Friday, November 12, 2010

I Probably Always Was

New Yorker #2

The New York Times recently published a posthumous essay by Tony Judt, a British historian who came to the city to teach at NYU in the 1980's.  Adapted from Judt's book The Memory Chalet, the essay compares and contrasts New York to other major metropolises.  It's an interesting and enjoyable read, especially if you like reading about New York (which I unabashedly admit is my favorite form of navel-gazing).

Judt writes about moving here during the city's twilight, as it descended from the apex of a cultural/ intellectual/ artistic peak, the whole place a bit past its prime.  I arrived twenty years after him (does that make it dusk now?) and identify with this sentiment.  I can't help but feel I missed out on experiencing New York in its most New York-y-ness, and worry that the city I inhabit is a sanitized shadow of what it once was.  A strip mall where an urban jungle used to be.

Don't get me wrong: I love this place (you know I do).  But I mourn for it, a little, too.

Though I also wonder if that mourning is really valid concern, or just the thing that old folks have been guilty of since time immemorial: wishing for the way things were, suspicious of all change.  I am certainly guilty of romanticizing New York's rough past - wishing for a return to its glory days of grit, while conveniently forgetting that the grit came with danger and a lower quality of living. 

And I may personally view the supplanting of independently-owned businesses by national chain stores, and the destruction of affordable housing to make way for luxury condos, as signs of the city's doom, but can I really say with authority that the change is bad?  Or is this just an inevitable part of the life-cycle of a city?  I may not like the particulars of changes in process, but I also wouldn't like for the city to experience stagnation. If New York held on to the past and refused to change, then it wouldn't be New York, would it?

As usual, I have no conclusions.

So I'll leave you with the conclusion of Judt's essay, and a confession that the last sentence of it made me tear up a little.  I think I probably always was, too.
"To be sure, we all have our complaints. And while there is no other city where I could imagine living, there are many places that, for different purposes, I would rather be. But this too is a very New York sentiment. Chance made me an American, but I chose to be a New Yorker. I probably always was." 
-Tony Judt, NYTimes

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