I figured the best way to kick this off is an overview of the neighborhoods in which I’ve actually lived.
- East Village; Alphabet City/Loisaida
- Lower East Side
Between my years at NYU and the years just after, these are the neighborhoods I lived in longest.
I grew up in a pretty rural part of Eastern Connecticut; New York City has pretty much been the Shining City On A Hill for me all through junior high and high school. I would regularly check New York Magazine out of our local library and pore through each issue, trying to absorb just what it would feel like to actually immerse myself in that city. Ultimately what I had built up in my head was some sort of combination of Woody Allen and Taxi reruns – a city where erudite intellectuals talked about foreign film and exotic food, rubbing elbows with quirky aspiring artists coping with crowded subways and surly-but-kindhearted cabbies.
I was not prepared for the degree of sheer weirdness you could see on the street.
I got to New York in the very late 1980’s, literally two weeks after the riot in Tompkins Square Park. For the first couple years – while the terms of gentrification were being hammered out by the police and the anarchists and artists – I was mostly in the sheltered world of NYU’s dorms, which was probably for the best – I really did need “training wheels” before jumping into New York full bore. But I was still able to dip my toe into the weird music venues like the now-defunct Bottom Line and CBGB’s, and could still end up at an all-night coffee shop with friends at 4 am debating whether Peanuts could serve as an analog for The Communist Manifesto. Those are the conversations you just have when you’re in college, but the East Village was weird enough, anarchic enough, and permissive enough that you didn’t have to actually be in college to find someone to have them with. The bartender was just as likely to get into it with you.
And you were also likely to see weirdness for its own sake. In my very first on-my-own apartment – a basement-level summer sublet shared with three friends, two doors away from a nightclub that had just opened – my roommates and I got used to seeing a couple of drifters on our block; one of whom had fashioned himself a hat out of women’s panty hose with soda bottles jammed into each leg, and one who tied branches to his head. We called them “Bunny Man” and “Tree Man”. On another occasion, I saw three men riding a huge tandem bike they’d constructed themselves out of pipes and papier mache to look like an enormous dragonfly. On still another, I got into line at a movie theater box office behind a man who was wearing a tuxedo to which he’d sewn several dozen plastic forks; he was also riding a unicycle. I regularly walked by a huge ramshackle tower built in the middle of a community garden – the only motivation its artist had was, as he admitted, he just sort of felt like it.
I actually got so used to seeing stuff like this that I started ignoring most of what was going on around me lest I end up in a permanent state of slack-jawed wonder. After seven or so years living there, I was so blinkered that one day out on the street, I actually passed right by Quentin Tarantino – who had apparently looked right at me and said “excuse me” after nearly running into me – and I hadn’t even noticed.
But I did have my guard up for the dicier things – especially when I moved to the Lower East Side (meaning: I moved from one block north of Houston Street to one block south of it). The gentrification had just started to make its push there, in the early 90’s; my roommate’s parents visited us shortly after we moved in and told friends that “there’s a line between the good and the bad side of the neighborhood, and the apartment is one block over the line into the bad side”. Our building was on a largely Dominican block and had been just taken over by new management and newly renovated, so a whole influx of kids all moved in at the same time. One of our neighbors told us that they’d been at the Laundromat across the street and struck up a conversation with the owner; when he reported where he lived, the owner said “oh, you live in the building where all the white people live!”
I’ll admit that the first couple weeks I lived there, I had this mental don’t-fuck-with-me shield up just walking around, until I noticed that the block itself wasn’t actually….that bad. Yeah, there was that guy that whispered an offer to sell me heroin at 10 am from a stoop once, but there was also Ignacio, the guy who ran the bodega two doors down and who recognized me on the street; and the kids who played in the fire hydrant behind my building and who really dug it when I went out to join them once. And the lady who ran the Laundromat across the street and the guy who opened that coffee shop on our corner and the doctor who also opened a practice up two doors down from him, and…it was a neighborhood, and I was part of it and I realized that being constantly on my guard was silly.
