During this festival of renewal, from deep within a nation a city predicated on change, a post on the virtues of preservation.
I read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy a few years back; I can’t imagine that it didn’t help provide the organizational framework upon which I now hang these several long-held ideas. The crux of it is this. America is all about the clean slate, the reinvention, In America, we will sometimes embark on projects to remake ourselves quite heedlessly disposing of the “outmoded” with scant contemplation of the possibility of its retaining or regaining any useful value in the future. In this sense, even our conservatives are not conservative. By contrast, Britain, also a capitalist country, has other social structures which can ameliorate some of progress’s more drastic effects. Often in America we regard conservatism (in the sense of cultural resistance to change) as an unmitigated bad . In our history, there have been occasions when we have regarded many major structures and institutions as expendable. Nothing is sacrosanct. So we tear things down to make way for newer, improved things. But our mania for efficiency and our fetish for the new often leads to a kind of tunnel vision, blinding us to virtues of the old structure that has been superseded. Then years or even decades later, as we are now seeing in the 21st century, a new perspective allows us to appreciate the value of what has been destroyed and we begin to wish that it had been retained, especially in light of the fact that the costs of re-creating them are now painful or prohibitive. Ironically the Gods of cost effectiveness and efficiency resulted in losses. Here are some specific examples, few of which should surprise our readers.
As I argued in No Applause, vaudeville wasn’t just a style or form of entertainment, it was an infrastructure. To performers, if offered entry level opportunities, training and employment. During the transitional period when it was phased out, it provided movie studios with highly seasoned actors, and performers for live entertainment prologues to film screenings. Abandoning vaudeville meant trusting to luck for talent, and from an audience perspective I’m the first to admit, it has worked out just fine. I am the first to celebrate the fact that contemporary entertainment is in a sort of new Golden Age. What I would argue is that here is a case where the movie studios and tv networks, as well as performers, are missing out. For a short time in the ’90s NBC operated a venue out of HERE Arts Center called PSNBC where they auditioned and showcased potential talent. That’s sort of what I’m talking about. What if movie studios and tv studios operated their own chains of comedy clubs, improv schools & clubs, cabarets and so forth? Sure, with a bar and restaurant attached. It’s a simultaneous revenue stream, marketing for products, and talent development/ recruitment workshop. That’s what vaudeville was, and vaudeville was good. Don’t give me “it wouldn’t work” — I’ll smash your head with a brick.
Similarly, I think the WHOLESALE abandonment of silent film by Hollywood was short-sighted, especially where comedy is concerned. Not just because “of course I do”, but for real reasons which I outlined in Chain of Fools. It would be foolish and weird to argue that all films ought to be silent or even that films should be COMPLETELY silent (sound effects and music have always been part of the package). But SOME stories are best told with little or no dialogue, and genres like comedy clowning and horror can be particularly effective told that way. It is a valid artistic choice to tell a story without spoken dialogue. By abandoning it 100% , the option was lost to make that choice. Because several generations of audiences have gone without seeing silent films, it has become risky and rare for them to be made. There is no inherent, logical reason for this to be so.
Here is one place where the British were wiser. In the US, network radio drama and comedy died in the 1950s when television came in. But just like silent film, audio theatre is a legitimate form. Television doesn’t replace radio, although here in the US it certainly displaced it. Whereas, the BBC never stopped presenting it, and it’s always had an audience. Now, thanks to the internet, it’s coming back in America thanks to streaming audio and podcast, proving that it has always been efficacious. But think of all the wasted time, and all the lost opportunity for writers and performers and other professionals. There was never a reason to kill it.
The abandonment of passenger dirigible service was merely a failure of nerve in the wake of some high-profile disasters. Hydrogen proved dangerous as a lighter-than-air medium, but helium is much less so, and it is used for that purpose by industry to this day. The public remains prejudiced but I think what has been lost is a majestic, charming form of luxury travel, mixing elements of cruise ships with the thrill of flight. Its purpose would be strictly for leisure and tourism, not for getting anyplace in a hurry. Today I think there is a fear in investing in it, so it can’t be “re-started”. This wouldn’t have been the case it had never have been abandoned in the first place.
