This year’s Tribeca Film Festival featured a new category called “This Used to Be New York.” One of the category’s three entries was the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles’s debut feature-length documentary, Martha: A Picture Story, about the renowned street photographer Martha Cooper. As I settled into the screening room, I was feeling anticipation tinged with dread. The anticipation came from my unquenchable hunger to time-travel back to the bunged-up, brawling, beautiful New York City of my youth; the dread came from my fear that this movie was going to be another work of misty-eyed nostalgia. The category title “This Used to Be New York” was the first red flag, and the description of the movie in the festival catalog was the clincher. It read:
Selina Miles’ film is a portrait of photographer Martha Cooper, who, with inimitable energy and a sharp eye, recorded images of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s—eras when the city’s vibrancy was deemed dangerous. Cooper’s images of graffiti and hip hop culture showcased a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.
Wow. I trust you’re beginning to understand my dread. The writer of the above paragraph claims that the city’s vibrancy of the ’70s and ’80s “was deemed dangerous.” Anyone who lived in the city in those years knows there was no deemed about it. The city was dangerous by any definition of the word, whether you define it by the murder rate, street crime, the onslaught of AIDS, the city’s teetering finances, or the countless abandoned and burning buildings. Of course there was an upside to that danger—an untethering of old sexual, social and artistic restraints, a sense that anything goes, a flowering of creativity that Martha Cooper chronicled and that continues to inspire artists today, from those who lived through it to those who were born after it had passed, from Patti Smith to Colum McCann, Will Hermes, Garth Risk Hallberg, and many others.
The writer of the paragraph in the catalog concludes that Martha Cooper’s photographs showcased “a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.” Now we’ve arrived at the true source of my dread: this movie was being offered up in service of the facile cliché that New York City used to be an interesting place but it got bled dry by big money, and all the artists got pushed out when the hedge-funders moved in. As someone who has been struggling to cover grand-larceny New York rents for most of my adult life, I can certainly corroborate that the city is—always has been, always will be—awash in real estate greed. As I write these words, I can look across the street at an ugly new 60-story glass condo tower and, next door to it, a construction site where another one is clawing its way into the sky. These abominations will never stop coming. There are more than 60,000 homeless people in the city today, and a hedge-fund gazillionaire just paid $240 million for a penthouse on Billionaires’ Row near Central Park. So, yes, there is real estate greed and there is obscene money and there is inequality in New York City today, and there is no denying that these forces have had a chilling effect on people struggling to make art. But to say that everyone is wearing a “frozen smile” is just lazy and wrong, and it feeds the blooming cottage industry of nostalgia, which I define as the yearning for a time that never existed, a time when everything was supposedly cheaper, freer, better.
This nostalgia is nothing new. It dates back at least to the 1920s, when Edmund Wilson lamented that rising rents were driving writers and artists out of Greenwich Village, and a much-loved cultural gathering spot called Frank Shay’s Bookshop closed down, possibly because rents were rising and demographics were shifting. The ür-text of disillusionment with New York might be Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” from her nonfiction masterpiece, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The essay was Didion’s take on an old story—how a young person’s infatuation with New York, “the shining and perishable dream itself,” slowly unravels. In 2010, Patti Smith declared, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find another city.” Three years later, the musician David Byrne wrote a widely read essay bemoaning the way great wealth in the hands of the few was making the city untenable for the many, especially creative people. “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore,” Byrne wrote, “so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.” He described the city as pockets of gated “pleasure domes for the rich” surrounded by the striving 99 percent of the rest of us.
That same year, Sari Botton edited a collection of essays by 28 women that borrowed its title from Didion’s essay (which was borrowed from Robert Graves’s memoir about his life through the First World War). Botton’s book, which carried the subtitle Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, was a string of bittersweet farewells in the Joan Didion mode. Perhaps a tick too bitter, because a year later Botton followed it with a more upbeat collection called Never Can Say Goodbye, which was a string of unabashed mash notes to the city, bearing the subtitle Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. I was particularly taken by Rosanne Cash’s essay, “New York, in the Mirror,” which catalogued the many downsides of New York life today—the crippling cost of living, of course, plus the demolition of cherished places to make way for franchise restaurants and nail salons and condos, the influx of obscene money, the hordes of tourists clogging the High Line. But in the end, Cash realizes she still loves living here. I agree with her conclusion about the recent changes: “It’s too bad, but it’s the way it is.” She might have added: It has been this way since forever, so quit whining and get on with it.
