Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tourist City

When I moved to New York City in 1993 from the Santa Cruz coast of California more than a few people thought I'd lost my mind. 

The morning I left Santa Cruz for good I shared a shuttle van to the San Francisco airport with a number of other locals, all of them amiable and easy to talk to--until they found out where I was moving. At which point their easy sunshine-y manners became clouded over by puzzlement and, I believe, pity. They were too polite to press me much, but the unasked question that furrowed each of their brows was a disbelieving "Why? Why abandon paradise for a dirty stinky crime-ridden city?"

It would've been easy enough to tell myself "Well, that's just Californians for you," except that when I arrived in NYC I got a similar disbelieving response from New Yorkers. And New Yorkers rarely hesitated to put it into words: "You left the coast of California to come here? What are you, nuts?"

Now that NYC has been born again as a major tourist destination, charged with all  the "shopping and f---ing" fantasies of "Sex & the City" and the fluffy sit-com-araderie of "Friends," it's almost hard to remember, or believe, that there was a time not so terribly long ago when Manhattan was still considered more intimidating than Orlando, FL. 

Now Manhattan has become, well, rather like Venice.

A slightly odd thing for me to say, as I now live in Venice, and I like Venice, but I'm well aware of the knocks that can be laid on Venice. Flooded with tourists, devoid of actual Venetians, littered with mask and glass and lace shops whose "traditional Venetian goods" originate in China & whose employees commute from the mainland... Ugh, I can't go on.

But with just a few slight word changes wouldn't the above also describe the Manhattan neighborhoods of the West Village, Soho, Nolita...?

The artists who once inhabited the cold-water lofts of Soho seem almost as long absent from that scene as Tintoretto from his crumbling house in Cannaregio. The plaque on the townhouse to the east of Tompkins Square where Charlie Parker once lived commemorates a time that seems as impossibly long ago to me as that recalled on the church of La Pietà in Castello, where Vivaldi used to churn out his hits. The epoch of the young Bob Dylan playing in the low-rent West Village's Kettle of Fish is as foreign as that of Richard Wagner holed up in his palazzo on the Grand Canal.

I guess I find it easier to calmly regard a past period of creative ferment, of thriving (and affordable) neighborhoods, from the distance of a few centuries than a few decades. Easier to accept that I missed a "golden age" of one sort or another by 300 years than by 30. It's not surprising that it's hard to comprehend the life of someone you've never met, never seen; it's rather more unsettling when that of your father or aunt seems to have no relation to yours.

Or maybe it's just that observing evidence of great changes over long periods of time makes one philosophical; over short, nervous.

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