Saturday, January 23, 2010

That Old New York Grit

Where, oh where, has it gone?

Across the eons, what made NYC such an endlessly fascinating place for native and visitor alike was that our fair city always managed to encompass both glamour and grittiness in such abundant, gorgeous, and squalid quantities. Men in tuxedos and women in gowns, walking in and out of the Metropolitan Opera, was a part of the New York identity as much as some creepy guy with a folded up newspaper going into a porno theater in Times Square.

The rich and the poor, debutantes and street kids, glamour and grit, existing side by side. That was the New York way.

But now the porno theaters are gone from Times Square and newspapers are fast disappearing. This city is no longer hospitable to the poor and middle class. This is a rich person's city now. Bit by bit, that old New York grit (yes, I know it rhymes) is vanishing. And not just by market forces alone. The powers that be (more precisely, Mayor Bloomberg) has declared war on grit. Like Rudy did to Times Square, now Mike is doing to Canal Street.

Glamour is vanquishing grit.

The New York Press this week has a great article on what is going on in that last frontier of gritty New York, Canal Street. Long thought of as the "Counterfeit Triangle" or the place where hot merchandise was fenced and sold to tourists, Canal Street has been one of the few places in Manhattan where small businesses and immigrants could thrive. But in the last year there have been numerous crackdowns, not only on the counterfeiters, but also on legitimate businesses. The city wants to drive the mom-and-pop shops out and "clean up" the neighborhood. They want to totally change Canal Street, turn it into another enclave of the wealthy.

And why? Real estate prices of course. Developers want this. They want this area to be more "desirable" so that their real estate holdings will be more valuable. Not only that, but a couple of huge new hotels are scheduled to open this year near Canal Street, and the city wants to make the neighborhood more hospitable to tourists -- not New Yorkers.

I work in this neighborhood and have seen these changes first-hand. I've seen the building of that monstrosity known as Trump Soho -- technically a hotel, not an apartment building. A new Hampton Inn has been constructed right near the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. A giant new hotel is going up where the old Moondance Diner used to be. And walking along Canal Street most mornings, I see all these signs stamped on doors indicating that this or that business has been shut down for selling illegal or fake merchandise.

But sometimes I wonder -- are they all crooks down here? Or is something else going on?

At the Canal Street stop on Broadway, there's a little store between the staircases that sells things like water, candy, newspapers, etc. A few months ago, during one of these raids, this store was shut down. Each morning, I'd walk by it and see it dark and chained up, one of that nasty signs affixed to its front. But now it's open again. Hmmm? Maybe it was a victim of circumstance. Maybe the city (cough, Bloomberg) overreached? We shall never know.

Yes, that old New York grit is going, going fast. The rich are unleashing their fury on the poor. On Canal Street, old apartment buildings are being replaced by glass condominiums and high-rise hotels. The bridges and tunnels were built for a reason (thank you Robert Moses) and the rich are telling the poor to cross them. For all they care, the poor could go jump in the river. Before we know it, Canal Street will join Times Square and Astor Place and Harlem as gutted, soulless, gentrified areas. And that old New York grit will be just a memory.

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