It’s risky to write about New York City. Maybe most of all, a writer risks cliché, or redundancy—What’s left to say about this place that’s so often, and so publicly, dissected? Another risk is overstatement: it’s easy to get carried away. Still another is nostalgia, widely seen as an embarrassing, disqualifying weakness.
In Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, a brawny book that grew out of his ardent, meticulous blog of the same name, Jeremiah Moss courts all of these risks, and shows that they don’t have to be traps. He bends them to his own purposes, making a forceful case for the necessity of this city in its idealized state. He also mounts a fierce defense of nostalgia, pushing back against the assumption that it is whiny or regressive, and showing how it might actually help us get to a better future.
The book is a full-throated argument for New York City as a particular kind of place, and for a certain kind of life lived within it. That is, a New York that’s “a beacon to dissatisfied and desperate people,” a place that “permitted transgression.” Its character is “brash and opinionated, but also open and democratic”; its values are “freedom and permissiveness.” It’s a place that “allows us to expand, experiment, and become our truest selves.” It’s a messy place: “unwieldy, throbbing,” “gorgeous, grimy.” Opinionated. Neurotic. Emphatic. It’s a place where you have “a feeling of existing on the edge, in a space apart.” A fantasia of creativity, grit and glamour, and genuine possibility. It is its own place, “not quite America.”
In Moss’s rendering, the city is recognizable as the subject of countless fantasy-stoking novels, movies, dramatic anecdotes, and other sources of myth. Today that version of the city exists mostly as a subject of conversation and craving. The storied streets and spaces where it was once alive are changing, crushed into submission or oblivion by newer, wealthier interests powered by different priorities. And so accounting for and reckoning with what’s been lost in the process is a project with emotional and historical weight. Noticing change (and giving a shit) is a political choice.
Moss himself arrived in Manhattan from small town Massachusetts in 1993—inarguably “too late,” given that hardly anyone can claim (or would admit) to having showed up right on time. Painfully aware of what he’d missed, he nonetheless found what he was looking for in (among other places) Mars Bar, a dive famous for “the feculent bathrooms, the bat-shit-crazy regulars, and the fat cockroaches that strolled brazenly across the knife-scarred bar.” Citywide, the years since have seen the systematic dismantling of those qualities, and the formation of Moss’s blogging persona as an ornery, sensitive, painstaking chronicler of what’s gone away. His Vanishing New York blog launched in 2007 and (charmingly) retains its no-frills, default Blogger template. Moss has lived in the same East Village walk-up for nearly all his years in the city. (Mars Bar shuttered in 2011; he hangs on to what he can.)
Moss’s chosen word, “vanishing,” suggests at once a gradual fade and a split-second disappearance. And that’s how it feels to experience: rapid change and slow, deep cuts at once. The losses add up to a kind of erasure, with things that mattered swept away and buried under an avalanche of condos and chain stores. Vanishing also means ruin—not so much in the sense of things falling to ruin, which Moss has affection for, and which happens less and less in a city so vigilant about development—than the act of ruination, with old favorites spoiled and decimated. There are lots of reasons to hate the generic glass high-rises that are sprouting up everywhere, but for Moss the main one is that these buildings are “unlovable.” They’re a proxy for what he’s really mourning: the apparent decline of empathy and humanity, those analog ideals.
The list of vanished places and things is long and ever growing, and in these pages Moss maps a litany of losses. Chapter by chapter, he inventories the history and heartbreaks of the main neighborhoods in Manhattan before turning his attention to parts of Brooklyn and Queens, with a foray into the South Bronx. The things being lost or under threat might seem obviously worth saving (residents’ longtime homes, the Donnell Library) or they might be strange and unlovely (flophouses on the Bowery, Times Square peep shows) but Moss argues that if we feel a twinge at their passing, we can’t afford to be ambivalent about defending them. Each place matters because it’s part of a bigger picture, and the collective loss matters more than any one block or bar.
That’s the “soul” of this book’s subtitle. For those who feel connected to, and invested in, the kind of places prone to vanishing, their loss is deeply personal and emotional. But as much as this is a cultural shift attached to feeling, it can’t be dismissed as such: it’s too closely tied to clear physical and political realities. These vanishings have consequences, in people’s own lives and the life of the city. For Moss, this is “a war of words and ideas,” and the battle lines are well defined. On one side are the privileged “elites” bent on remaking the city in their own image. On the other, are the “undesirables” (i.e., “us,” his presumed audience): described affectionately throughout the book and through the ages as “immigrants, laborers, bohemians,” “artists, drunks…raconteurs,” “poets, queers, and crazies.”
It’s obvious who Moss thinks the good guys are—but also true that everyone wants to think they’re the ones who have the real right to be in New York, the most authentic claim. Moss has little patience for this kind of relativism. He can’t stand people who speed-walk with eyes glued to their screens, oblivious parents who run people off the sidewalk with their giant strollers, screeching NYU students, and anyone who happily patronizes Dunkin’ Donuts. He sees New York filling with selfish, arrogant people who want the city to mold itself to them and their suburban comforts, rather than the other way around. What is the point? he wonders. Why come to New York if you don’t love it for itself?
