Like any good academically trained pomo ironist, I’m deeply skeptical of the coronation of “historic moments”—the shell game in which one neatly labeled era (the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment) gives way to a neatly labeled next era. These days, however, even the most skeptical skeptic would be hard-pressed to deny that America has been swallowed, and is about to be digested, by the insatiable python of the Grand Historical Narrative. Recent events have become densely confluent; they ooze logic. The fall of Bush, the rise of Obama, the hot potato of Middle-Eastern violence, the Promethean evisceration of the world economy—it seems that, in spite of millennial America’s best intentions to stand outside of history, we’ve stumbled headfirst into a defining national moment. Our crazy snowballing mass-funk has hardly even had a chance to get rolling—we don’t even have a name for it yet—and already we seem destined to occupy a chapter in future history books next to the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.
One of the central lessons of the current meltdown is that it is criminally stupid to predict the future. We have no idea what’s going to happen. Perhaps we really are headed (as the hedge-fund survivalists will tell you here) for total economic apocalypse. Perhaps New York’s tide of gentrification will recede until our streets, after decades of obscene pleasantness, are once again certifiably mean. Bronx warehouses that were burned down by landlords for insurance money in the seventies, rebuilt in the nineties, and rented as luxury lofts in 2003 will be burned again by the original landlords’ grandchildren. Manhattan’s chain stores will fail, one by one, until all that’s left is a single joint KFC–Borders–Dunkin’ Donuts–Starbucks–Sunglass Hut–Barnes & Noble–Baskin-Robbins–Chipotle squeezed into half a storefront on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. Break dancing will be reinvented, independently, by a tribe of destitute former Lehman executives living as hunter-gatherers on the medians of upper Madison Avenue. Queens will not change at all—at all! Total Armageddon. (There’s a small chance, maybe 3 percent, that things will be slightly less dramatic—that, for instance, all of the above will happen but also a new Foot Locker will open in the Queens Center Mall.)
And yet, for some reason, I feel strangely optimistic. I’d like to suggest that, overall—despite the inevitable bonfires in public libraries, the roving packs of dogs, the stranded hipsters being airlifted out of formerly thriving colonies in Bed-Stuy—all of this change will actually, eventually, be for the good. Mid-funk 2009 New York finds itself in an oddly promising position: We’re a money town from which the money has disappeared. As much hardship as this will bring—and by all accounts, it will bring plenty—it also presents us with a great creative opportunity. Money is the city’s default language of status. As it goes quiet, we’ll be forced to invent new ways to talk to one another about how we all relate: new currencies to barter, new commodities to fetishize, new dirt-poor trends out of which to build whole new hierarchies of power and cool. Culture will be deinstitutionalized; art will emerge again out of necessity rather than out of corporate funding cycles. Throughout history, bad times have produced the innovations that later boom times refine and blend. New York’s last major plunge, in the seventies, produced a handful of cultural forms that are still around today: punk, disco, hip-hop, graffiti. Cheap rents drew youthful energy and creativity to bombed-out neighborhoods like Soho and the East Village. The crime wave inspired the cleanup that eventually led to the city’s renaissance.
This feels like one of those rare moments when, just for a minute, everything is plastic. We have an opportunity that more fortunate eras never have: We get to rebuild things from the ground up—to not only reimagine the world but to see what we imagine get put into practice. We’re surrounded by blank slates and big questions: Now that the foundation of the old American Dream (home loans, the auto industry, job security) has so obviously cracked, what are we supposed to aspire to? Now that even the highest high priests of capitalism have had their faith shaken, what will rise up as the new economic orthodoxy? Now that the glass boxes have stopped popping up all over our city, what shape should we expect next? Now that our information is infinitely fractured, how will we get our news? These questions are all made more interesting by our suddenly widespread optimism about government, which seems to have transformed overnight into a rational, civilized, benevolent tool wielded by intelligent, even-tempered adults (see here.
We’re just dipping the first callous of our collective big toe into the new era, and of course we wouldn’t presume to make predictions. But in the following pages, you’ll meet New Yorkers involved in what appear to be the initial stirrings of what’s next. Taken together, they represent a new pro-technology, post-corporate, wildly interactive, and relentlessly cheerful way of looking at the world. Their ideas could change the way we get our news (see here), play our games, create our art, pay our CEOs, make our babies, grow our food, and keep ourselves entertained. Or they might not. In either case, it will be fun to see what they think of next.