Rick MacArthur: Mammon mania driving down New York

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By John R. MacArthur
MAYBE IT WAS the marvelously smart, politically raucous and smoke-filled dinner party I attended in Paris this fall; maybe the announcement that a Home Depot would open next summer in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s new smokeless corporate headquarters, on Third Avenue.
But something has finally jarred me into a sad realization: that New York’s 70-year reign as the international capital of cosmopolitan life — as the city set apart from all other great cities in its stunning audacity and sophistication — may have come to an end. How do I arrive at this seemingly arbitrary conclusion, with its seemingly arbitrary dates? In part my criteria are symbolic, in part factual.
Prohibition was repealed in the United States in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler assumed dictatorial power in Germany — paradoxical landmarks in the development of what we think of today as worldly Gotham. The lifting of the absurd and hypocritical ban on liquor sales allowed the growth of a New York café and nightclub culture to rival that of Paris, Rome or Berlin. Whatever the furtive merits of speakeasies, no culture can thrive on perpetual censorship (or temperance), which is what Prohibition partly represented when it emerged, alongside the Wilson administration’s suppression of civil liberties during and after World War I.
The members of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway’s Lost Generation embraced the novelty of France, but they were also fleeing the political and cultural suffocation of Main Street America.
Meanwhile, the teetotaler Hitler’s crackdown on all things cosmopolitan signaled the end of the intellectual dominance of Continental Europe. Berlin’s — and eventually Vienna’s and Paris’s — loss was New York’s gain, as well-educated European Jews and political dissidents of all stripes made a mass migration to the New World.
Europe still hasn’t adequately measured the awful consequences of Hitler’s “Aryan” puritanism, but we know what they were for New York. This thoroughly crass and commercial city, possessed of just bits and pieces of high culture, soon replaced Paris as the world’s unchallenged intellectual fulcrum — the place where liberal thought and thoughtful tolerance were enshrined even above the cult of money.
The refugees from Hitler’s Europe weren’t just producers of culture; they also provided a fresh and interested audience for American literature and art.
There are so many examples, but two come immediately to mind: the great French-born publisher André Schiffrin, whose cultural impact still resounds across the United States with every new book issued by his New Press, and the German-born historian Fritz Stern, still writing elegantly about Germany.
But the ’30s and ’40s seem a long time ago. Starting with Ronald Reagan’s election as president, in 1980, and the renewed national devotion to Mammon, New York began to change for the worse.
At its cultural apogee, Manhattan had been a haven for American, as well as foreign, refugees: people escaping the small-town and suburban orthodoxies that dominate so much of this country. But in the booming ’80s, the American immigrants to New York were increasingly mainstream hustlers looking for their main chance on Wall Street, rather than in a theater, an art gallery or a dance studio (unless the studio was 54).
It’s no coincidence that “Mayor Mike” Bloomberg, from Medford, Mass., founded his multibillion-dollar financial-news-information service in 1981 — no coincidence that he’ll be best remembered as a politician for his 2003 prohibition on indoor smoking.
The spectacular rise in rents that accompanied the ’80s boom drove out the marginal types who had created so much of New York’s cultural ferment. Nobody could afford to live in Manhattan who wasn’t working full-time, and even then it wasn’t easy.
The rise of the financial-service economy and commensurate decline in manufacturing and wholesaling also made it harder to exist on the margins with a low-paying job — for artists and students, as well as the working class.
As a Columbia College student during my first summer in New York, in 1975, I was able to live on my hourly earnings from a job packing boxes and salesman’s trays at a garment-district button company, and later from a part-time job in a bookstore. Today, I don’t think that anyone in Manhattan could pay the rent that way — not without a healthy subsidy from Mom and Dad.
Today’s Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Eugene O’Neill might live in Brooklyn, I suppose. Yet as lively as that borough has become, it cannot replicate the concentration of energy and inspiration on the west bank of the East River. Manhattan has also been the destination for millions of restless residents of ethnically insular neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. That’s why people in the outer boroughs still refer to our island dynamo as “The City.”
I used to think that “The City” was impervious to the rest of America — invulnerable to suburban-mall culture and conformity. Now there’s a shabby chain drugstore (often a CVS) on almost every Manhattan block, a Banana Republic or a Gap in every neighborhood. Mass consumption of junk products is epidemic, and hardly anyone seems to object. I still wince when I pass the former site of McGlade’s, at 67th Street and Columbus Avenue, a neighborhood bar where ABC stagehands mixed with the apres Lincoln Center-concert crowd and brilliant writers like Murray Kempton. There’s a Starbucks there now. But money isn’t everything. There’s also a political will at work, which nobody is trying to stop. My first reaction to the Bloomberg smoking ban (and I am a non-smoker) was that the billionaire mayor intended it as the final nail in the coffin of barstool and dinner-party conversation. Television in bars had helped kill off intelligent bar talk; political correctness and money had killed off lively conversation at dinner. Now self-righteous health fascism (Hitler had forbidden Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg from smoking during their “negotiation” before Germany’s absorption of Austria) shuts off another lubricant to the exchange of jokes and ideas. (Can someone prove to me that excessive smoking is unhealthier than excessive drinking?)
Unmentioned in the right-wing rants against feminist and minority sensitivities is the extraordinary sensitivity of the rich and would-be rich to any mockery of money or capitalism. New York is where the money god has always resided, but today’s dollar Jehovah is more brazen and belligerent than He was in the Depression-seared ’30s.
Ask a public official how to help the public schools and he will tell you “private investment” or “more business involvement.” Rudolph Giuliani foolishly said that there wasn’t any point to an education if there wasn’t a job waiting at the end of it. In the New York I once knew, education was an end in itself, a process of self-improvement, with no time limit. Where once City College stood for the highest academic standards and egalitarian principles — with free tuition, a genuine meritocracy — we now have an institution with virtually no standard for entry but that also charges fees that the poor can ill afford.
We’re not quite finished off. All that accumulated sophistication is hard to kill. New York is about hope, and I still feel hopeful about little things, such as when the ticket seller at the Cloisters compliments my family on being “intrepid” enough to visit on a rainy weekend morning. Or when the ironic motorman on the uptown F train slows eerily to a halt between Broadway-Lafayette and West Fourth Street, then suggests in a hard-to-place accent (West Indian? Indian Indian?) over the PA that you “keep your fingers crossed” against being diverted to the Eighth Avenue line. In my car, we shoot each other relieved and confidential smiles that say we’re lucky to be here — far from Home Depot, far from Ashcroft’s America.
We’re in a place more like what another refugee, the German artist Hans Mueller, described in 1938: “Rising abruptly from the sea and forced into the air . . . at once grotesque, picturesque, romantic, ugly, beautiful, exciting — almost naive and unreal.”
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine.