Rediscover the Dark City at the New York International Fringe Festival

I have not been above lamenting the lost soul of Manhattan, as much as I am made impatient by the sentiment.

I grew up in the city (yes really) mostly in the 1980s, when the adjectives “gritty” and “dangerous” and “dirty” were not only more commonly attached to New York, but practically understood. The city was more dangerous, and more polluted, and parts of it were less expensive and in some ways as a result of all that, more interesting. It was easier for creative people to make a go of things in Manhattan, especially downtown, something that’s not quite as possible today, when a market rate one bedroom in Greenwich Village goes for over $4,000 a month.


New York City, 1973


I still cringe when I walk past the Kmart on Astor Place. And I’ve been known to wonder what impression of the city tourists are getting, when they bang into me with their yellow shopping bags from the M&M Store.

But I’m also impatient with the lament because I’m persuaded by an argument Benjamin Schwarz made in The Atlantic not long ago, which is the idyllic creative moment in lower Manhattan’s history was ephemeral, essentially a brief moment in time that was created by an economic dip in between an industrial economy and a global economy. I wrote about it at the time for a blog called Luxist (R.I.P) and said:

A struggle to get back to that point in the city’s history — or to dedicate former industrial spaces to the causes of the creative, rather than the catering of the wealthy, seems rather like longing for the times when you believed in Santa and the Tooth Fairy — or whatever characterizes youthful innocence to you. It requires a selective memory, favoring only the good parts while pushing aside the difficult and the troubling.

This kind of thinking gets on my nerves because it’s a form of denial. Everything changes, including the city. As my favorite professor in college once said, correctly, there are only two things in life that are true: This too shall pass, and there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

NYC Fringe Festival Poster

Still, of all the arts events in the city each year, The New York International Fringe Festival seems to be something of an antidote to all of my mixed feelings and discontent about the city and its changes, and the people who whine about it.

This year’s edition of what is billed as the largest multiarts festival in North America includes 1,200 performances, 20 venues, over 16 days which end on August 26th.  It’s creative, edgy, gritty — the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen anymore on an island overrun with expensive lawyer-and-stock-broker infestation.  Every show costs $15 in advance, which is less than the current adult admission to the Museum of Modern Art.

It’s hard to make a broad generalizations about the shows that are in the program – although it’s de rigueur to point out the Broadway hit Urinetown debuted at this festival in 2001, and a dystopian comedy about a world in which people must pay to pee is probably a good encapsulation of the vibe of the festival.

Representative shows from this year’s edition include 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche; Bang! The Curse of John Wilkes Booth; A Coupla Crackpot Crones;  Immaculate Degeneration, and This Too Shall Suck, a show written and performed by comedian Matt Graham. The entire performance is just a stage, and a stool, and a man telling his story, which includes addiction and suicide and insanity and talking radiators. (And cats and Scrabble and online dating.) It’s startling, as the unvarnished truth always is, and it’s funny, in some ways almost reflexively so – put the words “grandma” and “lemonade” and “cockblock”  together in a sentence and try not to laugh.

But it’s hard to stop thinking about the show after it’s over and some of the humor hits you only later. The overall effect is of a darker, funnier Spalding Grey — who himself was a product of the Manhattan’s earlier creative moment.

Which, I think it’s safe to say,  has definitely changed but has not yet vanished entirely.

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