When Martha: A Picture Story started rolling, my dread gave way to delight. Miles had wisely steered clear of the cockeyed nostalgia promised by the catalog notes and instead focused on her subject, a young woman with an unkillable dream of making it as a photographer in New York in the 1970s. There is home-movie footage of a young Martha Cooper in Japan with her husband, where she became fascinated by the subculture of tattooing, then more footage of her prowling the bunged-up and beautiful streets of New York’s Lower East Side and the Bronx in the 1970s, camera in hand. Eventually she got hired by the New York Post, which gave her a license (and a paycheck) to chronicle the life of the streets, from the slums to Central Park. She gained entrée to the crews of artists who were coating subway cars with their rococo, loopy dreams, most notably the underground star Dondi. This, in turn, led her into the nascent world of hip hop, the deejays, break dancers and b-boys who had such an implausibly large hand in shaping today’s global culture. Economic hardship was a constant for Cooper, but she had found her place in the city and you get the feeling she wouldn’t have given it up for anything. Interviewed on camera, Cooper, now white-haired, comes off as intrepid, self-deprecating, very funny, deeply private, and nearly monastic in her devotion to chronicling the life of the streets. “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or an icon,” she says at one point, though she has clearly become both, with fans all over the world. As for New York back in the day, yes, it was dangerous, she says, “but it was actually a great place to explore.” As for what drove her to turn street life into art, she says with a shrug: “I believed in it.” And the subject of her art? “It’s about people who are making New York City their own.”
As it happened, both Miles and Cooper were on hand for the screening I attended, and after the credits finished rolling, they stood at the front of the theater to take questions. A man in the audience asked Cooper if she had visited Brooklyn recently and seen all the fabulous street art sprinkled between all the obscene new condo towers. To her credit, Cooper didn’t take the bait. She said, “I don’t like to look backward. Yes, this city is getting iffy, but there are still interesting things out there. I don’t think gentrification is all good or all bad. I just wish I had gone to Williamsburg and Bushwick and taken more pictures.”
This drew an appreciative laugh. The next questioner asked Cooper if she saw herself as an artist or as an historian and anthropologist. “Now that’s a good question,” Cooper said, clearly implying that the leading question about gentrification was not. Cooper, in her humble way, said she never considered herself an artist. She said she was always more interested in documenting and preserving subcultures that were destined to blaze and then vanish. If nobody documents them, they will not only vanish, they will also be forgotten. History can’t live on memory alone. Without a whiff of pretension, Cooper made her life’s work sound almost like a holy calling. And in doing so, she implied that nothing—not money, not gentrification, not the corporate ooze now overtaking New York—has the power to keep her and her kind from pursuing their calling. I had walked into the theater feeling anticipation tinged with dread. I walked out feeling recharged and reborn. Thank you, Selina Miles. And thank you, Martha Cooper.
Recommended reading: Jason Arthur bids “Good Riddance to the Good-Bye-To-New-York Essay” for The Rumpus. Pair with Eryn Loeb’s review of Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York and our own Elizabeth Minkel’s account of rereading Didion’s original “Goodbye to All That.”
There is a tangible shape to my year in reading: it can be plotted on a map. It’s comforting for me to think of it that way, as a path arcing out across the Atlantic, because this was my year of big transitions, and it’s easy to lose sight of where I began, and where I am now. I rang in 2013 at a bar on the Gowanus in Brooklyn, my home for the past five years (the borough, not the canal). I’m writing this from my flat in Hackney, tucked between a big, grimy thoroughfare and a slick new Overground station, on the extension of the old East London Line. New York and London sometimes feel like mirror worlds — some things here are remarkably similar to the city I left behind — but other things are deeply foreign, in a way that rattles me. I grasp for the familiar, but I’m here to look for the new. It helps, then, to root myself in the books I’ve been reading over the past 11 months: they have carried me across the ocean, as I have carried them.
