I’m a deeply nostalgic person, but lately I’ve been questioning the usefulness of nostalgia when talking about a city that is changing around us at an astonishing pace. Within the gentrification debate, I believe we need to make room for the possibility that nostalgia, once thought to be one of the most powerful tools in the tool bag of anti-gentrification advocates, is a deeply flawed lens.
Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. There is no doubt that nostalgia connects people to memories (both individual and collective), it bolsters a meaningful connection to place, and in many cases it has benefited long standing restaurants, shops and community institutions.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about new, trendy places claiming the nostalgia-laden mantle of “Mom and Pop” restaurants within the context of a food industry dominated by chain restaurants, large restaurant groups, and celebrity chefs. But if the brand new Gastropub on the corner is a “Mom and Pop” place, what on earth is the 70 year old family-run bakery next door facing a 50% rent hike next year?
Furthermore, nostalgia occupies a place in my mind – and in most people’s minds I think – that is overly simplified, a place where the rough edges of life are smoothed out and obfuscated in sepia tone. In waxing nostalgic about places we hope to preserve and protect, they become cartoonishly two-dimensional. And by flattening out their reality, ironically and inadvertently, I think it becomes easier for us to say goodbye to them.
This is not to say that we throw our fond memories out with the bathwater, or that we no longer share our remembered stories with one another. But in writing about the changing city, I think it’s reasonable to ask ourselves the question: is nostalgia an especially useful way to connect people to the past? And If it is not the best way, then what is a better way?
Perhaps not surprisingly, I get a lot of inspiration from reading about food.
New York City food writers (and let me be clear here, I write an inconsequential personal blog, and do not count myself among them) who dig deep into the ingredients, recipes, and lives of their subjects. Writers who eschew food fads, visiting and revisiting older places, making sure no place is resting on their laurels, while simultaneously jettisoning the cult of the new. Food writers who take the time to look in depth at what a neighborhood already has, what makes it special, sidestepping the hopelessly subjective yawp that what one’s neighborhood really needs is a [fill in the blank].
To my mind, what these writers are creating is a kind of new nostalgia, one that is complex and intricate vs. flat and two-dimensional, one that is contemporaneous vs. of the past, and one that is real and relevant vs. floating ethereally on the vestiges of memory.
Family recipes that crossed an ocean, that fed a family, that formed the basis of a menu, that formed a business, and a livelihood, and a life in a new place: those are the nuts and bolts of the changing city.