Concentrated Nostalgia: Our Obsession with The Beginning and The End of New York


I have a file somewhere on my computer where I keep what I call Page 10 Gems — single sentences, usually from the New York Times, buried deep in section A, or even deeper, that hit at something truer, and more powerful, than even the most timely news can aim for. The best so far: “New York City history, a force so cruel and monolithic that the mightiest are left to froth like sea spume in its wake.” (Curious? It’s here.)

New York, maybe, is all history. The bars that used to be better, the neighborhoods that used to be tougher. Life is this way, but as New York is a more concentrated kind of life, so is its nostalgia a more concentrated nostalgia. Lately, even New York’s future is its past. Have you seen the ads for the History Channel’s new show, Life After People? Look from one angle, and it’s the Chrysler Building. Look from another, and the tower’s in ruins, real eagles perched watching from its avian gargoyles. Movies too — I Am Legend, of course, and the forthcoming The Road. Then there’s Mannahatta, which I’ve talked about before — a book that takes you back to the island before Hudson, a tiny strip of land crisscrossed by bears, beavers, and Lenape tribes. And the book that started the trend, The World Without Us (If you really can’t read it, at least follow this flow chart to the end.)

Why this obsession with post-people — or pre-people — primeval New York? Is it a reality check? Your hiked-up MetroCard fare is more palatable knowing that the subways would flood in two days if we didn’t spent the money to run constant pumps. Is it to remind us that we matter? The Chrysler’s still there, after all, and bronze sculptures will stick around for 10 million years. Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle. The city is a roiling ocean of past and present power — towers, monuments, Robert Moses: the buildings you’ll always look at, the gum that never leaves your shoe — as much as it’s a swarm of trends and fads, the stuff that’ll fade into the muck in a few weeks, whether the pumps stop running or not. Into this mess we wade, constantly judging our own relevance, yet sure we’ll never die.