Anyone who lives in a city for more than a few years has to be ready to face change.
Many of the buildings and businesses that seem an integral part of your life disappear just like the people in them.
The downtown Philadelphia of my childhood contained wonderful movie palaces (seating up to 2,000 people!) like the Fox Theater; a good half-dozen legitimate theaters that booked pre-Broadway try-outs of new plays and musicals; and Market Street East was lined with fantastic department stores like Lit Brothers. Gimbels and John Wanamaker.
Now they are all — with only a few exceptions — gone.
The swinging singles who sing Center City Philly’s praises these days have no idea of what they missed out on 40 or 50 years ago. They would be shocked (and maybe a little horrified) by the crowds of middle class people that once filled the streets there, shopping and entertaining themselves.
But that was then and this is now, and the current young generation can’t be expected to pine for my own lost Philadelphia.
These thoughts of urban nostalgia washed over me last weekend at Manhattan’s Film Forum as I watched Su Friedrich’s cranky — and willfully naive — documentary, “Gut Renovation,” about the changes in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood since the turn of the century.
Friedrich moved into one of the abandoned factory buildings in 1989 where she and other artists scored much cheaper rents than they could find in Lower Manhattan, and yet were only one stop away from their old neighborhood on the L train.
What happened in Soho in the 1980s and the Lower East Side in the 1990s — an influx of brave bohemians followed by hipsters with more money and then real estate developers — happened in Williamsburg in the ‘00s.
Instead of seeing the writing on the wall — and being grateful for 20 years of cheap rent and lots of space — Friedrich got out her video camera and began aggressively shooting the newcomers to her neighborhood. Although the rundown industrial/warehouse district near the Williamsburg riverfront was hardly nirvana, the threat of its loss made the resident/filmmaker increasingly angry and stubborn.
Rather than start looking for another affordable place — and perhaps considering buying rather than renting if she was determined to spend decades in the same spot — Friedrich went into lockdown mode and simply stewed in her own juices.
I hate the word “entitlement” but it does seem apt for the urban artists with blinders who think the down-and-out neighborhoods they move into will never change (they don’t seem to think too much about the working class and middle class people who had to leave cities behind when all of those funky factory buildings shut down).
Watching “Gut Renovation” is like spending an hour and a half with your least rational New York City friend — someone who spends more time kvetching than taking any concrete action.