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Jeremiah Moss and the Invisible City

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If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in New York City, you’ve surely had a moment, especially in the past fifteen years, where you’ve looked up, down, or around and thought: When did this happen? How did this happen? Or just simply: Why? Whether that head-spinning (and head-scratching) moment has come at Columbus Circle; in the meatpacking district, Williamsburg, or Long Island City; or on the Bowery (the Bowery, for chrissakes), it may have been followed by a succinct expletive.

And if you had that reaction, you may be a reader of the ten-year-old blog Vanishing New York, by Jeremiah Moss. I, for one, never was. Growing up in the Bronx, I was regaled with stories of “the old Garden,” the breweries in Bushwick, the Third Avenue El. I may love the endangered Optimo signs above candy stores as much as the next guy, but if the past isn’t dead, nor even past, it can be passé. Even Ed Koch, whose every other quip was dipped in schmaltz, famously said, “It never was the way you think it was.”

Then, when I opened up Moss’s new book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, I discovered the author wasn’t even a native. Oof! I’d seen this before: another slumming rich kid out to define us and our hometown, what it was (forget that they didn’t live it), and what it ought to be, too cool to go to the “outer boroughs” and mix with “bridge and tunnel” folk, only those who could further their career.

But I was wrong. Moss won me over almost immediately and has written a cri de cœur that is essential reading for anyone who loves this city — or any city, really — and its literature.

His book is part history, part reportage, part policy manual, and part memoir. Jeremiah Moss, a nom de plume, came to New York from New England in 1993 to find himself through his love of poetry and literature while also transitioning from female to male “in the days long before Caitlyn Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair.” He doesn’t write much about that part of his personal journey, preferring to set his focus on the city he’s fallen for, one of “artists, writers, and assorted outcasts,” which, from his perspective, he only caught the tail end of.

Unlike so many from the chattering classes here who can barely hide their disdain for certain circles of New Yorkers, Moss came from a humble background himself and arrived with a curious mind and a combative but sensitive soul. He wanted to learn the city’s various histories, not impose suburban sensibilities on his new home.

Moss acknowledges that New York has perennially undergone change, but blames this century’s “hyper-gentrification,” or this “new gilded age,” on “decades of scheming on the part of urban elites — the real estate magnates, financiers, planners, and politicians.”

It began as far back as the late 1970s with the policies of Koch and was enhanced with the “muscle” of Rudy Giuliani. (Curiously, the mayor who came between them, David Dinkins, is barely mentioned.) But the man who really represented and enabled the notion of “Dubai on the Hudson” was billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who once said in his Boston accent (or whatever that was), “We want rich people from around this country to move here. We love rich people.” Bloomberg, who engineered a way around term limits (and, improbably, was endorsed by the Times for that third term), had twelve years to implement his glossy, glassy vision. Yes, the city got better — if you were wealthy; if you could afford, and flip, real estate; if you had a great job. Chin-chin.

Also coming under scrutiny in Moss’s account are NYU, the Cooper Union, the High Line (and its powerful, enlightened “friends”), restaurateurs, Whole Foods, even Sex and the City, with the Jimmy Choo–shoed cupcake brigades it entrained. (Never, by the way, offer Moss a cupcake, “that ubiquitous and despised symbol of gentrification”; all he wants is to sit in peace with an egg cream and a bialy.)

And aside from skyrocketing rents, the cancerous spread of chain stores, the closing of storied old spaces — the Lenox Lounge, De Robertis Pasticceria, CBGB; the list goes on, and Moss is there to pay his respects at each wake — he has observed, rightly, a change in the city’s tenor.

By the 2000s, he writes, the color and warmth of New York were “rapidly draining from the city, replaced by something dull and cold. Where there had been gruff affability, there is chilly disdain. Where there had been mutual recognition, there is disregard. And that famed rudeness of New Yorkers, really a combination of urban impatience and healthy suspicion, has been replaced with the icy aura of contempt. It’s as if your best friend, that warm, funny, irreverent person, went away to summer camp, hung out with all the wrong people, and came back mean.” (Moss eventually ended up a psychoanalyst and social worker, but he’s a fine writer; his 400-plus pages read like a breeze off Flushing Bay.)

He writes of “stroller mommies” who crash right into him as if he’s not there, “marauding dude-bros,” and the vanguard gentrifiers who think of their ilk in such tone-deaf terms as “pioneers” and “settlers” in already well-populated, often historically significant neighborhoods. His chapter on Brooklyn, that bastion of progressivism with a “superabundance of nineteenth-century beards,” is especially troubling. It’s where affluent whites argue with one another over who got there first, where yuppies drop their pants at a Catholic procession on Graham Avenue, and where African-American tenants in Bed-Stuy are offered lowball buyouts of $30,000 — while the white population increased 633 percent between 2000 and 2010. Most of this we’ve heard about and observed ourselves, but read together, it almost seems unreal — or surreal.

Moss has been told to “get over it,” that “everything changes”; the Times, which sometimes seems awash in luxury condo ads, has called him a “curmudgeon.” Moss isn’t a perfect guide — he doesn’t very often venture to the New York of hour-plus commutes, formerly those two-fare zones — but he writes from his gut, not as a careerist. He has courage, and he’ll get under the skin of some powerful people in this town (and he’s now revealed himself, to the Voice and others, as Griffin Hansbury).

Like so many of us, he’s barely hanging on. His small walk-up apartment is in jeopardy, as is his office space. “I don’t know where I’ll go next,” he writes. “It’s a terrible feeling to be unwelcome in your own town.” (Tell me about it.) But if he is forced to leave New York — and I hope to god he isn’t; I hope none of us are — he’s at least left us a gift. He deserves a tip of the cap, maybe one you’d see on that 7 train that graces the cover: royal blue with an interlocking orange NY.

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul
By Jeremiah Moss
Dey Street Books
480 pp.

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