I've lived in New York City all of my life, and for a great many years I lived in Manhattan. There are many diverse Manhattan neighborhoods--all with their own unique character, personality, and charm--and the two I resided in were as different from each other as apples and bananas.
I moved to Manhattan's Lower East Side from Queens when I was fifteen, after my parents died. My aunt and uncle took me in and I stayed there til I went off to college. After graduation, I came back and got an apartment with my (now) ex-boyfriend on the Upper East Side.
At the time, the real estate boom hadn't become so ridiculous that you had to be a zillionaire to live anywhere in the borough. So my ex and I found a small Upper East Side one-bedroom that was a perfectly decent-sized place by Manhattan standards (in other words, a broom closet anywhere else in the country.) It was an old walkup; no great panoramic views or anything, but perfectly fine for a couple just starting out.
Though the apartment was a little iffy, the neighborhood was terrific. At the time, there were a lot of recent college grads and singles who also moved to the area straight out of college. It was way on the EAST East Side, near the river. When you went a few blocks west, you got into the much more ritzy areas of Fifth, Park, and Madison Avenues featuring luxurious high rises and gorgeous old townhouses, all a stone's throw away from Central Park and major museums.
My ex and I were in our early twenties and really got into the city restaurant and nightlife scene. We sampled every ethnic cuisine to be had--Chinese (including all the regional varieties thereof), Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Caribbean, health food, continental, etc.--as well as the usual diners and greasy spoons. When we didn't want to go out, we had plenty of places to choose from that delivered. Our waistlines soon betrayed the end result of our indulgences for all of Manhattan to see.
In addition, each weekend we frequented all the cool Manhattan hot spots. Saw lots of up and coming bands. Went to comedy clubs, plays, movies, dive bars. Explored all the great sections and sites of the city: the South Street Seaport, Chinatown, the East and West Village, Lincoln Center, the Staten Island Ferry and Circle Line, and on and on.
About twelve years went by. By that time we had accumulated a lot of stuff, and the apartment was getting rather cramped. We were also wearying of climbing the four long lights of steps with our groceries and schlepping fifty pounds of laundry to the wash and dry across the street.
My aunt had been pushing for me to apply to live in her Lower East Side coop complex where I had stayed with her through high school. I was hesitant, partly because at the time the Lower East Side was not the tragically hip mecca it is today. For centuries, the LES had been the first stop for poor new immigrants just off the boat. Typically, their American-born children flourished and soon moved out of the ghetto to greener pastures.
So at first I mightily resisted moving into an area that had virtually no bars, nightspots, or cool restaurants. But when we did take the plunge, we got an unbelieveable deal. The coops were still set up for lower-middle class folk, and we were able to buy the place for eight grand outright, with no mortgage, and a maintenance fee that was roughly the same as our old rent and included gas and electricity.
I'd seen signs of some gentrification creeping closer and closer to my aunt's 'hood for the past several years. But when I moved in, the area was still primarily a cultural wasteland, and nearby blocks still featured numerous and sundry drug hot spots.
But we moved, and soon grew to love it there. We had a cool downtown partial-river view, a beautiful eat-in kitchen, plenty of space and closets for all our stuff, an elevator, a great laundy in the building, and two supermarkets a few blocks away. And as time went by, the neighborhood starting getting quite an influx of young people looking for affordable digs. Eventually, the blocks nearby which had once been yarn factories and crackhouse headquarters were rapidly filled up with young artists, musicians, recent college grads, and other assorted cool folk. Then the area really exploded into ultimate cool-osity, and soon the nightlife scene was arguably the hippest in the city. And inevitably, the rents began to skyrocket until only the yuppies could afford to move in--unless the cool kids doubled or tripled up on a two-or three-bedroom place.
After about ten years, I broke up with my ex. By this point our coop had gone private, and if we sold the place would have fetched something in the neighborhood of a cool half mill. Although I maintained my Manhattan address, I started to spend a good deal of time with my current boyfriend BG at his digs in the Bronx.
The Bronx conjures up a lot of scary images for most people. The area became very dangerous indeed, starting in about the 60s or 70s. But just after World War II, the Northwest Bronx area where BG now lives was a very fancy place indeed. People who had endured cramped Manhattan quarters soon flocked to the area, where spacious Art Deco buildings were readily available. Though many others moved to the 'burbs as soon as they could afford to leave the city, other folks settled in the north Bronx or the already-tony section of Riverdale or affluent Westchester County, both located slightly further to the north. But as time went on, the Bronx fell on hard times, and those who could afford it soon moved elsewhere.
