The End of Decay

New York City
May 4, 2017
The End of Decay

I had a terrace on 27th and Lexington. It faced north. From it, you could see both the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. You could see Curry in a Hurry. The year my parents moved in they rolled a sheet of Astroturf across the terrace. I was two years old. The apartment was $700. When it was going to reach $2,000, it was just my mom’s house. I was twenty. She left New York. So did I. The same Astroturf was there. It was barely green. It was matted flat. It still had the burnt spots from when my father used a disposable mini grill to barbeque during the summer (it was our yard). It had the stains of the delivery I ate in solitude (it was my hideout). It had the bird shit, which aged yellow. It had the sneaking rain and the snow, which aged gray. It still had glitter stuck in its fibers. I swear it was from a phase when I was eight, but there could have been other glitter. The Astroturf was like a convalescing animal, and I liked to play nurse with it. When I was fourteen I got high enough to try to see what was under it. I picked at the corner with a butter knife until it let me through. There was some dusty red tile. When my mother and I left New York, I packed everything I wanted to save in the trunk of a shitty red sedan and drove. We were supposed to rip out the Astroturf. We left it.

When I tell people Los Angeles is experiencing New York’s gentrification—New York galleries, New York real estate companies, ex-New Yorkers—I count myself among it. People love an “ah ha.” “But the iPhone in your hand!” Contradiction and complicity are like noise pollution. I ask Siri what planes are flying overhead and she tells me: five. One Korean Air, two United flights, two private jets. I know what it’s like to be priced out, at the same time all I know is comfort; safety in the devastation gentrification reaps. You learn that all the black dots underfoot were once gum. You learn that there was once a theater here. You learn what a real estate company means when it says “artist.” What a city means when it says “arts district.”

I do not aim for a romanticization of rot. Or to claim it is always possible to spot the difference between the happenstance of age and the strategy of neglect. But what is “gentrified” as an aesthetic category, but an erasure presented as a cleaning? What is gentrification besides the end of decay? My dad had a recording studio in a wonky ground floor and basement on Crosby & Spring, marked by a gray door and a little red buzzer. He started renting it when I was born. He lined the drum booth with Astroturf. Two years ago, when the new tenants came to inspect their acquisition, they told him how his office would make an excellent dressing room. When I tell people about the Tenants Union, I try to explain how peaceful rage can be. (It’s alright if you want to call it astroturfing.)

I spent a lot of time in the hallway of my building on 27th and Lexington. First, the carpet was blue and the wallpaper was a speckled gray, and you could see the staples that held one to the other. My dog and I would run back and forth. The hallway was the distance of about half a city block. It was a big building. When he got tired and wouldn’t run anymore, I would sit with him pick at the staples. Then, the wallpaper was sand colored and the carpet was an emerald green, with a sand colored flower turned into geometry, repeated over and over and flecked with red. I liked to put my hand on the wallpaper right out of the elevator and not take it off until I reached the apartment. I liked the heat. My mom kept correcting herself. The “super” had become the “manager.” I couldn’t have been old enough to ask if it really was an improvement or an invitation to some one who longed to replace us. What I said was blue was my favorite color.

Aesthetics often allow systems to appear like the result of a choice: people like x, want to live y. This is the myth of the market as a self-sustaining ecology. Home as habitat. Home is more like an industrial production of the state. Like national security. Like the production of weapons. World War II brought boom, and the GI bill brought the insurance loans, made the single-family homes, chose the suburbs, chose whiteness. Twenty years later, cities chose austerity, public-private partnerships, private development, chose Trump, chose whiteness again. Here, aesthetics are better understood as a symptom. Demolition is more profitable than restoration. Housing, not tenants, is the protagonist of policy. But in another way, it’s true about choices. Apathy is a choice: becoming a tourist in your own neighborhood. Becoming a tourist as a way of being in the world.

I visited the building on 27th and Lexington. I went to Curry in a Hurry for the view. Upstairs, where the windows curve. They got new chairs, they weren’t wood but they were in the style of it. But you could still feel the 6 train as went by, rattling the water in the plastic cups. They had torn off the façade of my building a few years ago: no more terraces. Bigger windows, smaller units, was my best guess. From my seat, it looked like they were at work elaborating on the penthouse. My curry was too mild. I know nostalgia is always for something that was never there in the first place. Like, you might remember grass, but it was really Astroturf. But what if the thing you’re nostalgic for is a kind of homespun fake, or free decline, if what was there was always exactly what was expiring. That seems like something worth remembering: death. I was talking about plastic surgery, and my friend said, “isn’t age just growing into a form you didn’t expect to be in?” Oh, there’s “goodbye to all that.” But maybe better, “what was the use of my having come from there / it was not natural to have come from there / yes / write about it if I like or any-thing if I like / but not there, there is no there there.”

—Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal