New York is the cultural capital of nowhere

Armin Rosen
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America’s big cultural capitals are fast losing what makes them unique. A longtime New Yorker has seen dozens of restaurants, bars, rock venues, record labels, food trends, jazz rooms, cultural movements, parties, scenes, and even entire ways of life come and go in a decade during which the city failed to produce a single significant new director, writer, artist, fashion designer, or band. And that was before COVID-19 turned the city into a half-deserted airport mall where smoking was banned, and masking was mandatory.

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Yet, New Yorkers still believe that we are the center of the world, and that anything remains possible here. The city and the country are in a state of re-creation so constant that even seemingly indispensable things—popular gathering places, earth-shaking new ideas, careers that seemed too big to fade—often aren’t around long enough to properly pass into memory. Today, the former location of the original Knitting Factory or even CBGBs are factoids known only by stodgy, backward-facing New Yorkers of advancing years.

At the same time, the price of cold unsentimental feelings about the past is steeper than anyone usually wants to admit. The more a city loses its distinct cultural products, the more generic it threatens to become: CBGBs was replaced by a John Varvatos fashion boutique. There’s a Whole Foods a few blocks away, on Houston Street. At a certain point, the losses become cumulative, especially when sky-high rents drive all the real artists and musicians out of town. And most places aren’t New York.

This past week brought the horrific news that Miami’s Center for Subtropical Affairs is shutting down immediately, thanks to an apparent change in landlords. The Center’s new owners had no appreciation for the alluringly rustic music venue, botanical garden, environmental education center, flea market, restaurant, and bar, which was sprawled across an intricate web of crisscrossing passageways, wooden shacks, trailers, and stands of colossal palm trees. The Center was a monument to local particularity, and of local culture’s relationship to the American whole.

The Center could only have existed in Miami. Haitian funk bands would play amid explosions of Floridian plant life; Casey Zap, the lanky visionary behind the Center, saw the place as part of a larger ecology project—he built farms on vacant lots and would lead expeditions into the Everglades; on the weekends he’d sit in the Center’s greenhouse and talk aspiring gardeners through both the practical and spiritual aspects of plant care. The mission, the aesthetics, and the programming would have made very little sense anywhere else. For me, the Center inspired a sense of jealousy that it could only exist in one place, and that this place wasn’t anywhere near where I lived.

And yet within Miami, where the nightlife is badly skewed by the free-spending tourism market and the beachside mega-clubs, the refreshingly bohemian and nonexclusive Center was unique. The week the Center closed, the Miami-area culture publication The Jitney noted that in a metro area of 6 million people, “one of the most popular cities on the planet, we have maybe 3 venues where local bands can play. Let’s count them. Gramp’s. The Anderson. Maybe Lagniappe, except there is no stage (there is a rug) and no one is listening to the bands (they are outside in the backyard).”

A Miami band can’t make it big by organically building a fanbase through the intangible power of live performance in a cramped local space. They would have to leave town, in search of a place that can actually support live music. Or more likely, they would have to reach whomever they can through the greatest de-localizing force in human history: the internet.

At first, the internet promised to soften whatever blows were coming for the local. A modus vivendi could be reached: Artists could sell their wares online. The Village Voice couldn’t make it as a newspaper, but perhaps we’d be better off getting arts listings on our phones anyway. Venues would close, but bands could still put their output on Spotify, right next to Taylor Swift. Physical existence and the digital netherworld would reinforce one another.

The actual result of the internet was that it destroyed local culture and took America back to the crushing hegemony of the 1950s. There are three major record labels, two or three truly national newspapers, two big political parties, two big internet retailers, and an exhaustingly small crop of billionaires and provocateurs who dominate the collective headspace and shout down or censor or demonetize everything outside themselves.

Within this context, American culture is badly in need of expressions that aren’t interchangeable with everything else—that can’t be untethered from where they came from and why they exist at all. But one by one, under pressure from accelerating economic and technological shifts and the basic American disinclination to think about the tradeoffs of rapid change, these kinds of institutions are disappearing. And this time, in New York and Miami and nearly everywhere else, no one can be sure that anything will replace them.

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