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The New York We've Lost

I remember being in Coney Island the day that Luna Park burned to the ground. The year was 1944. I was a boy. But there was a sudden stirring on the beach, a movement away from the surf to the boardwalk, and then great clouds of black smoke piling into the cobalt sky. You could hear voices: Luna Park's on fire. People were running then, and we could hear the sirens of the Fire Department and saw high arcs of water rising in a beautiful way and falling into the flames. Reporters were there and photographers with Speed Graphics, all of them wearing hats with press cards stuck in the rims, just as they did in the movies. We watched for hours, drawn as New Yorkers always are to the unity of disaster, and saw the rides and buildings collapse into black, wet rubble until there was no more Luna Park. The next day, we read all about it in the newspapers, and I felt for the first time that peculiar New York sensation: Something that was once in the world is now gone forever.

There is a photograph by Weegee, taken on V-E Day, 1945, that shows a man working at a newsstand. We can see three daily newspapers: the Journal-American, the World-Telegram, and PM; the magazines are Liberty, Air News, Argosy, Song Parade, American, Judy's, Crack Detective, Phantom Detective, Cartoon Digest, American Astrology, White's Radio, Magazine Digest, Popular Science, Mechanix Illustrated, Die Hausfrau, and Die Welt (must've been a Yorkville newsstand). We cannot see some other New York dailies that were publishing that year: the Herald Tribune and the Mirror, and in the outer boroughs, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Brooklyn Times-Union, the Bronx Home-News, the Long Island Press, the Long Island Star-Journal. They are now all dead, as is every other publication on that newsstand except Popular Science and American Astrology. It's one of the saddest photographs I've ever seen.

Around the time the newspapers began to die, the older New York started giving way to the new. Television was changing everything. Within a decade of its triumph in the mid-fifties, it killed the nightclubs and supper clubs: the Latin Quarter, the Stork, El Morocco, the Copa, Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, the Astor Roof, Ben Maksik's out in Queens, the Elegante in Brooklyn (where I once saw a smashed Judy Garland perform for a roomful of gangsters), the Château Madrid, Sammy's Bowery Follies (which biographer Herbert Lottman tells us Albert Camus enjoyed so much, on his only trip to New York, that he had A. J. Liebling take him back twice), Nick's in the Village, Tony Pastor's, all the West 4th Street strip joints like the Heat Wave (run by Tony Bender), to mention only a few. Lindy's, made famous by Damon Runyon, wasn't a nightclub, but it was a night place, full of columnists (the old three-dotters), press agents, gangsters, and show-business people, and it survived into the sixties. For a while near the end, I worked for the Post outside the place in a radio car with photographer Artie Pomerantz and once saw Walter Winchell do a tap dance on the sidewalk. The old bebop palaces on 52nd Street turned into strip joints (Ah, Lily St Cyr! O, Winnie Garrett! And where is Evelyn West and her Treasure Chest?) and then fell before the developers. Bill Miller's Riviera, across the North River under the George Washington Bridge. Even Birdland closed. Many of these places were velvet-roped dives, run by wiseguy veterans of the Prohibition wars; to drop into the Copa upon a winter's eve was to risk an arrest for consorting. Some peddled junk and women; a few provided floating crap games in nearby hotels; they clipped customers, abused or exploited too many of the performers. But they had energy and color and a certain brutal style, and when they vanished, something went out of New York.

But television didn't just shutter nightclubs. The movie houses began closing, too. In my neighborhood, we had the RKO Prospect, the Venus, the Globe, the 16th Street, the Sanders, the Avon, and the Minerva: all gone. In downtown Brooklyn, the RKO Albee died along with the Fox (where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and the Bopper played in the big rock-and-roll shows), the Brooklyn Paramount and the Duffield and the Terminal up on Fourth Avenue, beside the Long Island Rail Road, where you could see three movies for a half-dollar. Wandering through the souk of the Lower East Side, you could find the Palestine, the Florence, the Ruby, and the Windsor (among many others, most of which were nicknamed The Itch); they, too, died, driven into the Lost City with the great Yiddish theaters: the Grand, the Orpheum, the Yiddish Arts. Out in Queens, around 165th Street, the Loew's Valencia closed, along with the Alden, the Merrick, the Jamaica, the Savoy, and the Hillside. On East 14th Street in Manhattan, there was a place called the Jefferson, where we went to see the Spanish movies and vaudeville acts, improbably trying to learn the language from Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, lusting for Sarita Montiel, laughing at the comedy of Johnny El Men, while ice-cream vendors worked the aisles. Gone. In Times Square, the Capitol disappeared, the Roxy, the Criterion, the Strand. The Laffmovie on 42nd Street played comedies all day long, but now, where Laurel and Hardy once tried to deliver Christmas trees, the movies are about ripped flesh. Who now can verify the existence of the old Pike's Opera House on 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue (converted first to vaudeville and then to movies after the Metropolitan Opera established itself at 39th Street and Broadway)? It was torn down to make way for the ILGWU houses, thus eradicating the building where Jay Gould once had his office and where Fred Astaire learned to dance. And most astonishing and final of all, the Paramount itself was murdered in its sleep.


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