As the city’s well-to-do have become more numerous, more widespread, and more well-to-do, money has become more than ever the central New York subject. Not that art and ideas and love and baseball were the sole preoccupations of the city in any of the old days. A century ago, a good deal of the wellborn Henry James’s horror at the new city involved its vulgar celebration of cash: “money in the air, ever so much money,” “the colossal greed of New York,” “the crudity of wealth,” the “candid look of [houses] having cost as much as they knew how.” (Mr. James, let me introduce you to Mr. Trump and Mr. Schwarzman … ) But it was during the Gilded Age that Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, his startling chronicle of New York’s poor. It’s hard to imagine an equivalent exposé today that would so shock the conscience of respectable New York. Indeed, the very title of Riis’s book now connotes the opposite—the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Our present Gilded Age began in the eighties. The crash of 1987 didn’t end it, nor the recession of 1990, nor the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, nor the attacks of 2001, nor the new hegemony of “sustainability” as a governing idea. The spell of big money and super-high-priced things has lingered on and on. We are bedoozled, to use a slang term from the century of the original Gilded Age. That first famously money-mad New York–centric era is said to have ended with the Panic of 1893. Which began with bank failures. And led to an economic depression that lasted several years.
So maybe the final chapter of this 40-year novel of the city will include another big turn of the screw, with some of the city’s overmonied about to be kicked to the curb and brought down to earth. And even if the limos keep rolling, and people keep lining up for $1,000 Per Se meals, don’t we prefer the main isotope of civic resentment and mistrust to be derived from class rather than race?
Twenty-five percent of New Yorkers today are black, up only modestly from 40 years ago. But since then we have nevertheless, rather strikingly, become a city of color, from almost two-thirds white in 1968 to only a third today. So New York has grown much less dangerous, much less bedraggled … and—such a great irony—much less white. Non-Hispanic whites are now just another minority in this city of minorities. At the same time, the spectacularly awful moments of racial discord of the nineties—when a black man in Crown Heights murdered a Jew in revenge for the accidental killing of a black child by a Hasidic driver, when cops killed Amadou Diallo and tortured Abner Louima—now seem like the ugly twilight moments of an era. Indeed, one of the silver linings of the terrorist attack in 2001 was that New York’s racial anxieties were suddenly subordinate to our new common fear of crazy foreigners who wanted us all to die.
New York’s racial anxieties were suddenly subordinate to our new common fear.
And speaking of foreigners: The final dramatic shift in the nature of the city since 1968 derives from the huge and strangely rather underheralded influx of people from abroad. As it happens, all the black victims in those awful nineties incidents were immigrants—7-year-old Gavin Cato was from Guyana, Diallo from Guinea, and Louima from Haiti. The foreign-born fraction of New York is now nearly 40 percent, more than double the figure of 1968—and more than three times as many as in America at large. During the last four decades New York’s immigrant population has gone from its smallest since the early 1800s to its highest since 1910.
Inevitably, babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. I do slightly miss the loss of the seventies bohemia, even though I was one of the objects of those DIE YUPPIE SCUM graffiti in the East Village at the time. When it lacks for grit and the Man and a frisson of danger, bohemianism becomes just another style. On the other hand, I can’t join the latter-day Bizarro World Jamesians who find Times Square insufficiently squalid, and regret that Avenue C and Rivington Street are no longer open-air heroin markets. Me, I’ll settle for the High Line, a totally 21st-century nostalgic embrace of New York decay and desolation, a sweet, slightly smug Piranesianism that recalls 1968 from the arm’s-length comfort of 2008.
Of course, one lesson of the last 40 years is that it’s folly to predict the future by extrapolating in a straight line from the present. Pendulums tend to keep swinging. History doesn’t end. There’s always the possibility of another terrorist attack. Half the drop in crime was a mysterious gift, and it could mysteriously shoot back up again.