On a gray, drizzly Friday in July, I joined Jeremiah Moss for a walk. We met at the Astor Place cube, as the artist Tony Rosenthal’s 1967 black Cor-Ten steel sculpture Alamo is known, in the shadow of two buildings that exemplify everything Moss hates about contemporary New York. To the south stood the awkwardly amoebic Astor Place Tower; looming behind us, the gleaming black glass of 51 Astor Place, a/k/a the Death Star. If real estate money had its way, this neighborhood — gateway to the once irresistibly gritty East Village — would be rebranded “Midtown South.”
In his new book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul (Dey Street), Moss offers a wrenching, exhaustive chronicle of the “hyper-gentrification” of New York — and the relentless monotony of chain stores and luxury high-rises that continues to suffocate small businesses and displace the poor, working-class, immigrant, and ethnic communities and artists, eccentrics, and bohemians who have made the city what it is. Vanishing New York is an urban-activist polemic in the tradition of Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities: Every page is charged with Moss’s deep love of New York. It is both a vital and an unequivocally depressing read.
On his popular blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, subtitled “a/k/a The Book of Lamentations: A Bitterly Nostalgic Look at a City in the Process of Going Extinct,” Jeremiah Moss — a pen name — has composed wistful and acerbic obituaries for mom-and-pop restaurants, theaters, bookstores, record shops, and other lost urban treasures since 2007. “The Lenox Lounge is yet another casualty in the long battle for the soul of New York,” Moss wrote this past May upon the demolishing of a building that once housed the bar that served as ground zero for the Harlem Renaissance. When Moss’s beloved 110-year-old De Robertis Pastry Shop closed in 2014, he lamented, “What will move in next? God help us if it’s a fucking Starbucks.”
After a decade of blogging pseudonymously, Moss publicly revealed his true identity only recently: He is Griffin Hansbury, a 46-year-old psychoanalyst and social worker with a red salt-and-pepper beard, a lifetime of unfulfilled literary ambitions, and a streak of righteous indignation. The Moss character began life as the protagonist of an unpublished novella Hansbury was writing in 2006, The Recollex Cycle — named “Jeremiah” after the biblical prophet, and “Moss” as in a rolling stone gathers no. The Jeremiah Moss of Hansbury’s writing was an East Village resident in midlife crisis, adrift in the past and addicted to a drug that enhances his memories as the neighborhood changes around him. The following summer, after the West Village watering hole Chumley’s closed its doors for what would become a near-decade-long renovation, Hansbury assumed Jeremiah’s mantle to write his first post, “oh Chumley’s we love you get up,” invoking the Frank O’Hara verse “Poem [Lana Turner Has Collapsed!].” The blog quickly proved to be both a natural extension of Hansbury’s writerly voice and a cathartic exercise. “It gave me an outlet for things that I was feeling and noticing that nobody was listening to,” Hansbury tells me. “I was sort of this Cassandra. I would say to people, ‘New York is actually changing. Something is really happening.’ And people would say, ‘New York always changes. Nothing is happening. You’re just nostalgic.’ Which people still like to say to me.”
Turning onto the Bowery, Hansbury and I walk past 36 Cooper Square, the former home of the Village Voice, the name still visible on the façade a kind of urban palimpsest; across the square stands the milky monolith of the Standard East Village, the 21-story hotel constructed to surround the legally protected brick tenement where the poet Hettie Jones still lives, coiling around its prey like the world’s largest, shiniest boa constrictor. As a tour guide, Hansbury is part historian, part park ranger, and part doomsayer, conveying a visceral sense of disorientation. “All this stuff coming down. All this new stuff going up. It keeps going,” he says of the Bowery. “And it’s completely unrecognizable from what it was in the early 2000s.”
