Monday, July 7, 2008

There Goes the Neighborhood

Here is the English original of the article I wrote last winter for the Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) about rediscovering the spirit of my old New York life in Berlin. Before you read it, let me add the disclaimer that I still love New York! The piece is based on impressions I had last summer, while staying in the West Village, a neighborhood that has changed particularly in recent years. The image that ran with it in the FAZ (above) is by Helmut Fricke.

There Goes the Neighborhood
By Anna Winger

The last time I was in New York, a Sex and the City tour bus pulled up alongside me and released fifty female tourists from the Midwest, and their cameras, onto the sidewalk. They clamored past me towards Carrie's stoop and took turns posing for pictures, then headed over to Bleeker Street to go shopping. If you have never seen the series, Carrie, the main character, is a struggling writer who spends a lot of time thinking about fashion. Officially she lives on the Upper East Side, but in fact the show was shot on Perry Street, in the West Village, just a few houses down from my own apartment.

A few days after the tour bus incident, I ran into the actress who plays her, Sarah Jessica Parker, in the hallway of my building where, I was told, she recently bought an apartment for her personal assistant. The last time that same small apartment turned over, only a decade earlier, it had cost $40,000; this time more than $600,000. I shook my head. Thanks in no small part to her own fame and fortune, struggling writers like Parker's alter-ego can no longer afford to live in the West Village at all, let alone in Manhattan. They live in Brooklyn, or more likely in Queens.

I moved to Berlin five years ago and now, every time I go back, I wish that I could click my heels together and conjure the place I remember as home, but the New York I knew and loved is gone.

Let me begin at the beginning. The first time my German husband came to visit me in New York was in 1991. He was still my boyfriend then and I was a student at Columbia University. The subway cost $1.25 and David Dinkins was the mayor. Cultural capital still seemed more important than money. While Europeans always loved New York, because it was the least American of American cities, in those days most Americans thought of it as a dirty, scary place. My husband had never been there before so I took him everywhere and everywhere we went he said the same thing.
"I have déja vu," he said. "This is just like in the movies."
He was referring to Woody Allen movies, in which artists and intellectuals ruminated about love in nice apartments, in which politics was a more appropriate subject for dinner party conversation than real estate. After a brief banking boom in the mid-1980s, the city had been humbled by recession. The streets around Columbia were dangerous enough that the university provided football-player escorts to female students who left campus after dark. But still, the bottom is a good place to start. Rents were cheap. Everything seemed possible.

I would like to write a eulogy for New York when I was young, except I'm still young. It's New York that got old. It happened so fast.

When I was a student I used to eat all my meals with friends at a greasy spoon at the corner of 110th and Broadway called Tom's Restaurant. The menu there hadn't changed since the student revolution in 1968. We liked to stay up all night and go to Tom's for breakfast at four in the afternoon. During exam season, we brought all our books with us and pretty much lived there, since it was open around the clock. Then Tom's was cast as the regular hang-out joint for Jerry, George and Elaine on Seinfeld. My life, with a laugh-track. Europeans always loved New York, but it took TV to make it popular with the rest of America. A few years into my education, Tom's filled up with sitcom fans eager for a taste of Jerry Seinfeld's nihilistic urban experience. It was time to move downtown.

Germans always say that it's better to look at real estate in the winter.
"Everything looks nice in sunshine," they tell me. "A really good place looks nice when the weather is shitty."
This makes sense, of course, so it is either a mark of willful ignorance or blind American optimism that I have found every home I've ever had in July.

The summer of 1992, my friend Becky and I spent one afternoon walking around Greenwich Village looking for an apartment. We just rang the doorbells marked "Superintendent" on every building we liked till we were offered a place on West 11th Street, with an unblocked view of the downtown skyline, moldings and an elevator, that cost considerably less to rent than an ugly room in the dorms uptown. When I tell this story now, people look at me as if I am telling them that I remember when the movies cost a nickel. But it was only fifteen years ago, not fifty. I told you, I'm still young it's New York that got old. Or maybe it just got expensive.

Let me rephrase. I would like to write a eulogy for New York when it was cheap.

The summer I finished graduate school, in 1997, I bought a small three-room apartment in an old brick building on just about the cutest corner of the West Village. Before I was allowed to take ownership, I had to endure an interview with the co-op board about my finances. I had never had a real job.
"Tell them they're looking at a fortune in solid gold potential," my father told me going into it, referring to my lengthy and expensive education.
Nowadays, even cash buyers are required to provide letters of recommendation, bank statements, guarantors. You hear stories about people who are turned down again and again, not by the bank but by the co-op board, because their long-term financial goals just aren't up to snuff. And no one knows why: a legal loophole allows co-op boards not to disclose the reasons why they reject certain buyers. Even Madonna was famously rejected by various buildings uptown, so the fact that the co-op board in my building was willing to take me, on the basis of good education alone, tells you something about how different things used to be.

