Review: Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul (2017)

Jeremiah Moss came as a young man to New York City in 1993, in search of the Bohemia of which he had dreamed, growing up in a small, sleepy town in New England. Though he came at the first opportunity, by his own admission, he arrived too late. By the early 1990s, Bohemia, such as it has existed since perhaps Walt Whitman held forth at Pabst’s Brewery in the 1850s, was comatose, destroyed by various social and economic forces, large and small, but above all by the transformation of the city into a theme park that systematically eradicated the haunts of writers, artists, gays and a host of other sub-cultures which had previously survived there, catch as catch can, on the affordable margins. In a word, Bohemia was eradicated by gentrification.

And unlike many previous and premature obituaries for Bohemia, in Moss’s view, what distinguished the 1990s and thereafter from the demise of earlier generations of “garrets and pretenders” was conscious policy from City Hall, working with the banks and big real estate, aimed at destroying the “ecology” that had sustained Bohemia for well over a century, a policy enforced, when necessary, by those “husky workers in blue,” the New York Police Department (nypd). This policy was conceived and carried out by a series of mayors from Ed Koch in the 1970s through such luminaries as “Mayor Mussolini” (and now top Trump advisor) Rudy Giuliani, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, up to and including the current, hapless liberal Bill De Blasio, who came in talking about the city’s soaring income gap and promptly forgot such rhetoric once in power.

As Moss tells it, New York Bohemia did not die, it was murdered. This murder was complemented by the arrival, for the first time, of legions of young people from suburbia and the hinterland, no longer aspiring writers with unsold manuscripts, but a new generation of men and women, mbas, lawyers, fledgling bankers, stock brokers and cpas, happy to dance on the grave of Bohemia (if they even knew it had existed or what it was) in blind weekend drunks, vomiting on the doorsteps of Moss’s and others’ remaining rent-stabilized apartments, shouting obscenities at the owners of older cafes (whose coffee did not compare, in their view, with Starbucks) and generally acting like the philistine, boorish, well-heeled “frat bros” and riffraff that they were and are. “I moved to New York,” writes Moss, “hoping to avoid such people for the rest of my life.”

Moss is, moreover, quite aware that this gangrenous affliction is no mere New York phenomenon, but has its global counterparts throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America as well. But he has 400 pages of material on the one city he knows best, and leaves the critique of the gentrification of Paris, Berlin, Seoul or Sao Paolo to others.

On Paris, Guy Debord had already written:

Paris no longer exists. The destruction of Paris is only an exemplary illustration of the mortal disease which is currently carrying off all the great cities, and this disease is itself merely one symptom of the material decadence of a society.

One dimension that Moss does not discuss is the change in capital accumulation, beginning in the 1970s, in which capital could increasingly no longer be profitably invested in “advanced” countries (advanced above all in social decay) in industry, agriculture, or extraction (mining, etc.) but rather in unproductive sectors such as “services,” the military and real estate, the latter a purely parasitic activity that creates no wealth but merely appropriates wealth produced elsewhere (in this case, construction) for income or resale. Thus it is not merely writers, artists, dancers and musicians who are seen off, but increasingly the urban working class, whose neighborhoods, not without tension, co-existed with Bohemia, and whose factories have closed down or relocated to the Dominican Republic or Sri Lanka or Myanmar.

It is often forgotten that as late as 1945, New York was the number one manufacturing city in the United States. Over the decades since the Second World War, New York was de-industrialized as surely as Detroit or Chicago, led in this case by the departure of the “needle trades” or the “schmatta” (clothing) industry, and the militant unions that emerged in them, first to the “open shop” American South and then overseas to Central America and beyond. They were replaced by miles of chains (Rite-Aid, Starbucks, Walgreen’s, etc.) and hundreds of self-service bank branches, decimating the once tight-knit working-class communities they displaced.

This was part of America’s transformation into a “post-industrial” society, where the percentage of men and women producing “value” (in Ricardo’s or Marx’s sense) constantly declined in favor of those consuming it, probably 70–80 percent of the workforce today. And nowhere was the concentration of the unproductive “creative classes” (to use the economically illiterate Richard Florida’s early and now discredited term) greater than in New York City. It is however not our purpose to linger over such lacunae in Moss’s generally outstanding book, but merely to pose a somewhat different backdrop to our review. Moss’s rich detail is like a banquet table sagging under a huge feast, from which we hope to extract a few choice morsels, urging others to further partake; a mere review can hardly do this book justice.

