Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ghosts of Past and Future

Two fascinating articles from this week's Times illustrate how life in NYC both changes but also stays the same.

First, an article about people who have lived in their apartments or in the same neighborhoods for decades -- and, in the case of one woman, for 100 of her 102 years of life. This woman has lived on East 84th street since 1911 and has, to say the least, seen her block and her city change quite a bit. She is a living, breathing memory bank. 

As someone who has lived in two different places in this city in my life, I've seen both my neighborhoods change -- for the better (cleaner, less crime) and for the worst (mom and pop stores going out of business, rising rents and prices) -- and it's always fascinating to see the new up against the old. That, in many ways, is the story of NYC and all great cities -- new and old people, new and old buildings, new and old businesses, living side by side; lifelong New Yorkers existing along with recent transplants and immigrants, preserving old traditions and practices while creating new ones, the old timers giving lessons to the "new" timers, the new timers teaching the old timers a thing or two. 

My mom has lived in the same building for over 40 years. Her friend has lived in the same building for over 50 years. Growing up, I remember elderly residents telling me about living in the same building since the 1920s and 30s. When you live in an old building in NYC, you can feel the ghosts of the past living with the occupants of the present -- who are, after all, the ghosts of the future. A little creepy maybe, but also kind of magical. 

What isn't magical, however, what is rather kind of tragic, are when old school businesses disappear. And I'm not just talking about the aforementioned mom and pops, the decades old drug stores and restaurants that gave neighborhoods their character and that, when they vanish, lessen the neighborhoods character. I'm talking about big businesses too. 

Remember Pan Am? If you're under the age of 20, probably not. Pan Am used to not only own the American airline industry but the Pan Am building on 42nd street used to rise proudly in the NYC skyline, the worlds PAN AM visible to anyone within miles site of the building. Today, Pan Am is long out of business, and the Pan Am building is now the MetLife building. When Pan Am went, it was like a part of Americana vanished. Part of the NYC skyline certainly did. It was the first big airline (it was for a long time) and most people took their first flights on Pan Am. Heck, being a Pan Am stewardess (now called flight attendant) was such a glamorous job that they even made a TV show out of it recently (called Pam Am but, like its namesake, the show went out of business too). And when a piece of Americana goes away, it can never really be replaced. 

Here in NYC, a huge law firm called Dewey and LaBoeuf is on the verge of collapse. It used to be called Dewey, Ballantine and this isn't just some law firm. This used to be the creme de la creme of NYC law firms, the kind of place where any lawyer dreamed about working at. It was big, rich, represented powerful clients and companies, and had cache to burn. What it also did, in recent years, was burn through all its money. An ill timed merger in 2007 (hello 2008 financial crises) along with ridiculous compensation packages and mismanagement has not only put the firm on the brink of extinction but has also opened it up to criminal investigations. The firm was named after Thomas Dewey, who used to be a governor of New York and was twice the Republican nominee for president in 1944 and 1948. This firm history had a proud, fine heritage, and was a solid piece of the NYC legal firmament. But greed and stupidity by otherwise smart people has wrecked it. When Dewey goes away, it will dishonor the legacy of a great New Yorker and diminish a part of the NYC legal and business community. Ghosts will be dishonored by its future ghosts. And that is something that can never be replaced.

So I hope that we New Yorkers will preserve as much of our past as possible while, at the same time, smartly look to the future.

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