Fittingly enough, I began the year with Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, by Robert Winder. I have no memory of purchasing this book, but it appears to have been printed here in the U.K., so I imagine I picked it up on some Waterstone’s table years ago. (I’ve done stints of various lengths in the British Isles many times in the past decade, all of them characterized by too many impulse-book-buys relative to the sizes of my suitcases.) I’m an aspirational reader when it comes to nonfiction: “Oh, I’m interested in the topic!” I’ll say, super enthusiastically, but in the end I’ll barely manage to slog through the introduction. But Winder is a lively and charming writer, and the book teases out a thread that runs contrary to the popular immigration narrative in Britain: that immigration here, and the racial conflict tied with it, is a modern problem, a post-colonial problem. “Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a mongrel nation,” he writes. “Our roots are neither clean nor straight; they are impossibly tangled.”
My spring reading was routine, a stockpile of books for review, some chosen by me, some assigned. So I crisscrossed the globe seemingly at random, cartography determined by publishing schedules and press releases, South Asia to southern New England, Ireland to New York. I like being assigned books, because it takes the pressure off, sometimes: save a few writers that I love and a few that I hate, most authors are new to me. I try to approach each book as an aggressively neutral third party, no preconceived notions, no agendas, no hopes for the reading experience. Of course, at some level, this is bullshit: I am all of my preconceived notions and agendas and hopes for reading packed into a single individual, and it’s impossible to separate that out. But I like the illusion of it, however temporary: the idea that I am a blank slate, open to whatever book drops through my letter box, is a sort of armor against time’s narrowing effects on my mind.
And then, it was goodbye to all that. Before the release of the collection that seemed to get all sorts of people riled up (Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York), I wrote my own ode to Joan Didion’s leaving-New York essay, as I prepared to leave New York. So I re-read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, because, well, Joan Didion. Shortly before I packed up the last of my boxes, I flew across the country to visit my little sister in Los Angeles, and I cracked open The White Album for another Didion re-read while sitting on the beach in Santa Monica. I confirmed what I’d suspected all along — I’m very bad at reading on beaches — and the book was abandoned in the sand as my shoulders burned.
The end of summer was crisp and prematurely autumnal in upstate New York, and as the racing season came to a close, I started to think about which books were making the journey overseas. I made little piles; I swapped out heavier volumes for lighter ones; I tried to think about what I wanted at my side, and the old aspirational book-gathering again — what sort of person would I be, with these books on my shelf across the ocean? I wound up in the parking lot at JFK on the hottest day in the history of man, sweating profusely as I frantically pulled out paperbacks and handed them to my mother. They would arrive, along with boots and coats and a blanket, in a battered package a month later. By then, I’d already purchased a dozen new books, falling hard on old habits, Waugh and Forster and Conan Doyle, overlarge collections of literary criticism by Edward Said and David Lodge, and a paperback of a book I already own back in the U.S., just because it was £2 and it was there sitting on a table at the store. I trekked up to the IKEA in Tottenham and bought a BILLY bookcase; I proceeded to assemble it incorrectly. It’s nearly full already, and it’s only November. At the Columbia Road Flower Market a few Sundays back I bought my first plant, to sit on top. “It’s my first plant!” I announced to a deeply unimpressed Cockney flower-seller. “Yeah, so that’s a fiver,” he repeated, holding out his hand.
