Big City Comes to the Radical: Notes on Shoreline, New York and Change Over Time (Also Known As History)

July 15, 2007, 1:11 pm

One feature of middle age for me is not just being able to reflect on my youth and see the turning points, but also to see turning points as they are occurring. Historians will recognize this as “periodizing,” something we are taught to do when we prepare for our general exams as graduate students, and which is a traditional way of organizing historical knowledge: i.e., the Age of Jackson begins here, with this event, and ends here with this event. The events on either end are turning points in which something fundamentally changes, and that change is something that the Jacksonians perhaps did, or did not, perceive as something very significant at the time. So for example, probably everyone who was sentient and following politics knew that it was a Big Deal when Andrew Jackson successfully intimidated South Carolinians into paying federal taxes and resolved the Nullification Crisis in 1832-3 by threatening to deploy the greater military power of the State against the lesser military power of a state. But who knew that at the very same time immigrant white working class identities were consolidating around a contest over the exchange value of whiteness? And who knew that South Carolina would pick up exactly where it left off, twenty-seven years later? And get twelve other states to agree to their version of history?

So on the personal history front, when N. and I moved to Shoreline three years ago, and then subsequently sold our New York apartment, this was clearly a turning point, but I now know that we were not aware that we were participating in a larger process of Historical Change; nay, we were on the cutting edge of it.

This is what I knew at the time, other than that I was sick to death of commuting and could no longer live in two rooms with another adult: that there were all kinds of things to say about why one would regret leaving New York, and why one might welcome it. On the regret side, New York is:

1. Exciting.

2. A Metropolis of unparalled pleasures in art, politics, letters, food, parties, public transportation, and fun stuff to do.

3. Very gay.

4. Internationally and racially diverse.

5. The home to at least five top-flight universities, about a zillion archives and an outstanding, varied and public intellectual life.

6. A place where it is eternally possible to imagine that one might become rich and famous, either through conscious effort or by chance.

7. The home of my youth.

But on the debit side, and I would say this is a more general phenomenon you can read about in the newspapers, those of us who decide to leave — particularly those of us who moved there in the first place to live the sophisticated, liberated life of our dreams — recognize that New York is also:

1. Expensive. Easy to live in if you are doing something overvalued, like writing books about how to spend the year living on other people’s garbage or selling antique Bakelite tchotchkes to the Rolling Stones, but hard to afford if you do something undervalued, like teaching or working with the disabled.

2. Increasingly geared to a homogenizing tourist market and the desires of very wealthy people.

3. Young.

4. A place where the bulk of full-time academics get paid less than many of us are paid elsewhere, for reasons that are a little mysterious; where the majority (as high as seventy percent) of faculty are contingently employed; and all faculty are at least as unhappy and complain as much as faculty elsewhere, if not more so, even though most of them either came to New York deliberately or refuse to leave to find satisfying work because they can’t imagine living anywhere else.

5. Home to a gay and lesbian community that has no politics to speak of beyond marriage; is either in its twenties and utterly punked out, or older and consumed with insemination dilemmas; and manages to support exactly one lesbian bar in a city of many million people, probably 300,000 of whom are lesbians.

6. Home to a hospital system that is overly stressed and underfinanced, to the extent that taking your own life after a severe ankle sprain might seem like a reasonable alternative to going to an emergency room.

This is all to say that moving to Shoreline was a quite conscious turning point for me, in the sense that it was time to take account of the fact that most of the things I had gone to New York for were either Over, or I was Over Them. For example, it ceases to matter whether there are one or twenty lesbian bars (Shoreline has one gay men’s bar, a gay men’s bar that goes lesbian one night a month, and a pizza restaurant that goes gay one night a week) if you go to bed every night at 11:00. And if you leave New York, you have a great deal more money, so you end up going back to New York to do things you couldn’t really afford before, like seeing concerts and plays.

But dig this. I noticed yesterday that New York is coming to Shoreline. For example:

This summer, three movies have been shot here, including one for which my nephew Von Liktenstein ( formerly known on this blog as Extravaganza, and known to his friends as simply Von Likt) has auditioned. Eleven movies and TV shows are waiting for permission to shoot here. This means that we have all the inconveniences of New York movie making as well, compressed into about fourteen square blocks. Many of my friends grump about this. However, since I put up with NYPD Blue in my New York neighborhood for over a decade, I am not fazed.

I was reading the New York Times today and discovered that the Lifetime channel is premiering a new television series tonight called State of Mind that actually takes place in Shoreline. The ongoing plot concerns what Shoreline is perhaps most famous for, other than Oligarch University, which is its vast community of psychotherapists. Tonight, in the premier, our therapist heroine discovers that her husband is having an affair with their couples’ therapist. This is the kind of thing that could happen in New York — or Shoreline, actually, since most days, in most parts of town, you could throw a stone in any direction and hit a squirrel or a therapist.

I realized yesterday that Oligarch, for reasons that are not quite clear to me since for many years they were happily engaged in offending a difficult but extremely wealthy alumni donor by their refusal to do this, has assembled quite the group of queer scholars. Yesterday at our neighborhood Farmer’s Market (another feature of Shoreline Life that means we can be foodies too just like bourgeois folk everywhere), I ran into my old friend George Chauncey, who came to Oligarch from the University of Chicago last year, and who used to live in New York when we were both young and jobless. He was coming from Joanne Meyerowitz’s house, which is right across the park
from mine. Joanne and her partner moved here two years ago, from Indiana. But when I realized that I might be in the midst of one of those turning point moments was when a neighborhood friend, Patty, mentioned — subsequent to me saying something typically snotty about gay marriage — that a new Oligarch faculty member had bought the condo around the corner from us, and that he was against gay marriage too. Huh? Who? Well, it turns out, it’s Michael Warner, who also used to live around the corner from us in Chelsea and worked at Rutgers. We actually thought he had followed us to our building on the Lower East Side, but later decided he just had a friend there. Clearly, however, he has followed us here, there is no question about that. And to seek a similar critical mass of queer scholars concentrated in the same way, you would have to go stand in the middle of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

So my current analysis is this: we left New York for Shoreline, only to discover that Shoreline is becoming a boutique New York. Isn’t history strange?

(This picture of the Smoothie Factory, now condominiums, in the Wooster Square neighborhood of Shoreline, was taken by Steven Severinghouse. On the left, you can see a corner of the neighborhood train station, a five minute walk from our house, that takes you to — New York!)

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