“The western, when I do one, will be one long, continuous story,” the Spanish/Mexican cartoonist Sergio Aragonés once (might have) said. Good versus bad, civilization versus wilderness, lawlessness versus law and order … westerns are part of one long story studded with spurs, mustangs, and ten-gallon hats. But take out Ye Olde West trappings and you’re left with any story about final frontiers, love and loss, revenge and redemption. And vice versa. Take the decidedly non-western, The Chintz Age: Tales of Love and Loss for a New New York, about people striving to survive and be relevant in a rapidly changing world. It’s peopled by bohemians and the middle class and set in modern New York, but it could be anywhere where progress forces people to confront their own obsolescence, whether the West Village or West of the Mississippi.
Deep into several projects and out of touch with my western side, I scrambled to find time to hear a writer friend read from his new collection of stories, The Chintz Age. I’d first heard Ed Hamilton, a blogger living at the renowned Chelsea Hotel, read from his then soon-to-be published Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with Artists and Outlaws in New York’s Rebel Mecca at a dive bar in Brooklyn; this time I was heading to powerHouse Arena, itself about to relocate its location thanks to rising rents below the once-cheap bohemia tucked beneath the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. New York City has been undergoing a seismic gentrification shift lately, with shiny high-rises sanitizing neighborhoods and washing out the gritty New York of not too long ago. It’s an old NYC story (talk to anyone who remembers the good old bad days of the East Village and Times Square) that has always reminded me of stories of the Wild West getting “civilized” by progress in the form of railroads and churches, schools and laws. In westerns, people lose their way or sell out, they marry a Quaker and give up the gun or they ride off into the sunset. Giving voice to those types is something I’ve been interested in.
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Ed’s newest book, The Chintz Age: Tales of Love and Loss, seven stories and a novella, is full of “gritty urban fairy tales” peopled by punk, hippies, beatniks, and junkies–and a next generation–set in a New York changing from charismatic grunge to glittering playground for the elite. Unexpected was a certain echo of the westerns I love, stories about people who are caught in a kind of dissonant identity between a romantic albeit gritty past and the forward march of progress. They’re a bit lost, unable to turn back the clock but unwilling to transition; some find their way, while others continue to struggle. I liked that there is a kind of authenticity to them, lending a nobility that, foolish or not, makes them admirable.
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Sort of suspecting that Ed thinks my love of westerns is a little nuts, I hesitantly asked him if I could review his book on Cowboylands. He agreed and his answers to my queries provide not only a eagle-eyed look at change at the turn of the century but an inside perspective on the Writing Life. Buckos and buckarettes, Ed Hamilton’s western that is not a western.
Photo by co moed (c) 2016
Bucko: One parallel theme between your book of “love and loss for a new New York” and the western is how the uneasy transition from old to new is shown in the setting—in a western, it’s often a town like Deadwood that has growing pains, or that ranchers are getting hemmed in by crisscrossing railroads or bound by barbed wire and farms. In your book, it’s the East Village and the far Westside of Manhattan, once Wild West–like “frontiers” and now playgrounds for the rich. You yourself live in one of the most famous examples of gentrification, the Chelsea Hotel. In calling the memory of the character Greg, the proprietor of a counterculture bookstore in the story “Fat Hippie Books,” a “living document of two decades of East Village underground history,” I feel you spotlight the real treasure within any neighborhood or small town—the person who remembers the way it was and maintains a commitment to that time. Did experiencing the changes in your building and neighborhood prompt you to “record” the way it was in your stories? Did your characters, all richly drawn—spring from actual denizens of the Chelsea or the East Village bohemian scene?
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Ed Hamilton: Gentrification impoverishes New York (and other cities) in so many ways. One of these is the whitewashing of history, as historic buildings are demolished, or—in some senses what is almost worse, almost a cruel joke—repurposed, their original function forgotten, like in the Meat Packing District, where old slaughterhouses have become fancy clothing boutiques and restaurants, the meat hooks still on the underside of the awnings as a style element; or the Garment District, where sweatshops are now luxury condo buildings with fashion-inspired names; or CBGB, its bathroom wall preserved in the new Varvatos clothing shop.
Characters like Greg in “Fat Hippie Books” are the memory of the city (he even has a kind of “memory wall” of old flyers behind his desk), and as gentrification wipes out the physical traces of the old, it becomes even more important that we reserve a place for such repositories of history—especially alternative history, the kind that’s not likely to be told in the mainstream media outlets. Writers and artists of all kinds also function as a kind of conscience of the city, reminding people with the words and images, and even more so by their very existence, that all is not about money and commerce. Besides that, it just makes city life more colorful to have eccentric characters like Greg around! City life should be more than chain stores and corporate drones.
