Because they need attention for survival, scenes—places where important things are thought to unfold—are not only infantile and self-absorbed; they are absurd. And so, that which has the potential to blossom into a righteous breeding ground for art and culture first appears in the public consciousness as a dartboard for ridicule, a blight on society, and, quite frankly, a bit of a sham.
There’s a reason why when we accuse someone of “making a scene” it’s usually meant as an insult. Truthfully, in New York City it almost always is. Here, all scenes are guilty until proven innocent.
That’s been true at least since the winter of 1917, when a group of artists that included Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and the poet Gertrude Drick climbed the spiral staircase inside the Washington Square Arch—A staircase! Who knew?—lit Chinese lanterns, and proclaimed Greenwich Village the “Independent Republic of Bohemia.”
The statement was so ludicrous that residents on the park’s perimeter demanded that the staircase be permanently sealed, so nobody could say something so silly from such a powerful platform ever again. Pre-Twitter, naturally.
It’s only when you’ve reflected on what transpired in the Village in the following decades that you realize that notion—of a sovereign city-state founded on art, manners, and good taste rather than on money, bureaucracy, and ugliness—deserves to be taken seriously. When you allow your imagination to actually roam about the scene that formed in the wake of that wintry evening, which emanated from the Village and spread over all of downtown Manhattan, you can begin to believe in magic.
But now, if you listen to anyone who lived in New York in the age of neon, needle-pricked shoe soles and hushed loft-lands, they will tell you that downtown is dead, with the clinical remove of a lawyer coughing up free legal advice. Even worse, today’s youth are so in thrall to nostalgia and older generations that they tend to take rumors of the area’s demise as an unassailable fact.
We’re seizing this opportunity to defy the old fogies and the bloviating youngsters by saying that both groups are wrong—downtown is very much alive. And as young people who live and work here, my fellow editor Julia Vitale and I want to put our oft-maligned milieu in the better light it deserves. For AIR MAIL’s first special issue, we have compiled a list of 50 young people who prove that, if you have the patience to sift through the poseurs and the stale expectations of the past, the essence of the area is unerasable.
We’ve heard and will register for argument’s sake that New York isn’t necessarily the best it’s ever been. We’re in the midst of a preposterous, muddled period in the city’s history, not to mention the world’s.
All over town there are self-proclaimed connoisseurs who’ve just learned everything they know, people who spend a lot of money to look bad, and supposed lovers of the city who travel so much that their apartments qualify as pieds-à-terre. Social media has had a methamphetamine-like effect on New York’s culture, turbocharging appetites while fraying the very sensory receptors it promises to satisfy. The unfortunate and obvious result is that nothing is ever enough.
Yet to deny ourselves the chance to indulge in something hopeful—and to argue for what’s promising about downtown—would be to forgo the great pleasure of giving people something to talk about, and the even greater, more sadistic one of presenting them with an idea to hate.
In the worlds of publishing, media, and journalism, to which AIR MAIL is, at times, loath to admit it belongs, downtown has always been a pet fascination. Whether that’s because the three industries have long found their unofficial capital here is beside the point.
We’re seizing this opportunity to defy the old fogies and the bloviating youngsters by saying that both groups are wrong—downtown is very much alive.
Lately, interest in the area below 14th Street has been resuscitated in a serious but breathless way, with everyone from the city’s namesake publications—The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, the New York Post—to far-flung rags (as well as rags that should be flung very, very far) offering their take on the people, ideas, neighborhoods, and, yes, scenes that are said to be hot right now.
You can find the manufactured enthusiasm directed everywhere, but particularly at Dimes Square, an area that’s been so exhaustingly covered that if you don’t know what it is by now, it’s not worth finding out. Truly, the city hasn’t been domestically abused by an assault of prefab nostalgia like this since 1977, when the I ❤️ NY campaign shilled to tourists and overlooked the subtext that “NY” was essentially bankrupt. (With apologies to the great Milton Glaser, who designed that logo.)
Is there anything more dispiriting than reading magazine and newspaper pieces about today’s downtown “darlings,” such as Dasha Nekrasova, the Succession actress, co-host of the self-defensively unintelligible podcast Red Scare, and Chloë Sevigny wannabe whose acting reads like a joke and whose joking reads like an act?
