The New York We’ve Lost

From the December 21-28, 1987 issue of New York Magazine.

Once there was another city here, and now it is gone. There are almost no traces of it anymore, but millions of us know it existed, because we lived in it: the Lost City of New York.

It was a city, as John Cheever once wrote, that “was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” In that city, the taxicabs were all Checkers, with ample room for your legs, and the drivers knew where Grand Central was and always helped with the luggage. In that city, there were apartments with three bedrooms and views of the river. You hurried across the street and your girl was waiting for you under the Biltmore clock, with snow melting in her hair. Cars never double-parked. Shop doors weren’t locked in the daytime. Bus drivers still made change. All over town, cops walked the beat and everyone knew their names. In that city, you did not smoke on the subway. You wore galoshes in the rain. Waitresses called you honey. You slept with windows open to the summer night.

That New York is gone now, hammered into dust by time, progress, accident, and greed. Yes, most of us distrust the memory of how we lived here, not so very long ago. Nostalgia is a treacherous emotion, at once a curse against the present and an admission of permanent resentment, never to be wholly trusted. For many of us, looking back is simply too painful; we must confront the unanswerable question of how we let it all happen, how the Lost City was lost. And so most of us have trained ourselves to forget. And then suddenly, you hear a certain piece of music and you are once again at the bar of the Five Spot on St. Marks Place. You are listening to Monk, of course, and working hard at being hip. On another afternoon, you see the slanting yellow light on 125th Street, and abruptly you are again leaving Frank’s restaurant in the early sixties after lunch with a politician and you walk down to Michaux’s bookstore to find that rare poem by Countee Cullen or read the news from Africa. You flick on the television set late on an exhausting night, and in the silvery images of some forgotten forties movie, you glimpse the Brevoort Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 8th Street and then you are at one of its sidewalk tables again with an impossibly beautiful girl on a cloudless summer afternoon. All the wars are over, you have an entire $30 in your pocket, and the whole goddamned world seems perfect. Who then resident in the Lost City could dare imagine a day when the Brevoort would be gone, along with the Five Spot and Monk, Frank’s and Michaux’s, and even that impossibly beautiful girl?

In the cross-cutting of memory, the Brevoort leads you down 8th Street when it was the splendid Main Street of the Village. You have come up out of the subway from Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx and are engulfed by swarming crowds, lining up for Bergman or Fellini at the 8th Street or the Art, and the very air seems thick with sensuality. Old guys are selling lemon ices from carts. There’s a Bungalow Bar truck down at the corner. Music is playing from upstairs apartments in this year before air-conditioning silenced the New York night: Symphony Sid or Jazzbo Collins, Alan Freed or Murray Kaufman (Mee-a-zurry, Mee-a-zurray, all through the night) … even, in memory, Jack Lacy on WINS before it became an all-news station (Listen to Lacy, a guy with a style, of spinning a disk with finesse, yes, yes). If it’s warm enough, and the right year, you can hear the ball games too: Ernie Harwell and Russ Hodges bringing us the Giants (with Frankie Frisch the Fordham Flash on the post-game show), or Red Barber and Connie Desmond with the Dodgers, or hear the simulated crack of a bat and the simulated roar of a crowd, and Today’s baseball, with Bert Lee and Marty Glickman, and the absent Ward Wilson, who is ailing… . Ward Wilson was always absent. Ward Wilson was always ailing. And nobody listened to the Yankees.

Across the street is Hans Hofmann’s art school, in the building that used to be the Whitney Museum. Upstairs, you can see the backs of stretched canvases, the faces of people talking passionately about space and gesture, oblivious to the dense space and extravagant gestures of the street below them, but subliminally driven by its energy. There, wandering up from MacDougal Street: That’s Joe Gould, who has translated Rimbaud into the language of seagulls and is writing the oral history of the world. You run into Hans Hess, the great émigré typographer from Huxley House, and he once more insists upon the obvious superiority of Caslon over Garamond, “except, of course, in boldface.” Then you wander into the pulsing heart of the great crowded street: the Eighth Street Bookshop.

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.

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.

None of this was new. In Nathan Silver’s elegiac 1967 book, Lost New York, we can see photographs of many of the vanished ornaments of our city: the beautiful Produce Exchange at Beaver and Bowling Green, destroyed in the mid-fifties; the three Brokaw mansions at 79th and Fifth, two of which were smashed into rubble in 1965, to be replaced by an ugly high rise; Rhinelander Gardens on 11th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, with their cast-iron filigreed balconies and deep front gardens, demolished in the late fifties; the splendid Studio Building at 51-55 West 10th Street, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, inhabited by a string of artists, including John La Farge and Winslow Homer, until it was demolished in 1954; the elegant, high-ceilinged cast-iron buildings on Worth Street between Church and Broadway, torn down in 1963 to make way for a parking lot; the old Ziegfeld Theater at 54th and Sixth; the Astor Hotel on Broadway between 44th and 45th; dozens of others. A city is always more than its architecture, but to destroy the past that is expressed by enduring architecture is an assault on history itself. Growing up here, you learned one bitter lesson: Whenever something was destroyed for the crime of being old, what replaced it was infinitely worse.

