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The New York We've Lost

All here is intimidation, if you are young and recently arrived in the Village: Kafka and Brecht, Artaud and Ionesco glower from book jackets; the clerks look through you; Eli Willentz, the owner, sighs when you mispronounce a writer's name. But look: There is James Baldwin, home from Europe, talking near the counter to Eli—a man like any man, not a statue in the park; Robert Creeley is in from Black Mountain College; the small, dark man looking at the book of drawings by Heinrich Kley is Alfred Andriola, whodraws "Kerry Drake" in the Mirror; the thick-bodied man with the face of a disappointed stevedore is Franz Kline; and walking past the store, waving diffidently, is Harold Rosenberg. To make this a perfect New York evening, the next strolling New Yorker would have to be Sal Maglie.

They're all gone now. A Nathan's opened on the corner and the Eighth Street Bookshop closed and the street changed and everybody went away or died. They became part of the Lost City, along with the San Remo, where Maxwell Bodenheim wrote poems for bar change before he got himself murdered; the Rienzi; the Fat Black Pussy Cat; and the old Figaro, where the most beautiful waitresses worked and you read for hours over coffee or listened to old men with Austrian accents argue about Wittgenstein at the next table, without being pried from the chair. Maybe we broke them; we had no money then, and the owners didn't seem to care. Maybe the old refugees from Hitler made too much money and moved uptown; maybe the cops made life impossible; maybe the places just wore out. What matters is this: They are gone.

As are so many other things. No young New Yorker can ever go on a summer evening with a girl to listen to free concerts under the stars at Lewisohn Stadium. The young will not pay a dime to ride down Fifth Avenue in a double-decker bus (killed in '53) or race up Third Avenue on the el, gazing into living rooms out of John Sloan or Edward Hopper, propelled above Clarke's and Original Joe's and Manny Wolf's and the High Hat. Once, King Kong himself had assaulted the el and it had survived, with its rusting potbellied stoves in the waiting rooms. But in 1955, the last great el in Manhattan (there were others on Second Avenue, Sixth Avenue, Ninth Avenue) was torn down, vanishing into the Lost City, to be replaced with still another bland arroyo of steel and glass.

On the most basic level, of course, these were simply means of transportation. When better methods were invented, they were replaced. But alas, the double-decker buses were more than just a means of moving people uptown or down; they were also a ride, adding an element of play to the task of going to work. And the el was more than a people-hauling machine; it was at once monument, curse, shelter, frontier, and a roaring example of energy made visible.

Perhaps most stupid of all the stupidities inflicted upon the city in the years after the war was the destruction of the trolley-car system. Every time I see a groaning bus coughing fumes as it lumbers across three traffic lanes, I long for the trolley cars. They were electric and therefore didn't poison the air. They ran on steel tracks and so were unable to bully their way across other traffic; at the same time, they helped police that traffic, preventing by their implacable presence the infuriating double-and triple-parking that today clots so many of our streets. Some trolleys were chunky, square, steel-and-wood affairs that looked like the Toonerville Trolley in the comics; their geriatric cousins still live in San Francisco and New Orleans. Others were able to remove their side panels in the summertime. The newest ones were sleek and "streamlined." And they seemed to go everywhere. Within the limits of my own Brooklyn hamlet, we had eleven separate lines: on Flatbush Avenue, Union Street, Bergen Street, Vanderbilt Avenue, Church Avenue, 9th Street, 15th Street, Fifth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, McDonald Avenue, and, most gloriously, on Coney Island Avenue. The last was "streamlined," all silver and green, and it carried us from Bartel-Pritchard Square all the way to Coney Island, past row houses and strange chalky neighborhoods, through the last of the Brooklyn vegetable farms and then into an immense brightness, the sudden odor of the sea air and the beach beyond. No wonder that lost baseball team was once called the Trolley Dodgers. No wonder nobody I knew drove a car.

Coney Island is still there, of course. But in the summertime now, the girls don't dance beside the pool at Oceantide or pick up boys at Raven Hall. There is no line at Mary's Sandwich Shop. Nobody is at the bar at Scoville's, where my father and his friends did their drinking, or at McCabe's, where the younger crowd did theirs. Nobody listens to bands at Feltman's. You hear no laughter at Steeplechase the Funny Place, nor will you see sailors and squealing girls strapped together into the parachute ride. They're all dead or gone.


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