So-called “cool kids” like Evan Mock, who may well be pre-destined by his own surname, are lured in by brand partnerships and stripped bare of any edge that made them attractive in the first place. They seem suspiciously in step with the cultural moment, to a degree that makes it feel like the media is leading them rather than the other way around. It’s all a bit difficult to believe.
An illustrative example: The Drunken Canal, a cute lockdown newspaper project put together by two friends in their mid-20s, got the Hollywood treatment in the press when it should have remained a New York indie. Earlier this month, news started to spread that its founders would be scuttling the paper just a couple of years after starting it.
In a matter of weeks, Julia Fox, who for a while embodied a particular brand of low-key, East Village hipness, was smothered by pillowy stardom, and her frighteningly withered figure (clothes and all) remains tattered under the droning lawn mower of Daily Mail coverage.
This is all to say that, in New York, the only thing more tiresome than old clichés are new ones.
Where does this leave AIR MAIL? Well, being situated on the fringes of it all puts us somewhere between criticism and enchantment, and in a position to consider the other downtown that doesn’t get its due. Doing this means re-framing the word to connote something more than its geographic boundaries—certainly it has earned that right. What was the declaration of an “Independent Republic of Bohemia” if not a refined act of rebranding?
Is there anything more dispiriting than reading magazine and newspaper pieces about today’s downtown “darlings”?
Sure, there is historical precedent. We pay tribute to that fact with features such as James Wolcott’s dirge for the ghosts of downtown-nightclubs past, Janette Beckman’s trove of New York hip-hop photographs, the dear departed artist Duncan Hannah’s unpublished 1980s diaries, and Chris Black’s ode to Electric Lady Studios, on Eighth Street.
In her story on the novelist Kathy Acker, Johanna Berkman charts the uniquely New York phenomenon of a local child of wealth and privilege reshaping herself as a countercultural icon, much like, say, the artist Dash Snow, who was doing the same thing just as Acker was succumbing to breast cancer. While we’re on the topic of street art, the critic Max Lakin, who would have been part of our Downtown Set were we not certain he would recoil at the idea, writes dazzlingly about the photographer Blake Kunin and the importance of graffiti in New York.
But downtown is as much an idea as it is a place. That’s what makes coming here and feeling overwhelmed by an uncanny sense of déjà vu possible. Someone can arrive from as close as Red Hook or as far as Reno and embody what downtown represents with the ease of a kid born on Rivington Street.
Ideas, it hardly needs to be said, can’t die, despite what older generations might think. They can be de-valued by the wrong sort of associations—as with some of the names mentioned earlier—but if you look closely enough, there are still echt downtowners below a certain age. They feed themselves on the city’s endless store of energy and influence, and parlay it into whatever their vocation is with a studious devotion.
AIR MAIL’s Downtown Set is a group of such people, both natives and settlers, known quantities and relative nobodies, Manhattanites and Brooklyners. You might think we left important people off … and we did. Some by choice; others, surely, by accident.
These 50 people don’t necessarily herald a better road ahead. But we know that they mean there will be one. Like so much of the city, this list will be out of date eventually. We hope it will at least serve as a snapshot in time, and as a totem of apparently disparate groups brought together in the name of an important idea.
James Emmerman, one of the boldest photographers we know (and not just because he agreed to shoot nearly 40 people for us in five days), pulled off a portfolio of black-and-white images that are styled in the grand tradition of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Daniel Paik composed an equally impressive photo of as many of the Downtown Set as we could coax to the Odeon for a nine A.M. shoot. That portrait nods to Art Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem, a shot of 57 jazz greats taken one morning in August of 1958, which memorializes community as much as it does music.
Maybe that’s what downtown is: a sort of jazz. An improvised sound that is furiously alive, always driving, all recycled notes on a fresh page. What better way to express the rhythm of our streets, the bebop of humanity that bounces off every inch of pavement, and the low-pitched rumble that wheels through every glass-and-steel gulch?
Then again, New York is also, paradoxically, the city of folk music. Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Fred Neil, and Bob Dylan all traveled to downtown from parts near and far to refine and popularize the seasoned sound of America. Out of the flame-spitting cinders of a nation in disarray, they snatched a branding iron to impress back onto the country an identity it wasn’t conscious of needing.
Answers to overwhelming questions, it turns out, come from almost untenable contradictions. There is deliverance in fellowship and something sure even in the posturing of youth. Put differently, if you want something sorted out, just make a scene.
You can see the complete Downtown Set here
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for Air Mail