"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Sucking in the Seventies

This morning I see a guy on the train reading Kill All Your Darlings, a fine collection of essays by Luc Sante. So we chat for a minute and I get to thinking about this wonderful essay by Sante, My Lost City:

The idea of writing a book about New York City1 first entered my head around 1980, when I was a writer more wishfully than in actual fact, spending my nights in clubs and bars and my days rather casually employed in the mailroom of this magazine. It was there that Rem Koolhaas’s epochal Delirious New York fell into my hands. “New York is a city that will be replaced by another city” is the phrase that sticks in my mind. Koolhaas’s book, published in 1978 as a paean to the unfinished project of New York the Wonder City, seemed like an archaeological reverie, an evocation of the hubris and ambition of a dead city.2 I gazed wonderingly at its illustrations, which showed sights as dazzling and remote as Nineveh and Tyre. The irony is that many of their subjects stood within walking distance: the Chrysler Building, the McGraw-Hill Building, Rockefeller Center. But they didn’t convey the feeling they had when they were new. In Koolhaas’s pages New York City was manifestly the location of the utopian and dystopian fantasies of the silent-film era. It was Metropolis, with elevated roadways, giant searchlights probing the heavens, flying machines navigating the skyscraper canyons. It was permanently set in the future.

The New York I lived in, on the other hand, was rapidly regressing. It was a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli. This did not distress me—quite the contrary. I was enthralled by decay and eager for more: ailanthus trees growing through cracks in the asphalt, ponds and streams forming in leveled blocks and slowly making their way to the shoreline, wild animals returning from centuries of exile. Such a scenario did not seem so far-fetched then. Already in the mid-1970s, when I was a student at Columbia, my windows gave out onto the plaza of the School of International Affairs, where on winter nights troops of feral dogs would arrive to bed down on the heating grates. Since then the city had lapsed even further. On Canal Street stood a five-story building empty of human tenants that had been taken over from top to bottom by pigeons. If you walked east on Houston Street from the Bowery on a summer night, the jungle growth of vacant blocks gave a foretaste of the impending wilderness, when lianas would engird the skyscrapers and mushrooms would cover Times Square.

Bring in the bass…

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Subway Stories

Tags:  lost new york  luc sante

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1 williamnyy23   ~  Apr 13, 2010 8:45 am

Maybe the excerpt was taken out of context, but I'll never understand why so many people seem to glorify New York's more grimy eras. I guess it goes to show you that no matter when you grow up, you’re likely to think of that time as the “good old days”.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 13, 2010 8:53 am

So true, so true. What's a matta with you, bro, you don't like fearing for your life every time you set foot outside your padlocked apartment?

3 Jim in Binghamton   ~  Apr 13, 2010 9:08 am

The idea of a city being replaced by another city reminds me of Terence Davies great documentary about Liverpool -- Of Time and the City -- a theme of which becoming estranged from one's home city as it is transformed almost beyond recognition from the place of one's childhood.

(The Davies film is on Netflix's streaming list btw)

4 The Hawk   ~  Apr 13, 2010 9:35 am

Good stuff

5 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Apr 13, 2010 9:39 am

[1] Maybe because under Mayor Moneybags and his predecessors, New York is now way too corporate and soulless? A city that caters to rich elites more than it ever has? The rent in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn is more than $1500 a month now fer jiminy's sake!

I of course see your point, but you have to admit there was something pure and vibrant in NYC in those days..great Talking Heads track by the way!

6 williamnyy23   ~  Apr 13, 2010 9:52 am

[5] New York is too big and too diverse to be too corporate or souless, im my humble opinion, but even if one did feel that way, why would they need to glorify the other end of the spectrum? Is crime and decay soulful?

NYC has been pure and vibrant for the longest time (some times more than others), including now. The 1970s also had its redeeming qualities, but the ones described above were not any of them, again in my humble opinion.

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