Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Gloom and doom

I read many a blog lamenting the demise of the New York of yesteryear. It is fascinating to learn about what has gone before, particularly from Forgotten NY, but I generally find the overall tone a little too doomsday for me, elimination of subway lines excluded. Yes, many of the glories of yore have vanished, but so have plenty of problems. Call me bland, but I'd rather have a Times Square with its (certainly bemusing) pedestrian mall than one overrun with sex shops. Call me a gentrifier (and believe me, I do this in my guilty head a lot), but I'd rather have a coffee shop with friendly staff and delicious fare than an unfriendly neighborhood institution where the waiters hit on me creepily (but that's another story). So, all in all, I think change is a mixed bag, but not without its redeeming factors.

But yesterday night around Union Square I found my agreement with the bloggers growing. I got the first inkling at the Strand, which I guess is not gentrifying so much as diversifying from its publishing (is dead! long live publishing!) inventory. There's something creepy about the lovably grimy store of your childhood transformed into a plethora of trendy kitchen instruments and a candy bar assortment that Willy Wonka would envy. Of course, there are still books, but every day it seems like the selection has decreased and the prices gone up and they are rearranging the place so damn fast I can never find what I'm looking for anymore. I experienced a moment of fondness for my neighborhood library which, though with its own set of problems, doesn't place a candy counter between you and your book purchases.

All this was bad enough but it wasn't until 14th Street proper that I really felt that old New York was dead. Walking to Strand as a child, I remember the giant construction pit on 14th that gradually rose up to become a Virgin megastore, movie theater, and Circuit City. Chain storey, sure, but I found myself visiting all of them at one point or another. But, yeah, record stores are practically no more, Circuit City has been replaced by a glossier yet less-content-filled Best Buy, and Nordstrom Rack, a monstrous glass Citibank office, and a shiny new-style Duane Reade have taken over the rest of the 14th Street side of the building. From the street, it looks exactly like a generic anyoldplace strip mall.

And I found something utterly sinister about the inside of the Duane Reade. I generally like the store, since it's more or less a New York institution (though that's questionable now that it's been bought up by Walgreens) and of course since each one is equipped with an ATM from my bank. But the 14th Street branch doesn't resemble a drugstore anymore. Instead, it's a space age emporium and I had trouble describing it to my companion: grocery store? department store? The aisles are shiny and filled with displays of products I might otherwise like--Eli's sandwiches, Rice to Riches pudding, Rob's iced tea (I regret I did not make it far past the food, what a surprise)--but there is something disturbing about finding them inside a drugstore. This is the future, I told my friend. One surgically neon-lit sell-all cure-all emporium. Forget about buying rice pudding or sandwiches or what have you straight from the source. Forget about the joy of exploring a new neighborhood and finding out its specialties. Forget about each neighborhood looking substantially different from the one next door. Nope, it's one size fits all, and this size is going to cover the globe. I can't wait. Can you?


  1. If it's any consolation, noted New York institution Macy's has basically swallowed every other city's flagship department store whole!

    So every place will be the same, but the various Buy'n'Larges will have different roots?