For that question to have any meaning, New York needs to maintain its essential self, as exemplified by the values Moss lists so lovingly. And increasingly, living here means struggling to defend those values in the face of overwhelming conflict. As the city gets less like itself and more like other places, it becomes harder for people like Moss to love. It’s exhausting to hear over and over that a favorite spot has closed because the rent quadrupled, or has been sold to fancy developers, or that the longtime owners just don’t have it in them to keep fighting. It is dispiriting to be surrounded by Starbucks and frozen-yogurt shops (the latter a notable target of Moss’s scorn). It’s perplexing to be surrounded by constant construction and destruction, ever-changing storefronts. It’s painful to ally yourself with a place over many years and develop a real stake in it, only to see that it doesn’t have space for you. In that light, Moss’s indignation and moral clarity—his certainty about who belongs and who doesn’t, what values are worth upholding and who to blame for their downfall—is an audacious kind of idealism.
As pissed off as Moss is, the power of this book and the blog that preceded it is that he doesn’t settle for outrage. He maintains that New York is worth standing up for and protecting. That the anger and sadness so many of us feel in response to so much vanishing, however familiar, should not be dismissed. We should pay attention to those feelings, he says. They are real and legitimate. And the events they come in response to were not, are not, inevitable. Those constitute a kind of violence, man-made destruction in the name of “progress.” They’re the result of choices people have made about what matters and what doesn’t. It doesn’t have to be like this.
What we’re seeing today, Moss argues, is “hyper-gentrification”: basically, the gentrification we know and loathe, high on a cocktail of capitalism and reckless ambition. This phenomenon has been brewing for decades, gaining particular speed in the Giuliani years and making serious headway in the aftermath of 9/11, when extreme gentrification came as a side effect of so many people’s sudden interest in a city that, until then, they hadn’t wanted much to do with. Though Moss identifies no small number of villains in that long story, the foremost is also the most recent: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who instituted destructive policies that were concerned less with taking care of the city’s residents and more with cultivating an upscale image on the global stage.
Under Bloomberg the city saw a lot of what might look like progress, but Moss sees as tragedy. He calls hyper-gentrification narcissistic and sociopathic. “A neighborhood is an emotional ecosystem, and when it is destroyed by gentrification, it’s trauma,” he writes. (Shortly before the book’s release, Moss shed his long-held anonymity and revealed himself as Griffin Hansbury, a psychotherapist and social worker. His profession does not come as a surprise.) The High Line, for example, promised to be the best kind of public park, but brought an explosion of tourism and displacement. The cleanup of Times Square traded safety for something like Disneyland. Those weren’t the first or even the most painful changes, but they came on top of or alongside too many others: Fedora restaurant in the West Village, De Robertis Pasticceria & Caffe in the East, the Chelsea Hotel. Moss rages at the decline of Little Italy’s Feast of San Gennaro, long a central feature of an authentically Italian neighborhood, more recently the target of newer residents’ ire for being noisy and smelling too much like grilled sausage and fried dough.
With extraordinary earnestness, Moss describes breaking into tears over blueberry blintzes in the last days of Café Edison, a beloved old-school lunch counter in Midtown that was denied a lease renewal after thirty-four years in business, and closed in 2014. “I tried to absorb as much of the place as my nervous system could hold,” he writes. “I wanted to remember everything.” In trying to save this, one of his most treasured places, Moss started the activist effort #SaveNYC to answer the inevitable question: So what can we do?
The basic answer will be familiar (and familiarly unsatisfying) to anyone who has ever showed up in support of or objection to anything: we can protest, contact our representatives, work to raise awareness. But Moss also advocates for something subtler and maybe more helpful as a habit: paying attention to what’s changing around us, and acknowledging the tensions and contradictions that contribute to that change. Here, for example, is a moment of self-awareness few seem able to muster: “Look, I enjoy riding in the bike lanes, but I’m not going to deny that they’re a tool of hyper-gentrification, attracting a certain class of people (to which I belong) and giving a boost to property values, facts that Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner knew well,” Moss writes. “Let’s at least engage critically with these things we enjoy. Sometimes a latte is not just a latte.” It’s easy to chalk that up to “liberal guilt” and cringe a little at the humble-brag of shame. We can also recognize it as an honest statement of what it takes to be an attentive, involved citizen.
These conundrums are material, but they’re also existential. Midway through his book, Moss explains why he prefers degeneration to unspoiled surfaces. “The scruffy tenements and disheveled shops serve as necessary reminders of our mortality,” he writes admiringly. Some people appreciate the reminder of how all of us—whether we live in a crumbling tenement or a tall, shiny tower—will eventually end up. They (ahem, we) find something beautiful and meaningful in deterioration. Others find history ugly, uncomfortable. They fault it for telling them things—about the passing of time, about aging, about their own lack of control—that they’d rather not know. In New York, both kinds of people (and all those who occupy the large space between the extremes) live pushed up against each other, overlapping even as they occupy separate orbits and vastly different kinds of apartments. People have short memories. In the end, no one is immune to vanishing.