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On the Vanishing City

It’s amazing what can happen when you walk into a bookstore.  A couple of months ago I had an appointment in Union Square in Manhattan and because the subway unexpectedly functioned not well but perfectly adequately, which is a minor miracle and frankly a bit of a surprise, I arrived twenty minutes early and decided to while away the extra minutes in the Strand bookstore.

I thought I’d see if I could pick up the new Jonathan Lethem or perhaps this satirical science fiction book from 1936, War With the Newts by Karel Capek that I had read about in the Review of Books the previous weekend, but the fiction section at the store was jammed with tourists so, somewhat ironically, I found myself in the New York section, which was empty, where a book called Vanishing New York immediately called to me.

I bought the book and started reading it on the trip back home.  The author is Jeremiah Moss and his book is a neighborhood by neighborhood chronicle of independently owned businesses: music venues, bars, restaurants, cafés and shops, that have been forced to close because of high rents and that have been replaced by chain stores.

The book gives some history too about why people are moving back to the city from the suburbs and how the eternal search for lower rents combined with the city’s willingness to give tax breaks to major corporations combined with the fact that there is no cap on what a landlord can charge for an apartment or storefront combined with the fact that landlords actually get tax breaks for empty spaces so they can afford to keep them empty while they wait for the perfect corporate chain tenant, how all of this has led to, in Jeremiah’s view, the erosion of the city’s very soul.

And if that wasn’t enough, now the rent has gotten so high that many of the big chains can no longer afford to stay open either and so we have a proliferation of high-end empty storefronts throughout the city, what’s known as high-end blight.  I read all of this on my A-train ride back to Bed-Stuy and decided to build an event around the theme of the Vanishing City.

I wrote Jeremiah through his website and asked if he’d participate in a panel discussion about this and I asked the head of Open House New York Greg Wessner as someone who would have a more positive counterpoint and then for more of an urban planning, what are the factors behind this, kind of perspective I asked Vishaan Chakrabarti who is an accomplished architect and the author of the book Country of Cities.  Amazingly they all said yes and I immediately panicked.  This isn’t my field after all, I’m just some guy who read a book on the train.

But then I thought it could be interesting to pair this panel presentation with a concert of “vanished” New York composers, folks who thrived in the New York of the ’70’s and ’80’s which everyone says was the golden era.  I talked to my friend Frank Oteri, who will also be on the panel, and he suggested Arthur Russell and Tui St. George Tucker, neither of whom I had heard of though I’ve since immersed myself in their life, times and music.

I knew I wanted to program something by Julius Eastman too and then another friend recommended Ben Weber, a composer who knew each of the others and was a kind of mentor figure to artists in the Village in that era. I pitched the idea to Lincoln Center and, again amazingly, they said yes.  So it’s all happening on September 20th at 7:30 PM.  The event will be taped for broadcast on Relevant Tones and we’ll be streaming it live from WFMT’s Facebook page so I hope you can tune in.

And in the meantime I’ll stay out of bookstores for a while.  Don’t need to get inspired again anytime soon after this one.

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