Are We Done With Nostalgia?

On the death of Pete Hamill, one of New York's great journalists and an irrepressible sentimentalist.

There’s a natural feeling of loss when a person of certain renown dies. We didn’t know the man, but we remembered the era—or we read about it in books, heard of it from parents, peered backwards with the longing of those who can only imagine. The famous embody their time, their images and memories our own, joined to a collective consciousness. Pete Hamill, who died on Wednesday, was one of those individuals, a newspaperman and novelist and essayist and screenwriter and bon vivant who enjoyed a career that isn’t really possible anymore, swaggering from Greenwich Village barrooms to Saigon to the embrace of the world’s most famous First Lady, all of it with only a high school education. He edited two tabloids, wrote for every publication imaginable, and ambled the side streets of New York, writing lyrical columns that are still quoted by older scribes and readers. He was an admirable generalist, with liberal sensibilities and a belief in the underdog, capturing what it meant, for a lot of people, to be alive during the best and worst times of the late 20th century.

I’m too young to count Hamill as a hero; I knew him mostly through the eyes of others, in tributes and Google searches, and in his generous appearances, seemingly every year, at the Brooklyn Book Festival. As a fellow Brooklyn kid, I could always feel a kinship with Hamill, whose local sensibilities were quite familiar. Without the Brooklyn Dodgers, I grew up pulling for the Yankees, but if I had the opportunity to take the train or trolley to Ebbets Field like Hamill did as a child, I would have been a Dodger fan too—I have no doubt about that. Some of his writing holds up quite well. His 1969 New York Magazine feature on the revolt of New York’s white working class against the progressive, race-conscious Lindsay administration presaged, by a half century, the rise of Donald Trump. These were Hamill’s people, after all, and he had a fraught bond with them, dating back to his hard-drinking father knocking down pints in Windsor Terrace pubs when the neighborhood was known for its poor, aggrieved Irish, not today’s genteel wealth.

Hamill possessed none of his old neighborhood’s nativism or nakedly revanchist attitudes, but he was seized, throughout his career, with a persistent nostalgia that can characterize these movements of resentment. If sentimentality is not exactly a sin for a writer and intellectual, it is certainly a trap; the past, divorced eternally from the present, grows as alluring as a drug, soma for a soul who is sure he is trapped in a place that has lost its way and may never gain terra firma again. Hamill, unfortunately, could be this kind of writer, chasing phantoms through the backstreets of his youth. Nostalgia can produce some of the most powerful writing we have in the English language; read Henry Miller in the opening pages of Black Spring, on Williamsburg’s 14th Ward. I am not here to argue against nostalgia because the world can never feel quite as redeemed as when you are young and healthy, when the noxious demands of adulthood and the aches and indignities of old age visit you. It is important, though, for the writer to not allow nostalgia to entirely alter or skew perceptions of a deeply complex, multifarious, and inevitability flawed society at a particular juncture. To do so, in my opinion at least, is to make a grave error—to fall prey to a mirage.

There are two Hamill essays I have been thinking about since his death. One appeared in New York Magazine at the end of 1987 and the other ran in Esquire at the close of 1994. Though one is written with far more fury than the other, both can be seen as companion pieces with titles that evoke cultural and temporal tragedy: “The New York We’ve Lost” and “End Game.” Both have redeeming qualities. “The New York We’ve Lost” is an ode to the New York City of Hamill’s youth, when trolley cars rang through the streets, the Dodgers hadn’t bolted for Los Angeles, elevated subway lines thundered above Manhattan, and lovers met under the Biltmore Clock.

“Cars never double-parked. Shop doors weren’t locked in the daytime. Bus drivers still made change. All over town, cops walked the beat and everyone knew their names. In that city, you did not smoke on the subway. You wore galoshes in the rain. Waitresses called you honey. You slept with windows open to the summer night.”

Hamill, writing in the 1980s, was looking back at a New York that had not been besieged by a rising tide of crime that would not diminish until shortly after the essay ran. It can be argued life for New Yorkers was generally less precarious in the 40s, relative to the tumultuous 80s, when the crack epidemic ripped through impoverished neighborhoods. As the essay rolls on, though, you get the sense that this is almost beside the point. People aren’t like they were in Hamill’s old New York. They aren’t so friendly, so polite, so evocative of that Mayberry spirit. All is not as it was and this is the greatest tragedy of them all.

