The Bad Old Days

‘I WAS FLASHED ALL THE TIME’

New York has always been a breeding ground for nostalgia; constant change will do that to a place. But sometime in the last few years, between the outlawing of the squeegee men, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the coronation of Michael Bloomberg, this sentiment has been particularly overwhelming to those natives who took their first bite of chocolate at Barton’s Candy on West 86th Street in 1974 (now a Gap), bought their first Duran Duran album at West Side Records on Broadway, or perhaps got their first human biology lesson from some random guy in a trench coat.

“I was flashed all the time—that’s how a true private all-girl kid learned about the male anatomy,” wrote Liz Alderman, 32, a television producer and former Brearley lass, in an e-mail.

This is not mere Wonder Years, sepia-smudged longing for one’s childhood. It’s nostalgia for cheap rents. And wild, bizarro characters (New York was full of them once). And an era when investment analysts didn’t bribe people to get their kids into nursery school.

“I kind of feel like a foreigner in my hometown,” said John Sanful, a 38-year-old New Nostalgic from Harlem who runs an organization called Career Gear and gets misty about the Felt Forum, the old East Village and Apex Tech commercials. “You know, New York was always a place where there was an edge, and you could kind of drink in some of the curiosities it had to offer. But I just don’t feel that way anymore.

Now, he said, “it’s a sort of playpen for folks from out of town.”

Not everyone is sympathetic to this point of view. To some, any kind of wistfulness for the era when New York was teetering on the edge of total blight is plain old crazy talk—or at least self-indulgence.

“Get over it!” barked former Mayor Ed (“How’m I doing?”) Koch, who said that he has no nostalgia for the days when he got goose bumps just walking down the street at night. “Don’t live in the past!”

But for many who came of age in the bad old days, the past is precisely where they want to be—minus, perhaps, some of the dicier details. With voices husky and excited, they’ll regale you with anecdotes of their glorious urban educations courtesy of Fiorucci, Save the Robots and the porno stylings of Channel J (hello, Robin Byrd!). They’ll recite tales of 75-cent subways and $300 rents—on West End Avenue, no less. And they’ll tell you that the city of today—the city of Soho House, shiny condos and stupid socialites—is not New York.

“Just because you have a Time Out subscription does not mean you’re a New Yorker,” said a 33-year-old named Alison who grew up on the West Side and works in advertising.

“New York kind of sucks right now,” added Zoe Schneider, a 35-year-old graduate of LaGuardia High School whose nostalgia runs so deep she took time out from her labor pains—yes, she was about to give birth to her first child—to reminisce with The Observer.

In the (alternate) universe of Old New York nostalgics, Ms. Schneider is one of the reigning wistful spirits, a perennial pining soul who has turned her longing into full-fledged obsession, or at least a hobby. Each month, she throws a party called Magic Garden for born-and-raised New Yorkers—and only born-and-raised New Yorkers (an e-mail containing the name of the hospital in which the would-be reveler was born is one of the criteria for admission). Modeled on the old Monday-night Soul Kitchen, the party offers cheap beer à la the city’s less extravagant days, dancing and memory-swapping, and can only be accessed by those who have been given the historically apposite password—like, say, Unique Boutique, Alexander’s, the Decepticons, Lamston’s or the Astor Place hair-cutter. (Ah, the Astor Place hair-cutter, home of the mohawk and asymmetrical bob—now downsized by a Cold Stone Creamery). It has an invitation list of 2,000.

“It’s the one night where we kind of rule,” said Ms. Schneider of the parties where teachers, artists and writers replace the usual clubgoing crowd of bankers and Lohan-alikes. “I feel like it’s my city again.”