For good or ill – usually the latter in recent years – the US tends to introduce trends that are then exported to this side of the pond with increasingly indecent haste; we’ve already unfortunately become accustomed to American-style militant race-baiting via the latest strain of a seemingly incurable virus (i.e. Identity Politics), and a recent essay I came across on the current state of America’s most exciting city, New York, could well prove to be the shape of things to come. Of course, anyone with a long memory will know NYC has been in a bad way many times before and has always shown a Phoenix-like propensity to rise again. One only has to recall the trauma of 9/11 as an example, and even a quarter of a century before that the city was on the brink of complete collapse. With a failing economy due to deindustrialisation, and an appalling crime rate that drew the dregs to the city and kept fresh investment away, New York was confronted by bankruptcy.
Never was this state of affairs portrayed with more gruesome eloquence than in the words of Travis Bickle, the antihero played by Robert De Niro in 1976’s ‘Taxi Driver’, arguably Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. Privy to the diary entries of the disturbed Vietnam vet, the viewer sees the Big Apple from the despairing ground level perspective of the New York cabbie whose bleak reflections on the city and humanity in general are understandably formed by what he experiences on his journeys. ‘Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash from the sidewalks,’ he writes. ‘All the animals come out at night – whores, scum, pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies…each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the backseat; some nights, I clean off the blood.’
When he picks-up an unexpected fare in the shape of Presidential hopeful Charles Palantine, Travis tells the politician the city is ‘like an open sewer, full of filth and scum…whoever becomes the President should really clean it up…just flush it down the fuckin’ toilet.’ At the same time ‘Taxi Driver’ was at the cinema, my own view of NYC was being shaped by the ultimate flipside courtesy of Saturday afternoons watching BBC2 – primarily the 1949 MGM musical ‘On the Town’; yes, that’s the one with Gene Kelly and a young Frank Sinatra playing two of the wholesome sailors on shore leave in New York. When one thinks of the joyously innocent way in which the Big Apple is portrayed in the all-singing, all-dancing classic, it’s hard to envisage a greater contrast with the-then contemporary image of the city on the big screen; but one was a knowing fantasy and the other was rooted in realism.
Another movie from around the same era as ‘On the Town’ that presents New York as an enchanting safe-space is Vincente Minnelli’s lovely little romantic drama, ‘The Clock’, starring his soon-to-be missus Judy Garland at her most adorable. There were echoes of the film’s charming village-like re-imagining of New York in 1961’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, especially the delightful sequence in which the characters played by George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn spend the day together doing things neither has ever done before; as with ‘The Clock’, New York is presented as a exquisite playground in which a splendid time is guaranteed for all. Neither of the movies foreshadows the decay and the despair that runs through ‘Taxi Driver’, though Scorsese’s film gives no positive hint of the economic rebirth of the city that came in the 1990s.
However, even when NYC was in its mid-70s death-throes, the dirt-cheap slum housing in pre-gentrified neighbourhoods provided affordable bases for the city’s influential Punk scene that produced the likes of Blondie, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and Patti Smith, whilst the more moneyed hipsters could get decadent at Studio 54, the nightclub that was the epicentre of the Disco scene. But how does this pop culture history lesson relate to New York in 2020? Well, the New Yorker James Altucher has written an essay on – of all places – LinkedIn, one he titled ‘New York City is Dead Forever’; and if anyone should know, a New Yorker should. Looking long and hard at his home through pandemic-tinted spectacles, Altucher finds little evidence of the city’s legendary ability to rise again after five months of lockdown. What he has to say serves as much as a poignant comment on the contemporary city as Travis Bickle’s monologue did for 1976.
The centre of business in NYC, Midtown Manhattan, is like a ghost town; offices have reopened, but most of them are empty; workers are staying at home and doing their jobs online without feeling the need to return to the office. The thrusting phallic towers of New York that are so key to its skyline were built to emphasise the prestige of business and the fact that each building needed to be big to contain its thousands of employees; without them in it, you’re effectively looking at an edifice with as much relevance as a monastery after Henry VIII’s dissolution. Not only are workers staying at home – they’re making their homes elsewhere. New York is currently experiencing an unprecedented exodus; rents and the value of houses are in freefall. If you want to sell your property in New York and relocate to another part of the country, you’ll struggle; the prices of property in places like Miami, Salt Lake, Nashville, Dallas and all the other far-flung destinations to which New Yorkers are fleeing are soaring. So desperate are New Yorkers to get out, they’re buying without even having viewed their new homes in person, merely relying on a Zoom-tour by the estate agent. And they have to be quick to pick these places up ‘site unseen’ before they’re gazumped.
Those that left the city during the coronavirus outbreak fully intended to be back in a month or two; they’re still away. Then a further batch departed during the rioting and looting that followed; unsurprisingly, they see no need to come back either. The pop cultural element of New York is in the same deep-freeze as business – live venues, museums, theatres, galleries, cultural centres, Broadway et al are all yet to reopen their doors; these are the kinds of places that not only employ tens of thousands of individuals whose lives are on ice, but also bring in a vital revenue for the city from tourism. For those who believe the city will recover as it always has in the past, James Altucher has no crumbs of comfort. ‘This time, it is different,’ he writes.
A video that appeared online shortly before the James Altucher piece almost acts as an accompanying illustration. In many respects, it’s 2020’s equivalent of Travis Bickle’s drive through the city’s underbelly – only, we’re not in the Bronx or Harlem; we’re on Fifth Avenue. The camera follows a path along what should be one of New York’s commercial hubs, yet virtually no window is without boards over it; virtually no shops or businesses are open. It really is akin to an apocalyptic scene from an old future-shock movie like ‘The Omega Man’ or ‘Escape from New York’, and it’s worth remembering this is the effect of the aftermath of the lockdown. These places aren’t barricaded to keep out Covid-19, but to keep out rioters and looters. The streets of New York have seemingly been reclaimed by those Travis Bickle would have held responsible for the state the city was in almost fifty years ago. And if the trend of America doing first what the rest of the West then replicates continues, we’re looking at the future. Don’t have nightmares.
© The Editor