Bright Lights, Big City: Early 1980s New York

 

The Write Crowd: McInerney, Janowitz, Ellis, 1980s, NYC

“Die Yuppie Scum” was common graffiti that writer Jay McInerney remembers spotting around his East Village neighborhood in the early 1980s. A graduate of Williams college, McInerney studied creative writing (with Raymond Carver) at Syracuse University, and in the early 1980s, he was back in New York City, living in the East Village and working as a reader at Random House. Meanwhile, he wrote the novel that would make him famous.

Bright Lights, Big City: You Are Here

That novel, Bright Lights, Big City, set in early 1980s New York and published in August 1984, would forever change McInerney’s life. He was anointed one of the “literary brat pack,” along with other young writers, Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero), David Leavitt (Family Dancing), and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York), and he was credited for (and sometimes accused of) giving voice to a generation.

McInernery was part of a new wave of young writers that Newsweek called the “divine decadents.” One editor described these writers as possessing a complete unwillingness to “struggle” as writers have historically. No, this new breed was getting paid upfront, and the payments needed to be large. “[T]here’s a preoccupation with making money among this new generation of writer,” the editor continued, “They all approach writing in some ways like baby stockbrokers.” Nikki Finke, “Literary Brat Pack: Bright Lights, Big Advances,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1987.

Man on the Street: Jay McInerney in NY Magazine, October 1984

McInerney was also part of a re-envisioning of a changing New York City. By the late 1970s, New York had become the ultimate symbol of an America in decline, full of decay, corruption, and vice.  

Much of the city was an “urban wasteland,” as McInerney described Manhattan in the early 80s. It was “a war zone,” he remembered, “where muggings and rapes weren’t considered news. The Hells Angels ruled East Third Street, and after dark you went east of Second Avenue strictly at your own risk. The cops didn’t go there. East Tenth beyond Avenue A was a narcotics supermarket where preteen runners scampered in and out of bombed-out tenements. In fact, great swatches of the city were dirty and crime-ridden. Even the West Village was pretty gritty by today’s standards, and Times Square was a scene of spectacular squalor.” (Jay McInerney, “Yuppies in Eden.” New York Magazine, September 28, 2008.) 

Tag You’re It: A Graffiti Covered City, NYC in the 1980s

As a dweller in this urban wasteland, McInerney would be part of the reconfiguring of New York City as a sort of mythic landscape–a post-sixties American terra incognita. It was a place on the brink of drastic changes, and in its stark contrasts, its poverty and its increasingly visible wealth, it served as a kind of battlefield for the self, where the “rugged individual,” armed with little more than a Sony Walkman, could lay claim to the city streets for him or herself.


“Manhattan’s kind of a place where the rhythm is like attention deficit disorder,” McInerney reflected in an interview with David Amsden that appeared in The Asthete. “Temptations. Distractions. This is a city that celebrates conquests of all kinds above everything.”

And indeed, at the time of McInerney’s ascent to literary and pop culture fame, New York was in the midst of being conquered. Early 1980s New York was a city shifting gears. Neglect, poverty, and corruption had made their mark throughout the city in the 1970s– especially in certain areas such as the Lower East Side (aka LES), which included the neighborhood, the East Village. (Time travel to 1980s NYC in this amazing video.) The 1970s had not been a prosperous decade for the U.S. or for NYC, and an early 1980s recession intensified the anger and despair that existed throughout the country.

So-SoHo…1979, Crosby and Spring Streets: An Urban Landscape. Thomas Struth, photograph.

At the time McInerney was writing, an army had come to the city, its ranks full of the forces of gentrification. First, artists famously encamped in neighborhoods like Soho and the East Village where studio and exhibit space could be acquired inexpensively. (Read about the complexity of this movement in former Village Voice art critic Gary Indiana’s account, “One Brief, Scuzzy Moment,” New York Magazine.) That wave was accompanied by another force, this one more monied and more focused on making more money: the Young Urban Professionals, aka, Yuppies.

McInerney remembers the anger that existed towards the encroachment of Yuppies (hence the “Die Yuppie Scum” sentiment); that anger was, he remembered, “a function of rapidly escalating real-estate prices in the East Village.” “Yuppies in Eden.” 