All along, there were complaints from architects, historians, and a few concerned citizens about this municipal vandalism. Usually, they were dismissed as the sentimentalities of cranks. But after a group of dreadful men ordered the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to make way for the equally dreadful new Madison Square Garden (they subsequently brought their gift for ruin to the railroad itself), there was a widespread sense of horror and fury. Outraged citizens fought for and won the establishment of a Landmarks Preservation Commission. Many buildings have been saved, including Grand Central Terminal and Radio City Music Hall. But when it was decided to slam the Marriott Marquis Hotel into Times Square a few years ago, it was still impossible to save the Astor theater (opened in 1906), the Bijou (1917), the Gaiety/Victoria (1909), the Helen Hayes (1911), and, most heartbreaking of all, the Morosco, which had survived wars, depression, and turkeys since 1917. They’re gone. Forever.

But listen: Someone out in the street is playing an old tune. We are in a white, silent house in Gramercy Park in winter or out upon the granite cliffs of Fort Hamilton. Snow is falling. It is almost midnight. Listen: It’s the sound of an organ-grinder. And if you surrender to the sound, you can go back… . You can still call down to a neighbor through the dumbwaiter shaft. You can go to Grand Central and pick up the 20th Century Limited for Chicago on Track 34. You can sip coffee at the Cafe Royal on 12th Street at Second Avenue and listen to the sound of Yiddish. You can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at Moskowitz & Lupowitz. You can gaze up at the Stuyvesant building at 142 East 18th Street and know that here Richard Widmark kicked that old lady down the stairs. You can go to a rent party on a Saturday night and then go to Minton’s Playhouse and hear Art Tatum. You can shop at the Hester Street market or at Wanamaker’s, at Namm’s or Loeser’s or Mays or Martin’s in Brooklyn, at Gertz in Jamaica, at Best and Company or Ohrbach’s, at Masters or Korvette’s. You can still go to Gimbel’s. If you are poor, you can go to S. Klein on Union Square and battle for bargains with the toughest women in the history of New York.

If it’s very late and you are hungry, you can take a cab to the Belmont Cafeteria downtown or the Garfield on Flatbush Avenue. Better: Wait till tomorrow; there’s a 99-cent hot lunch at the Tip Toe Inn on 86th and Broadway. Have the brisket and then drop a nickel in the subway and go downtown and take a walk. The old socialists are still discussing the imminent collapse of capitalism with the writers from the Forvetz at the Garden Cafeteria. In Union Square, they are arguing about surplus value, the Spanish Republic, and the true meaning of Marx’s Grundriss.

Or wander through midtown. That’s Frankie Carbo, the gangster, at the bar of the Neutral Corner, up the block from Stillman’s Gym, and if you don’t like his company, and you’ve already seen the fighters work out at Stillman’s, you can go up to Harry Wiley’s in Harlem and catch Sugar Ray Robinson or go down to 14th Street, where Cus D’Amato has a kid named Patterson in the Gramercy Gym. You can get into a big old Packard, as I did with my father and his friends once during the war, and ride out to the Gym at Georgia and Livonia in Brownsville, where Bummy Davis trained under the agate eyes of the hoods from Murder Incorporated. You can see fights at the St. Nicholas Arena on West 66th Street, at the Eastern Parkway Arena, the Ridgewood Grove, the Coney Island Velodrome, Fort Hamilton Arena, the Broadway Arena, the Star Casino in the Bronx, or the Jamaica Arena. Or if it’s a Friday night, you can go through the lobby of the old Garden at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, past the detectives and the wiseguys and the fight managers, past the bronze statue of Joe Gans, and into the great smoky arena.

In the Lost City of New York, the subway will be a nickel forever, and if you fall asleep and travel to the end of the line, you will still have your wallet and your life. In the Lost City, you can still go to Dexter Park on Eldert’s Lane on the Brooklyn-Queens border and see the amazing players from the Negro Leagues, maybe even Josh Gibson, who once hit a ball out of there that traveled more than 600 feet; you can see the Bushwicks play baseball, hoping for a call from Branch Rickey; you can watch the House of David baseball team and the best of the immigrant soccer teams. We still have the Polo Grounds. We still have Ebbets Field. We still have Willie Mays.

If it’s a sultry August evening, you will be able to hurry down to Sheepshead Bay and step up to the Clam Bar at Lundy’s. Or you can drive out to Rockaway, get on the rides at Playland, drink cold beer and eat pig’s feet at Fennessey’s, Gildea’s, or Sligo House, McGuire’s or the Breakers, and look at the girls outside Curly’s Hotel at 116th and the ocean.

