New Notes on Nostalgia

May 22nd, 2010 § 0 comments


New York City is a place that inspires a great deal of nostalgic sentiment, so passionate and opinionated that it often feels exclusive, like how we sometimes feel when talking to our grandparents. While the elderly tend to remember their past with exciting fondness, their dismissal of the present is always a little unnerving. Growing up with one great-grandmother born in 1905 instead of two younger grandmothers, I was always captivated by her quaint stories. At the same time I felt a bit wary of them, like the children in a Ray Bradbury novel who simply can’t believe that the elderly were once young. Just as we all feel a little like the first children to ever roam grassy backyards, it’s hard to accept that there ever was a time before our vivid present.

panicjpgI have a similar reaction to nostalgic critiques of New York City. While I seek out stories of the city’s past, a past that goes well beyond its most remembered years—the creativity of the 1960’s, the violence and crime of the 1970’s and 80’s—and while I enjoy films that depict the city in past decades— Schatzberg’s 1971 Panic in Needle Park, or Jarmusch’s 1980’s Permanent Vacation—they all describe a city I will never experience. It seems foolish, from my point of view, to be nostalgic for something you will never see. I don’t even find myself wishing that I had known those times or that city, anymore than I wish I was born in a different era. I understand my time, am of my time, and am sure the same applies to the city: it’s the only one I get. I won’t see it as a “changed place” for many years.

My lack of a lengthy past makes it difficult to digest the idea that New York was once a place of vibrant authenticity, and today is a ghostly shadow if its former self. “Inevitably, behind cries of decline is a conception, consciences or not, of a time and situation that was better—when the city had a soul (Ben Schwarz).” That the city has changed is not the question to dispute, as it’s obvious that it has and that it must. The problematic question seems to be: has it changed for better or worse and for whom? This sort of wistful backward glancing, an activity I have spent a good deal of time investigating in the past, has become overwhelmingly prevalent of late, popping up across disciplines and outside the boundary of New York City.

coney2My attention was drawn initially by a recent Patti Smith statement: “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.” This statement seems to reinforce an age discrepancy and the gap it creates between the prospective of different generations. Though the city is not what Smith remembers from her early days with Mapplethorpe, when I think of artists today grouping together in Bushwick lofts, New York still seems to find ways to accommodate its young, poor creative types. Atlantic Magazine’s literary critic Ben Schwarz tackles Smith-like nostalgia in his essay “Gentrification and Its Discontents.” The tagline for the article reads, “Manhattan never was what we think it was.” Offering a critique of a few recently published urban planning books that dwell on the soulless gentrification that has encapsulated New York City, Schwartz’s article considers the problems with idealizing fragmented pieces of history. For example, Schwarz points out that the SoHo we miss today was created by rapid industrial decline, “which made economically available to artists…those cool industrial spaces that in more industrially vibrant times would have been used by, well, industry.” This point is also underscored in a recent HBO documentary Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, a film that documents the disappearance of the cities garment industry. When lamenting a time of profitable domestic production, it is also important to remember the immigrant filled sweatshops on 7th Ave, and accidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.


Nostalgia is a hard subject to tackle, requiring a good deal more research, and I find this nostalgic attitude creeping its way toward art as well. If nostalgia is a natural human tendency it seems best to understand the motives behind it, that we might catch ourselves before we romantically alter what we once remembered and experienced. Railing against our current time, even in a genuine effort to recapture authenticity, might prove as damaging as allowing our present to run rampantly unchecked. In an eloquent and provocative interview in The Times Quotidian, LA based playwright John Steppling speaks nostalgically about a time when theater and artists were less controlled and manipulated. I am less interested in the idea of going back to something pure, than I am in moving toward something messier and more current. I don’t think we ever get a clean slate for remaking our cities or professions as we might wish them to be, as they might have once been, I think we have to take on the messy business of reworking what already is. Mulling over these ideas, I was reminded of the introduction to Through the Children’s Gate, Adam Gopnik’s book about his return to New York City in the early 2000’s. He talks about the cities ever shifting landscape as one of the “truths” of the city, and he too humorously critiques the cities nostalgic naysayers.

“People who refuse to be sentimental about the normal things don’t end up being sentimental about nothing; they end up being sentimental about anything, shedding tears over old muggings and the perfect, glittering shards of the little crack vials, sparkling like diamonds in the gutter. Who cares if the snows were all of cocaine? We saw them falling and our hearts were glad.”

Needle Park

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