“In the Lost City of New York, the subway will be a nickel forever, and if you fall asleep and travel to the end of the line, you will still have your wallet and your life,” Hamell writes. “In the Lost City, you can still go to Dexter Park on Eldert’s Lane on the Brooklyn-Queens border and see the amazing players from the Negro Leagues, maybe even Josh Gibson, who once hit a ball out of there that traveled more than 600 feet; you can see the Bushwicks play baseball, hoping for a call from Branch Rickey.”

“We still have the Polo Grounds. We still have Ebbets Field. We still have Willie Mays.”

Baseball is an instructive lens here. A decade ago, the sportswriter Joe Posnanski took Hamill to task for his moralizing over the steroid scandals and his insistence that the modern game was corrupted, unlike the sport of his youth. At times, Hamill permitted his instinct for sentimentality to overtake his journalistic mind. There is no argument that for kids in New York in the 1950s, baseball occupied its golden age. But the sport itself, as my friend Lincoln Mitchell has persuasively argued, was at a somewhat dire crossroads: attendance, for many teams, was quite anemic, and for many of the other franchises based beyond New York City, the 50s represented a nadir. Baseball was not competitive. Teams like the St. Louis Browns and Kansas City Athletics were perpetually awful, with no hope of redemption; there was no amateur draft, no free agency, no revenue sharing of any kind. Giants, Dodgers, and even Yankees games, meanwhile, struggled to draw fans, as baseball remained wedded to an outdated daytime schedule. Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Around the World,” one of the most famous moments in baseball history, a tie-breaker between the Giants and Dodgers at the height of their powers to decide the National League pennant, drew a mere 34,320 fans to the Polo Grounds, nothing close to a sellout. (Thomson’s homerun, we later learned, was cracked with the aid of an elaborate sign-stealing system.) The year the Brooklyn Dodgers won it all, finally, in 1955, their average attendance was a meager 13,423, catastrophic by 21st century standards. For perspective, the much maligned New York Mets, in another middling season last year, averaged about 30,000 fans per game. The only team, in 2019, with a worse average attendance than the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers was the Miami Marlins, easily MLB’s least popular team. The final game the Dodgers ever played in Brooklyn, in 1957, drew less than 7,000 fans.

Why am I going on and on about baseball? Because it was Hamill’s lodestar, just as it’s my own. And it’s a sport that is too often nostalgia-drunk. In Hamill’s obituaries, it was often noted that he and the Brooklyn-reared Jack Newfield considered the three worst people in human history to be Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers owner who ripped the franchise from New York and moved it to Los Angeles in 1958. But journalist Hamill, not nostalgist Hamill, should see the move for what it was: a vital business decision to keep baseball alive. Major League Baseball had no franchise west of St. Louis. By the 1950s, this was a suicidal proposition, with so many more people now living in the Western half of the United States. Baseball needed to succeed in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Had the booming cities not received established franchises, and been forced instead to cheer for weak expansion teams, it’s possible West Coast baseball withers altogether and baseball as we know it doesn’t exist today. Recall that none of this was destiny: before their 1990s and 2000s renaissance, the San Francisco Giants almost relocated to Toronto. Again and again, throughout his essay on Lost New York, Hamill elides the reality of his own time to make it seem, to modern eyes, like a lost Atlantis. Would an African-American of Hamill’s age, who grew up watching segregated baseball and would have already been twenty-two by the time the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, look back on his youth with such love and tenderness and yearning for what was lost and could never be? I agree with Hamill: it was a travesty New York City ripped up its trolley network and threw its lot in with the automobile. But how could such a perceptive journalist and man of his city not note that when he was eight years old, in 1943, African-Americans in Harlem rioted after a white police officer shot an African-American solider? That this spate of violence, driven by racist policing practices at home and a large swath of the nation still living under Jim Crow, was the inspiration for the climax of Invisible Man? Then, as now, New York was a city of searing inequality, of occasional degradation and violence. Just because the doctor made house calls and the milkman came with a cold bottle every morning didn’t mean the postwar period of Hamill’s youth was halcyon, a realm of unvarnished amazement and wonder. If you were poor, if you were Black or Puerto Rican, if you were disabled, or if you were a leftist suddenly suspected of an allegiance to Communism, 1950s New York was no bounty. Hamill’s close relationship with Robert F. Kennedy was emblematic of this peculiar blind spot: Kennedy, who Hamill beseeched to run for president, cut his teeth as a Senate staffer for Joseph McCarthy, the right-wing demagogue and ur-Trump who rained terror on the American left as Hamill was coming of age. Kennedy’s rapid transformation, from McCarthy ideologue to liberal hero, would probably not have been possible in the age of the internet, with all sound bites only one click away.

