I called my mother that Sunday, when the reports of the hurricane started coming in, splashing hysteria across twitter. I said, “Maybe it’s going to be like the blackout when you were here in 1977.” She laughed at me. “Go outside and stand in the middle of the hurricane when it hits. That’s what New York was like in the 1970s. Not during a disaster. Not during the blackout. Like, on a Tuesday afternoon.”
My mother spent her twenties and thirties in New York City during the volatile time before the 1990s. Before Bloomberg, before Giuliani. Before the most recent waves of gentrification sent glass towers for the wealthy up through the Lower East Side and along the waterfront in Williamsburg. Before the new, clean Times Square. Before safe subways and before walking home, alone, drunk, through any part of Manhattan late at night felt just fine. She lived there back when fear was still the price the city exacted for allowing you to call it home. It was the city that President Ford told to “Drop Dead,” the city in which Patti Smith was young and broke, long before she declared New York “over,” and urged everyone to pack up and move to Detroit.
This was a New York that was in truth probably not so wonderful to inhabit. Had I in fact lived there myself, I might have longed for the safety, the cleanliness, the taken-for-granted security that I experience each day I live in my cleaned-up and painted-over city. But I grew up with both my parents’ tales of the bad old days as family mythology, and since I can remember I’ve glorified, perhaps dangerously so, the old, gritty, “real” New York that shaped both my parents, and that I missed by being born too late.
E. B. White, in his 1949 essay Here is New York, wrote: “No one should come to New York unless he is willing to be lucky.” Obsessively checking twitter, I watched friends and acquaintances, in the midst of disaster, asking plaintively whether bars were open, and where. A photographer I used to know posted a little after midnight, not long after the storm surge’s high tide, that he knew it was dangerous, but he was going to walk over the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan to take pictures of the flooding on the Lower East Side and in the East Village. One of the photos shows the FDR drive turned into an unrecognizable river. Another depicts the ConEd center on East 14th, after it had exploded, surrounded by deep, unbroken water, like some kind of science-fiction lighthouse. Walking across the blacked-out bridge, he ran into two people having sex, in the dark, in the middle of the hurricane. “Scared the shit out of me,” he said. But of course, I thought. I wasn’t surprised in the least. Not only because catastrophe, any and all life-threatening events, drive us to affirm life in the most basic way our wanting bodies know how. In any place threatened by a natural disaster, people would have clung to life by having sex in their homes, in bedrooms and living rooms, behind safely closed doors and secured windows. But it didn’t surprise me at all that in this particular city people had thought to put themselves in harm’s way as epically as possible, to go to the very most vulnerable and thrilling center of the disaster — on a bridge, in the dark, over a surging river, at the high point of the hurricane — while they had disaster sex.
“Willing to be lucky” is one way to talk about a city full of people more committed to being interesting than to being safe or happy. This unhinged, adrenaline-addicted prioritizing persists despite any gentrification, beyond any safe neighborhoods. I understood the impulse to go outside and have sex on the bridge in the middle of the hurricane, because it’s an exaggerated version of the impulse to move to New York at all. This place is a city full of unnecessary danger and difficulty, and to move here on purpose is neither logical nor sane. It is not exactly responsible to want everything to be this exciting at every moment. In the same way, it was not exactly responsible or noble of me to feel a thrill when I imagine these dangers turning the city back into something like what my parents experienced. But I admit I felt it anyway.
My mother moved to New York in 1972 and lived here until she and my father left for the West Coast in 1988. From 1972 to 1976, she rented an entirely illegal full-floor loft in what was not yet called Dumbo. At sunrise she and her first husband would watch cops play chicken in their police cars on the half-paved strip of mud along the water, sirens blaring out to no one and nothing. In 1976, when she left her first husband, she moved to Manhattan. She told me that back then people moved to new neighborhoods, to new apartments, “just because they could, for fun. Because why not? Because it was that easy.”
