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  • Garth Wolkoff

The Paradox of Nostalgia

Updated: Sep 11, 2018


James T. and Karla L. Murray's "Mom and Pops of the Lower East Side," 2018.


Nostalgia can be a pernicious social disease. I wonder if anyone is completely free from it?


I know I am not.


I miss being 21, and 24, and 31. I miss punk rock. I miss being healthy (well, healthier). I miss looking through bins at used record stores as a teenager, and riding my bike up and down the Venice Beach Boardwalk searching for an end to high school ennui in the surf, panhandlers, guys selling weed, skateboarders, palm readers, and Vietnam Vets. I miss the forest and coast of my college town, Santa Cruz. I miss college itself, working for the school newspaper in the 1980s. I miss being bad. I miss the hiphop of the late 1980s and early '90s. I miss a President operating out of an ethical framework. I miss reading and writing in grad school, first discovering New York in the 1990s, and falling asleep in the backseat of the family Ford Station Wagon on the way home from Sunday afternoon Dodger games in the 1970s (and Dodger World Series championships in the 1980s).


Oxford defines nostalgia as, "A sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past." I have a sentimental longing for certain periods and places in my past.


Writer Michael Chabon described nostalgia in The New Yorker last year:


Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German's sehnsucht, Portuguese's saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.


Chabon identified two kinds of nostalgia. One is the heart-string pulling, mournful sadness of feeling untethered to people, places, and experiences in our past. My parents are dead. The Ford Station Wagon has long gone to the scrap heap. I live 2,800 miles and 41 Google hours without traffic from Dodger Stadium, where the Dodgers have not brought home World Series rings since 1988.


The other nostalgia, he argued, is "predicated on some greatness of the past or inability to accept the present." Make America Great Again comes to mind. It is the stuff of white supremacy and institutional sexism. It is the nostalgia expressed by Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, longing for a time when pale male giants walked the earth, swinging their dicks and their guns and their laws designed to keep everyone else subjugated. Keep segregation alive! Keep everyone in their place! Pollute without regulation! The 1920s! The 1950s!


To wit: The Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group, published its annual American Values Survey in 2016. The survey results said that "51 percent of the population felt the American way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s,"according to the online science and culture journal Nautilus. That is what I mean when I call nostalgia pernicious. Nostalgia for a better time, when America was "great," slaps the present in the face--it is hurtful to those whose parents' or grandparents' suffered from extreme forms of bigotry, hatred, and poverty during those epochs.


Are Chabon's distinctions real? Can you have one kind of nostalgia without the other?


I felt a paradox of nostalgia viewing James T. and Karla L. Murray's exhibition in the middle of Manhattan's Seward Park, at Canal and Essex streets. "Mom and Pops of the Lower East Side" (2018) is four, super enlarged photographs (three are pictured above) of the kinds of businesses once common on the Lower East Side and elsewhere, but are now shuttered and replaced because of gentrification. The almost life-sized images appear on all four sides of a wood-framed structure, plunked down amidst the trees and small children running around in the park.


The exhibition photos, up in the park until next year, are from their book, Storefront: The Disappearing Face of New York (2010). The Murrays began photographing graffiti art around the city in the 1990s. Because graffiti artists often paint over other graffiti, they would return to the same spot multiple times. By the time they made their second or third visit, "Many neighborhood stores had closed, or we would come across 'old' stores, still in business, but somehow different. They were either refaced, remodeled, or original signage had been substituted with new, bright and shiny plastic awnings. The whole look and feel of the neighborhood had changed and much of its individuality and charm has gone." So the couple began photographing, "preserving" in their words, the storefront shops and signs that had begun to evaporate in all five New York boroughs.


Bed-Stuy: Tompkins Avenue between Jefferson Avenue and Hancock Street. James T. and Karla L. Murray (2006).

I can't do justice to these brilliant 35-mm prints from Storefront: The Disappearing Face of New York with my iPhone, but I wanted you to see a few from Bed-Stuy, where I live. The one just above is on Tompkins, the north-south cross street nearest to my apartment.


The Murrays make the point that the neighborhood shops and storefronts add definition and character to uniquely New York City blocks. Some were family-run businesses from the turn of the last century, two, three generations. They existed before chain stores, and provided more service, more tradition. Drug stores before Duane Reade. Mom and Pop bodegas and corner stores before 7-Eleven. Candy stores before cafes. "Not only are these modest institutions falling away in the face of modernization and conformity," they write, "the once unique appearance and character of our colorful streets suffer in the process."

