Heartbreaking as its been, trying to fathom the recent turn of events in New Orleans, I have to say it’s brought up one interesting issue. In a city as old, and as venerated, as New Orleans, when, where, and how do decisions on preservation and reconstruction get made? To what extent is the character of a place dependent on the smaller, perhaps dysfunctional, elements of that place’s architecture and organization? We preserve and replace monuments and major institutions, come hell or high water (or both together) but it seems to me a sense of place, of the whole, comes not from the exceptional, but from the mundane.
At the same time that we’ve been mourning the actual death of one of America’s great cities (hopefully to be followed by a phoenix-like rebirth), I’ve been mourning the loss of scores of New York City institutions. None are terribly important, but the general trend, like global warming, seems to be approaching a tipping point, after which, I fear, we may all slap ourselves on our foreheads and wonder why we didn’t notice sooner.
A great and noble local bar, Bar 81, disappeared this year, its rent tripled or quadrupled. A decidedly grimy sandwich shop on Kenmare Street has been “improved,” and now sports a fa?ade which mimics a Mexico City taco stand while catering to the bobo-stocracy, who crowd its “secret” underground bar. CBGB still faces eviction, and may set up shop in another place altogether. Old Polish restaurants become polished, and drop the “Polish” (Leshko’s), or they keep everything as it was but switch the pierogies for pumpkin martinis and Pabst (Polonia). 42nd Street turned, in only a few years, into Main Street USA. The list goes on and on. I dread, but fully expect, the day when I try to go to Katz’s, or Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, and find the door barred, or the egg salad metamorphosed into a frittata with field greens, and the fountain Coke substituted with a nice rioja.
If all of New York were battered to the point of near-total destruction, what would we replace, and what would we improve? New Orleans had its landmarks, and I can almost promise you that they will return. But I suspect that most of the Big Easiness came from the 1,001 everyday places ? restaurants, bars, music joints, cheap hotels, and all, which, taken together, comprised 99 percent of anyone’s experience of the city. Is CBGB still CBGB in a new space with a dropped ceiling and clean bathrooms? I don’t really want to find out