The rest of the world continues to have it over the US here, at least since the 1950s when America started to abandon train and trolley travel, and devoted its focus to the independence (and voracious consumption) of the automobile. Except for a handful of of key rail routes, most existing train and trolley tracks were abandoned, neglected, torn up. Investment was made in highways. A lot of the public transportation slack was picked up by buses, which are frankly a miserable, uncomfortable, and slow way to travel, in addition to the toll on the environment. Realizing this, in recent years some cities have been reinvesting in “light rail” again. And in so many cases that has meant having to lay track again — an unthinkable stupidity considering this country already had that infrastructure in place. It was short-sighted and self-destructive, I think to place all of our chips on cars, trucks and buses.
EBBETS FIELD AND THE BROOKLYN DODGERS
Am I right? Who knew Brooklyn would come back, even better than ever? People in Brooklyn, that’s who! Moving the Dodgers to LA must have looked like the future in 1957. But in 2016, when we have both the Nets and the Islanders here, as well as our AAA team the Brooklyn Cyclones, tearing down Ebbets Field seems like blind madness. Flatbush could use a stadium right now, eh? I’m guessing it all seems too cost-prohibitive to start from scratch again, but I just know you’d sell those seats in the Brooklyn of today. Never shoulda left in the first place.
One of the great architectural sins of all time, taking the wrecking ball to that beautiful old station in 1965. Today there are plans to rectify the sin by placing the new station under the majestic post office across the street, and naming it after Senator Moynihan, whose dream it was. But it would have been “cheaper to keep her” in the first place.
Again, in the mid to late 20th century, when many of the Broadway houses became porn theatres, crack dens, or simply condemned buildings, it made business sense, one supposes, to tear many of them down. Who knew that Times Square could be turned around, and a theatre economy would return? All it took was leadership and will. Today there is sufficient demand for more shows in that neighborhood, but building new theatre space (there) is cost-prohibitive. If only they hadn’t razed the architectural jewels that were already there!
Ha ha, yes, THAT’S how old-fashioned I am. Besides the works of Shakespeare, it’s the finest work of art in the English language (with Milton coming in third), but most modern churches have stopped drawing from it, preferring to rely on modern translation. The result, I am convinced, is a grossly impoverished culture, at least among the 83% of Americans who profess to have something to do with Christianity. My point has less to do with religion than with language — and the thought processes that go with it — by the way. Lincoln thought like a poet; modern presidents think like economists. It’s a question of what sort of culture you want to have, and I prefer the soul of Lincoln to the soullessness of modern politicians.
A small example, a sort of Richard Scary example, but not an absurd one. Fireboats were a familiar tool of the FDNY back in the days when New York was much more of a harbor town, full of wooden docks, warehouses, crates and cargo. This changed towards the end of the last century, and the fireboats were almost completely phased out BUT….one proved its efficacy on September 11, 2001, when the water became a crucial means of getting to the devastated World Trade Center. The fireboat John J. Harvey proved her usefulness that day. And while we’re at it, so did ALL of New York’s fire stations. We keep these facilities operating for emergencies. By definition, emergencies don’t occur every day. But they do occur. Close them down at your peril, bean counters, but more importantly at OURS!
Starting in the 1970s, the development trend began to be about building shopping malls on the outskirts of towns, near freeways, which put stores in historic town centers out of business. And this has never really changed. This is strictly anecdotal, but my experience, almost universally, of towns in New England and upstate New York is one of boarded up windows and “for rent” signs on stores in the formerly beautiful downtowns, with all of the shopping done at malls that everyone has to drive to. And when I’ve traveled to other parts of America I have found the same thing. The downtowns have beauty and character and convenience and tourism potential. The malls are eyesores and identical throughout the nation and the world. They are like a cultural cancer. I wouldn’t shed a tear if every last one of them vanished off the face of the earth!
It is apparently a source of frustration to some Americans, this “gridlock” and compromise which are the core of our system of government. It’s so hard to get things done! That’s how Fascists felt as well. Outmoded! A thing of the past! How much more efficient if just one man can just tell everyone what to do! Well, you have your wish, America. I hope you enjoy your civics lesson. Too bad you didn’t listen better in the fifth grade.