For a specific type of a New Yorker – culturally progressive and of a certain age – griping about the city’s downward spiral into a bland, corporate-friendly, culturally impoverished metropolis has become a masochistic sport. I am Gen X, have lived in New York for nearly thirty years, and my level of grumpiness is Olympic. I come from a venerable tradition that includes such New York cultural fixtures as the musician David Byrne and the artist Penny Arcade, among many others who have over the last few decades witnessed New York's gradual descent from the capital of counter-culture to a cup-cake-and-Starbucks tourist trap in which survival of the fittest has turned into survival of the richest. Way before Covid, New York has been slowly but inexorably sanitized, the germs of culture firehosed in order to lay the red carpet for those who wanted to park their money here and for the type of the American tourist that has decided, particularly after 9/11, that New York was part of America after all.
I have witnessed so much damage done to my beloved city that to put it all into an article would exhaust even the most patient reader. But just to give you a taste – I have seen my favorite techno nightclub, Limelight, which occupied a Gothic church in Chelsea and featured a room designed by H.R. Giger, and where one of the highlights of my tenure there was the singer of the industrial band K.M.F.D.M. draping his jacket over the microphone and setting it on fire, turned into a David Barton gym and then a mall. I have seen art galleries of SoHo pack up and move, each space taken over by a chain store, while Canal Street Jeans, the mainstay of the alternative and rave crowd, was turned into a Bloomingdales. West 8th Street between 6th and 5th Avenues used to be the spot where teenagers went to get clubbing gear and band tees; now it looks like brunch central. Before the pandemic hit I took my wife, newly arrived in New York, on a tour of my old favorite places around West and Greenwich Villages. Each of them had been turned into some sort of a restaurant, as if the new New Yorkers have nothing more meaningful to do with their time but eat. The new New Yorkers have new non-interests to occupy themselves with: dining out and going to the gym to burn the calories from dining out. “Foodism'' and “wellness” have somehow become cultural pursuits that excuse the vacuous existence of those who find their meaning at SoulCycle.
In terms of style, the blanding effect has resulted in “the decade of the Basic Bitch” before which New York capitulated without putting up much of a fight. With each year it seemed that the city turned more and more unimaginative as hoards of transplants invaded it in order to take advantage of… actually, I don’t exactly know what. They did not seem to be the type of people who moved to New York to enjoy its vibrant culture and its even more vibrant counterculture, because they did not seem to be particularly interested in either.
Each country has what I call a refugee city, not in a sense of welcoming those who flee economic or political hardship, but those cultural outcasts who run away from their conservative, spiritually suffocating surroundings. New York City used to be a place people came to in order to escape the places they were from. In the last two decades, the new transplants brought the places where they were from with them, and have remade New York in their image. Gotham no longer belongs to the weird and the wonderful, the remnants of which, such as Fran Lebovitz and Patti Smith, have slowly turned themselves into fossilized characters, relics of a bygone era that are endearing but ultimately irrelevant. New York City no longer belongs to them; it belongs to a pouty-lipped girl with an impossibly toned body shrink-wrapped in leggings and a sports bra, her baseball hat matching the color of her manicure. She is not necessarily going to the gym – though “wellness” is her religion – as evidenced by her YSL logoed bag that signals, as nothing else signals these days, that she belongs to the petite bourgeoisie. Her hypebeast boyfriend resembles a NASCAR vehicle, his fragile masculinity protected by the armor of all the logos his corporeal real estate can bear. She’s on Instagram, he’s in line at Kith. You get the picture.
Or so it was before the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests upended the world. In New York, the scared picked up and left for such cultural capitals as Fort Lauderdale and Phoenix. Why not? Those cities, too, have restaurants and gyms. NYC split into two camps: those who cited bandwidth for stating the case that Miami was as good as New York, and those (predictably satisfying the requirements set out in the first sentence of this article) who told them to not let the door hit them on their way out.
And yet, there is hope. Fast-forward to today, however, and there is something percolating in the streets of my beloved city. I have not seen New York this alive in a long time. There is a newfound energy here, cultural and stylistic. It’s driven by the kids who are again making the streets of New York their playground. They are queer, not necessarily, though they often are, in the LGBTQ+ sense of the word, but queer in the way of the unconventional. They put an effort in standing out through dress, and they are doing it the way the kids did it in the ‘70s and ‘80s, by scouring vintage stores, DIYing, and using their imagination. All of a sudden, the least stylish people I see on the Lower East Side, in Washington Square, or in my McNally Jackson-Housing Works Cafe-Saturday Surf backyard Bermuda triangle, are those who bought their duds (pun intended) in corporate monobrand stores. Their pre-vetted, logoed status markers look daft in comparison with vintage leather jackets and acid-washed jeans that the kids scour at L-Train Vintage and Beacon’s Closet. Fashion, be forewarned, you have become so unexciting that these kids aren’t particularly interested in what you have to offer. They are interested in doing their own thing, like the @bad.k1dz_ crew I flagged down one day on Crosby Street in order to take their picture. They were wearing clothes of their own making, and their gothy hair, makeup, and accessories complemented their eclecticism. If they are the future of New York, it’s the future I want to live in.
Will it last? I fear that it won’t. Money spoils everything, and young creatives have long been priced out of this city. The pandemic reversed the trend, but only temporarily. Rents in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn close to it are already higher than their pre-pandemic levels. The kids have to hustle harder and commute longer. But the hunger and the energy is unmistakably there, just as it was in the generations before them. I hope it endures.