A 1980s flâneur
 Man, what a Manifesto.

But McInerney rejects the idea that Bright Lights, Big City is the quintessential Yuppie manifesto (you can read his argument here and also his fascinating account of early 80s NYC). Nonetheless, Bright Lights, Big City would become linked with the zeitgeist of the 20-something educated urban dweller, the individual who came of age in “post-revolutionary” America, and grew up in the wake of earlier movements (women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, et al).

But for some people in this generation, the new revolution would not be about changing the world; it was about getting to the top, claiming victory for oneself.

Bright Lights, Big City is the story of a 24-year old man (unnamed) who struggles with a life out of control: a failed marriage (to a beautiful model), a cocaine addiction, a mind-numbing job as a fact checker (at a New Yorker-like publication), an inability to write (his life’s ambition) and a too-expensive apartment on West 12th Street (although well-appointed by his erstwhile wife).

McInerney’s protaganist–let’s refer to him as “X” since he has no name– closely resembles the author himself (the two have parallel biographies). Throughout the novel, as the reader follows X round the city, we find that he is a man who is deeply critical and irreverent, profoundly unsatisfied, and entirely unable to perform a “Horatio Alger” and pick himself up by the bootstraps. (“You wanted to skip over the dull grind of actual creation,” X notes about his inability to write, p. 54.)

He is late for work. He has hangovers. He hates his boss and is indifferent to his colleagues (he even forgets to bring his co-worker her Tab soda! How rude!)

The city too is in its own mess. The New York of McInerney’s novel is not a terrain of rugged plains whose drama comes in the form of natural disasters, such as a deadly tornado. “In the city it’s man-made,” X observes of the urban tragedies all around him, “Arson, rape, murder.”

This mess of a place is the perfect setting for a person that is so at odds with himself that all he can do is to wander at all times of day and night. Whether riding the subway, walking to his office, or inhabiting the famed Odeon nightclub (which opened in 1980 and still exists at 145 W Broadway), X is in a tangle.

As X wanders the city, high on coke or in a dizzied hangover state, he is not a flâneur in the Walt Whitman sense (nor is he the accutely observant city-wanderer Julian in Teju Cole’s 2011 Open City).

Charles Beaudelaire observed that “the perfect flâneur” was a “passionate spectator.”

No, this post-industrial flâneur takes only selective notice of his surroundings. Because he is so focused on his inner life and his own “existential” personal dramas, he sees only snippets of the dramatic stories unfolding within the city: the story of a missing girl or the saga of the “coma Baby,” two stories he views through the headlines glaring at him from the New York Post (which “confirms [his] sense of impending disaster” p.75).

The novel, written in the second person, uses a narrative point of view that is uncommon, but not unique. Its use in Bright Lights serves the narrative perfectly: it is a perfect form of self-indulgence, managing to both refer to the character and the reader. The ultimate narcissism.

Revolution of Self: Each to His or Her Own Sony Walkman
 Me, Myself, & My

That narrow view of self and of place was in perfect synchronicity with a post-1960s sensibility, embraced by some in McInerney’s generation: a kind of hyperactive “me” generation, with the pursuit of self-satisfaction the highest form of living (“Greed,” as the iconic 1980s character Gordon Gekko states in the 1987 film Wall Street, “is good.”)

This was, after all, Ronald Reagan’s America. And although the recession that played out most intensively from 1980-1982 would strongly impact working class and poor people, the post recession upturn in the stock market brought about a welcome relief and sense of renewal (for those who benefited), especially after a tumultuous decade that opened with protests against the Vietnam War and closed with the Three Mile Island meltdown.

By 1984, Reagan’s reelection campaign focused on appealing to that sense of renewal via the famous TV commercial, “It’s Morning Again in America.”

Yup, it’s the Eighties
 Lifestyles of the Rich and Yuppie

During Reagan’s first term, a pop culture icon appeared on the American scene in the form of one of the most famous of Yuppies: the character “Alex P. Keaton,” portrayed by Michael J. Fox on the TV show, Family Ties.