If that is too long a journey, you can ride one of the many ferries that cross the Hudson each day to Jersey. You can swim in the rivers without fear of disease, and even swim at night with the seals in the Prospect Park Zoo. You can trust the oysters from Long Island Sound. You can spend an entire Saturday among the used bookshops along Fourth Avenue. You can watch seaplanes flying down the East River, dipping elegantly under the bridges and out to the vast harbor. Listen: You might even hear the Pan Am Clipper leaving from Floyd Bennett for Lisbon.

The Lost City is full of forgotten common and proper nouns: Red Devil paint, Cat’s Paw soles and heels, Griffin All-Black might still exist, but I don’t see them anymore. Nor do I see beers called Trommers White Label, Ruppert’s, and Rheingold, candies called Sky Bars, Houten’s, and B-B Bats. And for young men going out on dates, a repulsively flavored package of licorice microchips called Sen-Sen that is guaranteed to keep your breath sweet while kissing. In some lost year, Junior Persico is in Rosie’s Royal Tailors next to the 72nd Precinct in Brooklyn, being measured for pants with a three-inch rise, pistol pockets, saddle stitching, a balloon knee, and a thirteen peg. He will walk home looking like an Arabian prince.

Meanwhile, the eternal New York war against the cockroach is being waged with J-O Paste and Flit. The men are smoking Fatimas and Wings. In the candy stores, they are selling loosies (2 cents apiece, two for 3), mel-o-rolls, Nibs, hard car’mels, Bonomo Turkish taffy, long pretzels, Mission Bell grape and Frank’s orange soda, twists, egg creams, lime rickeys, and a nice 2-cents plain. Everybody knows what a skate key is and what it means when your wheels get “skellies.” A pound of butter is carved from wooden tubs. Here, your only jewelry is a code-o-graph or a whistling ring. And here you always have spaldeens. An endless supply. Pink and fresh and beautiful. Spaldeens: made no longer by the A. G. Spalding Company; street kids now would rather smoke crack than hit a ball three sewers. But we still have them here in the Lost City. Spaldeens: traveling high into the sky of a thousand neighborhoods in the game called stickball. The game is almost never played anymore, except by aging men. In the Lost City of New York, we will play it forever.

In this New York, you can still wander through the stalls of the Washington Market. You can get your hair cut for a quarter at the barber schools on Third Avenue and the Bowery. You can watch the leather-workers ply their trade at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge or watch the old craftsmen roll cigars on Astor Place or see an old Italian shoemaker working in a window with his mouth full of nails. You can bring your kitchen knives down to the truck to be sharpened. You can watch the iceman make his deliveries, stronger than any other man on earth. You can wait for the “rides” to come around in the evening: the Whip and the Loop-the-Loop. You can hang out at the pigeon coop on the roof. You can put your groceries “on the bill.” If you get sick, the doctor will come by in an hour. You can sit at the Battery and watch the ocean liners cleave through the harbor, stately and powerful among their court of tugboats, heading for berths on the North River (the reporters have arrived on the launch, with their press cards in their hats, and they are interviewing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, or propping a movie staron top of a steamer trunk). You can walk out on the white porch of the Claremont Inn on Riverside Drive and 125th Street and watch the cruise boats move north to Bear Mountain. On Sunday nights, you will almost certainly turn on the radio and hear that staccato voice: “Goodevening Mr. and Mrs. NorthandSouthAmerica and alltheshipsatsea… . Thisis Walter Winchell and the Jergens Journal—let’s go to press… . “

Or you can meet that girl in the polo coat who is arriving at Penn Station from college in Vermont or Ohio or Philadelphia. And if you’re lucky, if all goes well at Seventeen Barrow Street or the Bijou or the Olde Knick or the Fleur de Lis, if you have enough money and courage, you might succeed in taking her to the old Ritz Carlton and wake up with her in the bright, snowy light of New York. If it isn’t that easy, you will postpone everything. You will take her to Condon’s. Or to hear Miguelito Valdes sing “Babalu” in the club at the Great Northern Hotel, knowing that upstairs in 1939 William Saroyan wrote The Time of Your Life in five days and maybe the two of you could find the room (in the interests of literature, of course). Maybe you’ll get a sandwich at Reuben’s or stroll through Times Square and look at the Camel sign with the guy blowing smoke rings into the night or the two huge nude statues flanking the waterfall of the Bond Clothes sign and then slip into Toffenetti’s for coffee or head east to Glennon’s for a few final beers. Take your time. All of this will be here tomorrow too. Yeah.

I suppose that 30 years from now (as close to us as we are to 1958), when I’ve been safely tucked into the turf at the Green-Wood, someone will write in these pages about a Lost New York that includes Area and the Mudd Club and Nell’s, David’s Cookies and Aca Joe and Steve’s ice cream. Someone might mourn Lever House or Trump Tower or the current version of Madison Square Garden. Anything is possible. But if so, I hope that at least one old and wizened New Yorker will reach for a pen and try to explain about our lost glories: and mention spaldeens and trolleys and—if he can make it clear, if he has the skill and the memory—even Willie Mays.

The New York We’ve Lost