About halfway through the 19th century, a fundamental change occurred in the relationship between people and cities. For the previous 5,000-odd years, cities had served as totems of human memory and achievement. Construction of a single building, like the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, could unfold over 10 generations. A citadel could last for 1,000 years. Urban life remained, for the most part, nasty and short.
During the Industrial Revolution, however, cities began to grow rapidly. The pace of construction and demolition accelerated. Thanks to advances in public health, urbanites began living longer and longer. The old dynamic, the French poet Baudelaire observed in an 1857 poem, had been reversed. “The shape of a city changes faster, alas, than the heart of a man,” he wrote, outlining the mismatch that would define the urban experience of the subsequent 150 years.
There is no doubt that the shape of New York City has changed faster than the heart of Jeremiah Moss, the Manhattan blogger who has spent the past decade as the cranky, tireless scribe of New York’s evolution. Every time some old diner or body shop closed down, it seems, Moss was there, giving last rites in the form of a blog post. You can understand why, having personally attended the closures of scores of ancient family businesses that fell victim to high rent, re-development, or a loss of customers, Moss feels he is witnessing the end of New York City. He loves New York, and it’s bringing him down.
Moss is not alone. In his passionate, sprawling, and often frustrating new book, Vanishing New York: How a City Lost Its Soul, he claims to speak for urbanites from London to San Francisco, decrying a global epidemic he calls “hypergentrification.” “The spirit of the city as we knew it has vanished in the shadow of luxury condo towers, rampant greed, and suburbanization,” he writes. A self-described “outraged romantic,” Moss pines for all prior eras of New York going back to the Civil War. He also knows that every generation of urbanites, with the backward-looking self-importance of a graduating high school class, believes they have seen the last of their great city. This time, he insists, it’s for real.
As a New Yorker “born here and thus ruined for anywhere else,” in Colson Whitehead’s formulation, I have shared Moss’ sadness. I remember the delis fanning out around my childhood apartment like points of a compass rose. I remember parking lots breaking up the streetwall facades. For me, nostalgia and homesickness are inseparable, and when I miss Buffa’s or Pearl Paint, I also miss the person I was then. No rent control or historic preservation could cure me of that.
But that’s not what interests Moss. This book is not a memoir, and Moss himself—who only recently revealed his identity, to the New Yorker, as a transgender man from Massachusetts named Griffin Hansbury—is as reticent a portraitist as his beloved Edward Hopper. He eulogizes a universal concept of the city, a palimpsest of Ashcan painters and stevedores and jazz and punks. Selling the reader on the appeal of that shared New York past is the challenge he sets for himself. In that, he largely succeeds.
At his best, Moss is a shoe-leather reporter, always looking, listening, and taking notes. Italian nonnas and burly auto mechanics appear to warm to him in equal measure. He writes of an ’80s Bambi screening at the legendary Chelsea bar Rawhide—which closed in 2013 after the landlord doubled the rent—that drew a line of leather-clad gays who wept openly at the movie. “Every one of them had tears streaming down his face,” a patron told Moss. “On the screen, Bambi’s mother had died, but it was the time of AIDS, and those guys were crying for other reasons.”
Manhattan’s recent evolution into a playground for multimillionaires—the avenues of Alphabet City, which once stood for “Adventurous, Brave, Crazy, and Dead,” now signify “Affluent, Bourgeois, Comfortable, Decent”— has been accompanied by radioactive levels of irony, which Moss bitterly records. Veronica Bulgari, of the luxury brand, ousts the hot dog men from Washington Square Park in favor of more gourmet options. Two real-estate developers convert an old SRO (single-room occupancy) into a boutique hotel “where the decor plays on the flophouse theme with small, stylish rooms that mimic the miserable pens occupied by destitute men who lived downstairs on the second floor.” It’s all quite perverse and funny.
But Moss is too fed up to laugh. He’s an unhappy spectator at an endless parade of bêtes noires that includes bike lanes, Midwestern pride, stroller moms, people using cellphones, pedestrian plazas, transplants reveling in a “sanitized vertical suburbia,” and “the girls we call ‘woo girls,’ because all they do is woo.” He holds people under 30 in particular contempt, convinced that their aching suburban souls account for the city’s increasing number of chain stores. The truth is that New York’s many young migrants like the same stuff Moss does: small businesses, mom and pops, fusty bookstores. The young lawyer he is typecasting on Second Avenue is the same person buying her boyfriend a birthday cake from the century-old Veniero’s pastry shop.