Hansbury grew up in Massachusetts, in a small, working-class town of roughly four square miles and five thousand people. When he goes back to visit now, the litter he sees tossed on the curb is mostly miniature liquor bottles and scratched-off, losing lottery tickets. “It wasn’t a horrible place to grow up,” he says. “But it was a place I wanted to leave.” Both his parents came from Boston. His mother — a native of Southie — especially missed the city and spoke of it fondly. “I have her mental map of her city in my mind, which is about pickle barrels on the sidewalks and street games and stoops and the freedom of walking through the streets,” says Hansbury. In 1978, at the age of seven, Hansbury visited New York for the first time and fell immediately in love with the chaos of Times Square, which exuded danger, excitement, and sexuality in countless shades of neon.
After college, he moved to the city to pursue of a master’s degree in creative writing at NYU. There Hanbury took a class with Allen Ginsberg, whom he would occasionally see squeezing fruit at Prana Foods, where the produce was dusty and bruised but organic. It was in his first years in New York City that Moss, who is transgender, began to transition. “Every person views the city through a prism of personal experience and, as different as all those prisms may be, for a long time, New York was able to accommodate every type,” he writes in Vanishing New York. “The city made space for all varieties and combinations.” It was the early Nineties, but as Hansbury sees it, that was already the “beginning of the end.” Hansbury says he would have loved to turn up in New York after World War II, to experience the coinciding peaks of Beat poetry, folk music, and psychoanalysis. “It was a golden age for different parts of me. As an analyst, that would have been a great time to have people on the couch,” he says. “But as a queer person, as a transgender person, it would have been horrible.”
We take a brief detour to 57 Great Jones Street, where the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat lived, worked, and — at twenty-seven — fatally overdosed on heroin in 1988. The building’s ground floor now houses a Japanese butcher. “They sell this wagyu beef for, like, a bajillion dollars a pound,” Hansbury says. A plaque by the street-art-covered door reminds passersby of its famous occupant. “It’s like we’re in a city of plaques.”
Back on Bowery, an NYU dorm occupies the lot where costumed members of the tiny Amato Opera would rehearse outside — until the company closed in 2009, after 61 seasons. Hansbury was there the night in 2008 that 315 Bowery, the site of CBGB, reopened as a punk-themed John Varvatos menswear boutique, with aging rock icons feting the designer for preserving the space’s legacy as protesters crowded the sidewalk. Inside the store, a portion of the notorious club’s original wall is preserved under Plexiglas. The day we visited, a rack of $1,898 brown suede jackets sat beneath the torn, fossilized band flyers. One block south of CBGB, we encountered restaurateur Daniel Boulud’s Daniel Boulud Good Burger — ahem, DBGB. The restaurant originally used the CBGB typeface, Hansbury says, until the estate’s lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter.
Hansbury has mixed feelings about John Varvatos, but in general he finds entrepreneurs who “riff” on the very cultural objects they’re eradicating to be particularly “repugnant.” In 2015, the upscale pizza restaurant SRO (as in “Single Room Occupancy”) opened and soon closed on the Bowery, the street once known as New York’s flophouse-lined skid row. Both in his book and in conversation, Hansbury excoriates the narcissistic, blandifying influence of “suburban white flighters” who have returned to the city to reconquer the neighborhoods that their grandparents fled. “I don’t think that they like cities,” he says. “I think they like New York — I think they like some image that was sold to them, some packaging that came through Sex and the City or Friends, the tourism industry, all these images from the media. But the real city, in all of its messiness and its chaos and its smells and its bodies, they’re not interested in that. In fact, they want to destroy it.”
Once we cross Houston Street, Hansbury points out a series of gems. “This is one of the best storefronts. Just take a look there,” Hansbury tells me, pointing to the improbably appealing display of shiny meat slicers and grinders lined from floor to ceiling. “It’s something you wouldn’t notice if you were looking in the other direction, but it’s beautiful. This is something that has to accumulate over time.” Across the street, National Cash Registers advertises its wares in an elegant neon script. Hansbury directs my attention to the Sunshine Hotel, one of the neighborhood’s last remaining flophouses, and a holdout resident’s box fan. Sometimes, Hansbury says, “you’ll see him at the window, looking out.”
