Can New York still exist if it's not shared? It's a question I've asked myself regularly over the past decade as I've watched its historic character being irrecoverably transformed – as it always being transformed – by commerce.
But in recent years it's been different. New money started bringing us a new class of new New Yorkers, people who weren't coming here to make their fortunes, people whose fortunes had already been made, people who were instead coming here to invest their fortunes, this time in brand new glass and steel skyscrapers, their go-to New York fantasy penthouses.
There were so many of them, these deep-pocketed twenty-somethings, sons and daughters of faraway moguls, who were soon seen out walking their tiny dogs in Louis Vuitton tracksuits in the early morning. We passed them on our way to work, watching them bring conspicuous bling to their every domestic chore. Good for them we thought, at first.
For years, glittery shows like Sex and The City had sold these privileged blow-ins thinly disguised gay joie di vivre and so finally they came to us, bewitched by a stylish and sexy vision, arriving like refugees from half-lived lives.
Soon they bought up all the old gay cafes and clubs and bars and many of the old bohemian artists and rockers haunt that surrounded them - and closed them.
Then they built even more soulless glass and steel condominiums in their place to house the endless procession of pod people looking exactly like themselves.
They did not speak to us, they did not speak to their equally deep-pocketed new neighbors, their money did all the talking. It placed closing signs and for sale signs everywhere instead.
Exclusivity was suddenly having a heyday here. Oh, New York has always had it's upper-class cloisters but never have so many doors been closed to so many New Yorkers by so comparatively few. Exclusive gymnasiums, clubs, bars, social centers, restaurants, nightclubs, dog hotels, even coffee shops, all began to flourish here in the last decade. If I had to describe the time's character I would call it The Great Exclusion.
Once upon a time, New York was the place you came to in search of opportunity and a second beginning (and behind that, yourself) but now it was an inverted Eden where all the gates were shut, a profound reversal of its historic character and mission.
Can New York exist if it's not, in some sense, shared? The gays, longtime canaries in the coalmine, were singing out about all this from about 2005 on. The scene is dead, we told each other. Our bars and clubs are all on borrowed time. Good times are getting thinner and thinner. Did you hear they closed Limelight, The Roxy, Splash, Therapy?
We were ignored. But spilling out of the clubs late at night we started seeing something that we had never seen before: professional heterosexual couples in haute couture glaring icily down at us from their condominium windows, ready to call the cops or the neighborhood watch if the party dared to follow out onto the pavements.
Licenses were soon being challenged. Fun was soon being curtailed. Raucous New York nightlife was being cowed and silenced. A huge city-wide silence was descending.
I know what you're thinking, t'was ever thus. Well no, in fact. It wasn't ever thus. The city that never sleeps really did stay up nights. It was only over the last decade that its character was purloined and neutered by people who came here to escape people like themselves. They set all our alarms on snooze. They turned gay bars into cupcake shops. The little galleries closed. The anarchist cafe's shuttered.
Listen I like my sleep too, but I like the option of not sleeping if I so decide, and that option was being taken from me, without any discussion or consideration, and all the lights of the gay world started going out. The artists were next. Then all of bohemia.
They can't help themselves. They have reflexively recreated the miasma they had tried to escape, I told myself one evening as I watched these dead-eyed blow-ins navigate between their private gymnasiums and private wine bars and nightclubs, usually dressed like high-class hookers or Armani gigolos. They have covered this city in the tedium they thought to outrun.
So it was always going to be unsustainable, this silly TV fantasy of exclusivity and style. But what, I started to wonder, would finally pop this escapist balloon? I knew that something was going to because the city had not delivered on its promise and had even committed the ultimate sin, it started reminding them of home.
The thing I remember most now is the boredom on all their faces. They often looked haunted and cheated and disappointing and numb as every street corner shop became a Duane Reade or a Starbucks. I never dreamed that look would turn from boredom to fear, though. I didn't dream a pandemic would come along and achieve the thing that even tedium could not.
We have already passed from the great exclusion to the great escape in just a decade. When Covid-19 lifts we'll discover that our latest group of rich unfriendly blow-ins have already high-tailed it. They won't be coming back either, so hopefully, the good times will.