A 'Land Rant'
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Closing the Gate
I used to spend my Saturdays wandering around Greenwich village. It was a wonderful solitary adventure. I followed pretty much the same route every week, but every walk was unique. This was in the early 90s, during the Dinkins years, which wasn't, all in all, a bad time to live in New York City -- assuming you had a decent job. The subways had just been scoured of graffitti, although they were still getting around to some of the more remote outer-borough stations. (I wonder whether they ever fixed that light in the long, dark passageway at King's Highway, Brooklyn...) For a newcomer, New York's street life was vibrant and multifarious; the City's next Mayor had not yet come along to implement its social sanitation.
Recently I was back in the City and took my old walk again. And I felt like I had landed in one of those science-fiction stories where someone goes back in time and accidentally changes one tiny thing -- kills a butterfly, maybe -- and all of the future is subtly changed for the worse. I was stunned to discover how many of the places I'd frequented in those days -- restaurants, stores, small commercial establishments of various sorts, or just hangouts -- were gone, replaced (if at all) by franchise outlets.
During this visit, a friend and I, who are given to hashing out matters economic, got to talking about New York City's interesting double-think in the area of tenants' rights. Apparently residential tenants have all manner of recourse. Landlords aren't always helpful, of course, especially when they want to clear out old leases and go co-op! But today's rules make it very difficult for a residential landlord to get rid of a lessee who wants to stay. In many cases they are offered large cash settlements to move out. This is not so, however, for commercial tenants. Their landlords can move them out with something close to complete impunity. Some even resort to incentives like cutting off the heat, or leaving the water on in the empty suite upstairs.
The irony of all this is astounding. It's always popular for a politician to say that small business is the engine of our economy; that that's where most new jobs are created, and that embodies the real can-do American spirit, yada yada yada. The fact is, though, of course, that we take great pains in this country to make small business as difficult as it can possibly be. We squash personal initiative and creativity, and replace it with the kind of stamped-out sterility that can ensure a good bottom line.
Come along with me on my Saturday stroll through Greenwich Village, and you'll see what I mean.
Morning in the Village was always the quietest time in all of New York, because, naturally, so many of the denizens were late risers. I would climb out of the Subway at Astor Place and have breakfast at the Riviera Diner, a classic old-time diner with an encyclopedic menu, swarthy waiters in uniforms, a place where you could read your Times and sip coffee all day long if you wanted. It's defunct, alas; replaced by a Starbuck's.
There was always excellent basketball on view at the West 4th Street courts, and a huge crowd of spectators. In those days the games were informal, but the quality was high. The teams were very definitely formed and came to play rival teams. But there were no officials; fouls were self-called. I saw occasional grumbling, but none of the histrionics you see in refereed games. This was street ball at its elegant best. Now? The games still go on -- but the rent at this famous intersection is too high for folks to resist the chance to cash in. Teams have uniforms with sponsers' names. There are refs in black and white stripes with whistles, and even a scoreboard. There are announcers. And whether or not (as I strongly suspect) the quality of play has dropped, the games surely are less fun to watch. If you want the good street games, the hoops without the hoopla, you gotta go to a less pricey playground.
From there I would always wander down Sixth Ave. (Please don't say "Avenue of the Americas" -- whose idea was that?) and check out the vendors. They sold books, comics, arts & crafts, incense, leather goods. Like the basketball games, they were unregulated -- yet exceptionally well-ordered. The same vendors would appear week after week. At the end of the day a station wagon would (presumably) come and whisk away their tables and wares, but somehow one never saw this. They were marginal entrepreneurs, unlicensed and unprotected, and now they are gone; nothing at all has replaced them, and Sixth Avenue is just a glary thoroughfare, not a destination.
