New York City Palimpsest

In the last month I’ve had a couple of chances to finally get back to visit New York City for the first time since 1999. I first moved to NY in 1982 and lived there (mostly) through 1998. If I were to pick a place to call home-if home is that place that defines us-New York would be one of my primal homes. The other being that entirely opposite, strange, mostly unpopulated mesa country in Western Colorado where I did some of my growing up, for better or worse.

I hadn’t been back to to NY since before 9/11 and everyone had told me it had completely changed. I heard different descriptions about exactly how, but everyone agreed: NY was a different place than it used to be.

After spending some time in NY, I have to disagree.

I’m not saying NY is not different than it used to be. But I don’t think change is the right word. I spent some time visiting my old neighborhoods and the thing that struck me most is that everything I remembered was still there-sandwiched in by incredible changes for sure-but still there. It’s as if NY grew, keeping everything it already had, and just adding more.

Every bar, restaurant, store and place I ever went to seemed all still almost exactly as I left it 10 years ago. The only difference is what is next door. The caribbean restaurant El Castillo de Jagua is still open just off Essex St on the Lower East Side, but right next door is a gleaming glass box holding a tony hotel/restaurant of the type you would only think to see in Soho. The liquor store my old landlord ran down there is still in business, but now instead of neoyorquinos and heroin addicts out front, there are bridge and tunnel girls talking on their iPhones waiting for their boyfriends to pull round in the Nissan. The store that stayed alive by selling bikes stolen from gentrifying yuppies back their kin is still in business, announced by the same crude, airbrushed mural.

New York is like a palimpsest: everything that was ever written is still legible under the heavy script of the latest capitalist, cultural story.

I suspect that 10 years of incredible financial expansion happened so fast that there wasn’t even time to erase what was already there. During this eve before the financial collapse, I am also left suspecting that these newer stories of excess will fade away. Not so long from now I might be able to come back to NY and find it almost exactly as I left it. Before 9/11. Before the wild money ride that wrote a temporary short story across New York.

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