“Where are the people?” one of my friends asked when we saw West Side Story at the Lincoln Square AMC a week before Christmas. We knew the Spielberg musical was tanking at the box office, but we thought that a theater sitting on the actual terrain of the movie plot might be a draw. It was a rainy Saturday night, and I had to assume that the old people—the only viable audience for entertainment set in 1957—were staying away because of that and Omicron. Even with Tony Kushner as screenwriter, these aficionados of the late, great Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1981-2018) could not be coaxed out.
But then you could ask “Where are the people?” about anywhere in New York. When there’s a void of crowd, an emptiness, you sense that the would-be masses are off together doing the same thing. But what—hunkering down or partying hard? Regardless, they were doing it outside the five boroughs.
News sites are filled will articles about COVID-exacerbated conditions that were already problems in 2019. In New York City, it was the MTA’s abysmal service, its de facto purpose as homeless shelter/asylum on wheels, and the shortage of affordable housing. For at least a decade before COVID, beloved restaurants and neighborhood services were shuttering because of astronomical rents. The city surprised everyone with its 2021 comeback, only to get smacked down by Delta and Omicron.
I admit to being one of those people who conflate the question of New York’s economic survival with the survival of its cultural history. I suppose it’s because we live with the scourge of “presentism”—a word that sounds made up by a middle-schooler but is actually a term for considering the values of your own time as the only valid lens through which to view history. Ironically, lost history and identity is a subtext of Spielberg’s revival—gentrification by rich white people nullifying everything the turf-war combatants stand for. You’d think such a concept would have some presentism resonance—the bitter hatreds on two sides fighting over a mere 20 blocks. But then you’d have to be willing to view history on its own terms—something colleges and universities no longer advocate.
Academics across disciplines have become increasingly worried about young people’s indifference to the past and their dismissal of events that occurred during eras they consider morally repugnant. Ironically, as William Deresiewicz points out, it was higher education that embraced the ideology of social justice “with all the certainties and all the furies of a new religion on the march,” with institutions “rebrand[ing] themselves en masse as seminaries of social action.” (So much for trifles like the creed of George Emerson in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View—“Beauty! Joy! Love!”)
A few days after seeing West Side Story, I was walking down West 57th to see the Bergdorf holiday windows. You get to pass the Solow Building, and I always forget the dazzling impact of the giant candy canes hanging across the front plaza. Even though the building opened in 1972, its frontage on both 57th and 58th reminds me of the title sequence of Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg’s 2002 movie that also opened right before Christmas. Unlike West Side Story, Catch Me If You Can made a lot of money because it had the hot young Leo DiCaprio, not because it was set in the early sixties of Populuxe and the Saarinen TWA terminal at JFK.
This year was the first time I looked at those candy canes and wondered: How long before this building can no longer evoke a white-men-in-power era with impunity? How long before there’s a reason for its architectural esthetic causing offense, for its no longer being right? Visible through the ground-floor windows are pieces of the late Sheldon Solow’s art collection in a perpetually closed gallery—a Franz Kline, a Matisse, a Balthus. This is how a lobby full of art looked not just in 1972 but back when West Side Story hit Broadway, when things were bad for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.
It seems like so many things that have existed in benign neglect for generations are just asking for a Twitter trial date—although there are exceptions. Joan Didion’s passing on December 23 occasioned many stories about her recent embrace by younger generations of woman. The 20-year-old Didion moved to New York City in 1956 to work for Vogue and stayed until she got married at 28. What I remember from reading Slouching towards Bethlehem at the age of 26 was disliking “Goodbye to All That,” an essay in which she does what writers of every decade since, say, the 1920s have been doing—declare that whatever gave the city its zest was over.
But whereas these other writers—I’m thinking New Yorker icons like Joseph Mitchell and Maeve Brennan—observed changes over decades, Didion took only eight years to decide that she’d been there and done that and was bigger than New York. She was not impressed let alone humbled when her new husband made the decision to cut bait and leave for the other coast (she had left Vogue, but his decision to quit Time was apparently the one that mattered). I can see how Didion’s self-certainty has made her so much of the moment. Her writing will remain relevant (and taught at universities) because her own life is central to her telling of history—it works with identity politics. Whereas the writing of Joseph Mitchell and Maeve Brennan has already fallen away into the ether because the starring role goes to the city. All that this kind of writing does is show you what New York was like in another time, just like West Side Story shows you what it was like when Joan Didion arrived here, afraid to ask how to turn off the hotel air-conditioner.
People who have no need for history often assume that those who do are clinging to a romanticized past. Since childhood, I’ve loved reading about “olden times” I had no desire to live in. What I loved was the linkages between these alien, foreign worlds and my own immediate but seemingly circumscribed one. When I imagined the vastness of existence, my knowledge of history gave it a fuller, more emphatic vastness. It was like having new, more exciting dream memories implanted.
Twenty years after Leo DiCaprio told the bank teller played by Elizabeth Banks he wanted to buy her a steak dinner, Steven Spielberg can’t keep a musical afloat in the face of Spiderman. Sure, his movie has young actors, but they’re not wearing Lycra onesies and prosthetic appendages (Shark Man! Jet Man!). During these intervening 20 years, the price of a non-organic banana at Trader Joe’s has amazingly remained 19 cents, but very little in our world has stayed the same.
When you think about it, both of these Spielberg films are about teenagers who must act like adults—many of his films have that feature. Maybe it’s just as well that young people stayed away. After all, Spielberg’s teens must accept full responsibility for their lives. They leave their countries and live independently in a foreign place; they do time and come back alone to face the consequences of their transgression. As in the Peanuts movies, parents are nowhere to be seen. Nor is there magic wizardry waiting in the wings. For the white JDs of the Jets, the West Side of this story does not even seem like America but maybe the slums of Rio in the 2002 film City of God. The trigger warning might read: Contains no men made of iron or steel, no Dumbledore or Gollum—only extended representations of mortality-laden adulting. §