When the Murrays begin to write and show pictures in their book of Bed-Stuy, they do what so many white people do--they connect Black people and crime, and the ugly binary of good and bad neighborhoods arise. "Although crime has decreased significantly since the 1980's and the neighborhood has gradually improved. Bedford-Stuyvesant continues to be stigmatized by a negative public perception. Bedford-Stuyvesant is regarded as the second largest African American community in the United States, after Chicago's South Side." I am not saying that the Murray's argue that crime is indelible to Black neighborhoods. But I do wonder about their convergence in this introduction to Bed-Stuy.


Tompkins Avenue near Vernon Avenue James T. and Karla L. Murray (2004).

The Bed-Stuy shops in Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York were often owned by the children of immigrants, many, it would seem, from Europe. Other shops were purchased in the 1960s. The Murrays interviewed Catherine Keyzer, who opened up Katy's in 1969 but was born and raised "on the corner of Tompkins and Lafayette," which is exactly where I live now.


"I was born and raised in this Bed-Stuy neighborhood and I've seen a lot of changes. I was here when it was all Jewish and Italian and when it changed to Spanish and Black. I've been through the dope, crack, and everything else this neighborhood has thrown at me. I speak three languages, English, Spanish, and Motherfucker. You've got to be tough to survive around here." Keyzer said, at the time of the Murray's interview, that she would have to close down in 2009, when her lease is up. A new landlord, she said, "wants to convert this whole building into luxury-type apartments, and have something more upscale in this space...So in 2009, after 40 years in business, I'll be forced to close and the kids in the neighborhood will no longer have a place to buy penny candy."


According to the Brooklyn Historical Society, Katy's was the last remaining penny candy store in New York, but closed two years earlier than Keyzer predicted, in 2007. When I walked over to the block recently, her building had not been remade into luxury condos or apartments, but remains a series of shuttered shops, an empty art gallery, and recent vintage corner deli. I asked an older couple who were walking past "what happened to the candy store," and the woman said, "Katy died," and walked on.


Where Katy's Candy Store used to be.


I am an outsider. They did not have penny candy stores where I grew up, in the West-Los Angeles suburbs of Southern California. So I do not feel nostalgic for them. But the loss represents Chabon's ache, although for something else.


Are both of Chabon's definitions at work, the paradox of nostalgia? Or is this just some straight-up 1980's and 90's Frederick Jamison Post Modernist "late capitalism...consumer society, media society, information society, electronic society or high tech...multinational capitalism"?


If you juxtapose Katy's penny candies with all the mass-produced candy available at the deli that now occupies the corner of the same block, I can imagine feeling nostalgic for both the price of the penny candies, but also the variety and simplicity and ritual. I can also imagine looking at the time period of penny candies as being great, in the Trumpian sense, or at least better--the disappearance of stores and storefronts that both pull at our heartstrings and signal a changing economy and national culture.


The New York Times reported this week (September 6, 2018) that all over New York City, storefronts are vacant--in Manhattan, 20 percent of retail space is currently empty compared with seven percent two years ago, and that unoccupied storefronts seem to be replicating like cancer cells in rapidly gentrifying areas of Brooklyn. The Times article also criticized what has happened in the wake of closing shops--graffiti, drugs, prostitution. "Soaring rents and competition from online shopping have forced out many beloved mom-and-pop shops, which many residents say decimates neighborhoods and threatens New York’s unique character," the article said.


Sounds like what the Murrays have observed, a disappearance that has been happening for a while now. And it sounds like Jamison's late capitalism from his influential 1980's article "Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" (which later became a 1991 book with the same title): the merging of the aesthetic--in this case our nostalgia for the look of pre-gentrified neighborhoods--with the direction of capitalism in 2018--those gentrified neighborhoods themselves, the rising rents, displacement of long-time residents, outsiders pouring in changing demographics, new policing, housing shortages.


More recently, Jamison, one of the few critics I can actually call "a favorite," who is now 84, was interviewed in an Atlantic Magazine article. “'It’s very interesting!'" he said, in the 2017 article about the resurgence of the phrase late capitalism. "It’s kind of—how should I say it—symptomatic of people’s feelings about the world. About society itself.”


And that gets us back to nostalgia. Trump voters and conservatives have been associated with a nostalgia for when America was great, which is a platitude and a euphemism for BtBP (Before the Black President). The rest of us may feel a nostalgia for a time when we could afford rent (not sure when that was, but I'll play along), when we didn't face environmental armageddon, when luxury apartments didn't displace long-time working-class and middle-class Black residents, when mom and pop stores occupied places in our lives instead of Duane Reade and 7-Eleven--a time when the world didn't seem like it was going to hell.


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