It seemed like a blank decade at the time. We thought the turn of the millenium would bring new changes, a new sense of purpose. New York, by the end of the decade, was gentrifying, taken over by the dot.com bubble, the rise of the financial district. Guiliani. It didn’t feel the same anymoe.
Little did we know that the 00’s – the Naughts – would make the 90’s seem full.
A lot happened, when I look back on it. At the beginning of the decade, we still wrote letters, a long distance phone call was a big deal, you had to find a pay phone that worked if you wanted to make a call on the street and feed quarters into it every few minutes. I got a room at the Hotel 17, on 17th and 3rd, for $150 a week, and a room at the eurotourist hotel, like the Carlton Arms up the street, cost $30 a night. At the beginning of the decade, NY was my escape from a Montreal in deep and prolonged recession, a whirl of energy, people, contrasts. Fabulous architecture, bridges, industrial might. An art/ underground scene that even then was being pushed to the margins, as the underground was being pushed to the margins everywhere, yet vital, open in a way that the scene had never been in Montreal, or London where I’d spent a couple of years before coming back to North America.
The homeless were out in force, sleeping in Midtown doorways at night. On some streets almost every doorway was blocked by some huddled figure stretched out on cardboard, a shopping cart or bundle of rags loaded up close beside.
The crack epidemic was at its height. Many neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, where I live now, were no-go zone, torn apart by gang wars, drug wars, haunted by semi-comatose crackheads who were alternately pathetic and dangerous. Even in relatively ‘good’ neighborhoods, you’d find those little plastic vials with the coloured tops lying in the gutters and the pavement, on your steps.
The first full Gulf War came and went. Saddam’s million man army proved no match for the mass slaughter power of the US air force. A couple months after the war ended, Tompkins Square Riots Memorial Day 1991“>the city cleared the homeless out of Tompkin’s Square Park and closed the park for nearly two years. A few days after the clearance, the yuppies started coming out in force and you could see which way the neighborhood was going.
Despite the deprivation, New York was exciting, a place where you felt anything was possible. In many ways it was still a black city – black people dominated street life, culture, the whole tone of NY life, in a way that’s hard to imagine now.
New York was a refuge for people who couldn’t survive anywhere else, internal exiles congregating on the Lower East Side, compulsive narcissists going crazy in isolated apartments in semi-derelict areas of Brooklyn, the Village, the Upper West Side. NY’s colossal energy was a tide that washed over islands of equally colossal decay.
Brooklyn had a spectral air. Not so long before, much of central Brooklyn had been almost abandoned, the brownstones boarded up or left to the elements, wild dogs roaming in packs in areas like Fort Greene. You felt that if you stayed too long, you’d be drawn into that decay, that you had to escape into Manhattan’s energy to put it behind you.
This was the decade that saw the arrival of email, the World Wide Web, the rise of the electronic distraction machine and linking across cities, countries, worlds – the dot.com bubble that, like every bubble before and after it, was never supposed to burst. Changes that we’re still trying to grapple with today.
Guiliani took the helm and cleaned up New York. Or so his supporters claim. Certainly, he changed New York. He got rid of the Fulton Fish Market, made Times Square safe for tourists, expanded the police force. By the end of the decade, he was mostly disliked until 9-11 brushed up his image. But it’s worth remembering that NY was a hard place in the early 90’s for a lot of people who lived here. The first time I DID live here (as opposed to visit) in ’91, most native NYers I met said they wanted to leave. They didn’t want to deal with crazy people, drug addicts, gun battles, broken down trains, insane street noise. And who can blame them? The New York of that era could beat the hell out of you, make you a nervous wreck. People did drugs for a reason.
Yet in 1989, as soon as I stepped of the train, still drunk after spending most of the 14 hour journey down from Montreal in the bar car, I felt at home here. New York felt like the frontier, and since I grew up on the frontier, one of the last ones, I felt at home in New York. To me New York was a miracle, a deliverance.
And sometimes it still is.