Moss makes no pretense of pseudo-objectivity; he is patently “shaking a fist” at the people and institutions that have ruined a once great city. His New York is one of “dark moods.” Gentrification evolved over several decades into what Moss calls “hyper-gentrification,” embodied in “luxury condos, mass evictions, hipster invasions, a plague of tourists, the death of small local businesses, and the rise of corporate monoculture.”

Gentrification is quite distinct from the older pattern of one poor group pushing out another, such as the immigrant Chinese takeover of most of Little Italy; gentrification is about class and power, as when an influx of techies and yuppies pushes out poor blacks and Latinos with few or no options for where to go. While for now “the city’s soul still haunts pockets of the outer boroughs,” Moss’s book is “not a Baedecker to those pockets. It is a journey among the ruins, a dyspeptic trip though the parts of town hardest hit during the Bloomberg years.”

Moss highlights, for starters, the East Village, which today is full of “hedge fund managers, millionaire celebrities, and marauding dude-bros” but they had been preceded long before by “Jewish lefties, Italian agitators, theatre people, avant-gardists, anarchists, mobsters, as well as the very poor…Emma Goldman, who hung out at Justus Schwab’s Saloon on East First Street” found there “a Mecca for French Communards, Spanish and Italian refugees, Russian politicals, and German socialists and anarchists…”

Moss describes the old/new dialectic that has emerged instead, as the gentrifiers see it: “[T]he stuff of old New York is smelly and bothersome, and probably should vanish. The new stuff, the extruded-plastic simulation that has nothing to do with New York, is so desirable you can never have too much…” Moss calls the litany of new stuff “a meme, a self-replicating thought virus”: “Old New York is bad…New corporate chains are good. Tenements are bad. Luxury condos are good. Preservation is bad. Gentrification is good.”

The new luxury apartment building, Red Square, whose very name embodies the cynical victory cry of yuppiedom over the radicalism of the old neighborhood, was built in 1989 on Houston Street:

the dividing line between the East Village and the Lower East Side…one of the first modern luxury buildings in the neighborhood, and probably the first to thoroughly exploit the poverty and socialist history in its marketing materials… [Red Square] created an image that would appeal to the rich by selling them on the grit, poverty and risk of the Lower East Side…designed to appeal to a narrow audience of people with resources who wanted to live in a hip, extreme
and even dangerous neighborhood…Sweatshop workers, Latinos, musicians and poets become animatronic characters in a theme park designed for world-conquering Mr. Wall Street and his Dutch model girlfriend.

For Moss, “Red Square was revolutionary in the way it marketed the authentic culture of the Lower East Side—socialism, bohemianism, the working class—in order to sell it to an invading culture that would then destroy it.” Here we have the cynical post-modern penchant for “quotation,” in this case in architecture and urbanism.

One poet, Taylor Mead, lived around the corner from Houston, on Ludlow Street, for thirty-four years, “until he was displaced from his rent-stabilized apartment at age eighty-eight by…[a]…real estate tycoon… [Enduring] …construction noise and poor conditions, for as long as he could…Mead eventually surrendered his apartment, accepting a buyout and leaving New York with the hope of returning one day. He never did. Within a few weeks of moving out, he was dead from a massive stroke.”

The fight over the Bowery Bar in 1994–95, which had taken over the site of an old gas station, is another chapter in Moss’s account. Its opening was resisted by activists and artists, “in the courts and in the streets.” A central figure was Carl Hultberg, living in a “rent-controlled apartment he’d taken over from his grandfather, jazz historian Rudi Blesh,” who had moved there in 1944. In an email to Moss, Hultberg wrote that the nightclub developers Eric Goode and Serge Becker “in a few short months…had transformed our once sleepy Bohemian district into an open sewer of American crap culture.” The building had been sold to Mark Scharfman, “a man who’d made New York Press’s list of the “50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers” and its prototypical heartless landlord. Goode and Becker transformed it “into the ultra-exclusive boutique hotel Lafayette House.” “The match struck by Bowery Bar in 1994,” writes Moss, “had met gasoline. In the 2000s, the Bowery went supernova.”