Today, BG's neighborhood is similar to what the Lower East Side was like when I first lived there--lots of new immigrants and struggling working class people. Though the neigborhood is still drug riddled, BG's building had always seemed safe and perfectly hospitable. (The south Bronx is doubtless still sketchier, but there are the beginnings of a slow influx of artists, museums, galleries, cafes featuring poetry readings, and other cultural developments.) BG's neighbors were unflaggingly courteous and friendly, and we experienced virtually no hostility or discomfort of any kind. The cost of living--not just rent but groceries, appliances and toiletries--was a lot cheaper too, since the local shops didn't have to pay the horrifyingly high commercial rents that Manhattan stores are forced to. Plus the area encompassed several universities, a major shopping area, the New York Botanical Gardens, and the Bronx Zoo--and was an easy commute into Manhattan (about 40 minutes to midtown by subway).
BG had been in the Bronx going on seven years. Although he'd occasionally hear a fracas on the street late at night, or see some drug paraphernalia in the back hallways, things were mostly mellow. When I stayed there, I was quickly lulled into complacency by the apparent safety of it all.
But about a month ago, things suddenly took an alarming turn for the worse.
In order to fully explain the situation, I have to talk a little bit about BG's next door neighbor--I'll call her Shirley. She's youngish (probably mid-30s), single, and fairly attractive. When BG moved in, she made it a point to introduce herself, and sometimes accepted packages and such for BG when he was out, and vice versa. So far, so good.
But strange and disturbing happenings were soon in the offing (insert Twilight Zone theme here). One night several years ago we heard a late-night commotion in the hallway, followed by a woman yelling: "Get out of here, you crackhead," followed by the sound of shattering glass. We found out later that Shirley's boyfriend had been abusive to her and had broken the hall windows for extra emphasis.
About a year later, Shirley introduced us to her new boyfriend named Dave. We only saw him once. But around the same time, Shirley started to have a 12ish year old child--let's call him Jeff-- staying with her. Sometimes she referred to him as her son; sometimes as her godson.
So one day we returned home to find a letter slid underneath BG's door. It was meant for Shirley but was hand delivered to the wrong apartment by someone from Child Welfare. Before we realized it wasn't for us, we opened it. By the looks of the paperwork enclosed, it appeared that there was some sort of ongoing investigation regarding alleged child abuse by Dave and Shirley against Jeff. We quickly slipped the envelope under Shirley's door.
I never saw the kid getting beaten up, but there were hints that the home environment could have been better. One day the door opened to Shirley's apartment and Jeff came out with a shopping cart. Shirley sharply admonished him to hurry up and pick up the laundry and bring back milk too. The youngster look so dejected that BG said something like: "Rough day today, huh?" Jeff seemed like a nice enough kid though: always said hi to BG; seemed like he'd grow up to be a good sort if given half a chance.
Another time BG was in the local deli and witnessed Jeff asked Shirley if she would get him a package of hot dogs. With Heineken in hand, she refused to buy the franks for the kid because they were too pricey. Sure, deli prices are outrageous, but one could quite easily purchase a pound of cheap hot dogs and buns from the supermarket right down the street, bring them upstairs, boil them for 10 minutes, and eat until your bloated stomach burst.
Another time Jeff knocked on BG's door and timidly said his "mother" wanted to know if BG would sign for the cable man who'd come to install their box. BG said sorry, he couldn't do it, natch. I mean, can you imagine? BG's income is at the poverty level as it is, and the last thing he needed was the cable company harassing him for nonpayment of Shirley's bills. At any rate, the poor youngster soon disappeared from the scene as suddenly and mysteriously as he had arrived. Shortly thereafter, we came home and saw that there was a notice posted on Shirley's door for non-payment of rent. But apparently the matter got straightened out, and we still ran into her now and then.
Aside from all this, Shirley was always a tad nosy and nervy. She used to get pretty familiar with BG and would sometimes ask: "What happened to your girlfriend? She still around?" BG suspected that maybe she wanted to put the moves on him. Just let her try to put her nasty little talons into my man--I'll slap her upside the head forwards, backwards, sideways, and every other old which way!
Another time after BG had gained a few she actually poked him in the belly and said "You're getting fat!" Six months ago she saw us in the elevator and asked where we were coming from. We had just come from an AA meeting but didn't want to reveal that (none of her darn business anyway), so we said we'd just come from church. After all, we knew she took her "son" to church every Sunday, even if he maybe didn't get fed so good.
