Last night, before I fell asleep, I was indulging in a horrible nighttime habit. No, you sick bastards, get your heads out of the gutter; I’m talking about non-stop Internet browsing, porn-free (ok, maybe a little porn). What I ran across was fascinating: a collection of pictures, presumably taken by amateur photographers, of New York City in the 1980s.
If you’ve ever heard New York City mentioned in any context, you probably know that the city is notorious for a being a crime-ridden hell-hole from approximately 1965 to somewhere around 1995. Rudy Guiliani is often credited with “cleaning up New York”, but the jury seems split on whether or not this was the best thing for New York. That is to say, most people who lived in the city for that entire time period tend to get nostalgic about the days when NYC was a rough, rough place, and people who weren’t even out of diapers in 1980 tend to proclaim that “real New York” was ruined by the former mayor and his broken window theory.
Now, I’m not suggesting that gentrification and the process by which New York “bounced back” are without their flaws. It’s apparent that not much is being done to address the deep-seated problems of the inner city rather than moving demographics seen as “undesirable” out of prime real estate with price hikes. We haven’t fixed the problems of New York, we’ve just made them less visible, as residents of places like Brownsville (where mail carriers have recently refused to deliver) can tell you.
HOWEVER, the bulk of people I hear bemoaning the cleaned up and sanitized New York seem to be upset over the perceived drop in street cred, rather than any sort of ill-thought out public policy. Also, judging from my admittedly small sample size, most of the people who bitch about New York not being “the same” would either never have the stones to move their in 1980, or they would have been the first to wind up on the evening news with their severed head in a newspaper machine (remember those?!).
Here’s a sample from the above-mentioned collection of my neighborhood, Bushwick, which currently features at least three organic supermarkets, a handful of trendy bars, and a combination yoga studio/hot dog restaurant/bar:
A slightly similar thing is happening in Austin, a city currently undergoing so much rapid growth that their have been delays on moving dirt out of construction sites. There’s a sizable contingent of Austinites bitching and moaning about people “Dallasing” their Austin, which isn’t surprising since “Austin used to be cool!” has been the world-weary hipster’s battle cry for lo these past thirty years.
Remember the Yassine brothers? They were a clan of club and bar owners who go into Dirty Sixth real estate prior to the boom, and anybody who lived in Austin (especially UT alumni) from around 2000 onwards should be familiar with their string of shit-show saloons: Pure, Fuel, Spill, Treasure Island, et al. If anybody was a part of “old Austin” (Austin old-timers who have been shouting abou the city turning lame since 1985, you can sit down), it was these guys. Everybody who went downtown in search of erasing exam-related stress with $2 you call-its knew these places. And you know what? They were horrible.
I remember the day the raids went down. It was a developing story throughout the day, and though I’d like to say I immediately thought of the Yassine clubs when I heard that the FBI’s presence in downtown Austin was related to bar owners, but the truth is, I don’t remember. Once the news began rattling off a list of bars that were raided, I DO remember thinking “Wow!” followed immediately by “Hmm, I guess that’s not surprising.”
These places were truly horrible. They had all the trappings and pretensions of destination city dance clubs with none of the prestige or luxury; they were basically greasy Sixth Street shot bars with the prices jacked up and a bunch of frat guys who thought they were ballers guzzling Grey Goose inside of them. Half the time they were mostly empty, and I know that on at least one occasion, when I stepped into Treasure Island, nearly abandoned on a Saturday night, I wondered half-seriously if somebody was using it as a drug front.
If the allegations against the Yassines are true (you can read more about this fascinating story here), they were involved in a quite a bit of bad stuff indeed, but all that aside, maybe there’s a lesson to be taken away from all of this. If there’s one thing that history has proven time and again, it’s that the old guard isn’t always right on the money, and maybe downtown Austin is better off now that 9 or so really shitty and shady clubs (among the accusations: turning a blind eye to sexual assault, stealing employee wages) are all getting the boot. I don’t know who is going to grab those leases and what they’ll put in there, but change always has the potential for good, right? I DO know that I’m very happy that the jerkoff hut that operated in plain sight for over a decade finally got booted to make way for Tim League’s cocktail lounge, Midnight Cowboy.
I guess my point in all this rambling is that things never stay the same, including cities, and especially including cool cities. People find out, and the landscape shifts. The reason people say it’s not the same? Because it’s not, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, or at least, it doesn’t have to be.