In 1997 most of my neighbors were artists and theater people who had been living in the building for thirty years. Most of the people in the neighborhood were bohemians of one sort or another who had been there since they, too, were young, because in 1997 you did not have to be rich to live there. Then Gwyneth Paltrow moved in across the street and put up video surveillance cameras to watch people passing by on the narrow sidewalk. Then Monica Lewinsky moved in around the corner, bringing with her a permanent throng of paparazzi. But it is not an exaggeration to say that what really killed the neighborhood was Sex and the City. Despite all the superficial details, by using real locations and familiar situations, this TV show managed to capture something authentic about what it was really like to be young, female and single in New York at that time. My life, with better shoes. But by celebrating the city, it exposed it. By exposing it, it ruined it. I think there is a word for this in German, one of those special words that cannot be properly translated into English. Thomas Mann used it when he was writing about Italian villages at the turn of the last century. It applies here, too.

Before Sex and the City, people who did not live west of 7th Avenue in the village rarely came our way. The streets are crooked there, have names, not numbers, and it's easy to get lost. Before Sex and the City the highest end boutique in the West Village was Condomania, a luxe condom emporium at the corner of Christopher Street, but now it's been taken over by Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren and other designer boutiques. Magnolia, a tiny little bakery on Bleeker Street where my friends and I used to drink coffee every morning is now inundated with tourists who wait in line for hours to buy cupcakes, like Carrie, even when it rains.

I know that it's too simple to blame a TV show for the demise of a whole way of life. My husband, who is an economist, and a TV producer, will tell you that there were more important factors in the recent transformation of New York: the globalization of the financial industries, the deregulation of rent-control, Rudolf Guiliani. He will point out that New York was never exactly a secret, anyway, but rather like a movie star so known to people all over the world that she seems like a friend. But if New York is a movie star then her image has changed. Forget cultural capital. These days, the city is all about money. The socio-economic diversity that made it special, the unique creativity that used to thrive on that, is gone, leaving in its place an elaborate shopping mall. This makes New York feel like the most American of American cities after all.

So you can take the Sex and the City tour of the West Village and bring home a Marc Jacobs handbag, if you like, but to live Carrie's life, you better move to Berlin.

I moved to Berlin in 2002 for love, not real estate, but boy, was I lucky. I currently live in a lovely apartment on the 4th floor of a 100 year-old building in Charlottenburg. It has lots of space and high ceilings, a view of rooftops and the sky. But the remarkable thing is not that my place is nice, but that nice apartments are easy to come by. In New York, my friends are now separated into two groups: those who made it and those who didn't. The difference between their subsequent lifestyles is so extreme that it is almost impossible to get together for dinner as a group because people feel jealous and the evening ends with bad feelings all around. Those who made it, have comfortable homes in convenient locations, good education for their children and health insurance. Those who didn't, live in tiny places on the fringe of the city and despair that they will never have children because they have nowhere to put them. One of my artist friends is planning to have her baby at home, in a one-room place, because her health insurance doesn't cover the cost of delivery with a doctor in a hospital.

In Berlin, the natives never talks about real estate and everyone has health insurance. I had my daughter here in a friendly hospital, where I stayed for four days, and a midwife who came afterwards, ten times, to my house and I didn't pay an extra penny for any of it. Germans take this kind of thing for granted because, at least in recent memory, they've always had it. But I don't. It's like university education: in America it costs a fortune, so people brag about it endlessly. Here, it's free and no one ever mentions where they studied. So when people ask me why New Yorkers are so obsessed with real estate these days I can only answer that they have no choice. If the single most important factor in your survival, shelter, became prohibitively expensive, you too would be obsessed.

But just because it's understandable doesn't mean it isn't boring. I think I moved here just in time. In Berlin, nobody talks about real estate or university education. I can invite artists and business people, journalists and students to the same dinner party and nobody feels jealous. In fact, people here rarely lead a conversation with the favorite New York question "What do you do?" This is a relief, not because work isn't interesting or important, or because I have anything against being ambitious, but because we are all more than a sum of our achievements and our achievements must be measured with more delicate instruments than money.

Because rent is cheap and there's graffiti everywhere, Americans who live here like to say that the city reminds them of New York in the 1970s, but they are forgetting that the 1970s was a time of rampant crime and corruption in New York, of racial conflict and radical feminist activism and pre-AIDS free love. I beg to differ. Berlin reminds me of New York in the late 1980s and 1990s, when I was young and everything seemed possible. What better place to grow old?

American Thanksgiving celebrates the Pilgrims' alleged first meal with the Indians and remains a favorite with immigrants of all stripes in the United States. So perhaps it is fitting that Thanksgiving is the holiday I celebrate most enthusiastically in Berlin. This past November we made two enormous turkeys for fifty people, including all the stray Americans I could round up, various other foreigners, and lots and lots of Germans. Halfway through the evening, a friend of mine came up to me with her pumpkin pie.
"I feel like I'm in a Woody Allen movie," she said. "One of the old ones, you know, when they still took place in New York. Do you remember the Thanksgiving scene in Hannah and her Sisters?"
There's no place like home.

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