I recently read Pete Hamill’s “Downtown: My Manhattan,” his love letter to his Ozian land that extends from Battery Park City to Times Square, and attempted to exercise my criticism skills my writing out a brief review. I’ll spare you the entire piece and excerpt here the paragraph that hits exactly how I felt about the book right on the nose:
He often re-iterates that New York City is a city full of folks with a pre-eminent sense of “nostalgia.” Hamill, as the consummate New Yorker, especially suffers from this. While its easy for the reader to see and appreciate his deep knowledge of and love for the past through his painstaking use of detail, Hamill risks becoming one of those old curmudgeons who bemoans the current Disney-fication of New York and longs constantly for the “good old days.” This is especially apparent in his chapter on the already over-chronicled heyday of the cappuccino-sipping Greenwich Village “bohemians” (a term so overused that it’s now virtually meaningless). The historical passages in the book are fascinating in the first few chapters, but grow tiring and more confusing as the work goes on. Hamill, who clearly knows his stuff, simply tries to pack too much into 281 pages.
So I was a little tough on him. Mostly I was just annoyed with his pervading sense of “life was so much better back then” nostalgia. However, after the man himself visited my reporting class today, I’ve found that I relate to Hamill and his way of seeing the world much more than I initially thought.
Hamill, who in person carries an air of dapper grandeur that only comes with the wisdom of many years, arrived around 10 a.m. to the NYU journalism department’s building at 20 Cooper Sq. He spent roughly an hour and a half discussing his work and his life with my 11 fellow students and my professor, Betty Ming Liu. He ladled out advice for both the professional and personal spheres of life that was helpful, humorous, and well put. I especially liked the cycle of creation that one of his painting teachers (he studied painting before abandoning the canvas for the page) advocated: “imitate, emulate, equal, surpass.”
When he turned the floor over to questions, one of my fellow classmates asked him what decade he loved living in most. “Here we go, now he’s going to get all nostalgic again,” I thought to myself. He responded by revealing that he loved the “exuberant sense of possibility” and rich artistic scene of the 1950s. “I could go to the Five Spot on St. Mark’s place and the house band would be Thelonius Monk,” Hamill said. “Then I could go out on the same street and pass W.H. Auden.”
As he continued to reminisce about what was so great about the 1950s, I realized something uncomfortable–I had that same sense of nostalgia that I hammered Hamill on, albeit mine was for the Lower Manhattan of the 1970s. The difference was that Hamill lived during the time and place that he longed for. He has actual concrete memories of what has long past. Being born in 1988 in California, there was no way I could have lived through the heyday of 1970s New York. My nostalgia is built on something completely different: the myth of a time and place that I would have loved to experience.