In good weather Washington Square Park always rated a walk-through, to smile at the teeming humanity, the bright orange-robed hare Krishnas, the dogs catching frisbees. The western end of the park was always alive with scruffy, dreadlocked chaps whispering, "Smoke...sense..." Which made sense, I suppose; although I never availed myself of their services, I always felt vaguely reassured by their presence. Some kinds of drug dealers gave me the willies, to be sure, but these guys didn't. One afternoon I walked along whistling some jazz thing, and I'll be darned if every dreadlocked dealer in the park didn't come urgently up to offer me fine smoke. Perhaps it was some sort of a signal; or maybe my music simply needed mellowing. I don't know, but those guys are utterly gone, now. The bad Bob Dylan sing-alongs are as funky as the park gets nowadays, and the cops posted there are not reassuring at all.
If one frequented the same paths in the Village, on summer Saturdays, solitary and unhurried, one couldn't avoid getting to know some panhandlers. No doubt this was a superb neighborhood for petty charity. Now, I have no interest in the debate over whether or not it is good to give; all I can say is that I felt more comfortable giving than not giving. In fact, I would occasionally load up my pockets with change. That felt luxurious. Normally, you see, the finitude of one's pocket resources necessitated a wearisome sort of charity-triage. If you were going to give at all, you had to evaluate every single beggar, all the while trying to make some sense of your own criteria! But, having brought a whole pocketful of change, you could offer fitty cent to everybody! Unless you've tried it, you can't imagine how liberating that feels.
In those days, panhandling was an industry of sorts; certainly there was competition. Some, in fact, were quite good at it. The fellow at the Chem Bank lobby 6th & Waverly proudly displayed his clippings: he had actually been rated the city's #1 bank-lobby doorman by the readers of one of the city papers. And he ran a tight lobby, too. Kept the place clean, entertained the patrons-on-line, and allowed other homeless to nap in the hallway, but not if they smelled too bad. These days, there's not much panhandling downtown, and what little you do see is desperate, not stylish. No doubt many New Yorkers will see that as progress. But since the overall income-disparity levels of the Big Apple haven't changed much, I know the needy people aren't gone. They're just out of the faces of the tourists and the middle-class voters. And that makes for a poorer, paler Saturday.
My favorite Saturday lunch spots were either McBell's pub, on 6th, or a wonderful Mexican/Indian restaurant (whose name, alas, I cannot recall) on MacDougal. McBell's was the very picture of a New York Irish pub; they got to know you there, and served up a fine plate of fish & chips. It is a recent casualty, apparently; some of its furniture is still inside. The Mexican/Indian place was a classic. They made a fine enchilada and a quite passable chicken tikka masala. The decor was boldly painted with dancing Indian and Mexican women. The proprietors were a married couple, he Indian and she Finnish; a Scandinavian-style filigreed border ran around the ceilings. A fat, happy cat always blocked the stairs to the basement restroom. I knew things weren't going well when, having finally secured a liquor license, they installed a bar. They folded soon after.
My ultimate destination on these Saturday walks was always the same: the legendary jazz oasis called the Village Gate. Saturday afternoons were for jam sessions. Students from NYU or The New School would play, with oldtimers, newcomers, dreamers, people hoping to get up a gig, people looking to refine their style. The music was uneven, but always new, and the weekend jams brought in a tight group of regulars. Then at the dinner hour, there'd be the classy, light-bebop singing of Lodi Carr. The piano was never in the best tune, but that didn't matter too much to the sublime, nonstop trilling of Herman Foster. Then at eight an up-and-coming quartet for the evening set (my friend Sonny behind the bar called them her "YUMMies": Young Upwardly Mobile Musicians). All this for no cover; the terrace entertainment was just to get people in to the main shows that went on downstairs in the main club, or upstairs at the top of the gate.
It was a magical place, my school of jazz education, and much too beautiful to last. When the Gate's twenty-year lease ran out in 1994, there was just no way the club could meet the "fair market" rent. The site now houses a CVS Pharmacy -- which, of course, put out of business the old drug store next door, where the Gate staff used to get all their prescriptions and cigarettes. But, like a stubborn, bedraggled ghost, the old "Top of the Gate" marquee, still announcing Penny Arcade and Jacques Brell, hangs on the corner of the building.
Lindy Davies — June, 2000
Lindy Davies runs the Henry George Institute, the leading educational institution that teaches the ideas of Henry George.
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