The Great TragediesPosted: March 13, 2008
>On Tuesday night, Kip and I went to see the new Richard Foreman show, “Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland,” and before that we had dinner at Veselka, a Ukrainian diner-kind of place on Second Avenue in the East Village. Ten years ago, when I had three roommates (and a four-bedroom, two bath apartment with a dishwasher in Astoria for $1800,) we used to perform this ritual often. See some kind of experimental, or otherwise ‘out-there’ theater after having had dinner at Veselka. Sometimes we ate at Odessa, or Cafe Orlin, or Yaffa. We had more money back then–out rent was nothing. We were young, theater-going sponges.
I realize that some of you reading this will say “Before that, back in the 80s, I had dinner here, here and here, before all those places sprang up, and we saw really avant-garde stuff.” “Things were different back then,” my friend Scott is always telling me. “I don’t know,” he says, “people didn’t care so much, they just were, they were really out there, it was really different in New York.” Scott’s always talking about people being ‘out there.’
I’m usually pretty uninterested in this kind of talk, this woeful nostalgia for old New York, before Disney, before Giuliani, before, before, before. (Outside the Village Voice offices, there is a banner which reads “Where have all the crackheads gone?” But I ask you, do you really want a street full of crackheads? Really?) This is not to say that I do not feel the tragedy of it–skyrocketing rents alone have created a catastrophic housing crisis, the commercialization of culture has lead to the homogenization and stupidization of theater, and I don’t think Michael Cunningham was far off when, in his latest book Specimen Days, he presented New York City as purely a theme park for the rest of America. All that said, however, I also believe in the life cycle of urban environments, particularly in cramped, bustling cities like ours. I know that someday the Starbucks will fall, and something else will take its place. I recognize the spirit of mourning Old New York, but I’m equally fascinated, perplexed, and yes, even me, somewhat optimistic about its future.
As I walked down St. Mark’s street in the Village on Tuesday night, I was reminded of all those nights years ago, when the four of us, our bratty little gang of Tennesseans-gone-Big-City, walked the same sidewalks and ate in the same restaurants. There used to be a huge community center on St. Mark’s. In it’s place, there is now: Chipotle, Supercuts, and Grand Sichuan franchises, an upscale grocery store, the St. Mark’s Market, and perhaps the worst of all offenders, the CBGB Fashions. This is an outlet which produces no music, serves no booze, but sells licensed products branded with the historic CBGB’s logo. (The real CBGB’s closed in October 2006, after owing $91,000 in back rent to it’s landlord, the Bowery Resident’s Committee–which is an organization that helps homeless people reclaim their lives. You see there is some gray area here. The real tragedy, of course, is that in the richest country in the world, we can’t support both historic punk-rock music venues and the homeless.)
On Tuesday night, I felt really sad. I felt sad for the people whose lives were changed by that community center–alcoholics and drug addicts and battered women and art collectives and whomever else took refuge inside it. I felt sad for every other New Yorker who’s walked down that street and suddenly found their ancient ritual displaced by modernism. Because what are we as a culture, if not a series of rituals? And if franchised fast-food and licensed “fashion” are our rituals, where does that leave us?
But I also felt sad for the new business owners–the intrepid shopkeeper who hopes to make a new life for herself by opening her own place–because they, too, have a right to make their own rituals. Okay, so it’s a Chipotle, but at least she’s doing well for herself and can actually say that America does what it promised to do: Give the huddled masses a shot at their own self-made future. This, of course, is the sentimental novelist in me, piling layer after layer of gloomy, derivative psychosis on some bright-eyed immigrant intent on forging ahead. (Can’t that be true, a little bit?) The cynic in me says that the real owner is some white guy in a suit who lives in New Jersey and drives an SUV, and sends his kids to ‘important’ colleges. Please tell me the reality is something else.
The great tragedies are:
1) Cultural landmarks turn into fast-food joints.
2) The ‘idea’ of America is so much more amazing than America.
3) Nothing is how you remember it.
4) We, as a species, are ill-equipped to deal with these truths.