City slicker

New York is prettier now than it was in the 1970s. But, for Amit Chaudhuri, ugliness was key to its

It was 1979 when I first visited New York. The city was in decline; the decline took the form of a shabby grandeur. Walking between those gigantic buildings with my parents, I felt not as if I was in the new world, but as if I were trespassing on the remnants of a civilisation - the buildings on the Lower East Side had a Jurassic air. That the inhabitants of Pakistan's ancient city of Mohenjo-daro were short was deduced by measuring the doorways of the ruins. What did these buildings tell us about those who lived here?

To the immigrant approaching New York by ferry, the skyline must have looked eerie. Apparently Fritz Lang had a vision of what the frightening but astonishing city in his film Metropolis would look like when he saw Manhattan for the first time from a ship. But I was glad to arrive in New York in 1979; Californian prettiness had been killing me in the first part of my journey. New York reminded me of Calcutta, a city to which I still didn't belong, then; and I remember the discovery of this perception pleased me almost as much as the discovery of the city.

It wasn't just the decay, casually exhibited, the distracted streams of passers-by, the anarchy at traffic lights; it was the way both cities bore the marks of being born of, and mutilated by, mod ernity. The allure and aesthetic of the ugly: the modern mind's recuperation, in both Europe and India, of Hinduism's odd dialectic with the unattractive and the terrifying, in which these are seen as attributes of divinity rather than the satanic. The period of this recuperation roughly coincides with the rise of the industrial metropolis in both the Old World and its colonies, and in the New. The paradoxical and transcendental beauty of the ravaged city in T S Eliot's Waste Land; Hart Crane's equally puzzling hymn of praise to the enormously ugly Brooklyn Bridge, in which it becomes "harp and altar" and "a myth to God"; the delirious apostrophes to the terrors of Manhattan by Allen Ginsberg (Ginsberg, the amateur dabbler in tantra and Kali worship) - you feel that these poets' relationship to the modern city has been shaped by their readings of Hindu texts, not long ago brought into currency, which have a renewing dialectic with the ugly.

The New York I revisited in 2000, very briefly, had moved on from the city of Ginsberg and Crane. It was in the midst of a long economic boom, and had a new mayor, in Rudy Giuliani, who was zealously intent on cleaning up the city. Giuliani was opposed to ugliness. Interestingly, he was also opposed to ugliness in art. Long before 9/11, he became internationally known for his rage against a painting exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The painter was a British artist, Chris Ofili; the subject of his painting was the Madonna, but this Madonna was black, and painted in oils and elephant dung - a sort of Kali/Madonna. Giuliani, as part of his plan to clean up New York, wanted the painting withdrawn, and it probably was; he also blocked a subsidy to the museum. Giuliani is a different sort of New Yorker from Crane and Ginsberg; he represents the city's desire to move away from its past, from its spiritually ambivalent relationship with ugliness.

Under Giuliani's tutelage, New York became a safer and marginally calmer place. Many of its areas have been "gentrified". This is a word I had, for some reason, never encountered until I travelled there in August 2002 on a longer visit. Yet educated white New Yorkers use it almost compulsively in conversation, with a strange mixture of ruefulness, censure and approbation. Brooklyn has become gentrified, I was told; the West Village and the once-seedy, bohemian neighbourhoods around New York University were now gentrified; even Harlem, with its black ghetto, would be gentrified soon.

What exactly is "gentrification"? Certainly it has to do with the acquisition of wealth, with the enhancement of property prices. But it is more than these things; it is a style of living and an attitude to history. Cities, when they revive after a slump, find ways of rewriting, and even denying, history. It is almost an inevitable process.

Earlier that year in Hong Kong, I had found the roads had colonial names, but there was not a single colonial building in sight; we might have been in Toronto. They had been replaced by concrete-and-glass extremities. Colonial history had been erased, not by ideology, but by capitalist resurgence. No one belonged in Hong Kong, I was told: people came here to make money; the population was largely migrant - not just European or American, but largely migrant Chinese. A fellow Indian writer and I, gawping at the buildings, reflected that Hong Kong and Calcutta had been more or less on a par in the early decades of the 20th century. And yet I wouldn't like Calcutta to become Hong Kong, to revive itself by decimating its past, to transform itself so strikingly and unforgivingly.

Gentrification in New York City is not a decimation of history, but a repackaging of it. The gentrified neighbourhoods have gone neither the way of the classic American suburb, with its functional residential featurelessness, nor of Hong Kong, with its crusading destruction of history. Instead, they cultivate a mood of old-fashioned, European, haute-bourgeoise gentility, which has ceased to exist except in this repackaged incarnation. It is fictional, and has a fairy-tale glow. I think well-to-do New Yorkers feel slightly ashamed of "gentrification" because they recognise its fictionality, and also because they feel comfortable in it.

The criss-cross grid of avenues and intersecting streets that makes up much of Manhattan means that gentrification and inner-city dereliction are both far and never too far away from each other. From locality to locality, there is a persistent sense of elsewhere. Madison Avenue, opulent and celebrated around 55th Street, is, at 118th Street, another city - one of boarded-up shops, empty diners and ruminating African Americans. This is still Madison Avenue.

The street on which I lived, 108th, led on one side to Amsterdam Avenue and to Broadway on the other. These were two distinct worlds. Broadway was a model for gentrification: expensive restaurants, terrific bookshops, second-hand copies of Lorca and Pessoa being sold on the pavement, and an absence of the large American chain stores. The newsagents here sell not only the New Yorker, but the Hudson Review.

If you went down Amsterdam Avenue from 108th, you would meet non-gentrified New York. This is where Hispanics live, confabulate and ply their business. The avenue at this point proliferates with barber shops, 99-cent discount stores and Chinese fast-food outlets. Here non-gentrification is denoted by an absence of English, by the predominance of Spanish and the occasional Mandarin. But I mainly experienced the difference as music - "Candela" by the Buena Vista Social Club, a song of joy and yearning from the Cuba that America had long tried to humble, which, on Saturday evenings, was played endlessly and kept me up till dawn.

Amit Chaudhuri's memoir "Monsoon Raag" will be published by Faber & Faber in 2008