Living in the Chelsea Hotel for 20 years, I’ve come to know all kinds of people in the arts—musicians, actors, writers, visual artists—so I like to think I’ve developed a feel for the “artistic temperament”. Those are the people I know, and that’s why people like them inhabit my stories. My characters aren’t really based on people from the Chelsea, they are more like composites, but certain memorable creatures I’ve met in the hotel over the years have certainly inspired my work. The same with the physical features of the hotel itself: prior to the developers, the history of the hotel was, almost literally, written on the walls, as the lobby was filled with art, as was the staircase, top-to-bottom.The Chintz Age is about the personal, private struggles of the individual artists in the face of this impersonal juggernaut we call gentrification. Many of the characters in the book betray their ideals in various ways—Greg, in “Fat Hippie Books”, refuses to side with the tenants of his building; Martha, in the title story, throws her housemate under the bus in hopes that the city will recognize her squatted building as legal—and I wanted to portray the dynamic (of fear, ignorance, self-interest, even greed) that led them to such decisions. Even more important, I wanted to provide a kind of redemption for these characters.
Photo by co moed (c) 2016
Bucko: Again, a focus on “Fat Hippie Books”—that road trip! Brian and Greg head out of NYC on a Greyhound for points West, ostensibly for Brian’s book tour, but also tracing the Beats’ cross-country journey. That Greg does not make it past Chicago and returns seems at first as one more failure on his part, but he takes the moment, in a kind of reverse-road trip back to a transformed city, to reflect on his life, letting go of the past. Ultimately, he finds his place in new New York, which I feel is an inner path forward, of sorts. Thinking of the Harlem Renaissance to the mid-century New York art and poetry scene to the punk movement to today—do you feel that the “long strange trip” of being a NYC artist has also petered out? Or grown up? Or ?
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Ed: Greg returns from his trip with a determination to do what’s necessary to hold on to his little niche in the city, deliberately setting his sights lower so he can hang on for the rebirth of the arts that he believes, with an almost religious fervor, will eventually dawn in the New York of the future. It’s easy to say it’s over for the arts and artists in New York, but I don’t think it is quite yet—not as long as the creative spirit is alive in people and continues to be born anew with every generation. It’s certainly a lot harder for new artists coming to New York these days, and unless they have a trust fund, they have to shack up five to an apartment or work 60 hours a week—but there are still people with the determination to do that, and that’s at least partially due to the energy of New York that they sought out and which drives them on (and which really seems impervious to the self-important stuffed suits, which must madden them). So, whether these young artists seem like spoiled rich kids, or crassly mercenary entrepreneurs, they shouldn’t be dismissed so readily: they want the city to retain its grit and edge so they can draw inspiration from it as their elders do—and, as such, they are our natural allies in the fight against gentrification.
My advice to older artists is to hold on to your little piece of the city as best you can—refuse and resist gentrification—because whatever form the city of the future takes, it will need a corrective to its, perhaps natural, tendency towards rapacious greed. Writers, journalists, actors, and artists will always be the conscience of the city, and the young will need your example. The housing market will collapse again eventually, and, unless the government keeps propping it up indefinitely with taxpayer dollars, rents will go down. Then all those mega-colossal condo towers blocking out the light and air on the Highline can be converted to affordable housing for people in the arts! (We can hope, anyway.)
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Bucko: How the fruits of progress can insulate one from a grittier, perhaps more authentic experience of life is shown so well in “Highline/Highlife.” To people living in NYC, just the name “Highline” evokes the “fabulous” life that you describe: cultured and fortunate, living a life of ease while connected to one of the most beautiful urban interventions created. (It’s a bit of a stretch, but it does remind me of iconic western locations like Deadwood, which is now a theme-parked version of a dark and volatile boomtown.) Staring out at the tourists walking by his wide windows, walled off from them as well as the Hudson River (those new high-rises!), your failed-writer protagonist bitterly calls the new New York a “scrubbed-up, toned-down simulacrum of the old, black-hearted city.” Thinking of how New York City (and the West) have transformed with progress, perhaps they’re now too soft and safe to be inspiring. What kinds of experiences do you feel artists and writers need to have to keep alive and engaged in their work?
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Ed: I don’t think any particular environment is strictly necessary for a writer to create great fiction. I would find living and writing in an English manor house to be stultifying in the extreme, and I doubt I would get much done, but it didn’t seem to harm Jane Austin.
“Highline/Highlife”, which demonstrates some of the noir themes of entrapment that I mentioned earlier—the narrator, James, prey to increasing paranoia in his glass and steel sanctuary, feels like he’s on display in a fishbowl—is, in a way, a kind of study of what it takes to make a writer. Desperate for literary success, James seizes what he sees as his best chance by marrying a top agent, and, in an exercise of bad faith, convinces himself he’s a master of the literary universe and wills himself (with a lot of help from his wife) to crank out a crappy best seller. He quickly comes to see the fragility of his house of cards—or, obviously perhaps, his glass house—throwing the first stone by having an affair with the babysitter. In adversity, he rededicates himself, discovering a new sincerity—which, after all, is probably the number one requirement of good writing. So, in the beginning, his setting matters, as the falsity of the glass aquarium is a reflection of the falsity in his heart; but in the end his setting no longer matters: he’s determined to transcend “the scrubbed-up toned-down simulacrum. . .”, rationalizing his predicament as one that will be easier for him to handle anyway. On the other hand, there’s a type of countercultural or alternative fiction that seems to benefit by being written in a grittier environment.
