You unwittingly become a sociologist as well as a historian if you live here, because almost everything you know will get built over, change hands, lose its mojo or find it -- and that was just last week.
For writer Jay McInerney, 61, who grew up in an Irish American family that was constantly on the move, New York's endless flux is familiar.
“My father was a kind of corporate gypsy. We never lived in the one place for very long so I had to find, to decide what my home terrain was and I think New York City is my home town at this point,” McInerney told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
In his new book Bright, Precious Days (Knopf), McInerney returns to the now 25 year marriage of Corrine and Russell Calloway, the two privileged New Yorkers he introduced in two of his prior novels.
The Calloways – like the author himself – live the dream. With their loft in TriBeCa and their summers in the Hamptons, on the surface they're a picture of upper class accomplishment, but all is not well in their long marriage or their careers.
“The book takes place during the years leading up to the 2007 financial crisis,” McInerney explains. “That's the backdrop. It's a slightly different picture in 2016. The financial system didn't melt down and Wall Street didn't collapse. Everybody has charged ahead as if nothing happened, but it's a different city to the one I arrived in the 1980s.”
The city he loves and lionized in the 1980s – most memorably in his famed novel Bright Lights, Big City, which was turned into a movie starring Michael J. Fox -- is as lost now as Atlantis, he realizes.
“In some ways you could say that New York's much improved because it's safer and cleaner, but on the other hand it's a lot less diverse now. Manhattan has become so gentrified, there's less creativity, less diversity than there used to be and that bothers me,” McInerney feels.
“But to me it's still the best place in the world. I don't like the fact that it's increasingly becoming a ghetto of the rich and entitled.”
But where else on earth can one go to a dinner party and sit next to an actor, an artist, a ballet dancer, a hedge fund manager and a novelist all at the same table? For all it's changes it's still not that unusual in Manhattan, McInerney says.
That’s one kind of diversity, but many others are missing now I remind him. Drag queens are the canaries in the gay coal mine and they are shouting that the scene is dead. He nods his head.
“It's funny you should mention drag queens. The downtown scene in the early ‘80s was so vibrant and a large proportion of the people who created culture and nightlife here then were gay. I think one of things that we sometimes forget about the ‘80s was that increasingly that population was really decimated by the AIDS epidemic. 1981, ‘82, ’83, the nightclub scene in New York seemed to me as vibrant and authentic as anything I've ever seen.”
Where better for a kid raised on impermanence to decamp but the moving center of everything, which New York actually was when he came here. Does McInerney look at that time now as a kind of belle epoch?
“In a lot of ways it was in terms of creativity. It really was a sort of a renaissance because in the ‘70s it looked as if New York was completely falling to pieces and we saw it rebound in the ‘80s,” he says.
“We saw really vibrant developments in art, we saw a very vibrant music scene, there was a whole downtown culture that was really fascinating and which turned out to be very influential.
“I'm not sure I can say the same now. Insofar as those things are happening they're probably scattered around Brooklyn more than they are downtown Manhattan.”
At this point an awful lot of that original energy has been commercialized, he says. It seems like every party nowadays has a corporate sponsor, which means there's a lot less spontaneity than there used to be.
“But I don't want to sound like a horrible old fart who's nostalgic for the old days,” he laughs. “I still love New York and I still believe in it.”
In Bright, Precious Days the marriage of Corrine and Russell is increasingly on the rocks over their past affairs and the reappearance in Corrine’s life of an old and ardent paramour. Does the city make it particularly tough on couples, or is something else?
“I'm someone who has failed at monogamy several times over,” McInerney says candidly. “I've been married four times, so I'm fascinated by the idea of people who somehow sustain a relationship over 25 years, as they do in the book. I think that there may be those marriages that are untroubled and perfect, but then those probably aren't all that interesting dramatically.” (McInerney, a father of two, has been married to publishing heiress Anne Hearst since 2006).
It's hard to sustain passion, he adds. “Eventually you have to decide what kind of compromises are you going to make. Are you going to shut off that part of your being or are you going to seek it elsewhere, I guess. In this book Corrine is seeking it elsewhere (in the arms of besotted tycoon).”
The fate of love and the vicissitudes of marriage and career are his perennial themes, and McInerney captures each moment in the book with empathy and forensic precision. It's his set in stone reluctance to judge that reminds readers of his heritage.
“I'm Irish American, Irish on both sides,” he says. “My mother’s maiden name is Murphy and McInerney is Irish too of course. So yeah I'm very conscious of my heritage, especially as a writer.
“Irish literature and Irish American literature have been very important to me, whether it's James Joyce or Frank O'Connor or Yeats and Synge. F. Scott Fitzgerald has definitely been an influence on my work over the years.”
Barely in his thirties when he was being compared to his literary idol Fitzgerald, McInerney happily acknowledges just how influential Irish and Irish American writers have been.
“I was really knocked out by Joyce when I encountered him in college. At the time I was writing poetry and thinking of myself as a poet. But after I read him I realized that prose could be just as lyrical and as powerful and I just sort of switched over.
“He's inexhaustible. Every time you read Ulysses you get another ten things out of it that you hadn't noticed before.”
That admiration has taken him to the homeland many times.
“I've been to Ireland a number of times and I do feel connected to it. It's the homeland for sure. I have always been very conscious of being Irish and for that matter New York City itself is pretty Irish. The Irish and the Jews are the two main tribes that shaped contemporary New York, I don't think there's any question about that.”