That generational contempt tends to overshadow the people who ought to be the real villains of a book about how money ruined Manhattan: landlords. Residential landlords are to blame for the evictions, high rents, and population turnover that Moss decries. Commercial landlords (and the banking system they work with) are responsible for much of the 7,000-odd years of history, by Moss’ calculation, that was lost in the erosion of small businesses during Michael Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor. This was a tragedy beyond the lost culture of bars and shops. Chains don’t fill the same role in the city’s social and economic fabric as a network of resilient, rooted entrepreneurs that developed over generations. It will be impossible to reverse course when the next downturn shoos multinationals from their storefronts.
It is at the city government that Moss directs much of his fire, in a hasty and oversimplified history that seems written to fit Moss’ preordained hypothesis that all New York’s urban policy was a means to the end of gentrification. Of Bloomberg, he writes, “no place would be untouched by Bloomberg as he pushed a furious development agenda.” But he also admits that actually, despite the city’s first sustained growth spurt since the 1940s, more areas of New York had their zoning tightened under the businessman mayor. One legacy of local control, for which minority neighborhoods once fought so hard, is that it wound up further shifting the balance of power toward the richest, wealthiest areas that were in the best position to take advantage of it.
Such are the interesting paradoxes that characterize New York City’s past two decades of growth and the general U.S. urban revival underway right now. But Vanishing New York is a polemic, not an epiphany. The closest Moss comes to a personal revelation may be during a nightmarish visit to an East Harlem Costco—one of the chain stores he has decried as representative of homogenous, white suburban life—only to find that the flood of patrons steering oversized shopping carts is mostly Latino. In another such instance, Moss extolls the aura of the city’s older masonry buildings but recognizes that historic preservation groups have little tolerance for the streetwalkers, vendors, and heavy industry that he defends. And this, ultimately, gets to the unanswered questions at the heart of the book. What does it mean to preserve a city? What is being saved, and for whom? Some of Moss’ most painful moments are not the demolition of his favorite dives, but their eerie re-animation as moneyed ghosts of their old selves. One of his most derided targets is the greatest New York preservation victory of this century: the High Line. Moss’ 2012 op-ed in the Times was one of the first forceful critiques of the space and its alchemical effect on the neighborhood.
Sometimes I wonder if Moss loves the local, the exotic, and the irreverent or just the old. He can be nostalgic for the comfort food of a bygone chain restaurant or offended by a kid mooning a Catholic street parade. In chronicling the sudden impact of astounding sums of money on the commerce and social fabric of a city, Moss has done a service to history. As an analysis, the book suffers from its author’s stubbornness.
The blame for New York’s transformation is more widely distributed than Moss would like to say. More than anything, our own relentlessly cheap consumer habits helped put the local pharmacies and shops that sponsored Little League teams out of business. In their place we now have CVS and lobbies full of Amazon packages. Many of Moss’ vanished local stalwarts cashed out by selling their buildings. Patti Smith, who told young New Yorkers to move to Detroit (but also threw a private concert for the developer who destroyed the old Chelsea Hotel) is guilty, and so is Spike Lee, who decried Brooklyn’s gentrification (but also helped market Absolut Brooklyn vodka). Moss recalls Jack Micheline telling him that “Allen Ginsberg would sell his shit-stained underwear if someone wanted to buy it.” It’s the New York way. No Jewish immigrant to the Lower East Side sold smoked fish and hoped his grandchildren would be doing the same.
It’s true that there was something unique and essential about working-class commerce at the heart of the city. But unlike Moss, I see a kind of inevitability in the influx of money. What’s surprising was that disease, pollution, and crime managed to keep Manhattan’s culture mixed for so long. With those crises largely gone, no zoning change could have saved the machine shops and pasticcerias. The J. Crews and their clientele came both for neighborhoods where new buildings sprouted like weeds and for those where virtually no new construction is permitted.
A bigger change than anything Moss has in his sights is underway in New York. Americans come and they go, but the newcomers to New York are almost all immigrants: They made up 96 percent of the city’s population growth between 1990 and 2015. The city is now home to more than 3 million immigrants (a record) and is nearly 40 percent foreign-born (nearing a record set on the eve of World War I). New York is less white than it was in 2000. Moss pegs the South Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge as the frontier of gentrification; but South Brooklyn is more substantially the site of continued outer-borough white flight and immigration—in the case of Bay Ridge, from Egypt and other Arab countries. Across virtually every American city, this transition is more fundamental and significant than the isolated impacts of gentrification.
The Old New York is still out there. At least in one crucial way—as a gateway for America’s immigrants—it is as New York a New York as we’ve ever had. Someone give Moss a Metrocard.
Vanishing New York: How a City Lost Its Soul by Jeremiah Moss. Dey Street Books.