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Creative Nostalgia

“…each block is covered with several layers of phantom architecture in the form of past occupancies, aborted projects and popular fantasies that provide alternative images to the New York that exists.” 

-Rem Koolhaas

The commentary sphere, having its center of gravity in New York, is rarely more fluent than when it’s churning out prose about its most familiar city. One favorite topic in that category, becoming more popular all the time, is the New York Death Certificate, in which the author laments the city’s seizure by the megarich and the concurrent decline of culture, grit, Times Square pornography theaters, and the “real New York” that for many young bloggers is a product of imagination more than experience. It takes a lot for one of these pieces not to be tired or uninteresting, even when passionately argued by a person who lived both versions of the city, but some, like David Byrne’s, are certainly better than others.



Manhattan is overrun by a flawed brand of capitalism, though, and it does stifle creative production in ways that it didn’t 40 years ago. These are real problems, which is why the think pieces keep accumulating. At the heart of every essay proclaiming the decline of a great old New York and its replacement with a soulless playground for the wealthy, however, lies a grave mistake: comparing the present version of a city (or the present version of anything) with a younger incarnation of itself, and using one as a foundation for critiquing the other—sending nostalgia to do serious work for which it’s not equipped. Is any prior chapter of New York’s history so faultless that we can claim it was simply better? No, we probably just remember it that way.

If it seems like I’m dismissing nostalgia altogether, let me be clear: Nostalgia employed properly is a powerful force. Sanford Kwinter (a constant reference point for me) explains this best: “It is customary today…to dismiss points of view and systems of thought as ‘nostalgic’ whenever they attempt to summon the nobility of past formations or achievements to bear witness against the mediocrities of the present.” This summoning, of course, is precisely what the “New York is dead” school attempts, but those critics’ shortcoming is that they stop there. Kwinter continues by saying that memory is an act of creation, thus reaching beyond the actual limitations and faults of the past. “The antidote is the flexibility afforded by controlled remembering, not only of what we were but, in the same emancipatory act, of what we might be,” he writes. Choosing among the idealized aspects of past and the advancements contained in the present, we can stitch together a notion of a realistic but improved version of the city we inhabit today.

Last week I saw a few comedians perform at Madison Square Garden. I couldn’t stop thinking about the density of narrative and meaning within that space: the historic preservation movement accelerated by the old Penn Station’s demolition; the symbolic significance of playing or performing in the Garden (Bruce Springsteen playing ten concerts in a row in MSG or Lebron scoring 61 points there); or the continuous arrival and departure of train passengers for suburban New Jersey and Kansas directly beneath the basketball court (as opener Hannibal Buress pointed out during the show I attended). All of these stories coexist in our culture’s collective memory, almost haunting the blocks that the arena occupies. Every other block in New York can lay claim to something similar, although few are inhabited by narratives as potent as the Garden’s, and the city’s blocks each house failures and imagined realities as well as actual events, as the Rem Koolhaas quote above reminds us. New York, like any city, is constantly being created, imagined, destroyed, and rebuilt. With such turbulent change surrounding us, how could we believe for even one second that any past or present version of the city is frozen in place, or that we’re a passive audience to it?

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