Millennial Musings

We’ve recently been inundated with a flood of books decrying “the death” of New York City. These make their case through a thick scrim of genteel nostalgia for such icons of memory as corner groceries and “nice little” florists and hat shops that have been replaced by nail salons, a Duane Reade, a Chase branch. Each identifies as the villain in the case the cupidity, opportunism, moral opacity, and indifference to time-honored notions of community and neighborhood of city developers, realtors, and landlords, and property owners, and the venality and corruption of the politicians who deliver the zoning changes, tax breaks, and subsidies that underpin many big real estate deals.

While I am hardly a fan of the glass-faced rabbit warrens that have sprouted like pimples on the face of the city in which I was born 81 years ago, I think the matter isn’t quite as one-sided as it’s generally made out to be. For one thing, there’s the notion that lies at the heart of the American experiment: the sanctity of property. Today, New York City is too expensive for a lot of people, including people who’ve lived here a long time, and I truly wish it weren’t so, but these prices find willing buyers, and property owners have rights, too (but not City Hall giveaways). Perhaps a finger might fairly be pointed at the generation now in charge. Not long ago, a prominent real estate figure said to me (and I paraphrase): “Young people today, these Millennials, have gotten rid of most of the old boundaries.”

What he was talking about was the willingness of young people, for the past 20 years at least, to live anywhere in the five boroughs. This, perhaps more than any other factor, has altered the character of life in New York City. Developers wouldn’t bet tens of millions on building in the Meatpacking District if Manhattan still obeyed the residential patterns of my boyhood. My haute-WASP mother would faint if she knew her youngest grandchild now lives in Harlem.

As opposed to my generation, which was keen on furnishing its life the way its parents had furnished theirs, with stuff, young people today crave experiences. And what seems to count for most in these is what I’ve dubbed “the EQ,” or “Event Quotient.” A key marker of high EQ is people standing on line, something I hate and avoid with real passion. To queue up with 50 or 60 others for a new way of brewing coffee or a pair of sneakers—or a cupcake—strikes me as ludicrous, but it’s obviously a form of validation, a sign of belonging, a cure for the dreaded FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) Syndrome to which young people happily admit. They want to be part of a scene. As a functionary at a (currently) high-EQ restaurant told me, “You should have seen it here Friday. Everyone was posing!”

The New Generation seems utterly impervious to noise. New York today is noisier than I can ever recall. Although shielded in theory by the looming temples of gentrification that now surround me, the rumble of the subway on the Manhattan Bridge, the constant flow of traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, the choppers overhead, the sirens, the sanitation trucks, the thronged weekend streets, even the tooting of river traffic: it never stops. And yet young people seem able to put up with it. Maybe it’s the noise-cancelling headphones you see everyone wearing.

I sometimes speculate about my quotidian life and that of my older children had we lived in the smartphone culture, now 10 years old. I doubt that anything ever invented has achieved social and behavioral dominance on this scale in this short a time. The smartphone intensifies one’s solipsism, one’s interest in and concern for oneself, which may account in some significant way for the NG’s apparent lack of interest in anything that smacks of community or neighborhood or other “externality,” and which may bear on the Millennials’ much-lamented lack of manners or interest in politics.

The NG aches for distraction, and who can blame them? These young people work desperately long hours in front of one kind of data device or another—a soul-killing process that leaves less time for reflection and contemplation and what I think of as “intellectual walkabout”—and it shows in the near-hysterical tempo of city life and the need to be where the action is.

Who’s to say the city’s a worse place than it was 30–40 years ago? I’m as nostalgic as the next chap, but I don’t get off on recollections of the city in the 1970s and that decade’s crime, drugs, and dirt. It does feel as if, notwithstanding the published population figures, there are a great more people around than 30 years ago. Many more cars, and not just Uber and its like. Many more tourists, who supply no vested long-term interest in the character of the place and turn our mainstream cultural institutions, from Broadway to Museum Mile, into box-office pimps. On the other hand, let’s be honest: the city’s progressive, non-mainstream culture—off-off-Broadway, dance, art, small-company opera, all kinds of music, performance art, stand-up comedy—has never seemed richer or more varied.

Only one thing is certain: future change will come. We may wake up one morning and find the NG has disappeared as totally and mysteriously as the sardines in Monterey Bay. And we may find we miss them—because if there’s one truism that seems to have taken over city life in this postmodern era, it’s that the worst is yet to come.