I’ve ended the year with books for class — I’m here at University College London to study the digital humanities, so that’s a broad and varied body of literature, the history of mark-up and theories on user-centered design and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. All of that will be the story of next year’s reading. For now, I’m trying to navigate my transatlanticism as well as I can. On Thanksgiving, after the American service at St Paul’s Cathedral, I walked down Fleet Street and over to Charing Cross Road, where I popped into Foyle’s and picked up Terry Eagleton’s Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America. On my way out the door I was stopped by a survey-taker — this country seems gripped by a frenzy of surveys right now — to whom I revealed, laughing self-consciously, that I’d come into the store and purchased the book on a whim. Her eyebrows went up when I said it, and she smiled slightly as she ticked the boxes. I didn’t tell her I had a new bookshelf to fill up.
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Hopefully you’ve read Eryn Loeb’s Millions review of Goodbye to All That, a collection of essays by noted writers on the weird sorrow of leaving New York City. Contributors include Dani Shapiro, whom we interviewed back in October, Emma Straub, who wrote an essay for The Millions back in July, and Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel. At the LARB, Mason Currey says he dreaded reading the book out of fear that it would raise old anxieties, but then says that his hesitations “quickly evaporated” when he started reading.
“Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion’s essay about coming to the end of being young and in thrall to New York, is an invincible piece of writing. Didion was in her early 30s in 1967, when she wrote the essay that would become part of her celebrated book Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Now she’s 78, and has become just as renowned for writing about the devastations and indignities of old age. But “Goodbye to All That” endures, as a classic of its genre and a guide to a particular time in a certain kind of life.
Didion moved to New York as a starry-eyed 20 year old — “was anyone ever that young? I am here to tell you that someone was” — and spent eight years in love with the city before her enchantment was replaced by exhaustion and despair. By the time she turned 28, she writes, “I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
In the years between her arrival at the bus station in a smart new dress and her departure for Los Angeles, Didion stayed out all night and went to lots of parties and was struck by her share of indelible moments. She met everyone there was to meet and skulked around her under-furnished apartment, whose windows she had hung (foolishly, and therefore glamorously) with “fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk.” The longer she stayed, though, the more depressed and impatient she got. None of it felt worthwhile, except as material for the deeply romantic cautionary tale that became “Goodbye to All That.”
Some might find the essay discouraging, but plenty of young writers read it as an enticement, or at least a challenge. After all, in describing New York as a place of heightened senses and jagged emotions, Didion had described tantalizing working conditions for a writer. In Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, an anthology edited by Sari Botton that’s explicitly inspired by its namesake essay, 28 writers consider their own experiences in the shadow of Didion’s, with her “Goodbye” as their guide. These writers — including Cheryl Strayed, Ann Hood, Dani Shapiro, Maggie Estep, and Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel — bring a decidedly contemporary world-weariness to their reflections on what can’t help but be a pretty tired subject. If living in New York is an established rite of passage, this collection suggests that the act of leaving it behind is an equally important milestone.
As laid out by Didion and the anthology’s contributors, it happens like this: First there’s anticipation, imagining how your life will finally make sense when you arrive. The actual experience of living here is one of finding your place, followed by an intense feeling of ownership. You can stay at that point for years. But eventually, sometimes without knowing it, you begin the slow slide toward a moment of decisiveness. Sometime after that, there’s the actual leaving. And then, the having left. Living in New York turns out to be a process of earning nostalgia — hoarding enough memories to give you the kind of claim on a place that makes it possible to leave it. When you reach your limit and set out elsewhere, memories are your consolation prize. (Bonus points for writing about them.)
If you’re tired of hearing about how New York is the center of the universe, you’re not alone. Even those of us who live here and love it get annoyed at the relentless fascination with the city, the way people project so much onto it and then feel betrayed when it doesn’t live up to their expectations. (Emma Straub, who grew up here, captures this tension nicely in her essay, writing, “because my hometown is New York City, everyone else thinks it belongs to them, too.”) But even in basic ways, the city is still special enough to justify the fixation. It’s concentrated. It’s diverse. It’s where a lot of important things have happened and influential people have lived, and so it is full of history and legend. It’s a place of ideals, “where anything is possible.” And yet it’s also a place of limits, one people leave when their desire for more space or stability — or very often, a family — begins to clash with reality.
