Nostalgia is a lie

It’s August and I’m returning to NYC for the first time after a long absence.

There was a moment when I became a New Yorker and I can mark it. My  grandmother and I were near Rockefeller Center on a scorching August afternoon when I was about four years old and I pointed out a big dude on roller skates wearing nothing but plastic and a cowboy hat. He had clothed himself from head-to-toe in clear plastic wrap and all his bits and pieces were squished and visible and pretty much eye level for my viewing pleasure. In that moment my ever elegant grandmother turned my head and we walked as though we hadn’t seen a thing. *Boom* I had the love/hate thing for the city from that day forward.

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[Samantha Chardin & Hélène Baronnie. Central Park Zoo, New York, 1979]

I’m torn. On the one hand I view these sorts of posts and I feel that pang for vanishing New York but on the other hand, I really like it when urban renewal creates beauty. The city was disgusting and sad for a really long time. Yet it was also the place where we were young.  Sometimes, people lament the passing of gross New York, but I think it is our youth we are longing to reclaim as much as those piss-stinking, graffiti-strewn subway cars.

And there’s a larger political point here in that New York is now solely a playground for the rich. The previous version had a lot of crime and danger, but it also had a lot of heart and secret spaces for the different layers of society to exist together. Plenty of spots for societal freaks to gather and find solace and laughter–the normies could keep the suburbs, we had Florent. Alas, no more.

I mean, as a child I also hated the city. Because it was gross. I cannot stress this enough. The city was super gross. But it’s also a place that I love. I’m conflicted still.

My grandmother had a friend who owned a boutique hotel in the East 50s. There’s a cocktail lounge there called The Monkey Bar and pretty much every year for my birthday we would escape the stench of hot garbage and recede into the cool dark of the air conditioned piano bar. I’d drink my shirley temple and the pianist–if memory serves, his name was John–would play some songs for me. It was lazy late afternoons when the bar was still empty and we laughed at the owner’s many stories. I didn’t understand some of the racier jokes, but I laughed along anyway.

The Monkey Bar
[The Monkey Bar, Hotel Elysée, New York]

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[Hotel Elysée with the owner at the time, Leon Quain, and my maternal grandmother, Hélène Baronnie. New York, 1979]

During this era the hotel hosted many artistic types. We were all drawn to the fact that each room had an individual style and was filled with interesting tchotchkes. It was a sort of upscale version of The Hotel Chelsea happening further south. Leon knew I loved artists like the ones in my family and he liked to tell me stories about Tennessee Williams, who lived at the hotel at the time. After that great playwright killed himself in his hotel room, Leon told us ghost stories of Tennessee’s typewriter being heard late at night by the guests staying in his former suite.

I [heart] Tennessee Williams. Every transplanted southerner who makes a home in NYC gets an extra big welcome from me. *Mwah*

The rooms were sometimes a bit dark or cramped, but they had style.71 NY Elysee Hotel MC864

[Maria Baroni, Hotel Elysée, New York, 1973]

So, you know, it is with that pang of sadness I view their website now. Those rooms might look luxurious but they also look generic. Blah. Boring. Dullsville.

I used to conflate the nearby 21 with the bar across from the hotel because it has one of those lawn jockey statues. Nothing says white privilege like a lawn jockey statue. But the city didn’t used to be so generic and homogeneous. There was crime and filth yes, but there was also variety.

78 NY, Helene with Sam

[Samantha Chardin & Hélène Baronnie. New York, 1979]

Sad when I think of this hotel today, I wonder how any creativity will survive in the city when the regular people have been priced out by new condos. Of course, New York City is a town that constantly reinvents itself. It’s a boom town right now, but pretty soon it’ll fall into decrepitude. Many years from now, those condos will be worn out and cheap and the young people of tomorrow will move back in and make the city their own again.

It’s hard to believe it, isn’t it?

Harlem was once a neighborhood for the wealthy. The rich escaped the crowds of lower Manhattan and built huge mansions in Harlem. The area eventually became the epicenter of black self actualization in the 1920s. Do you think the original denizens who built their palaces in the 1880s were happy about the Harlem Renaissance? Some of those original homeowners barricaded themselves from the outside world and became shorthand for a hoarding situation. A Collyer’s Mansion is not a happy call for a firefighter. (They were children of an opera singer, by the way. *ahem*)

The point being that now Harlem is undergoing gentrification and people are being priced out, but that will change. I can’t guess which neighborhoods will fall into disrepair in the future and become affordable, but it’s coming. It always does. Maybe after global climate change floods parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn?

Meanwhile, there are plenty of places in the world where the spirit of creativity and chaos can thrive. I love a city where a well-bred French woman of means can cross paths with a freak on roller skates and they can coexist just fine. Of course, these days my plastic wrapped roller-skater would be a tourist attraction.


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[The Naked Cowboy, Times Square, New York City]

Is this really better than the strip bars and drug dealers in Times Square of yesteryear? Is it?

See, I’m so conflicted about this! It’s cool that we won’t get mugged but I hate the new Times Square with its Olive Garden restaurant. I miss the old Hotel Elysée. The cleaned up modern version doesn’t have the same soul.

 

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