The Gotham Shuffle

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – June 5, 2000

Gotham Shuffle

The wonder ofNew York is its discontinuity.

MORE THAN ANY OTHER AMERICAN place, New York has the power to make the urban fantasies of its residents and visitors feel real. The city is an anarchic theme park, with no imagineering team in charge and thus no overriding theme. Every fantasy has a chance here. In Manhattan, movie stars can make believe that they’re not really famous, and magazine editors can make believe that they are. People with fantasies of corporate power can stoke them over lunch at The Four Seasons. An investment banker who wants to think of herself as cutting-edge can buy a four-million-dollar loft in Tri- BeCa, and people from Scarsdale who want to feel cosmopolitan can shuffle through the amped-up Rialto of Duffy Square after seeing “The Real Thing.” For a decent simulation of Paris, there’s Madison Avenue uptown, or restaurants like Pastis downtown. Central Park is a venue for many different fantasies—Hyde Park, an English country estate, Yosemite, whatever. Limousines are fantasy vehicles and tuxedos are fantasy garments; in no city on earth is there a greater density of limos or tuxes per acre. At Chelsea Piers,New Yorkers can pretend they’re in Seattle or Minneapolis. Then, there are all the places that give “fantasy” its cheesy, back-of-the-classifieds tang, the downat- the-heels town houses and lofts where people pay to slap and pinch and poke the bodies of strangers . . . or to be slapped and pinched and poked themselves.

My New York fantasy involves time travel.The commoner version of this, the sense of having been transported back to a particular historical moment, occurs more easily and naturally in other cities.Visiting New Orleans or Venice is very much like visiting the year 1819. Georgetown is 1865 through and through; in central London, it might as well be 1888; and in Palm Springs the year is permanently and precisely 1962. In this preservationist era, even cities like Omaha and San Diego have saved and earnestly burnished one neighborhood from one historic period.

New York City, on the other hand, always feels like the present. It’s true that in Gramercy Park and Brooklyn Heights you can wallow in the pleasant sound-stage sensation of inhabiting the (last) Gilded Age, but right around the corner the city inevitably snaps you out of your National Trust idyll, throwing up a manic twentieth-century mishmash (East Fourteenth Street, say, with its new apartment blocks and old bodegas), or a mad, splendid multicultural collage (the pedestrian crowds of Hasids and West Indians and young white hipsters sharing the same sidewalks of northwest Brooklyn make a tableau that is possible only now).

That same sense of hurlyburly in architecture is what makes New York fantastic as a physical place as well—the presence of the whole span of urban history crammed into one feverish, unplanned jumble of houses and shops and bars and apartment blocks and office towers from every era. The wonder of Paris is its seamlessness. The wonder of New York is its discontinuity.

So it’s not the ordinary,H.G.Wellsish time-travel fantasies that this city indulges so well. Rather, the magic-realist conceit that New York inspires is weirder, more like what Disneyworld tries and fails to conjure: the sense that chunks of the past, a random smattering of entire buildings and individual rooms from the last four centuries—pieces of 1680 and 1846 and 1905, 1926 and 1948 and 1966 and 1977—have somehow hurtled through time to the same moment in the future. That is, to the present.

I had my first “Twilight Zone” glimmerings of this notion right after I moved to the city, in the seventies, during long walks up and down the West Side, through Clinton and Chelsea and the not yet rechristened TriBeCa. The triggers were the old signs painted on the sides of brick buldings, faded and flaking but still legible advertisements for ironmongers, milliners, patent medicines. I reacted the same way everyone does to those pre-Zip Code, prearea- code signs: I was both charmed and saddened, as if I’d heard a couple of bars of Jelly Roll Morton or “Rhapsody in Blue” suddenly seep out of the bricks.The signs are pure antiques, fossils of companies and products that no longer exist.

Then one Saturday in the early eighties I happened to visit an apartment on the Upper East Side. The apartment, six or eight rooms in a big white brick building, had clearly not been redecorated since 1963, when it was brand-new, which meant multicolored George Nelson sofas and plastic Eames chairs and Ben Shahn prints on the walls. What looked funny in 1980 had been fashionable fifteen or twenty years earlier (and would be fashionable again fifteen or twenty years hence), but it struck me at the time as a kind of in-situ museum installation— an accidental real-life Sturbridge Village of the early sixties in the middle of Manhattan. Unlike the signs on the sides of old buildings, the apartment wasn’t an abandoned ruin but something actual and alive.

From that point on, I couldn’t help seeing New York as the terminus of a vast architectural time-travel scheme. What makes this possible are all the buildings and rooms in the city that are not ghost architecture but serve the purposes they always have. The White Horse Tavern and McSorley’s Old Ale House are still, at least for the moment, the White Horse Tavern and McSorley’s Old Ale House, slightly rank and functioning artifacts of the nineteenth century. The Brooklyn Bridge, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Dakota do what they did a hundred years ago. At this turn of the century, the library on Fifth Avenue is still the library, and the Beaux-Arts Grand Central is still a railway terminal.The Woolworth and Flatiron and Chrysler Buildings and Radio City, Grace Church and The Players club and the golf-course clubhouse at Van Cortlandt Park, the Saarinen terminal at J.F.K. and Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation atrium, Elaine’s, Lincoln Center— none of them have been gutted or embalmed and turned into cutesypie versions of their former selves.These pieces of the city remain basically as they were in 1885 and 1906 and 1927 and 1966. But they’ve all been whisked here, to 2000.

And the functioning pieces of the past that most sightseers don’t recognize as sights, especially the homely background bits that architects and planners call “vernacular,” are even better for inducing this recombinant architectural fantasia—places like the Albanese butcher shop, on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, which looks and smells today as it must have in the early nineteen-twenties; the Lenox Lounge, still intensely redolent of mid-century Harlem; the narrow, smoky, adamantly pre-nouvelle French restaurants of the West Forties; the hundred-year-old garment workshops on Eldridge Street; Sunnyside Gardens, in Queens; Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, which remains a little bit of 1929 on lower Fifth Avenue; and stolid, noble Stuyvesant Town, 1949 New York in a nutshell. The secret bowling alley in the bowels of the Frick Collection—still there! in the year 2000!—seems literally fictional, like a page of Mark Helprin or Steven Millhauser come to life. The Brutalist-lite Viacom headquarters, on Broadway at Forty-fifth Street, is the late seventies. Certain stretches of the Lower East Side, with their rows of tenement houses, look the way they did when Berenice Abbott photographed them, seventy years ago. The lobby of the Time-Life Building is still the epitome of three- Martini modernism, just as Eero Saarinen’s white wormhole passageway at J.F.K.’s T.W.A. terminal evokes that happy sci-fi moment when jet travel seemed sexy and grand. These places are remarkable not so much individually as collectively, and not because they provide the tidy touristic experience of “stepping back in time”—Jay-Z raps never blasted out of any Eldridge Street shop-front in 1911, as far as I know—but because each one has landed neatly and intact here, in our time. ©