A substantial part of the book I’m writing now–the second in the Claire DeWitt series–takes place in Brooklyn in the mid-eighties. As many of you know, I grew up in Brooklyn, and Claire’s life is loosely based on mine (but infinitely more interesting). So I’ve been watching a lot of movies, fiction and non-, set in that time period to jog my memory. One thing that comes up over and over again when researching this period is the arguments over public space in New York. I watched a short doc shot by a man who lived in Times Square in the late eighties and early nineties. In a special feature after the film, the filmmaker said he was happy with the changes made to Times Square. He said he lived there with his wife and baby girl and didn’t want his kid growing up among the crime and prostitution. He wasn’t sorry at all to see the undesirables go and Disney come in.
This fascinates me on a number of levels. The obvious fascination, of course, is with what kind of a stupid fuck moves to Times Square to raise a baby in middle-class respectability when they have other choices (the people in the famous welfare hotels of Times Square didn’t have that choice, obviously). There is a type–usually, but not always, white, middle-class and from the suburbs–who thinks that if they move to a neighborhood, that neighborhood should conform with their social norms. Why their standards are superior to anyone else’s is never examined; it just goes without saying. I think those people should stay in the suburbs, and not to move to cities, but I lost that argument long ago.
One reason why I didn’t want to live in cities anymore–I now live in a tiny hippie town in North California–was because of these battles: wars over what I call contested territory; those little pocket of urban areas that different groups each think they can call their own. In the case of Times Square, by the eighties, the Square had been “taken over” (funny how that phrase always comes up in these arguments) by hookers, pimps, pickpockets and the homeless. I don’t think that’s a good thing. But I don’t think handing the Square over to Disney was a good thing either.
I don’t buy that anyone, anywhere, has a right to any urban neighborhood. The nature of cities is change and immigration–if they’re lucky, ’cause otherwise they die (see: Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, although each of those is now enjoying (or about to enjoy) a revival). I would never argue that New York in the eighties was how things ought to be. But I feel strongly that those of us who enjoy a way of life that others perceive as “not family friendly”–what is sometimes called the sporting life or just the Life–have as much right to public space as anyone else, just not to the exclusion of others. Likewise, moms with strollers worth more than my car have a right to public space as well–but again, not at the exclusion of others (attention Park Slope: I was born there and I’m not going to stop visiting just because you think I’m going to contaminate your baby if I smile at it). I think the key the cities without frustration is to realize that you never really do have a neighborhood. No group can ever claim ownership of a city without killing it.
Here’s what Times Square could have been: a meeting point for the different cultures, classes, races, and choices of New York City. A place where tourists can come and eat real New York food–Nathan’s, Katz’s and Sylvia’s in my book, although I’m sure everyone would have their own picks–and hear real New York music–hip hop and punk to me, but name your poison. There could be nightclubs for the grown-ups to do grown up things at night and a kids’ theater (one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of our amazing local theaters) for the stroller crowd during the day. A place that was safe for tourists but not only for tourists, where they could learn about us and we could learn about them, those corn-fed others who walk so slowly.
Instead, I actually get dizzy on the rare occasions when I go to Times Square. I like spectacle and phantasmagoria as much as the next lady, but something about the overwhelming presence of cameras–from tourists, from people with cell-phone-cams, from the “security” videocameras–combined with the proliferation of monitors running adds for coke or whatever makes me deeply uncomfortable in a way I can’t put my finger on. In fact, I feel that way about New York in general now but how NYC turned into a less-interesting version of Blade Runner–well that, friends, is a post for another day.