With skyscrapers rising and infrastructure rotting, novelist Paul Auster explains what makes him “wistful” about his changing city.
Question: What's changed the most about New York City in the time you've lived there?
Paul Auster: Well, I've been here a long time. My grandparents lived here, so I've been coming into New York since I was an infant, my whole life. I didn't start living here when I was 18, when I went to Columbia. And accept for those years in France and a couple of years living upstate New York, I've been in New York City the whole time. So probably of my 62 years, probably at least 55 or 56 of them have been lived here.
The New York of my childhood was a very gracious place, I thought, unthreatening and comfortable. It was the old New York, the New York of middle class people. And then by the late '50's, things started to disintegrate. Businesses closed up, the middle class fled to the suburbs, New York became poorer and poorer and more and more dangerous. And there was a period, I would say from the, say, mid '60's into the '80's, when New York was a threatening city to be in. Still with its charms and its great advantages over just about any other place in the United States, but not always an easy place to live in. And now, in the last 10 or 15 years, New York seems to have been rejuvenated. It's become, again, a very wealthy city, which has its advantages and disadvantages, its good points and bad points.
I think that I mourn the passing of places, the disappearance of things that were touchstones for me for many years and then you turn around, and suddenly, the place is gone. So things are changing in New York all the time, and I must say, I've become a little wistful for things that have disappeared.
Question: Is New York in ascent or decline?
Paul Auster: I think it's going in both directions at the same time. The funny thing is, New York was the first modern city in the world. And now it feels very old. You go to a place like Paris, since we were talking about Paris, Paris has completely revamped its infrastructure, it feels modern, it's a high-tech city, everything works. You know, the subways are beautiful, the streets are clean, there aren't any potholes anywhere, it functions. New York is falling to pieces. And I think we need vast, vast works to fix the place up. I know, people are trying, but, you know, I live in Brooklyn and I go over the Brooklyn Bridge frequently and they're repairing that thing all the time. It's a constant job.
And then, there's been all this new building in New York. So part of it looks pristine and as if we're living in the 23rd century, and then big parts of New York feel like the 19th Century.
Question: What will the city be like in 50 years?
Paul Auster: 50 years? It's hard to guess. Because it all depends on who's planning things. When you think about the Robert Moses era, and Jane Jacobs, if you know who I'm talking about. Well, Robert Moses, he was the, you know, the planner for the city, he wanted to level Greenwich Village, this was back in the '50's, and put a big highway right through it, just knock all the buildings down. Jane Jacobs, an activist, urbanist, fought it, got a lot of support, and this was blocked.
So, by that much, you know, the Village was almost razed to the ground. Maybe this is going to happen in the future, but probably not. We now have landmark commissions and so on and preservation. So I don't think everything is going to be destroyed, but a lot is going to disappear, a lot of buildings that we treasure now. Watching, you know, years ago, Penn Station be demolished, it was one of the most beautiful public spaces in the city, gone, for this wretched Penn Station we have now that no one likes. It's painful, it's very painful.
Recorded on November 5, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen