Friday, May 23, 2014

Touching My Old Life

I just returned from New York, the place where I came of age; the place where I went to college. After graduation, I was in and out for two or three years before moving there permanently when I was 25.
When I started my current journey in 2005, the one that was supposed to take me to New Orleans but ended up dropping me in Mexico, I went to New York frequently. Every time I went to inspection the post-Katrina restoration of my house, the one I only got to live in for ten days, I spent a few days in NY before returning to San Miguel. New York was changing. More neighborhoods were gentrifying, more whites were moving uptown increasing the rents. But it still felt like the New York I’d known. It doesn’t anymore. The transition to Manhattan becoming a playground for the rich is complete.
A close friend, whose daughter is staying with her while she saves for an apartment, said the average rent in Manhattan for a one-bedroom is $3,000 a month. And commercial rents must be astronomical because the City is like any mall in America now, filled with chain stores. Only a handful of one-store retailers still exist. What made shopping in New York unique were the boutique stores, the visions of one or two proprietors rather than a corporation, the shops that sold handmade goods. Most of the merchandise today is what you can find in any other big city in America. There’s a sameness to shopping now, more places to buy but less options.
But what I miss most about this new New York is its lack of diversity. Ethnically there’s plenty but its class stratified now, something I never thought I’d see in Manhattan. The old neighborhood restaurants may not have had ambience but the lower income members of our community could enjoy a meal. They’re priced out of the new established. Intermingling across economic lines is minimal. This wasn’t true during the years I came into my womanhood, from the late 70s thru the 80s during the height of City’s creativity. Those years everything creative—visual art, design, poetry, theatre, dance—converged in the gritty Lower East Side. Established artists, like the Burtons, arrived in limos for parties in rundown lofts. This mixing of established and emerging artists, artists from all genres, incubated work that was vibrant, that broke boundaries, work that sometimes made its way into the mainstream.
Theatre was what brought me to New York but today Broadway plays it safe. Of course there are other venues that take chances but more and more the mainstream is interested in the bottom line. If For Colored Girls moved from the Public Theatre to Broadway, they would recast the show. Hire recognizable actresses like Kerry Washington and Lupita Nyong'o to ensure box office. They’re afraid to do dramas without a bankable star—Toni Collette in The Realistic Jones, Bryan Cranston in All the Way, the too old Denzell Washington in the too-often revived Raisin in the Sun, Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan. It’s not that I object to seeing these fine actors on Broadway, it’s what they symbolize the makes me nuts—playing it safe.
Two years ago when I was in New York I was dying to see The Best Man because of its star-studded cast—James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack. Each had applause-getting moments but they did work together as an ensemble. It was super safe but didn’t create great theatre.
Don’t get me wrong; there are things about the new New York that I love. I’m not like some of my friends, the ones who’ve lived here for more than 30 years, who hate the City now. I love that it’s cleaner, that there are flowers planted in open spaces throughout Manhattan, that there are bikes rental stands everywhere, that we finally have a police presence in Harlem although this also pisses me off. We needed them more before whites came uptown, when there was gunplay in the streets.

What I object to about the new New York, besides the astronomical cost of everything, is it’s too sanitized, the ways it’s become like everyplace else.  It’s still exciting, you can’t have that much art, dance, music, theatre and great food packed into 23 square miles without creating energy. But I miss the edge. I miss the grit. During this year’s visit, we drove through Times Square at night, a panorama of glaring neon that creates the backdrop for this adult Disney Land on steroids. Signs with barely a foot of space between them, so crammed with advertisements that your eyes don’t know were to focus. We traded sleaze for this glitzed-to-point-of-sleaziness unreality. What I can’t wrap my mind around is why this is better?