Nostalgia with purpose: Reflections on a New Yorker’s essay about leaving her city

Back when Rebecca Wolff was a kid, New York was so real, man, you guys don’t even know!

I liked eating this essay in Guernica, but then later I got a stomach ache.

As an expat native San Franciscan I identify a lot with her pining for a realer time — which is why I liked the essay’s flavor. But this writing exhibits what is in some ways the worst kind of it-once-was-realer nostalgia: the self-absorbed longing for the aesthetic of a harsh time, rather than for the lost possibilities that an earlier era held for a now-forgotten segment of the people. Through this privileged prism, being real is defined by running around snorting blow and making out with bouncers. The thing is, for most of the few people I know who were really in the grit of 70s-80s New York, I get a sense of being shell-shocked as much as anything.

Back then was other things, too. It was the taxi driver I spoke to who grew up in East Harlem and used to be scared to leave his house. It was feeling menaced by the evil lurking in the bushes when you jogged across a Queens park on your way home from 8th grade. It was AIDS, it was crack, it was the Son of Sam, it was a lot of people who didn’t make it to 2013 to talk about what a time of creativity it was — so I understand from conversations, and infer from my own San Francisco recollections.

It’s mostly true that all those people running around unironically ironically wearing “Obey” T-shirts in SoHo are Chumps, and probably I am too. But being cool is not really the point. The point is those bodies getting stepped over, which Wolff mentions but which don’t seem to elicit a more political perspective.

I appreciate Wolff’s essay, and it’s definitely worth a read. But the nostalgia to which I pledge allegiance is a different one: a longing for long-gone communities, uttering of the names of those who came before, who lived too fast or too close to the edge to tell their stories.

In the streets outside my house in San Francisco, members of these communities squared off, pulled weapons, revved the engines of rusted El Caminos, repped motorcycle clubs, covered wood-paneled station wagons and front yards with plastic figurines and schizophrenic sculptures, smoked glass pipes in stairwells, serenaded me to sleep with musical worship on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. It was not always an easy place, but in it was a promise of something greater. Saudades de vocês.

To acknowledge the raggedness of those times is not to give these cities’ current trends of chumpiness a pass. But in both New York and San Francisco, it is partly the solipsism of the reigning brand of nostalgia that has kept us from mounting a convincing counternarrative to those who would argue that the story of these cities has been, simply, progress.

In any case, have a read and let me know what you think.

So yes, it’s true. New York City used to be cool, and now it’s not. It’s not at all. It is boring and dismaying and stymied; everything potentially cool in it is overwhelmed and inflated and parodied and sold. You can’t even love the absurdity of it because it’s too painful and we cannot be allowed anymore to callously love, for their absurdity, systems that oppress and impoverish. New York is a giant sinking pile of crap compared to what it used to be. Literally sinking, now that the waters rise so much quicker, the winds blow so much harder than even scientists predicted. Lately I like to imagine that I will have the privilege of seeing in my lifetime real estate values in the city plunge wildly, freefall, as Climate Events force visitors to admit that they pay top-dollar to perch on coastal landfill.

In New York City these days I see loads and loads of formerly brilliant people—gender champions, visual whizzes, start-up ho’s, crackerjack dancers, actors, journalists, and chefs—who have stayed too long at the Fair, to use Joan’s wistful archaic turn of phrase, are baffled and internally conflicted as to why they can’t admit that New York sucks so hard. Why they can’t draw the proper conclusion: That if they are to work all the time in order to pay super-high rents that make it impossible for them to do their art, if they never have a chance to see the people they came here to see, who are also less brilliant now that they are muffled by the smog of wrongness that hangs over New York (thicker than the smog of smog that hangs over Los Angeles, another city that’s not even half as cool as everyone who’s moving there says it is), if they are living somewhere that is giving them less than they are giving to it, then they should leave. They should find somewhere to live, perhaps collectively, perhaps not individually, perhaps they should try to make sense of this whole living-somewhere thing in a way that doesn’t pretend, as New York City does, that we are all ruthless rock stars with amnesia and aphasia and lifetime amniotic sacs.


Old San Francisco (Bernal Heights 2013)

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