A Wonderful Town

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A week or two ago, a friend of mine posted to Facebook this article from The Daily Beast railing against New York City nostalgia.  I have really mixed feelings about the piece and the attitude of the person who wrote it. One thing’s for sure, the city has changed a lot since the “bad old days.”

Just to clarify, my experience of the real “bad old days,” the 70s and 80s, were as a kid who visited on the weekends. My parents are both native New Yorkers, and we came in to see my grandparents in Queens and Brooklyn, neither of which did I like, at all.  My memories were of dirty, trash-ridden streets and dark, musty apartments with untouchable tchotchkes.  My only really positive memories of the city were the things we sometimes did after those visits, like taking home pizza from Famous Ray’s (the REAL Famous Ray’s, or at least the one we thought it was), or special occasions, when we went to the Museum of Natural History, or to Broadway to see Annie, Cats (yes, twice) or Sweeney Todd (my parents had a history of taking us to stuff that wasn’t really for kids.  I remember seeing Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the theater, and that came out when I was six).

I finally developed something of an appreciation for the city when I was a teenager in the 80s, when my friends and I started coming in on the PATH train to go shopping for vintage clothes and acquire colorful eponymous buttons for our backpacks at stores like Unique, Flip, Zoot, and Canal Jean Company.  We stuck to a defined route down 8th Street and Broadway that hit these specific stores, and it was all we knew because we were too scared to go anywhere else or, God forbid, take the subway.  That was the exaggerated fear of a suburban kid, no doubt, but still, the 80s were the era of Bernhard Goetz, Curtis Sliwa, and the Central Park jogger (before we knew that the teenaged defendants in that case were railroaded by the NYPD and the DA’s office).  

By the time I moved here in 1990, the city was definitely considered a safer place.  I lived first in the Village, which was a good starter neighborhood for NYC living, because even though it wasn’t the dreamy West Village of the quaint, winding streets lined with cute cafes, brownstones, and actual trees, it was pretty clean, convenient to everything and felt safe.  It was basically the same with Alphabet City, where I moved in 1993, although it took a little longer to feel like it.  “Alphabet City,” again, was not what it had been in the 70s and 80s – the Lower East Side had by then claimed that mantle of “cool by virtue of being a little dangerous."  When a friend from film school dragged a group of us to Max Fish, a lonely, neon-lit outpost with pinball machines and a pool table in the no man’s land of squats and tenements south of Houston, I was nervous about being there during the day, much less at 2 am.  But where I lived, at 6th and A, above Benny’s Burritos, the biggest problem was not being able to sleep with the windows open at that hour because the bars and restaurants were hopping, or because of the guy with a fish-shaped nyckelharpa busking on the corner (I once bought him a pizza to make him go away).  

Still, rats, robbery, drug deals and having to step over junkies nodding off on the sidewalk or on one’s stoop were all normal aspects of life in neighborhoods like the East Village that one had to learn to deal with, and so there were rules for living in New York in the 90s.  You paid attention when you walked around, particularly at night.  You didn’t walk down streets that were deserted or too dark, and if you had to walk down one with dark sidewalks, you walked in the street — and you always carried your keys in your hand for protection. You knew your neighborhood — which meant you knew which blocks to avoid.  For instance, 13th St between A and B was a dealing block.  (The people who lived around there said that actually made it safer, because the dealers wouldn’t let people get mugged there, but I saw no reason to test that theory). You always kept an eye on your personal belongings wherever you were, never put a wallet in an outer pocket of a bag, and never hung anything on the back of your chair in a restaurant — which was the mistake I made that led to me being the victim of my first theft (a backpack, which luckily only contained my calendar and journal, but still made me feel vulnerable and disoriented).  Crime was a fact of everyday life, but it was one that it was your responsibility to avoid by not being stupid.  I remember the first time I went to jury duty, the judge asked who in the room had been the victim of a crime, and every single hand went up.  I had a friend who talked about how eventually in this city, “your number just came up” — which was why, after a mutual acquaintance of ours had the shit kicked out of him one night outside a bar, she decided it was time to leave.  You always had to keep an eye, if not a hand, on every piece of film equipment on a shoot so it didn’t “walk away.”  I was on a student film in a bad part of Brooklyn where we turned away for a moment and someone took the feeder cable.  If you don’t know what feeder cable looks like, it’s really, really heavy, and it’s cable.  

And yet, at that time, it seemed like if you observed the rules, you could own this city.  Sure, Manhattan was expensive, but you could also get by for very little if you knew your way around.  I knew the best places for late night pierogies and martinis (Odessa), for cheap but excellent pasta (Frank or Max), for kabobs (Bereket), for caipirinhas (Boca Chica).  In addition to the sample sales, I also kept up-to-date on all the free events, like Summerstage and Bryant Park film night and free Fridays at the MOMA before they all got so swamped you couldn’t go any more, as well as what good dance parties had a cheap cover charge (Shine on Monday nights), which bars pretty much guaranteed a hook-up (7B), and which was the rotating hangout for the film community, where, on any given night, I’d go in and know half the people there (Blue & Gold, then Lucy’s, then Ace Bar).  

