Pete Hamill wrote the following in 1987, just about 30 years ago.
“I suppose that 30 years from now (as close to us as we are to 1958), when I’ve been safely tucked into the turf at the GreenWood, someone will write in these pages about a Lost New York that includes Area and the Mudd Club and Nell’s, David’s Cookies and Aca Joe and Steve’s ice cream.”
He went on: “Someone might mourn Lever House or Trump Tower or the current version of Madison Square Garden. Anything is possible.” But he hoped someone would remember the New York he knew.
Hamill died Wednesday, and so the mournful simple words he wrote about the death of Coney Island’s Luna Park in that same New York Magazine essay apply now to him: “Something that was once in the world is now gone forever.”
He called that a “peculiar New York sensation.” He’s right that someone or something is dying or changing in New York every day, and someone else is definitely angry about it.
Hamill was one of the greats at channeling that nostalgia and sometimes loss. He was a chronicler of everything that changed in New York City over his long time in it, for better and for worse.
Sometimes he made mistakes — “There were newspaper columns that I wished I’d never written, full of easy insult or cheap injury,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1996 journalism collection, “Piecework.” But he always seemed attuned to the little sadnesses and potential horrors of life in the big city, the difficulties and joys of living block by block.
Much of his career covered the period that current GOP Facebook attack ads call the “Bad Old Days” of New York. It was a time (Hamill has written) of a fleeing tax base and high crime, a period of death knells for the city.
The city was never as dead or endangered as some thought it was — how could it be? Millions, like Hamill and his readers, stayed.
But a pessimist aware of the inescapability of cycles might worry that New York is now heading into another downturn. Thousands have died from COVID-19. Dark economic clouds are looming and for many are already here. We never did use the boom times to make the city as fair and equitable and sustainable as it should be. Just do a Google Map search in New York now and you’ll find plenty of newly shuttered establishments, the likes of which Hamill and others have so often mourned.
Hamill separated himself from the schlocky New York traditionalists, however. Happy as he was to wax poetic about street stickball or other museum pieces, he understood the folly of romanticism. He knew that the city was always changing and could be held in place as little as column inches could, with deadlines looming and editors worrying and delivery trucks ready to go. He could envision the future city of “Dominican businessmen and Korean lawyers, Russian heavyweights and Afghan shortstops,” as he wrote in a New York Newsday column. The city doesn’t die, it just regenerates, morphs to host future mistakes and happinesses and people angry about their local, who knows, Apple store closing.
The city will just have to do it now without Hamill.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday's editorial board.