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Mars Bar, demolished in 2011.

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Searching for New York City’s lost soul

A walk through the East Village with Vanishing New York’s Jeremiah Moss

Some say the East Village is dead, Manhattan has been murdered, and New York City has lost its soul. Some say that if you stand in the right place and squint hard enough, it can almost seem like the old city is still alive.

Jeremiah Moss likes to think of the city as a crime scene, which he is investigating for clues, searching for the cause of death.

In his new book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, Moss sets out to chronicle what, exactly, has gone wrong with New York, where greed, hypergentrification, and government policies have conspired to kill off the unique character of dozens of neighborhoods.

“I want it to be a body of evidence—this happened, this happened, this happened. When you lay it all out like that, it’s undeniable,” says Moss during a recent walk around the East Village. “It is not a natural change. It’s very deliberate, it’s very planned. It’s from policies, and the policies have values behind them, and the values are very clear. They favor the already better off.”

Blarney Cove, demolished in 2014.

Moss has lived in the East Village since 1994, and is now surrounded by evidence of its demise. Punk bars have been replaced by bank branches. Flophouses have been emptied out and turned into high-end hotels. Artist’s studios have become exclusive restaurants. Pierogi shops are now luxury boutiques, and lunch counters have become chain restaurants. A few plaques are scattered here and there, honoring the cultures that have been displaced, but for the most part, the East Village has lost its vibrant heart.

“I don’t think it’s quite dead—it’s mostly dead,” says Moss, who has documented the closing of many of his favorite neighborhood haunts, from the Amato Opera House to the Blarney Cove. “There’s not that many places left that I want to go into, and that makes it difficult. But I do find that Tompkins Square Park is still Tompkins Square Park, and I am often heartened when I go in there and see that the soul, if you want to call it that, of the East Village is still alive.”

“We all have our own lost city. If we stick around long enough, we lose the city of our youth, our dreams, and foiled ambitions,” he writes in Vanishing New York. “But this book isn’t about how we all lose our personal city. It’s about how the city has been taken from us. It’s not just the story of a death; it’s the story of a murder.”

Surma Book & Music Company, closed in 2016.

For the past decade, Moss has been tirelessly chronicling the death of New York City’s mom-and-pops on his blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. As the website gradually developed a wide following, writing a book seemed like an inevitable next step. But Moss, it was recently revealed, is actually the pen name of Griffin Hansbury, a psychoanalyst and social worker by day, and a poet and author by night. And Hansbury did not want Moss to become the dominant literary identity.

“I did not want to do the book,” Moss explains (he prefers to go by his nom de plume when talking about Vanishing New York). “I had written a few novels, and I really wanted to get them published, and nobody wanted them. But people kept telling me ‘you have to write this other book, you have to write the Vanishing New York book.’ So I did it under duress in the beginning. And then it just clicked together. I realized that the book was going to enable me to tell the whole story.”

The book version of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York does away with much of the blog’s episodic structure, and instead of adopting a nostalgic coffee-table format, it aspires toward much larger ideas, encompassing sociology, urban studies, and a historic sweep going back to the 1800s. Because of the author’s background, however, it never feels like a dry academic work; it is instead a blend of personal memoir, biting observations, and copiously researched background.

Weighing in at a hefty 465 pages, Vanishing New York squeezes an enormous amount of detail into its 27 chapters, including long lists of shuttered businesses and vanquished shopkeepers. If New York City has 8 million stories, than at least 4,650 are referenced in the book, which will serve as an invaluable resource to future scholars of the city. As its narrative moves north through Manhattan, visiting neighborhoods that have been gutted in recent decades—the Bowery, the Meatpacking District, Times Square, Harlem—it is interspersed with deeper considerations of how we got here as a society.

Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, due to close in 2018.

Its liveliest sections recount Moss’s own stories of loss, which include wandering the halls of the Chelsea Hotel on its last night in business, crying alone over blueberry blintzes during the final days of the Edison Cafe, and visiting the Playpen in Times Square for one last interaction with a “live nude girl.” Over the course of the narrative, it becomes clear that what Moss has been chronicling over the past decade is a deeply personal story.

After a while, though, readers may find themselves numb to the overwhelming scenes of destruction in Vanishing New York. Like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, the painful repetition of so many neighborhoods being bulldozed begins to blur together into one larger crime scene, where the blood stains haven’t really had a chance to dry. For those who have lived through the city’s many recent losses, the book may still be too raw to consume.

Nevertheless, Vanishing New York has clearly hit a nerve; profiles of Moss appeared in every major New York publication this summer, which has been a mixed blessing for its formerly anonymous author.

