Avoiding the Poison of Excessive Nostalgia

The once-celebrated East Village bar the Yaffa Café announced that it is closing its doors for good. It was initially shut down in September by the Department of Health for health violations. The coverage sent up its standard lament; another “iconic” landmark crushed by cruel fate.

It’s a familiar pattern now. A well-known music venue, bar or restaurant announced its closing and there’s a chorus of objection to it, a scolding clucking about how shameful it is and how the city isn’t what it used to be. But this is a pattern that’s been going on since the 1600s.

Many friends and colleagues are correct when they say that small businesses closing represents a danger to the soul of New York. But let’s also remember that constant change and reinvention is also a part of the soul of New York.

While we ought to make sure small businesses have a fighting chance, we also must be careful not to fall victim to the poison of excessive nostalgia.

Nostalgia is deadly because it leaves people to believe that the best part of their lives are behind them. I don’t care if your eight or 80, if you’re not looking forward to something in the future, you’re not really living life. The promise of something in the future is what keeps people alive.

If any place can’t maintain its relevance for its ever-changing clientele, then it’s simply running on the fumes of nostalgia. The fumes of nostalgia may start off smelling sweet, but are composed of an underlying rot.

New York exists in its current form today because it is unforgiving and values nostalgia very little. The constant churn of commerce is always inquiring: ‘What have you done for me lately?’

I was among the chorus of voices that bemoaned the loss of CBGB’s seven years ago. The famous club helped birth punk rock and when I played there with Blackout Shoppers at our very first show in 2004, it was a dream come true. I saw many great shows there and had many good times and memories. But CBGB had not kept up with the times or even lived up to its own history. Bands who got their start there chose not to return and played other clubs in the area. The Ramones played their last New York shoes at a venue called Coney Island High, also long gone, which was a few blocks away from CBGB. The throngs of people who crowded into the club during its last days were curiosity seekers and tourists, people seeking to tap into nostalgia for its own sake, darkening its doors during its death throes so they could boast that they had been there.

So let it be with the Yaffa Café. I went there once when I was younger and I thought the place was overwrought and pretentious, and this was a time in my life when I was happy to put on airs as a hopeful young writer and therefore had a higher threshold for overwrought pretension.

Places like the Yaffa Café attract people who don’t so much want to live the life of a writer or artist as much as they want to play-act being a writer or artist. Ernest Hemingway went to the cafes of Paris because he was dead-broke and those cafes were dirt-cheap. Hemingway is celebrated today not for the time he spent time at a café but because of the time he spent at his typewriter.

I enjoy sidewalk cafes to a certain point, but squeezing my overweight frame into a tiny, crowded space so I can imagine I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald is a ridiculous idea. A writer or artist is too busy writing or making art to invest a lot of time on nostalgia.

The White Castle in Williamsburg has done a greater public good than the Yaffa Café in my opinion. Its demise is the one that ought to be mourned. I’ll indeed miss filling up on delicious White Castle burgers when I am in Williamsburg, but I can’t begrudge the decision by the owners to sell the place. They knew that they’d make more money selling the land to condo developers than they’d make selling burgers, and it followed that it made more sense. It’s a for-profit business; they weren’t giving away burgers for free.

I’m sure the Yaffa Café had its strong points. If I remember correctly the coffee wasn’t half bad. But the past is littered with better businesses that could not stand the test of time. Let them all rest in peace.

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