For almost two years now, from his rent-controlled apartment in New York's East Village, Jeremiah Moss has kept a list of bars, diners, cobblers, bookstores and other Manhattan momand-pop establishments that have disappeared, falling victim to rising rents, hungry developers or plain lousy business. The list, which Moss updates on his blog, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, is an elegy to the tin ceilings and dirty plate glass of a lost city. There's the old Howard Johnson's in Times Square and the Grand Luncheonette on the preDisney 42nd Street. There's McHale's Bar, Sophie's Bar, Julius' Bar, the Cheyenne Diner, the Sunshine Diner, the M&G Diner and a score of other neon-lit joints that didn't have proper names so much as regular faces. They all vanished, many swallowed by the slick glass high-rises that seem to have landed on Manhattan over the last decade like spaceships in search of a planet to colonize.
Jeremiah's Vanishing New York is among a raft of urban-nostalgia sites - including Lost City East Village Grieve and Forgotten New York - that emerged around the peak of the building boom to protest the injustices and excesses of the real estate market. Their writers long for the New York of Joseph Mitchell, E.B. White or Andy Warhol. Their model city is part Jane Jacobs, part Edward Hopper, where the counterman knows your face and the bartender knows your drink. Most of all, they see a city that has become, at the expense of almost everyone else, a playground for the wealthy. And the most strident, unapologetic elegist among them is Jeremiah Moss.
"People would say that the city has always changed," says Moss, who writes under a pseudonym borrowed from the biblical prophet who authored the Book of Lamentations, "and I would keep saying, 'No, this is not normal. This is not normal.'" Indeed, New York's building boom of the last decade has been anything but normal. According to the New York Building Congress, construction spending in New York City more than doubled between 2000 and 2008, while nonresidential construction more than quadrupled. In 1995, 5,000 units of residential housing were built; more than 20,000 were built each year from 2005 to 2008. And zoning rules that allow for more square footage, along with rising commercial rents, have encouraged chain retailers and shut out small businesses.
But when Moss talks about the slow death of old New York, it is less about numbers than about culture. The building boom, he says, has elbowed out not only the poor and middle class, but the artists that once drew inspiration from the city's dynamism and diversity. He speaks from experience. Moss moved to the East Village 20 years ago with ambitions of becoming a novelist (he has never published). The neighborhood was still on the margins; it is now a playground for the artsy- wealthy crowd, and Moss says he couldn't afford to live there if not for his rentcontrolled apartment. "Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac were [in the East Village] in the '50S and '60s," Moss says, "and I think things were going along pretty well, but then you have the next wave of people who see that artists have tamed the neighborhood, and they bring that second wave of gentrification. They're not filling empty spaces - they're filling already occupied spaces."
Moss has invented a vocabulary for those secondwave …