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The Fallacy of the Fallacy of Nostalgia: Rebecca Wolff & David Byrne on the Fall of NYC

By Harriet Staff

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Yesterday wasn’t a good day in print for NYC. Up at Guernica: Poet and Fence editor/publisher Rebecca Wolff skips over nothing in her essay-response to Joan Didion’s famous piece on leaving New York, “Goodbye to All That.” And David Byrne weighs in for Creative Time. They both talk about the city’s “culture of arrogance.” Instead: “This city doesn’t make things anymore,” writes Byrne. More from Wolff:

At the age of thirty I came back to New York to be literary, and it worked. Return of the native in the clothing of the naïf. Wolf in clothing of sheep. I had abruptly tired of outposts, of decentralized living—the city still an epicenter—and I had something very specific I wanted to do, within the specific culture of the literary. And I had noticed that every time I came back to visit I had a marvelous time, suddenly, in that specific culture.

So I came back, and said hello again to all that, and it genuflected back at me. I sucked up the transitional, transactional energy like a newborn mosquito. That’s where language is. I get my total buzz on when the buzz is there to beget. I am supremely familiar, you could say “comfortable,” with cityscape—noise, bustle, crowds, action, stimuli such as the very poor, the very rich, the very beautiful and the degraded, lights and smells of food on the street, shouts of people selling things for lots of money or begging for money or scamming with infants in their laps. Bumping into people I know in parks and bookstores and arthouses. For six or seven inexhaustible years I was one of those culture-workers who expends themselves beautifully, for whom the city is working, and what I did there I probably could not have done anywhere else.* Once I had accomplished that, I was just as abruptly done with New York, and I left. New York is a place for being public, for wanting to be famous. I achieved a degree of recognition in my field and became a public figure and found I didn’t like it. It served me well in launching my Literary Project, but did not serve my soul well.

I didn’t move far away, but I will never move back and I don’t visit often, or as often as you might think, and when I do I am happy to leave again, often on the same day. “SOHO GIVES ME HIVES”: that’s a t-shirt meme I brainstormed in the late 90’s, as the transformation of that deathly quiet neighborhood from artists’ cheap housing and site of freewheeling conceptualism to Mall of Outrageous Crap was completed. There are lots of neighborhoods and enclaves and scenes and nodes of NYC behavior that give me hives—too many to give shout-outs to. There are wonderful people I see only in the city, who refuse to get on the Amtrak to come visit upstate—train of diminishing signification—and who I sadly bid farewell after each lovely brief encounter.

I go down to the city, about once a month, two hours on the train with the other suckers, usually to attend or present or facilitate a potentially dazzling literary event. In New York City, in the dusk-filled streets or in the cold wintry streets, in streets when the light is pretty or streets when everything looks crappy and grimy, I see a tremendous amount of samey-ness, the kind that didn’t used to be there. Posers and wannabees and money-hounds EVERYWHERE, when in my youth they were restricted to the bridge-and-tunnel funnels of Eighth Street and midtown, Lexington Avenue and Central Park and, eventually, Soho. You could spot these chumps a mile away, and they were different from tourists, who came to gawk and then went back home; they were tourists who overstayed, put down roots for no good reason, who could lay no legitimate claim to the greatness of the city’s historic convergent energies, who had simply made money here and could therefore make it anywhere. New York City manifests itself now shamefacedly as a chump-factory, a chumphouse. It’s Chumptown. Artists who live there are living dangerously, close to extinction, dangerously close to the source of their art’s diminishment, an ouroboros of economic exigency. It’s well documented: Chumps need artists and artists need chumps, but they’re supposed to stay out of one another’s sight in order to maintain the necessary illusions! There have always been chumps in New York, but they used to be bashful chumps who bought the brilliant ones their drinks.

There’s this thing that happens, where I speak to a 20-something or 30-something sweetheart, a Joan Didion who’s moved to New York recently, and I realize at a certain point that their expectations of it are actually very low, compared to my own, because they cannot possibly imagine what it used to be like….

Food for thought, as they say. Read it all here. Image at top is a screen capture from Chantal Akerman’s News from Home.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, October 8th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.