On a recent visit to New York I was struck by how long-term residents talk about themselves like veterans who have survived a lengthy military campaign. The seventies when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and riddled with crime; the crack wars of the eighties; the AIDS epidemic; the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre; Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which decimated parts of greater New York and left them without power for weeks.
Like a lot of veterans they revel in re-telling war stories, at least to outsiders such as me, keen to share insights into how Manhattan and greater New York has changed: how many times their car was stolen; when and where they were mugged; the robberies, murders and police shootings. They take particular delight in talking about which parts of the city used to be rough and dangerous (Harlem, Alphabet City, Meatpacking District, parts of the Bowery), and which aren’t now (all of them, it seems, with the possible exception of parts of Alphabet City).
I ask the grizzled career barman in the White Horse Tavern, a former longshoreman’s bar until Dylan Thomas and other writers started frequenting it in the fifties, whether New York is still a tough town. He looks at me askance. ‘Tough town? It used to be a tough town. Now it’s just full of douches.’
It’s hard not get the feeling these long term residents are facing the toughest battle of all – gentrification – which has seen real estate prices and the cost of living sky rocket and is rapidly changing the fabric and feel of the city.
Nothing that hasn’t occurred before, of course: in New York and other large, global cities, including Melbourne. I lived in Bangkok for a year in the mid-nineties. Back then, it was cheap and felt like a mysterious, secret place, full of strange attractions, hidden local bars and hole in the wall places to eat. The expat population consisted largely of journalists, diplomats, ex-soldiers and spies, many of them left over from the West’s various imperial wars in Indochina.
When I returned last year for the first time for more than a couple of days, the impact of globalisation were everywhere. Something I can only describe as a sort of sameness has crept into the city. It now looks like any other big Asian metropolis. Land has increased greatly in price. Everything old feels like it is in the process of being demolished. Massive high-rise complexes have mushroomed across the city. The expat population is now made up of young executives and the purveyors of global brands.
Despite being my first time in New York, it was impossible not to feel the sense of sameness. Everyone I met was struggling to stay there, or at the very least live in proximity to it. They had been born there or arrived out of school and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else like it.
One night, I drink with a bunch of local crime writers. Talk turns to how the city is changing and someone laments that he never got to eat at The Copain, the New York bistro made famous by William Friedkin’s 1971 classic, The French Connection.
In the key scene, two French heroin dealers enjoy a leisurely meal as the hard charging cop, Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), stakes the place out, standing across the street in the freezing cold with a cup of deli coffee in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other.
The restaurant is now a trendy bar and lounge.
Walking around the Bowery, a new acquaintance points out a modern looking building that was, until a few years ago, CBGC, the former music club made famous by bands like Ramones, Television, Blondie and the Patti Smith Group. A high-end fashion chain now operates the space and has apparently preserved much of the famous graffiti that covered the bathrooms.
‘Everywhere it feels like old landmarks are closing,’ says my acquaintance.
The topic of gentrification comes up in virtually every conversation. It’s a hot button issue, affecting where people can live, how much money they have to make, whether they can socialise, how far they have to travel to work. In an effort to remain on Manhattan, white people have been moving into the black neighbourhood of Harlem, much to the chagrin of the locals. Young hipsters are taking over parts of former working class boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens, and have been spotted as far away as the Bronx. Public housing is being privatised at a rapid rate to make way for well-off renters.
One startling impact of gentrification is how Manhattan, the headquarters of the US publishing industry, the home of such important literary signifiers as Sontag, Mailer, the Beats, the New York Review of Books and Grove Press, hardly has any physical bookstores left.
The rise of digital publishing and the ease of on-line shopping have obviously played a part. Depending on whose figures you believe, e-books now make up roughly twenty-two to twenty-five per cent of all book sales in the US.
But the real culprit behind the decimation of New York’s bookstores is the crippling real estate prices, which have made it virtually impossible for independent bookstores to survive, and are even squeezing the large chain stores.
In my various encounters, I quizzed people on what bookstores they are aware of that have closed in recent years. I come up with a highly unscientific number of between six and ten.
I decide it might be easier to talk about bookstores have remained open. The famous three-storey Strand Bookstore still operates. Mystery Books, a speciality crime fiction only store, also appears to be going strong, but a competitor closed a few years ago. There’s a good bookstore in the bowels of Grand Central Station which people tell me is scheduled to close. I find one or two other bookshops, inclding an outlet for Taschen books, while the Internet tells me there are six shopfronts for Barnes and Noble, the long-term financial viability of which is regularly called into question.
The situation is even worse when it comes to second-hand bookstores. In over a week in the city I stumble across only one in the East Village, situated in a thin strip of basement that smelt like a sewerage pipe had burst nearby: I figure this must be how the owner can afford the rent.
The situation is no better in the outer boroughs. On my journey from JFK Airport to the hotel, the TV screen in the back of the taxi shows a local current affairs show. The top story is how the only bookstore in the Bronx, a borough of 1.4 million people, has just been saved from closure due to a last minute deal between the landlord and the store owner, Barnes and Noble, to lower the rent.
None of this is to say New Yorkers still don’t like books. I heard talk of a growing movement of community-run bookstores in New York’s outer boroughs, where people get together, rent a space, ask for donations of books and channel the profits back into the store or into other community activities.
On a Sunday afternoon along 125th Street in Harlem, amid stalls selling pirated Blaxploitation DVDs, black power sweatshirts and handicrafts, recently arrived African migrants staff tables selling self-published ‘ghetto lit’. These are gritty contemporary urban tales of pimps and whores and gangsters, in the tradition of black writers like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, but written by black women. Mainstream bookstores don’t stock most of these titles, so the reduction in physical bookstores has had little impact on the trade.
Interestingly, this has not stopped several self-published female authors from making a lot of money selling their books to two key markets: African Americans in the military and the nation’s burgeoning black prison population.
My favourite solution to the decline of physical bookstore comes on my last night in New York, when I visit a secret book ‘speakeasy’, an unofficial bookstore held on certain nights of the week for the last eight years, run by a retired bookseller.
‘New York loves its writers,’ one of the guests tells me. ‘But we love real estate more.’