Jimmy Breslin died yesterday at the age of 88. And make no mistake about it. That’s Jimmy, not James, no matter what his birth certificate said.
Likely unknown nowadays to most outside New York City, and even to those within the boroughs under the age of 50, Breslin was a longtime columnist for several city newspapers. He was also a bestselling author of numerous books, most successfully with his 1969 novel The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a send up of the Mafia that was made into a mediocre movie starring another iconic New Yorker, Jerry Orbach.
However, at mid-century when newspapers were central to American life, Breslin was among the best known writers in the nation. And the whole time he was quintessentially New York.
Born in and raised in the Bronx myself, I was once steeped in characters like Breslin, brassy people not terribly removed from their immigrant roots who hummed easily to the city’s hectic rhythms. So Breslin’s passing leaves me feeling sentimental for the old New York.
Gotham has always been a hodgepodge of skin tones and dialects, and to this day that melange of humanity remains the city’s saving grace, even as the mom and pop shops are run off by homogenous chains, reshaping New York in ways that put it in danger of becoming an expensive version of the rest of America.
And Breslin understood that as well as anyone.
About a quarter-century ago, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes about the Disneyfication of Times Square. Now a sterile, overpriced tourist trap, Times Square’s looming gentrification was still a somewhat controversial topic back then. By the 1970s, like much of the city, it had fallen on hard times. Specifically, it was a hub for vices and (mostly) victimless crime. Peep shows beckoned, prostitutes solicited johns, drugs got bought and sold, and grimy, independent theaters showed Chinese Kung Fu movies.
It wasn’t pretty (except for the Kung Fu movies, which were downright balletic), and it sure wasn’t the glory days of 1940s Times Square. But it was honest, and it was most certainly very New York.
Breslin understood that. He recognized the city as something beautiful not only despite its flaws and imperfections, but maybe even because of them. He knew that New York was unique. It wasn’t just plain old special, but actually especial, an adjective that few places can lay claim to.
So at the end of the segment, when the 60 Minutes guy correspondent asked Breslin what he thought about Disney’s upcoming move to Times Square, his response was brief and pointed: he preferred the prostitutes.
And here’s the thing you’ve gotta understand. There was absolutely nothing salacious or puerile about his comment.
Breslin’s quip wasn’t a celebration of prostitution. He knew better than that. Rather, Breslin was a champion of the underdog. When he covered John Kennedy’s funeral, he wrote about the gravedigger. So saying he preferred hucksters, carneys, and sex workers to Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom was a way of acknowledging that hardworking people on the margins shouldn’t simply be erased; that they were part of our society too.
Beyond that, Breslin was also condemning the corporate whitewashing of iconic Manhattan. He was speaking out against scrubbing the city’s warts and replacing them with plain Jane playgrounds for unimaginative, scaredy cat tourists.
Good people, those tourists, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a goddamned slippery slope the second you start pandering to them. Because one of the things that has always defined New York City is the simple reality that it did absolutely nothing to adapt to you; you adapted to it. Only then could you and yours see it change with you.
As someone who occasionally drank cheap pints at an 8th Avenue bar that served off-duty sex industry workers, or another reasonably priced joint on 9th with free hot dogs and popcorn and genuine jazz on the juke box, I couldn’t agree more with Breslin. Times Square used to be New York’s glittery shit hole, for better and for worse. Now it’s nothing more than a boring fiasco.
I haven’t lived in New York since 1995, and I have no inclination to move back, precisely because the city’s corporate homogenization has continued unabated since that time. I no longer find it to be as interesting as it once was, particularly Manhattan.
However, before anyone starts thinking it’s sour grapes, remember: I’m 3rd generation Bronx. The hard part isn’t staying, or even going back; it’s leaving. Unlike all those people who move there from other places, I actually know how to get an apartment at a “reasonable” price.
Of course I absolutely love many things about New York to this day, mostly the people and the food. But I do miss the old city that still had places, even in Manhattan, for working folk. The city that once told a fuller story of people’s disparate lives churning together in an especial urban caldron. Nowadays it’s still special but not, I fear, any longer especial. There’s too much of it that could be St. Louis or Denver or Milwaukee or Seattle.
I try not to be nostalgic or sentimental about it. Things change. That’s life and death. I get it. I don’t wish Times Square were the same place it was back in 1977. I just wish it had been allowed to evolve into whatever piece of New York City is was destined to become next, instead of being handed over to Guy Fieri and the Disney corporate over lords.
I still return now and again to see family and friends. But Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. I can’t. Neither can they. Yet I can occasionally raise a glass and mark the passing with eyes, were they still veiled in smoke and framed by dark wood in an old bar, that you’d not recognize as either glassy or clear.
To Jimmy Breslin’s New York.
P.S. Piel’s was a lousy beer.