And I ended up staying on that one block for twelve years. Long enough to see Ignacio’s shop get replaced by a trendy restaurant, to see most of the small local businesses get pushed out and other trendy places come in…long enough that I could no longer afford to eat in my own neighborhood any more, or trust that the people who lived there knew me or had my back. My own particular building started being a revolving door of kids who landed, stayed for a year or two, and then moved on.
And the East Village’s weirdness started getting cleaned up too – the tower in the 6th Street Garden got knocked down, the club on East 2nd where Craig Ferguson was once a bouncer got razed and turned into luxury condos, the bar where I came for solace the evening of September 11th got closed, CBGB’s closed and turned into a boutique clothing store.
It’s the nature of New York neighborhoods to move on, but that’s one particular place I wish hadn’t – or at least, that it hadn’t quite so fast. New York needs a place for its broke weirdos to call home. But I finally had to move.
- Park Slope
I only lived here for a year, but for a time this was a place that also felt very much like “oh, this was the New York I was looking for”. I lived in a cramped studio in a graceful building with a boyfriend; things were always stormy between us, so I would often escape to the surrounding neighborhood a lot. Today the joke about Park Slope is that it’s overrun by lots of families with parents prone to organic diapers and attachment parenting; it was a little more diverse then, with most of the hippie-crunchy activity centered around a health food store I’d sometimes prowl for funky scented perfume oils. I also hung out at a weekly tag sale that happened at the nearby school on Saturdays, striking up a friendship with one of the neighbors from our building, or would prowl the twee little coffee and tea shop on 7th Avenue, looking for fancy teas.
Or I’d head up to Prospect Park, only a block away from me. I like Prospect Park far better than Central Park; it’s wilder and more free-form, and a bit less trafficked, so I could let my hair down a bit more there (the one and only time I’ve had sex al fresco in New York was in the Vale of Cashmere section at about 10 pm one night.)
I moved out after only a year, though, and by the time I was able to visit again, a lot of the stores I’d seen had suffered the same franchising/gentrifying fate.
- Clinton Hill/Fort Greene
This is where I am now; it’s an odd little corner of the city – not quite as hipster as Williamsburg, not quite as hyper-family-friendly as Park Slope. Close to Manhattan geographically, but still with a 20 minute walk to the subway. It’s still right on the gentrification edge, too – there are some big apartment towers going up. But you also have two college campuses there keeping the neighborhood spirit young and quirky enough, and enough longtime families trying to keep things safe enough. And enough longtime residents also trying to put a check on everyone getting too hipster, and enough locavore-foodie types to still nevertheless try to get a couple of good coffee shops in.
I’m a block from the Navy Yard, and sometimes walk home from work around its perimeter, catching the smell of the East River on the breeze (believe it or not, I like that smell). There are a lot of trees offering shade on my street, there’s a great bar up the street where the owners have sort of adopted me (not what you’re thinking, I mostly show up for their brunch). I’ve turned up on the street at the block party they throw every Halloween, sometimes in costume and sometimes just to see the costumes of others. I also joined a meetup run by a local wine store one New Year’s Eve, to go see the annual Midnight Steam Whistle Soundoff at Pratt University Campus, about 10 blocks from home. I got into a great conversation with a kid at a coffee shop about gentrification, and also then lamented when that coffee shop closed. Ted Allen lives in my neighborhood, and I once ran into him while leaving a local liquor store after a thwarted attempt to get cinnamon schnapps for a recipe; I nearly turned back and asked him “well, you’d know where I could find it, any ideas?” But I left him alone and instead made a point of visiting the local pizzeria he raved about once. Only just today that I found out the lovely white house on my block I’d been admiring for eight years is on the National Registry of Historic Places; I only knew it as “the house where they have that pear tree which no one is picking the pears from dammit”. I’ve even got a favorite bookstore.
I can’t speak to how much longer this will be the case – how long things will stay as they are now, or when they’ll make the same change there as they did in the East Village. But right now, it’s home.