About an hour after setting out from Astor Place, we arrive at Cup & Saucer, a diner that has served up blueberry pancakes, home fries, and greasy-spoon staples on the corner of Canal and Eldridge since the 1940s. Hansbury was dismayed to learn that the classic luncheonette — with about fifteen seats, and no public restroom — would close the following Monday, July 17. “One of the last of the greasy spoons,” he’d written on his blog. “One of the very last of the long lunch counters, the swivel stools, the antique signage, the fluorescent-lit doughnut case, the short-order cook slinging hash and singing quietly to himself in his native language. Greek, I think.” We wriggle into the narrow, shotgun-style space to sit by the window. Hansbury orders a BLT, fries, and a Coke, taking in the silhouette of a coffee cup inlaid in the floor.
Last meals like this one have become something of a ritual for Hansbury. He’ll usually pay his respects on the second-to-last night before a place closes, when it’s quieter, before the cameras come out. He saw the last batch of fresh-baked pignoli cookies come up from the basement at De Robertis. He listened to the regulars at the original Fedora’s reminisce about the good old days as Elmer Bernstein played on the radio. “There’s a lot of talking and hugging. People will look to the waitress or the owner: ‘Let me shake your hand. Thank you.’ There’s a lot of love. It’s like a wake, you know.”
Hansbury, though, is emphatic that these deaths cannot be attributed to natural causes. “People say, ‘Oh, if only business had been better. If only people still ate french fries and BLTs.’ But that’s bullshit,” he says. “Of course there are businesses that fail and close, but the stuff that we’re dealing with, these places are always packed. They’ve done well for decades. These businesses are being murdered.”
Hansbury’s outlook permanently changed in 2014. That’s when he learned that Times Square’s Café Edison, an institution of the Manhattan theater community and the inspiration for Neil Simon’s play 45 Seconds From Broadway, was in danger of eviction. Moved to action, he launched a “Save Café Edison” Facebook group and organized “lunch mobs” in which hundreds of sign-waving supporters descended on the restaurant for matzo ball soup and blintzes. But all the attention — all the pleas from celebrities, the mayor, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and thousands of loyal diners who signed a petition — couldn’t save the coffee shop. It closed its doors that December. On one of Café Edison’s final nights in operation, Hansbury watched a longtime employee fondly caress the length of the counter, over and over again.
“We took that all the way to City Hall, and nothing could be done?” Hansbury recalls, his exasperation still palpable nearly three years later. “I’m done with trying to save individual places, because it’s useless. It’s good in terms of raising awareness of the problem, but I realized something has to change systemically.”
Hansbury — or rather, Moss — has been labeled “cranky” in the press, but he doesn’t see himself that way. “I think all the ‘cranky’ stuff is really people telling me, ‘Don’t be angry.’ And the more people tell me not to be angry, the angrier I get.” Personally, Hansbury has plenty to be angry about. The rent-stabilized East Village walk-up he has lived in for all but the first few months of his more than two decades in New York City has a new landlord (“an LLC behind an LLC,” he says) who’d love to get him out. Worse is the more immediate prospect of losing the office he rents for his private practice, in a former Union Square hotel that now houses a “real community” of therapists, Reiki healers, psychics, and a shop that exclusively stocks books about chess. The building has sold to a global developer for more than $100 million. “They can give me sixty days’ notice at any time to get out,” says Hansbury. “I’m staying to the bitter end.”
Nevertheless, Hansbury insists that hyper-gentrification hasn’t made a pessimist of him. “If I were pessimistic, I wouldn’t write a book. I wouldn’t keep a blog. I wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. New Yorkers just have to wake up, to understand that this is not natural, that it’s not inevitable. To do this for ten years is the most optimistic thing I can imagine, because I want it to change. And I believe that it can.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 18, 2017