It was one of the worst economic depressions New York had ever experienced. If the whole place felt like a war zone, I imagine it also felt like a secret, something that rewarded you for surviving it. Tourist pamphlets gave encouraging advice like, “you should never ride the subway for any reason whatsoever,” but the people who lived here felt proud that outsiders were scared to visit their city. On weekends the whole place emptied out; my mother tells a story about riding her bike down the middle of a completely empty Houston street. Luc Sante, in “My Lost City,” his 2003 essay for the New York Review of Books, describes how you could live for free on the Lower East Side for months because it was more expensive for landlords to evict tenants than to let them stay. On the streets near the Bowery, it was nearly impossible amongst the broken windows and boarded-up apartments to tell which buildings were condemned and which were inhabited. When buildings stopped turning any kind of profit and proved a liability, landlords would often burn them down and collect insurance money. My mother recalls that the city below Fourteenth Street always smelled a little like it was on fire.
At twenty-two my father got a job in New York City. He and his first wife packed up their car and moved all their worldly possessions to a large apartment on Seventh Street and Avenue B, overlooking Tompkins Square Park, which everyone referred to as “needle park.” The building belonged to a friend of a friend who offered him the apartment rent-free on the condition that he collect the other tenants’ rent each month. It was 1974 and cabs wouldn’t take him east of First Avenue.
His wife got a job at the Village Voice. They moved to Soho. More specifically, as my father tells it, in 1975 they gave twelve hundred dollars in cash to a man with a cigar sitting on a stool in the lobby of a building on Crosby Street between Spring and Broome, and proceeded to move into a loft they then owned. My father lived there through the 1977 blackout, through the city’s bankruptcy, and through the sanitation strikes that piled garbage up until it bordered the street like hedges and stunk eternally into high summer afternoons. He lived there long enough to watch prostitutes work in the alley next to the building and long enough to watch those prostitutes get chased away as galleries drove up the rents in the neighborhood. He lived there through the parties his first wife threw, whose guests at times included Andy Warhol, somewhat in decline by then. He lived there through his divorce, until he and my mother got married. I was born in 1984 in Mt. Sinai Hospital on One-Hundredth Street and Fifth Avenue, and brought home in a cab to the West Village, where they’d moved.
I stayed up all night on Monday, October 29, panicking, and the panic reminded me of what I was afraid to lose, what I would be devastated to see changed, disfigured, or washed away. I feel fiercely possessive of this city, both its past and its present, with all the blind love and rage of a child throwing a tantrum. I imagine I always will. Watching the city go dark, I thought of my mother saying how it had turned back into old New York. I thought of the city becoming the old city again as downtown was shut off, neglected, made impassable. A nowhere, a place off the map in which unknown monsters threatened to leap out of dark corners, where every street was a dark corner, and everything was a threat. A place in which making it home safely felt defiant, a triumph, proof against mortality. How the future must seem to curl up inside the past like something coming finally home.
But then, such romantic imaginings may be exactly the wrong way to think about a city in crisis. While the storm, and all disasters like this, visited over and over on this city, may bring us back to old New York, they seem to do so in the worst possible ways. The picture of the city that emerged as disaster hit was the textbook stuff of my parents’ city. A place where reports of looting and blacked-out streets made it unsafe to walk alone, a city in which fires spontaneously broke out and blazed unchecked, devastating less affluent neighborhoods. I wondered whether I could get free of my mythologized version of the old city, if I could stop romanticizing dirt, and violence and fear. Real disaster should cut clean the difference between movies and reality, between a song by the Talking Heads and an actual building on fire. But was I willing or able to see that difference, to dwell in that reality? Should I feel guilty for fetishizing a time period in which things were, objectively, much worse?
It is not necessarily possible to make these two thoughts — my love for old New York and my guilt over the problematic nature of that love — cohere. But perhaps one’s history is as meaningful, as much a determinant, as one’s present. When I miss old New York because I never got to live there, I don’t actually miss crime and dirt and sanitation strikes. No one actually wants to be mugged, and no one actually longs to smell piles of trash making fortress walls on downtown sidewalks. What I mean is that I miss the ride-or-die village that created a strange breed of tough, irresponsible, large-hearted freaks. I miss the place where the people who were stupid and determined and willing to be lucky enough all spoke a weird twin-language of survival. There’s nothing you have to do to be included in the clique that is New Yorkers but stay here long enough.
Photographs by Wired New York.