In his conclusion, Hamill seems nearly self-aware of what he’s doing, predicting the 80s nostalgia wave before it hits, though he does so somewhat begrudgingly. “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 Green-Wood, 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.” Indeed! In the 21st century, there are no shortage of laments over the deaths of noted 80s Manhattan hot spots—and no shortage of people reading this newsletter who have never heard of any of them. Alas, unlike Patrick Bateman, I was too young to grab a table at Nell’s when it shuttered in 2004. Hamill’s wish, however, is we remember his New York: the spaldeens, the trolleys, and young Mays camping beneath a fly ball. I concur. As an amateur New York historian, I want to remember all of this. But each generation has their version of the city they feel is unfairly erased, the legacies disregarded. Hamill’s postwar nostalgia, perhaps, would seem ludicrous to someone born in the late 19th century, already middle-aged when young Hamill was certain he was enjoying the peak of what New York had to offer. Remember, young one, when much of Brooklyn and Queens was nothing but farmland, when those chattering subway cars didn’t pollute the pastoral metropolis? When Brooklyn, until 1898, was its own damn city? When Socialists could get elected to Congress on their own ballot line? Remember the end of the first World War, the real war? The 1900s babies don’t know anything at all.

Hamill’s Esquire essay treads darker ground. It might be one, if he could do it all over again, he would want back, like his written remarks about the Central Park Five. Let me say up front that I understand his argument and have sympathy for elements of it. In language that is reactionary and crude, he makes a case for American pluralism. His concern, funnily enough, is quite current: the continuing struggle over identity politics and so-called successor ideology, how America squares the sins of slavery, racism, and xenophobia with its rhetoric of inclusion—how we, as a people, actually inch forward. Hamill, like me, is deeply concerned about political polarization, of a politics filled with hate and devoid of logic. He is frustrated that too many ideologues are more committed to obliterating their rivals than engaging in the effort of building a stronger, fairer nation. But Hamill, at 59, has a bone to pick with American popular culture. Here is the fulminating middle-aged scribe on the music he really hates:

“Pop culture both feeds and reflects the larger society, and as evidence of collapse, it is chilling. Snoop Doggy Dogg and Al D'Amato have triumphed over Wynton Marsalis and George Mitchell. Good taste lies up the block with an ax in its back. Day and night, from millions of car stereos and boom boxes, gangsta rappers and skinhead semi-demi-quasi-neo-Nazis give the nation its most persistent, defining soundtrack. Some call for the killing of cops, the raping and abandonment of ho's and bitches, the battering of whites or blacks or one another. Rob the weak, they croon. Stomp the soft. Rap videos are pathetic fantasies of force and power, visual tributes to the cult of the Big Gun and the Big Dick. There is no past and no future, only the eternal American present tense. Suburban white kids happily buy the CDs and lean into the lash. There is no room in the music for lyricism, melody or wit. The only acceptable human emotion is rage.”

Rap music is a problem for Hamill, emblematic of a nihilistic nation rapidly spiraling into the gutter. It is grossly equated to neo-Nazism. This was a common, typically white, lament of the era, a hatred of a new kind of art quickly gaining dominance. “No room in the music for lyricism, melody or wit” is an odd way for a curious, big-hearted journalist to write about rap and hip hop, genres that are, in every sense, about lyricism, melody, and wit. The very best rappers are poets, with commands of English to surpass even the most verbose of big city journalists. But the music is alien to him, too violent and strange, and therefore a cheap symbol of decline. Rather than a celebration of pluralism—white kids relishing music produced by people who look nothing like them—it is no more than a “lean into the lash,” disturbing imagery curated for a purpose. Hamill is angry, too, that athletes aren’t as demure as their predecessors, too willing to thump their chests; it’s a trite observation such an acute consumer of culture should be above, one that has, thankfully, been disregarded with time, as even the staid MLB now encourages the kids to just play. “No football player seems able to carry a ball for a touchdown without following up with some taunting dance in the end zone,” Hamill fumes. “Goodbye, Jim Brown; farewell, Gale Sayers; hello, Neon Deion. No baseball player since Don Baylor has been able to endure the occupational hazard of a knockdown pitch without charging the mound in retaliation.” Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Hamill rages that too much of news is entertainment, which was true then and remains true today. We have been a country “that has never made a movie about Leonardo da Vinci and has produced three about Joey Buttafuoco.” Guilty as charged. Celebrity, gossip, and stupidity can and do trump substance; we elected (not through the popular vote) a President Donald J. Trump, didn’t we? Hamill spends time excoriating identity politics, still au courant, and doesn’t always miss the mark. There is a glaring simplicity to the new ideology, the reduction of thorny individuality to unalterable categories, a demand for rigidity that attempts, too frequently, to erase doubt and debate. Robin DiAngelo’s corporate grift deserves to be excised to the dust bin of history, where it will eventually go after she’s made her millions. Hamill, had he lived, would have undoubtedly written something good and cutting about that. But hundreds of years of racism, of course, have brought us here. Easier for the white Irishman to assimilate into the great American melting pot than the descendant of a slave, who cannot ever hide skin color. I can pretend not to be Jewish; George Floyd could never not pretend to be Black. Hamill decries “ethnic chauvinism” but can’t a Black or Latino person take pride in their own culture, especially when white supremacist institutions have tried to suppress it for so long? There was a reason James Baldwin and Paul Robeson couldn’t stand to be in America and set sail for France and Soviet Russia. America’s original sin is difficult to shake.

