Pete Hamill: Big Things Come and Go, and That’s New York

All over New York, there are people who are upset about this or that building coming or going. I totally understand that urge. But one thing always strikes me: it’s hard to make the case that anything in New York is precious.

Pate Hamill’s book Downtown addresses this:

This book is littered with casualties of time and greed and that vague reality called progress. Just one example here: I was in high school in Manhattan when I came to know the Third Avenue El. Sometimes I took it as a ride, not just as a means of getting from one place to another. I loves its rattling noise, the imagery associated with the 1933 movie King Kong, the stark shadows cast by its beams and girders, and the rows of tenements and Irish saloons that I could see swishing by from its windows. I had no memory of the Second Avenue El, or the Sixth Avenue El, or the Ninth Avenue El. They were all gone. But in some ways, the Third Avenue El seemed as permanent as the Statue of Liberty, and for me it provided a ride through more than a simple space. It hurtled me through time as well. They started tearing it down in 1955. By the time I returned from Mexico in 1957, the Third Avenue El was gone too.

There would be many other disappearances, including too many newspapers. Buildings went up, and if you lived long enough, you might see them come down, to be replaced by newer, more audacious, more arrogant structures. I came to accept this after the el had vanished and some of the worst office buildings in the city’s history began rising on Third Avenue. There was no point, I thought, in permanently bemoaning change. This was New York. Loss was part of the deal. In that same year that the Third Avenue El disappeared, so did the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. The demise of the Third Avenue El was a kind of marker, the end of something that had outlived its time.

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