Pete Hamill on Rent Nostalgia

Have you ever read Pate Hamill’s book Downtown?

It has a lot of great stuff about life in New York City. "New York," he writes on the first page, "is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly tests of will and even courage, and huge dollops of pure beauty." Anyone care to argue with that?

The whole book is rich in historical perspective from all angles. And when you talk about how New York used to be, inevitably someone starts talking about how much cheaper New York used to be. For instance, Hamill writes of Little Italy:

Some families stated in the same tenements for decades. Others could not bear the thought of leaving behind the coffee and pastry at Ferraro’s or the Café Roma, the cheese, bread, and pastries in a dozen beloved groceries.

And that that too all changed. In the 1980s, the third generation of Italian Americans began to leave. They were Americans, after all, and many had now gone through high school to the City University, and then on to medical school or law school. They moved to Staten Island or New Jersey or Long Island, where they could own homes, have American driveways where they could park American automobiles, and have American barbecues on Sunday afternoons in summer. They found no raffish charm in the myths of the Mafia and the dumb stereotypes that came with those myths. Some of the old tenements were sold. Most were rehabbed and rented for sums beyond the imagination of the older residents. As in other parts of New York, some people fell into a new longing for the past: rent nostalgia. "See that place? My aunt used to pay sixty-two dollars a month there; now it’s eighteen hundred!"

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