But it was also in the 90s when we really started to see things change, and it wasn’t because of the policing techniques that started when Dinkins made Ray Kelly Police Commissioner in 1992, or the “quality of life” changes Giuliani instituted after he became mayor in 1993, though I’m sure those things did make a difference.  It was because of money.  The first signs of gentrification are always awesome.  When Dean & DeLuca opened up on Prince Street in Soho, I thought it was terrific — a nice cafe with great pastry in an area of warehouses, lofts and galleries, so close to NYU?  What was not to like?  When they removed the homeless from Tompkins Square Park, closed it down for two years of renovations and then reopened it in 1993, for the first time, it actually looked like a park.  But soon it was clear that it wasn’t all good.  In 1995, I decided to leave Avenue A for Brooklyn because I wanted cheaper rent.  The people who realtors brought to look at my East Village apartment were no longer students and artists.  One even wore a suit: he worked for Citibank.  I asked him why he wanted to move to a neighborhood with junkies and homeless people and no services, which was a fifteen-minute walk from the nearest subway.  “It’s just more interesting than the Upper East Side,” he said.  The rent was going up from $1350 to $1600, which seemed like a big jump, but it was nothing compared to what would happen over the next ten years.

I was moving to what I then considered uncharted territory: Brooklyn.  I discovered that I could pay significantly less than I had in the Village to share a four-story house (counting the basement, which had a laundry room and a second kitchen that I would eventually convert into a darkroom) on a pretty street with even more brownstones and trees than the West Village, half a block from Prospect Park.  It had a back deck, a huge kitchen with a dishwasher, a living room and a dining room — more than enough space to house all my stuff, including the couch I’d acquired as set dressing for my thesis film — in addition to my own room, which was sun-filled and, compared to everywhere else I’d lived, palatial.  And this neighborhood I was moving to, called Park Slope, with its great coffee shops and no tall buildings, felt more like Seattle than New York City.  Still, it was a scary change.  Instead of being able to walk a few blocks to my door late at night after going out, I would have to take the train home because a cab would be too expensive.  And the streets were quiet at 1 am.  For a Manhattanite, that was just spooky.  Little did I know that Manhattan was going to follow me there.  I managed to stay in Park Slope for about 12 years before it, too, got too popular and expensive, and I had to move deeper into Brooklyn.  

For a long time, I still went back to my haunts in the East Village, but eventually, I didn’t.  Practically everyone I knew was moving out of there too, so the people were changing, and those places stopped feeling like places I knew.  By now, most of them have disappeared altogether.  Last July, I was finishing up a job one night and we found ourselves pushing the equipment through a huge crowd on the sidewalk that we realized it was in front of Max Fish.  The bar was having its closing night before moving to a new location in Williamsburg, because the landlord had raised the rent to $20,000 a month. 

I know it might sound like what I miss about the old New York is what everyone else talks about: that it used to be “cool.”  But it never felt cool getting harassed in Times Square by dudes stumbling out of peep shows, or having to avoid the scurrying rat parade on the sidewalk around the pile of garbage in the empty lot at B and 10th St.  What I miss is feeling like this city belonged to me.  Back then, maybe because those things kept the visitors away, it felt like New York was a place that really existed for its residents.  Even though there were people who were living much, much better than I was, we were dealing with a lot of the same shit, and we were all in it together.  

It’s definitely not that way any more.  I often have that feeling that the stories I read on the Style pages or in the Dining Out section are about people living in an entirely different New York from me.  That’s okay on some level, I don’t need to have the privileges that they do.  But what bothers me is that theirs is a New York where they can isolate themselves from the rest of us, and from the problems they don’t want to see: the poverty, joblessness and homelessness which is growing literally around them, as the people who can’t afford to be in Manhattan or anywhere close to it get pushed ever outward.  It’s a city where some people are doing very, very well while others slide rapidly downward, and the rest of us just try to hang on to the middle, knowing that the abyss might only be one layoff or one big medical bill away.  Sometimes, it even feels like a lot of what’s done “for the city” is really done for the tourists, or the people who come in on a Saturday night to go to dinner and a game at the Barclay’s Center (especially if you know the story of Atlantic Yards and how that all went down).

I don’t want to go back in time.  My nostalgia for the days when I first lived in New York is so tied to who and what I was then: younger and more carefree and oh so much more clueless.  I wouldn’t want to be that person again, even if she had better knees and never got hungover, and I wouldn’t want that old New York back either.  But what I do miss is the sense that we were all living in the same city.  I think, or at least hope, that that’s what Mayor de Blasio misses too.  Maybe he can do something about it.

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