By living in an old, run-down hotel, I not only was able to rub shoulders with the artists, junkies, and schizophrenics who appear in my fiction, but, living in the same conditions myself, it helps me to empathize with them. James is planning to write about tourists, so it helps that he has a good view of them from his window. But when the old buildings are destroyed, the old bohemians run out of the city, it makes it that much harder to write about the kind of down-and-out experience that is under-represented in literature already. In my first book, Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, part of the story is that, as the hotel is gradually gentrified, I start to write less about the junkies and crazy punk rockers, and more about European hipsters and Midwestern tourists.
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Bucko: I didn’t know who I displaced when I moved into a Brooklyn neighborhood two decades ago, and already I feel myself outmaneuvered and outclassed, literally, by these sleek people who seem to have no jobs or know how to cook tomatoes. In my cabin in the high desert of California, I’m “that person from Brooklyn” (better than being from LA, it seems!)–an interloper. There will always be boom-and-bust cycles to gentrification. Do you know what happened to those who were pushed out by your “generation” of artists and writers? What do you see happening after the next “bust” cycle?
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Ed: That’s the original sin of gentrification: everyone in the city is essentially a gentrifier, as each new generation pushes out the previous one. Artists are the vanguard of gentrification, because we move into depressed neighborhoods first, making the area safe for later waves of rich yuppies. Developers, in particular, like to point this fact out, because it seems to spread the blame to some of the people who are their victims. But it’s not that simple; gentrification is not the same today as it was in the past. Historically, artists moved into depressed neighborhoods for the cheap rent; they often stayed for decades, becoming part of the existing community. The intent of their “pioneering gentrification” was certainly not to transform the culture or to destroy the community, even if, ultimately, that may have been the result. But what we’re seeing these days is a sort of developer-driven, government backed “hyper-gentrification” wherein poor neighborhoods are hyped as “art destinations” in order to lure young creatives and cool coffee shops and bars; then, in short order, the artists are evicted and condo towers are erected.
Something like these two different types of gentrification occurred at the Chelsea Hotel in my time here. The first wave of gentrification, which occurred in my first 12 years (and which is the subject of Legends), was a gradual process, with renovations taking place at a leisurely pace, and with some members of the older generation (and some of the more marginal type of people) gradually moving on. But there was always a sense of continuity; as I say in Legends, the past bled through into the present. Then, when developers took over, in short order they evicted over 70 people and gutted most of the rooms of the hotel.
Photo by co moed (c) 2016
Bucko: And I always like to enjoy the successful writing life vicariously through writers: could you describe how you find a place as a writer in this new city? When do you write? When are you most inspired? Any advice for fellow writers?
Ed: I write in my little room with paintings covering the walls—much of it from Chelsea Hotel artists who have since died or moved on. I listen to music with headphones on to drown out the traffic and construction noise—a lot of jazz (I like Charles Mingus best), or else rock (The Velvet Underground, the soundtrack of the Chelsea), classical, or anything, really (like The Cowboy Junkies, though by now my playlist is coming to an end; OK, let’s see, Willie Nelson: “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”). Most of my writing takes place in the morning, though I try to get some done in the evening, too, after a break to run across the street to the gym. Advice for fellow writers? I don’t know, my mind is getting tired; maybe they have some for me.
I like your writing too, pilgrim.
And then Ed does Goes West, Young Man for us:
As for my western influences: I watched a lot of John Wayne movies growing up (he’s my father’s favorite actor, though I favor James Cagney); and I really like the novels of Cormac McCarthy (especially Blood Meridian) and the Wyoming stories of Annie Proulx (the 1st volume is by far the best). I’m listening to the Cowboy Junkies as I write this (“Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park”), since that’s the closest to western music I could find (I guess I could’ve gone for Willie Nelson).
Thank you, Ed, for your thoughts on this strange new world of ours. You are a true, true writer and a gentleman.
Ed Hamilton is the author of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with the Artists and Outlaws of New York’s Rebel Mecca (Da Capo, 2007). His fiction has appeared in dozens of small journals, including Limestone, The Journal of Kentucky Studies, SoMa Literary Review, Exquisite Corpse, Bohemia, Omphalos, and in translation in the Czech Republic’s Host. His non-fiction has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Huffington Post, and Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog. Ed lives in New York City.
NYC photographs courtesy It Was New York, an awesome blog of a city and mother’s emotional and physical real estate disappearing at the speed of heartbreak.