“It’s been both wonderful and overwhelming, and I am sick seeing myself everywhere,” says Moss, as we sip egg creams at Yonah Schimmel on Houston Street. “I feel both grateful and fortunate, and like I want to hide and go back, and say ‘leave me alone,’ like Greta Garbo. I am 46, and I have been writing since high school, one thing or another, trying to get published, trying to get heard, and having very little success at that. And so, to finally have an audience that’s listening and appreciating it, I don’t know that I have the words for it yet.”

For now, Moss is still able to walk down the streets of his neighborhood largely unrecognized, though a couple friendly readers have already approached him on the street. And he still has a handful of old places left that he likes to visit.

“The East Village still has a few things worth staying for.… We still have a couple bookstores, a few places to get a real egg cream, and a last record shop or two,” Moss writes in Vanishing New York. “So I stay, but more and more, I wonder why.”

Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery has been on Houston Street since 1910, making it one of the oldest establishments still remaining in the neighborhood. Countless other stores, restaurants, and galleries have closed in the last decade, as a result of gentrification and rising rents.

Inside the bakery, a handful of regulars enjoy their daily knish. “When you ask me about the neighborhood, it’s a big question,” says Moss, reflecting on the East Village’s hyper-gentrification and a rapid influx of wealth. “It is physical space that’s changed, the shops and the businesses. But the part that I really want to try to get across is that when we see the closing of these little shops, that’s the toxic fruit of this system.”

“I think too often people get stuck on the nostalgia of it,” says Moss. “They tell themselves these things which I think are memes, like ‘this is normal, New York is always changing, people have always complained about New York changing, going back to the 1800s.’ We’ve all been brainwashed.”

At the nearby corner of East First Street and Second Avenue, a luxury apartment tower and bank branch have replaced Mars Bar, one of the most storied dives in New York City. “That’s always the leap, from something democratic or useful to something high, high end,” says Moss. “The juxtapositions are so stark.”

Demolished in 2011, the Mars Bar was replaced by Jupiter 21, which offers “the finest luxury rental apartments in the East Village.” The new building also houses the Alchemist’s Kitchen, a “whole plant tonic bar” that offers nutrient IV drips, an infrared sauna, and a cryotherapy lounge. “You can’t make this shit up,” says Moss. “This is not an equilibrium. This is insane.”

Moss points out that one of the only reminders of the old, gritty bar are two large photographs displayed in the lobby of Jupiter 21. “This was one of the last old dive bars, back in the day,” a Jupiter 21 resident says. “They replaced it to make housing for yuppies. Make the East Village great again!”

Three blocks away from the Mars Bar, fresh graffiti and a plaque mark the site of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s old studio on Great Jones Street. From the outside, the building still looks like a piece of the old neighborhood.

Inside, however, the building now houses Japan Premium Beef, which sells $130-per-pound wagyu beef, and Bohemian, an exclusive invite-only restaurant. “I try to be really careful about not saying all rich people are evil. I don’t believe that,” explains Moss. “I do believe that we have a society that values greed. This is part of why we have the government we have now. This is why things are falling apart.”

The White House Hotel, one of the last flophouses on the Bowery, closed its doors in 2014. Only six residents remain in the building, despite being offered buyouts by the new owner, according to an employee. “That’s the connection I really want to make with this book,” says Moss. “It’s this battle between the haves and have-nots. The people who have power and the people who do not have power.”

A new restaurant is planned for the former flophouse’s lobby. “I think it’s important to talk about what happens when there is a different character in a neighborhood, a different kind of personality, a different kind of mind, even,” says Moss. “And that’s where I bring in my psychoanalytic self.”

“There is a different mindset in the East Village, the Lower East Side, and a lot of these hyper-gentrified neighborhoods,” explains Moss. “And it comes with money, it comes with a particular relationship to money.”

The last keys to the flophouse rooms still hang behind the front desk, a reminder of the Bowery’s displaced population. “I see these people moving into these neighborhoods, and you feel it, everybody feels it—that attitude of entitlement and dismissiveness,” says Moss. “And that’s really a tragedy. That’s a social disintegration.”

“It’s happening in every city, not just in the United States, but every globalized city around the world,” notes Moss. “Berlin, Paris, Venice, Barcelona—they are all having the same problems: overtourism, hypergentrification, corporatization, inequality.”

Like Yonah Schimmel, McSorley’s Old Ale House is one of the few century-old businesses that still remain in the area. At the right time, when the crowds have not yet arrived, it can offer a respite from the rapid changes happening outside. “11 a.m.—that’s the only time I will go to McSorley’s,” says Moss.

“This is great; it’s so quiet,” says Moss, while enjoying mugs of light ale. “On a holiday weekend in the summer, New York becomes New York again, because all those people leave. And it feels different. The energy is different.”

“Even in the howling crowds, as the city crumbles and dies all around us, now and then, here and there, if we’re paying close attention, we can still find pleasure in the gifts of New York,” Moss writes in Vanishing New York. “It’s just a hell of a lot harder than it used to be.”

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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