Relentless specificity ignites Sante’s best writing, especially his essays about New York. “My Lost City” was published in the November 6, 2003 issue of The New York Review Of Books, and is the opening essay in Sante’s Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 (2007). In it, Sante writes with lucidity, historical accuracy, and native curiosity about the urban recklessness and pleasures of his years living in Manhattan in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sante never falls for—in fact, he actively resists—the temptation to romanticize squalor; the squalor around him in the Lower East Side was all too restrictive. The occasion of the piece was a kind of reassessment of a city, the history of which Sante recognized, and then prized, nearly by accident, a city he’s come to know best after leaving it.
Like Manhattan itself, “My Lost City” sounds many notes. Loss permeates the essay, in the form of limited creature comforts suffered by the penniless Sante in the hazardous 1970s, and in the sense of the city itself vanishing to gentrification and a soaring real estate market. Wonder inhabits the essay, as the Belgian-born Sante explores on street corners, front-stoop “estate sales,” and in flea markets the deep-rooted treasures and stories of the city below Fourteenth Street. A note of regret is struck, too: Sante admits that, young and struggling, he collected historical “junk” less for its value than for its practicality, less for what it might’ve said about the past then for what it said about his desperate present.
He was being—perhaps forgivingly—short-sighted. He admits, “In our arrogance we were barely conscious of the much deeper past that lay all around. We didn’t ask ourselves why the name carved above the door of the public library on Second Avenue was in German, or why busts of nineteenth-century composers could be seen on a second-story lintel on Fourth Street. Our neighborhood was so chockablock with ruins we didn’t question the existence of vast bulks of shuttered theaters, or wonder when they had been new. Our apartments were furnished exclusively through scavenging, but we didn’t find it notable that nearly all our living rooms featured sewing-machine tables with cast-iron bases.”
This growing awareness of the epochs behind him inspires Sante to explore further and to research (and to ultimately write Low Life). He came to a grim understanding that urban renewal is a kind of necessary evil; as the city progresses, as the next privileged, youthful generation moves into the city and names it for itself, as Sante did, there’s a inevitable farewell to the past. “I remembered Baudelaire’s warning that the city changes faster than the human heart,” Sante writes. “I thought of my grandfather saying that progress was a zero-sum game in which every improvement carried with it an equivalent loss, and decided that the reverse was also true.”
The past is often razed, and replaced. Sante loves the crumbling tenements and seedy store fronts of his past the way anyone smitten with place loves its myriad shapes and dimensions. And Sante acknowledges that much of the urban unpleasantness he lived through, the meager living that was both dire and fortifying, is better civically expunged rather than clung to out of romantic misdeed. But when those buildings disappear, what’s left but a re-imagining of them?
Sante is a master of social critique masked as personal writing. On New York City’s cultural otherness: “Aside from the matter of actual violence, drugs, and squalor, there was the fact that in the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, very few born-again Christians who had not been sent there on a mission, no golf courses, no subdivisions.”
Or this remarkable passage, on the corrosive lure of slumming: “Dealers knew that white middle-class junkies thrived on squalor, that it was a component of their masochism,”
and that their masochism, with an admixture of bourgeois guilt, was what had drawn them to the neighborhood. The dealers proved this thesis daily, at least to themselves, by requiring their customers to stand for an hour in pouring rain before allowing them inside, for example, and then shifting them up five flights with interstitial waits on the landings, and then possibly, whimsically, refusing to sell to them once they finally arrived in front of the slotted door. Of course, a junkie becomes a masochist by virtue of his habit, and any of those people would have done much worse to obtain a fix, but the dealers were correct to a degree. Some did indeed come to the neighborhood to revel in squalor, and junkiedom was part of the package, as surfing would be if they had moved to Hawaii instead. They were down with the romance of it, had read the books and gazed upon the pop stars. Junkiehood could happen to anyone, for a complex of reasons that included availability, boredom, anxiety, depression, and self-loathing, but many were tourists of scag, and if they wiped out as a consequence it was the inevitable effect of a natural law, like gravity. They had been culled.Culled. What a great word choice there: the second, less frequently used definition of “the reduction of a population of wild animal by selective slaughter.” Classic Sante: the human and the animal rendered indistinguishable through thoughtful, anthropological observation, grim humor, and precise language.
“My Lost City” hums with details. Sante’s descriptions of low-rent living in the Lower East Side are lively with spiky reminders of how chancy the area, and the era, once was: bonfires rage blocks from his apartment nightly, lit by arsonists hired by landlords to collect insurance on abandoned buildings; a gust of wind sucks out an entire ill-sealed windowpane in his apartment; men pay to sleep on examination tables in medical offices (Sante acknowledges that that last detail might be apocryphal). The melancholy in the essay emerges out of the lingering haze of those long-gone details, deepening and made complex in a telling passage where Sante describes observing the movie Ragtime being filmed in his neighborhood in early 1980. All the production crew had to do, he marvels, is remove boards from busted-up windows, paint on names in gold paint, stack some turn-of-the-century items behind the glass and, voila, the past made present again. “When I walked down that street at night, with all the trappings up but the crew absent,” Sante remembers, “I felt like a ghost. The tenements were aspects of the natural landscape, like caves or rock ledges, across which all of us—inhabitants, landlords, dope dealers, beat cops, tourists—flitted for a few seasons, like the pigeons and the cockroaches and the rats, barely registering as individuals in the ceaseless churning of generations.”
While I was re-reading and considering “My Lost City,” I happened upon Alfred Kazin’s gorgeous memoir A Walker In The City, first published in 1951. Kazin’s ecstatic reminiscences of growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, though a half century older than Sante’s, share with Sante’s a bittersweet tone and the rapture of novelistic, sensual detail. Kazin, too, catalogs a litany of urban memories only to see them ultimately slip through his fingers, lost to time, renewal, and personal widening perspective. Walking toward Highland Park one day in the early 1930s, Kazin experienced a leap of clarity:
I had made a discovery; I had stumbled on a connection between myself and the shape and color of time in the streets of New York. Though I knew that brownstones were old-fashioned and had read scornful references to them in novels, it was just the thick, solid way in which they gripped to themselves some texture of the city’s past that now fascinated me…. I had made a discovery: walking could take me back into the America of the nineteenth century.But for the glow of the lyricism, this passage might’ve been written by Sante (who’s generally more circumspect with his gushing). Every generation, it seems, mourns the beauty of its surroundings, no matter how shabby or troubled, certain already of its vanishing to the next generation, which will continue the process of loss and discovery. Meanwhile, while recognizing with a twinge of pain our own, minor losses, we come closer to understanding the grand sweep of history and our small but essential place in it.
“My Lost City” is Luc Sante’s sobering tribute to a city he barely knew. “I don’t live there anymore,” he writes near the end of the essay, “and I have trouble going there and walking around because the streets are too haunted by the ghosts of my own history. I wasn’t born in New York, and I may never live there again, and just thinking about it makes me melancholy, but I was changed forever by it, and my imagination is manacled to it, and I wear its mark the way you wear a scar. Whatever happens, whether I like it or not, New York City is fated always to remain my home.
Joe Bonomo’s This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (essays) will be published by Orphan Press in March. His books include AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (editor). He teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was.