(It’s no coincidence that Fox would play the protaganist of McInerney’s novel when Bright Lights, Big City was made into a film that was released in 1988. )

The Yuppie Handbook (a satire of its progenitor, The Preppie Handbook, 1980) arrived just in time (1983) to offer a step-by-step guide to the trappings of 20-somethings everywhere. New York, with its Wall Street morality, was an epicenter of sorts.

Definition of a Yuppie (according to the Handbook): A person of either sex who meets the following criteria: 1) resides in or near one of the major cities; 2) claims to be between the ages of 25 and 45; 3) lives on aspirations of glory, prestige, recognition, fame, social status, power, money or any and all combinations of the above; 4) anyone who brunches on the weekend or works out after work. The term crosses ethnic, sexual, geographic – even class – boundaries.

Sushi.
Jogging.
The Sony Walkman.

In ways, McInerney’s novel is its own kind of Yuppie Handbook, although it ostensibly presents itself as a manifesto for the alienated young man.

As X wanders the urban landscape, wallowing in his many dilemmas, he becomes the very symbol of the “new man” in New York–a literary type so essential to the city’s history that it even McInerney can’t help but place X within the city’s long history in a rare wider view of the world: 

The first light of the morning outlines the towers of the World Trade Center at the tip of the island. You turn in the other direction and start uptown. There are cobbles on the street where the asphalt has worn through. You think of the wooden shoes of the first Dutch settlers on these same stones. Before that, the Algonquin braves stalking game along silent trails.” (Bright Lights, Big City. NY: Vintage, 1984, 235). 

X is forging a new path along the city streets; he is part of, one can argue, the new forces moving into the city in the 1980s. The forces of gentrification.

Mayor Ed Koch: he led the 1980s army of gentrification and ruled for more than a decade

As these forces moved in, working class and poor people were being pushed out of the city. View Robert Herman’s photographs from this period, for a sense of the New York that has now almost disappeared. “At that time,” Herman notes, “these neighborhoods were a mixture of three distinct groups: the people who had lived and worked there for many years and had their ethnic background in common; the artists who came in search of affordable living and studio space; and finally the more well to-do who instigated the process of gentrification with the seemingly inevitable exile of the original inhabitants. It was a time when graffiti was an integral part of the landscape, and the clash of cultures created a cacophony of voices.”

Clearly, not all the effects of gentrification were negative. But for many people, something profound was lost during this time. (See photographer Marlis Momber’s images of the LES then and now, here and below.) Fast forward thirty years: McInerney admits that he “got a lot out of [his] vices” (William Skidelsky “Lunch with Jay McInerney,” The Observer, May 19, 2012.) His later books include, (no irony intended?) The Good Life (2006).

And in New York City, thirty years later, the forces of what Jeremiah Moss of Vanishing New York calls “hyper-gentrification” have been unleashed; this time the pro-corporate tax breaks and deals offered by city government, coupled with a new city breed, what Moss calls “the Yunnie,” or Young Urban Narcissist (See Moss’ definition here), have re-made the city (and not to everyone’s liking).

The “land rush” is still on in sections of the city (see Nathan Kensinger’s portrait of the Bowery from NYCurbed, Aug. 28 2014), and by 2008, the Lower East Side was designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.

Today, New York City is a place where the wealthy need not arm themselves with a walkman or refer to themselves in the second person in order to distance themselves from the “wasteland” of the city. No, the city is now their playground; (As CeeLo Green puts it in a mind-numbing homage to the pursuit of self-satisfaction, the demand now is for a Bigger City.)

~Jenny Thompson

“People called it a war zone,” photographer Marlis Momber said of the LES in the 1970s. “I grew up in Berlin after World War II, and it looked the same.”
You Live the Good Life and You Get to Do Whatever You Want.

McInerney Rests, The Asthete

2 comments

  1. The changes that were started from the early days of Koch's run were like that small snowball that ends up gaining steam and growing out of control. I saw the first tier of that when i moved to NYC in '90, back when you could go drinking on A, but you have to be tough and addicted to go over to B st. As Wall Street took over Manhattan, so did the greed ethos. The Basquiat art and street ethos that Johnathan used to produce “Rent” were in full force when i was there.

    I wasn't ready to leave NYC when i did in 2000, but I know that i would not be living there now if i had stayed.

    Like

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