When I moved to the East Village in the 1970s, the neighborhood, like much of New York City, had a hard edge to it. The difference between bohemian and edgy, and between edgy and sketchy, was often the difference between one block and the next.
But there was energy on those streets, and wells of creativity in the people who lived on them.
For many of us back then, and for years after, there was a special day each week — the day The Village Voice hit the newsstands.
It was the nation’s first alternative newsweekly, when the word “alternative” actually meant it was something different. For a kid from the suburbs, the Voice was gritty and kind of mind-blowing.
Irascible author Norman Mailer was one of its co-founders. And over the years it boasted a stable of nonpareil contributors.
Investigative muckrakers Jack Newfield, Wayne Barrett and Tom Robbins. Music critic Robert Christgau. Film critics Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman. Cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Media writer Alexander Cockburn. Gossip columnist Michael Musto. Jazz critic and First Amendment chronicler Nat Hentoff (try to find anyone nowadays marrying two beats like that).
I mention the Voice because it closed the other day, with a whimper, not a bang. It had folded its paper version a year ago, and when the economics didn’t improve, it closed up its online publication as well. The Voice’s red sidewalk boxes are gone. All that’s left now are its digital archives.
It lasted 63 years, a good run in many respects. But that looks different in the context of a city whose history is approaching 400 years.
These sorts of events bothered me less when I was younger. Now they remind me that everything, and everyone, has an expiration date. Even the things that seem built to last forever.
Rome fell. So did the Berlin Wall. Even the massive tectonic plates whose movements have produced continents, mountains, oceans, volcanos and earthquakes will stop shifting in about 1.5 billion years, as per recent research. Presumably, some new alternative media outlet will report on that. Presumably to be uncovered: when the sun itself explodes and devours Earth in 5.4 billion years.
I don’t feel poignancy about every disappearance. I am less bothered, for example, by the loss of iconic stores and brands. Gimbels, Caldor, Abraham & Straus, S.S. Kresge, Korvettes, all mainstays of American life at one point, all gone, all relatively unlamented, at least by me. In the world of dog-eat-dog, some make it and some don’t and some make it and then don’t and that’s OK.
Our cultural institutions, however, are a different matter. Because each of us is shaped in some way to some degree by some pillars of the arts.
Clearly, I have a fondness for the brethren of my own business, given the critical role journalists have played in the history of this country, particularly given the attacks we are enduring today. That goes for lefties like The Village Voice, and righties like conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who died in June.
But there are all sorts of truth-tellers, in all sorts of disciplines, and you mourn the ones that touch you when they pass, from Aretha Franklin to Neil Simon. Sometimes, you lament the ones who are just stepping away, from their stage, not from life itself — like Joan Baez, Elton John and Paul Simon. Even then, they take pieces of us with them.
Neil Diamond, another recent retiree, once wrote a song that listed a host of cultural legends from Mozart to Marx to Buster Keaton. He sang of them sweating beneath the same sun, looking up in wonder at the same moon, and weeping when it was all done — for being “done too soon.”
Isn’t it always?
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.