As if on cue, artists of the Establishment arrived. As one landlord-artist gamely put it, “now that the neighborhood is nice enough for galleries, there aren’t many artists left.” Luxury hotels proliferated. “From the beginning,” says Moss, “the locals hated the Cooper Square Hotel, viewing it as “an arrogant, entitled, fuck-you middle finger to the neighborhood.” Despite further protests, “all that righteous anger could not bring the tower down, even when the developers’ bank claimed they defaulted on $52 million in loans and filed a lawsuit to foreclose.” It was taken over by a hotelier with sites in Hollywood, Miami Beach and New York’s Meatpacking District, and “renamed the Standard East Village, with a new restaurant aptly called ‘Narcissa’…” This ongoing “quotation” of the earlier life of the East Village was shameless, an expression of contemporary capitalism’s own cultural emptiness.

Moss cites Neil Smith, the late cuny professor of anthropology and geography, for an historical overview of gentrification:

The class remake of the city was minor, small scale, and symbolic in the beginning, but today we are seeing a total class retake of the central city. Almost without exception, the new housing, new restaurants, new artistic venues, new entertainment locales—not to mention new jobs on Wall Street—are all aimed at a social class quite different from those who populated the Lower East Side or the West Side, Harlem, or neighborhood Brooklyn in the 1960s. Bloomberg’s rezoning of, at latest count, 104 neighborhoods has been the central weapon in this assault.

Moss takes the idea of a fourth wave of gentrification from London urbanist Loretta Lees, who described hyper-gentrification as: “the consolidation of a powerful national shift favoring the interests of the wealthiest households, combined with a bold effort to dismantle the last of the social welfare programs associated with the 1960s.” For Moss, hyper-gentrification is: “the return of the white-flight suburbanites’ grandchildren and their appetite for a ‘geography of nowhere’…in which monotonous chain stores nullify the streets,” Neil Smith’s term “the revanchist city” ultimately traces back to the French bourgeoisie after the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871. A century later, Giuliani’s New York took revenge on “people of color, the poor and working class, immigrants, feminists, homosexuals, socialists, bohemians.” Moss’s vanishing New York is, then, “the twentieth century city, the metropolis born from a confluence of restless, desperate people who arrived as underdogs and became the city’s life force,” the people who don’t mince words and occasionally say “fuck you, you fuckin’ fuck” in a moment of proletarian poetry.

Thus we have glimpses of Moss’s exceptionally rich material, hopefully giving the flavor he maintains relentlessly for 400 pages. It is to be hoped that the book will be read far and wide, and beyond spurring the rage felt by this reviewer at the victory (to date) by the massive assault of big capital and finance on a once working-class town without equal, will also inspire the activism initiated by anti-gentrification groups such as Take Back the Bronx and the Crown Heights Tenants Union listed in an appendix.


4 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. rick rice,

    fantastic, lived lower east side eight years, about 1961 to 1970

  2. S. Artesian,

    Anyone else take exception to this: “This was part of America’s transformation into a “post-industrial” society, where the percentage of men and women producing “value” (in Ricardo’s or Marx’s sense) constantly declined in favor of those consuming it, probably 70–80 percent of the workforce today.”

    The rate of surplus value achieved in what comrade Goldner would consider “productive” simply isn’t great enough to support a society configured like that, and still provide for investment and profits. Yet we know investment is real, is expressed in real spikes, real peaks, and real troughs, as are profits.
    Empirical data from the US BLS doesn’t support that 20-80 split either.

    • Nam Dam,

      If you look beyond the US border and see that most things (probably “70-80 percent” coincidentally) consumed by Americans are actually produced in other parts of the world, then it does.

      But then you start heading towards MIM “first world aristocracy” territory.

  3. S.Artesian,

    Disagree, but thanks for the response.
    The numbers don’t work that way either.
    Not hard to “push” the numbers; pencil and paper is all you need. Give it a try

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