Monday, May 20, 2013

Alas, Babylon

Writing a historical novel requires thinking seriously about history, of course, and it occurred to me recently that I am old enough to be historical myself.  In the Smithsonian Institution museum in Washington, for example, there are dioramas of student protests, a mid-20th-century schoolroom, and the kitchen of an immigrant's apartment in New York, ca. 1910.   It is passing strange looking at these because I have direct memories of the protests, and the schoolrooms I sat in, with wooden chair-desks bolted to the floor in rows, and the blackboard up front, with the American flag and the roller maps, and the Gilbert Stuart George Washington, were exactly like the one behind the glass.  My grandmother's place was essentially unchanged from the time she got married around 1910 and I spent a good deal of time in a room like the one shown when I was a little kid.

This sense of being an historical relic hit me strongly during a recent visit to New York, a city where I was born and raised and for which I still have a sentimental attachment.   It's a commonplace now that for most American urban dwellers, the cities they remember are gone, their populations changed, their industries vanished, but even in this regard, New York is a remarkable example.  When I was a kid, New York was one of the largest manufacturing cities in the country and the greatest port.  I started traveling around the city by subway from my home in Brooklyn (a borough void of hip at the time) and exploring Manhattan, which we referred to always as "the city."  Manhattan was then divided into districts characterized by various forms of trade and manufacture, and these districts were huge.  Electronics, books, printing, plumbing, kitchen supplies, spices, feathers, leathers, clothing, buttons and zippers for clothing, and many others all had particular streets and rows of streets devoted to them and to associated things.  The diamond district survives from this era and a shadow of the garment district, but everything else has been buried by the one industry that now dominates the city, which is the real estate industry, and the stacks of condos and offices it has generated over the past four or five decades.

And, of course, media and finance, which are fine, but of less interest, I suppose to the average child.  And the port is gone, as are the many communities that serviced it.   The meatpacking district is a clubland now, not an improvement, although the smell is somewhat less offensive  There is no longer a street over on the west side where the odor of tons of cinnamon or coffee would hit you when you emerged from the subway.  You can't get a decent bagel either.

Well, grump, grump;  everyone of a certain age can tell stories like this and experience similar nostalgia.  Times change, but I think that a city that seems increasingly devoted to providing hidey-holes for foreign billionaires or uncertain morality to stash their loot in the form of penthouses, and which handles almost nothing but digits, can compare with the lost city as a place to educate a child in the arts of civilization on the street.  Jane Jacobs, who did as much as anyone to preserve this lost city, wrote a book about how the arts of civilization could be lost, presaging a new dark age.  I don't know if she was right about us, but I do think that there's something about stuff and the making of useful objects that is not replaceable by anything in the virtual world.

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