Hamill’s essay is soft on Bill Clinton, who was a Democrat in the Kennedy mode, a triangulator with a pretty face and a knife clenched behind his back. The Republicans are too mean to him, Hamill laments, especially when he’s done so much.

“While reporters were chasing around after Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers, various state troopers, Paula Jones, and God knows who else, Clinton was actually accomplishing a few things as president. The Republicans linked arms in a spirit of mindless obstruction, led by Dole, but Clinton somehow managed to get an economic plan through Congress, cutting the deficit for the first time in a generation, creating more than four million new jobs. He got NAFTA passed, doing so in a opposition to organized labor and Ross Perot. He finally won passage of his crime bill, too, directly challenging the National Rifle Association.”

The End Gamers tried to derail Clinton, but the Good Ol’ Boy rammed a free trade agreement through Congress, paving the way for the evisceration of the American working class that Hamill rhapsodized in so many tabloid columns. Clinton beat organized labor and Perot! He cut the deficit, gutting the social safety net and bowing to the very right-wing reactionaries that Hamill’s liberals spent the 1960s decrying. And, of course, he got the crime bill done, ushering in a new era of mass incarceration. None of this was overly difficult to anticipate. Contemporary critics loudly opposed all of these efforts. Hamill, though, despairs that the art of compromise is dead, that middle-of-the-roaders like Clinton can’t succeed like they used to. “Pericles couldn't govern that polity. What chance can Clinton have? Domestically, he's indicted for being too liberal or too conservative, too soft or too callous, too indifferent to public opinion or too desirous of consensus.” Clinton, who found success rebranding Reaganism in the 1990s, is another shallow symbol for Hamill’s thesis, recast as a victim in this new aggrievement matrix. The poor president only wants to govern. Let him triangulate in peace.

Hamill’s nostalgia, for a better politics and a better city, is limiting. The 1990s didn’t invent vulgarity and insularity. Alexander Hamilton so virulently defamed Aaron Burr during a gubernatorial race that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and killed him. In the 19th century, politicians carried canes and bowie knives—one pro-slavery senator once beat an anti-slavery Northerner near to death. There were more than 70 violent incidents between congressmen leading up to the Civil War. After the war, the Ku Klux Klan proudly sent members to Congress. From the age of eugenics to the insidious anti-Semitism of the 20th century, it is difficult to find an era that meets Hamill’s ideal of comity and good cheer. When he was 10, after all, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians. None of this means we should devolve into nihilism and reject the American project altogether. We should, with our sin in mind, carry onward, striving for a better, fairer nation, one committed to the goal of a functioning multiracial democracy. We can do this without sentimentality. My own sense is, as an aging millennial, that our generation and subsequent ones will be less prone to nostalgia than Hamill and his cohort. There was no postwar boom for us. There was September 11th, a disastrous Iraq War, an economic crash, a Trump presidency, and a once-in-a-century pandemic with no end in sight. I, too, will happily tell those not yet born about my own wonders of Brooklyn—the since shuttered batting cages and indoor laser parks, the cement courts teeming with handball players—but I will do it knowing that my people, like those who came before and those yet to be, lived like all really do: day-to-day, moment-to-moment, proud and fearful and anxious and heedless and grateful for the years they had with those that they loved. No city and no nation can stand still. 1940s New York is no better or worse than 1980s New York or 2010s New York or whatever the city resembles in 2050. They are all merely different. There is no Lost City, no lost Country. There are the places we inhabit, and those we hope to do the best with while we’re here.