if some vast giant is placing towering bottles of blue shampoo around like chess pieces. Maybe its due to the fevered rush to rebuild Lower Manhattan following the fateful events of 2001, but the landscape is changing drastically. The little pocket of streets just north of the western end of Canal Street -- home to the landmark Ear Inn and the location for many of the scenes in Martin Scorcese's Kafka-esque black comedy, "After Hours" (a film I'm admittedly obsessed with) -- has become a hotbed of luxury high rises and newly designed office space. Where once those quiet streets were the very quintessence of seductively atmospheric urban desolation, they're now canyons of shimmering glass and palpable affluence. Tiny structures like the afore-mentioned Ear Inn and the rock club, Don Hill's now cower meekly and uncomfortably under looming concrete titans and crater-like holes where similarly diminutive neighbors used to reside. I fear it shan't be long before both of those estimable establishments are plucked out like unsightly gray hairs, to be invariably replaced by new condos or yet another Starbuck's.
One of the more celebrated venues currently on the chopping block is, of course, CBGB's, the veritable spiritual epicenter of Punk Rock. Its plight has been documented in more periodicals than you shake a beat-up guitar at, but for a complete summary of the club's current dilemma, why not simply click here, which will also save me the time and space of having to accurately encapsulate it . Now, to be perfectly honest, I really cannot remember the last show I attended at this storied hole in the wall -- it may have been either a reunion show by NYC hardcore legends, Kraut or possibly one of the final performances by Cop Shoot Cop. Regardless, it seems that over the past ten years, the club's booking policy and roster of bands has become a bit lackluster. Moreover, all that you've heard about the place is more or less true -- it's a squalid, filthy, fire-trap of a dive. That said, I still think its a major organ of Downtown Manhattan, and its removal will be a crippling blow. I mean, Carnegie Hall is also probably a shadow of its former self -- shall we tear that down too?
If it does indeed go, however, CBGB's won't be the first of Manhattan's seminal clubs to get the keys to the street. In the last couple of years, we've lost The Bottom Line, Wetlands Preserve, Tramp's, Coney Island High and the Cooler (among others).
This is going to probably be an ongoing feature on this weblog. In the interim, however, if you're curious, please click here to avail yourself to the pictures and anecdotal information of Manhattan I documented today .