New York is always changing: It’s the city that never sleeps. When local writer Kay Hymowitz wrote a book about Brooklyn recently she talked about “creative destruction” on almost every other page. She had a point, and the city has seen both sides of the process.
Beginning in the 1960’s, the gales of creative destruction almost drove the place under. Manufacturing moved out, “urban problems” accumulated, liberals lost touch with reality, and the cost of municipal salaries and social services soared. People left town—the population dropped by more than a tenth—and New York faced bankruptcy.
Financial restructuring, Mayor Koch, and the 1980’s restored a certain stability, but the city didn’t quite right itself until Giuliani was elected in 1993. Bridges and subways were fixed, streets and parks became safe, and businesses could have trash hauled without paying off the Mafia. Ever since, with the help of globalization and other trends, New York has grown increasingly richer and more cosmopolitan. Not even Bill de Blasio, a man symbolizing the reaction against 20 years of relative competence and ideological rationality in City Hall, has stopped the tide. As mayor, he’s damaged relations between police and civilians, and brought derelicts and aggressive panhandlers back to the streets and subway platforms, but he’s too ineffectual, and too much in the pocket of real-estate interests, to do much more. And in any event, there’s enough money coming into the city to pay for a great deal of foolishness.
Apart from Rudy Giuliani and money, the biggest changes have been brought by post-1960’s immigration and post-1970’s gentrification. New construction is everywhere. Whole districts of abandoned factories and warehouses have been turned into offices, co-op apartments, locavore restaurants, and expensive chain stores. Classic New York neighborhoods have been swallowed up by hipsters, yuppies, and arrivals from abroad.
Young white professionals and their offspring now use playgrounds in Harlem. Manhattan’s Little Italy is an island of tourist restaurants in a much-expanded Chinatown. The outer boroughs are peopled by Bengalis, Fukienese, Koreans, Arabs, and Latin Americans of various nationalities. And the greater part of Manhattan south of Harlem—the Upper West and Lower East Sides, NoHo and SoHo, the garment, flower, and meatpacking districts, the East and West Village, the Wall Street area—is merging into a single glossy business, entertainment, residential, and shopping district with minor local variations.
The block I live on in Brooklyn was mostly notable into the 1990’s for low-end street life on the stoops of beaten-up row houses, and for Al Sharpton, who lived in the closest building to us that was habitable. Now the block has a branch of a well-known Austin barbecue joint on one corner, a fancy Iranian restaurant promised next door, and another fancy eatery at the other end of the block. Until recently, there was an artisanal mayonnaise shop just a couple blocks further on.
All these count as the new vibrancy, but they’re more like the new sameness. Like other world cities, New York is becoming a locally themed version of Cosmopolis, a place for tourists, high-end consumers, and international business, with immigrant service workers living somehow in the places no one visits. One bank branch, chain hotel, or hipster neighborhood is like another, so the city is becoming imitative and repetitious in a way it never was before. Some of the tonier areas have actually gone dead in the evening, because apartments are owned by absentee foreigners who see them as places to park money and seek refuge if things turn sour back home.
A great deal remains, of course. It matters that so much of America’s talent and resources have landed here. The city still has an endless array of museums, parks, theaters, libraries, fine buildings, botanical gardens, indoor and outdoor performances, associations of various kinds, and everything else imaginable.
So there’s no shortage of high- and low-class pursuits. If you want chamber music, sports, specialty shops, hot-dog-eating contests, traditional Catholicism, Uzbek cuisine, or free semiprofessional opera, you can find it here. Just last weekend we saw an excellent free performance of Sheridan’s The Rivals on the grass in a lower Manhattan park, with the Hudson River and the sunset in the background. And a four-minute walk from where we live there’s the venue where the Brooklyn Nets and New York Islanders play their home games, and Miley Cyrus debuted her twerking routine.
Everything’s here: branches of Parisian retailers, hotels, beaches, learned societies, old-line clubs, nine Chinatowns and 800 languages, endless blocks of bars and restaurants for professionals born elsewhere who don’t save for the future, and vast tracts in the outer boroughs where no one who reads the New York Times ever goes.
But the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Throwing things together doesn’t polish them, and the city mostly makes people worse at what they are. In New York as elsewhere in the United States, Latin culture runs downhill. Yuppies and hipsters grow sillier and more self-involved. South Asian food stores stock fewer and fewer basic ingredients and more and more mixes and junk food. Ethnic parades are a stage for bad conduct that ranges from drunken boorishness to murder. And our neighborhood theatrical group, which started with a sharp and funny comedy about the opening of a new Ikea in London, is now obsessed with queer bodies and black reparations.
All of that suggests basic problems. New York makes everything whatever immediately available. That sounds wonderful, but it means the place has no culture of its own. Infinite diversity dissolves character. Once there were stock New York figures—the Irish cop, the brassy showgirl, the cabbie from the outer boroughs—but no more. A yuppie or Pakistani cab driver in New York is the same as elsewhere. Even New York accents are vanishing.
But it’s not just New York. The Internet makes everything immediately available wherever you are. Electronic media are turning the world into a global metropolis, a sort of virtual New York. That’s at odds with any setting in which culture has flourished. It’s provincials and men from smaller places who originate culture: In the metropolis it becomes one more product on offer.
Complaining does no good, though. If you don’t like where New York is going, you’ll find more of the same elsewhere, and there’s no way to turn things around on a large scale. Besides, there’s a great deal of ruin in a city, especially one like New York. In much of the city walking the streets and stopping for something to eat can still be an adventure. The near-uselessness of the private automobile gives most of it more of a neighborhood feel than you find in much of America. And you can be just as superficial and absurd in Albuquerque as in Park Slope. So if you’re looking for ways to ride out the times and make something of them, New York still has something to offer.