It’s not clear how much it matters that Didion’s disillusionment unfolded in New York. There are things about the city that can hasten that feeling, but “Goodbye to All That” doesn’t focus on them. Still, the essay is so inextricable from its setting that when she writes, “Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York,” it’s not entirely convincing. The anthologized writers, for the most part, are talking very specifically about New York: its pressures, disappointments, contradictions, cross-streets, and clichés. And they tend to reinforce time-honored New York mythology rather than complicating it. The question of whether or not New York should matter is overwhelmed by the extent to which it plainly does.
In these pages, New York is “the one that got away” and “love at first sight.” It’s personified as a drug, and a seductress. We read about day-to-day things: tiny apartments and crappy jobs and drinking too much. Residents’ (overstated) preference for wearing black, the competing smells of roasting nuts and sweltering garbage — the word “urine” comes up regularly — and the annoyance of shopping for groceries without a car. Some of the writers here have left New York only to return, others have left for good (at least so far). Some are wistful, others recall their time in the city with relief that it’s over. They note the ways New York has changed, and how they’ve changed along with it, in one case raging at the city for not being as cool as it once was. Some say they left because they couldn’t be their “true self” here. Others leave, only to return because they realize this is the only place that thee authentic self can thrive.
Many of them come to New York, as contributor Marie Myung-Ok Lee observes, “with an inchoate sense that writers went there and then stuff happened.” That stuff, they hope, will include excitement and inspiration and connections and book deals, seasoned with just enough struggle to make the whole thing feel raw and real and earned. All of the writers in Botton’s anthology have stories to tell about their lives in New York, things that happened to them here that they’ll forever associate with this place. But then other things happen. Relationships end and rents rise and favorite restaurants close and jobs are lost, and the whole city loses its luster. Those things become stories, too — and in some cases, reasons to live their next chapter somewhere else.
A number of the essays here are thoughtful and vivid, though the anthology as a whole is undercut by repetition. Elisa Albert, who now lives in Albany, N.Y., brings a rare sense of urgency to her essay about coming to terms with her new home. “You actually love it here, it turns out,” she insists, speaking to the difficulty of making her mark in the city she left behind. “Look closely: it’s a promising place…Put your money and effort and energy here, where it’s possible to make a dent.” Melissa Febos, back in New York after a stint upstate, reflects, “Leaving gets harder as you age. You don’t leave out of anger or from coming to your senses, but because your love is not as a strong as your reasons for going.” Roxane Gay grew up fantasizing about living in New York, until she realized she didn’t actually want to: “I had learned the difference between being a writer, which can happen anywhere, and performing the role of Writer, which in my very specific and detailed fantasies could only happen in New York.”
It helps to see New York in contrast to places these writers lived before and after: among them two Portlands (Maine and Oregon), Madison, Wisconsin; a nameless town in Connecticut, Moscow, Paris, and Montreal. One of the best essays comes from Ruth Curry, whose story begins and ends in New York but otherwise unfolds in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Curry moved to be with a boyfriend. The unraveling of their relationship is spurred on by Curry’s status as a foreigner, a resident of an objectively beautiful place where “differences were not so much differences as they were inversions or transpositions just similar enough to fool you into thinking nothing had changed.”
Fittingly, Meghan Daum’s essay “My Misspent Youth” is reprinted here. First published in The New Yorker in 1999, Daum’s unsparing look at how the dream of New York is undone by the all too real cost of living in it has become a kind of next-generation “Goodbye to All That.” Introducing the piece in this collection, Daum says that she regularly hears from people who just discovered her essay for the first time and “felt it to be describing his or her own life…and grieved alongside me for a version of New York — and by extension, a version of adulthood, of being human, or being alive — that was discontinued long ago and may have, in fact, never been the commodity we like to crack it up to be.”
Disenchantment is remarkably consistent across generations, so “Goodbye to All That” invites endless imitation even as it’s praised for being timeless. Reading Didion’s essay today, it’s easy to think nothing has really changed since 1967. Whether you find that comforting or troubling will depend in part on your capacity for moving on — which might have something to do with the amount of time you’ve spent living in New York.