For those New Yorkers of a certain age and certain background, the concept of an “authentic” city experience always seems just out of reach. We live in the era of super-tall buildings with $50 million apartments, brownstones in Bed Stuy that trade for $2 million, and a designer clothing store inhabiting the former home of the Ramones, Talking Heads and Misfits. Immigrants dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters are a far cry from Times Square’s halcyon days of strippers and drug addicts, and the East Village embodied by Jonathan Larson’s Rent is a distant memory. The Bronx is booming, not burning.
For long-time New Yorkers, the city has lost some of the je ne sais quoi that made it special. Sure, it’s safe, and anyone who bought an apartment 30 or 40 years ago is sitting on a valuable investment indeed, but the grittiness of Old New York is no longer with us. It’s too safe; it’s too sterile; it’s too much of a playground for the rich. The cleanup efforts that started under Rudy Giuliani culminated in a 12-year Bloomberg mayoralty, and today, New York is a big booming city that’s pushing gentrification into areas that, 10 of 15 years ago, seemed impregnable and immune to the coffee shop-and-kale expansion.
Nothing quite encapsulates New York’s rebound from the depths of Drop Dead 1970s quite like the subway. Today, nearly 6 million people per day ride the subways, but in the nadir of the 1980s, Crime — not of the “Showtime!” variety — breakdowns, track fires and derailments were the norm. The Bernhard Goetz shooting came to symbolize an era of unrest when subway ridership was sparse, and on one would ride late night through certain neighborhoods. Ridership in 1982 was 938 million; ridership in 2013 was 1.708 billion. We ride at 2 a.m. without thinking; thirty years ago, this was unimaginable.
For younger New Yorkers, for transplants, for children of the late 1980s who came to New York for that authentic experience, it’s gone. The L train has new rolling stock and is packed to the gills 24/7. The J and Z trains ride through some gentrified and gentrifying neighborhoods, and a trip through East New York is simply a means to get to JFK or the beaches in the Rockaways. This is the New York of the 2010s; this is not New York of the movies. Kurt Russell escaped, and the city hasn’t been the same.
Still, that desire for authenticity persists which leads me to Shaina Stigler, a 25-year-old performer who, according to reports, moved to New York in 2007 and this past weekend tried to recreate an era for which she wasn’t alive. When the Daily News first reported on the 1980s recreation set for a G train on Friday, I was inherently skeptical. While I’m no fan of the bank-ification of Manhattan real estate, development and growth should be encouraged, and for many reasons, I find fetishizing nostalgia highly problematic. It focuses on the image of grittiness without exploring what were deep-rooted crises and social ills plaguing the city.
Stigler’s piece though was ostensibly art and a means for self-expression. In one sense, that drive to create and perform has been a part of New York through good times and bad and will always be an undercurrent in the life of the city. And yet, in reading, Sarah Goodyear’s wrap up of the subway takeover, I had the distinct sense that this was the 1980s through the lens of the privileged class of 2014 New Yorkers. Stigler claimed she wanted to recreat what Goodyear termed the “grimy, traumatic, and glorious ’80s,” but from the photos, this was heavy on the glorious, low on the grimy and traumatic.
To recreate the scene, Stigler decked out a car in plastic wrap and had a graffiti artist create the illusion of a tagged car. They even enjoyed the company of old Guardian Angels, though none of them faked any crimes on Friday. It seems and sounds surreal. “My generation romanticizes that time,” Stigler said to Goodyear. “I think as artists in particular, we are definitely feeling a lack of authenticity in the city. As it gets cleaned up and made more beautiful, it’s lost a lot of what made it great to begin with. Back then it was more of a life or death thing. It was, How much are you willing to risk to be an artist or whatever you want to be? Through that adversity and through that struggle, amazing, beautiful things can happen.”
The 1980s in New York were not a rough time for everyone, but the adversity that Stigler mentions today involves waiting a few extra minutes for a G train that, thirty years ago, the crowd celebrating on Friday would never have ridden. The adversity of the 1980s included a crack epidemic and the AIDS crisis. It featured parents so overly concerned for their kids’ safety that some of my friends — native New Yorkers at that — took their first ever subway rides when we went to Yankee Stadium to celebrate my 10th birthday. This ain’t no party, David Byrne once sung, and it wasn’t.
But we can remember through nostalgia too and hold onto parts of forgotten New York that made people want to come to the city in the first place. If we forget, do we lose that part as well? Dwelling on the negative without celebrating the positive will make us forget why we’re here and why so many people wanted to be here. Authenticity is ultimately what each person makes of it, and it’s a balancing act. Maybe there is no authentic New York and maybe there never was. Maybe authentic New York is what each person makes of it every day.