She replied: "Dressed like THAT?!"
So now that I've relayed the sordid "backstory," this is the latest development.
We'd been noticing that over the last month or two there'd been a lot of strange people and iffy activity on BG's floor. Lots of sleazy looking people wandering around in a daze, coming in and out of various apartments, "exchanging" items with each other. Lots of loud fights out in the hallway in the wee hours, banging, slamming, and screaming. Shirley seemed to have disappeared altogether and left the apartment to two guys who seemed, from their demeanor and behavior, to be running a crack cartel from the apartment. But we had nothing substantial to go on. We did note, however, that whenever BG would leave the apartment and push the elevator button, one of the guys in Shirley's crib would open the door, peer out suspiciously, and close the door again.
So one night about two weeks ago, BG went to take out the garbage at around 4 am because we sometimes keep weird hours. Sometimes I stay up late and then he gets up and paints and I go back to bed and so on.
So he goes to the door to take the trash out and I warn him to be careful because I'd heard a ruckus going on out in the hall a few minutes before. He started to open the door, but closed it again quickly because he saw someone lurking in the hallway.
About half a minute later, there was a loud banging on the door. BG said:
"Who is it?"
"Hey, man. I want to talk to you."
"Who is it?"
"Come on out here. I want to talk to you face to face."
"Who is it?"
"Yeah, what do you want?"
"I want you to stay out of my business."
"But I was just going to take out the garba---"
"Stay out of my BUSINESS. I heard you open and close your door." (This was, mind you, after the continual opening and closing of this guy's door and assorted mayhem going on in the hallway all night).
"Just stay out of my damn business. Punk motherf#cker."
I urged BG to call the cops right away. He thought about it and decided against it because it somehow seemed unwise to tangle with a crazed crackhead with a bad attitude and a vengeful nature--especially at 4 in the morning.
Two days later the bell rang. It was the police and they asked BG if he knew anything about the incident "last night" with the guy next door. BG said he hadn't heard anything last night, but told them about his brief encounter from the night before last.
They then said: "Know anything about HER?"
CB said that she was his neighbor, hadn't seen her in a dog's age. From the way things were shaping up, apparently it turned out that she'd given her apartment over to her abusive, window breaking ex-boyfriend for safekeeping.
Then the cops said (get this): "Well, if you see the guy, tell him we were looking for him."
Yeah, RIGHT. "Hey guy, the cops are after you. No, I swear, I'm not the dirty rat that told them about you...wait..don't throw me out the window, you'll break the glass again...c'mon guy...AARRRRRRRRRHHHHHHH!!!!!!!"
The very next day, we went to the locksmith and purchased a brand new $50 chain for the door--the kind you use if you have to open your door at 4 am when someone says it's the police but it's really a drug lord intending to kick your door in and evicerate you.
I'd never thought about carrying around anything much for protection except my keys which I guess I could try to use to poke a perpetrator's eye out, but I asked the locksmith if they had anything available for self-protection. I didn't want to go so far as a Saturday Night Special in my garter belt, but I thought maybe a can of mace might be in order.
He told me mace was now illegal, but sold me a whistle on a chain.
A whistle? With my loud mouth, I could probably yell and scream so loud I'd break my attacker's eardrums. But I tried it out, and it was pretty piercing. So now I've got the latest must-have urban fashion accessory to hang around my neck every day.
We asked our super for the scoop, and he said that our new neighbor was indeed the ex-boyfriend who had previously assaulted Shirley. However, we haven't seen hide nor hair of him since the police showed up, though there's still a lot of unsavory people wandering around the floor, apparently headed toward another popular hot spot around the corner.
What was prettty amazing was that I'd been so clueless to the drug activity in the neighborhood at large. I started reading the local community paper and realized how insidious the problem really was. Dealers a block or two away did their business as blatantly as a sausage vendor at a street fair or a bauble hawker at an open-air bazaar. There had been efforts in the past to employ beat cops who would get to know the neighborhood, as well as undercover teams, but dealers would just move down to the next block and threaten and intimidate any residents they thought had ratted on them, just for good measure. The city's police force has now been diverted in part to anti-terrorism squads on the heels of 9/11, and from what I gather they are cutting police funds for new cops in general.
So the only thing left to do is have eyes in the back of my head, wear my whistle and carry a baseball bat when I take out the garbage, and wait for the cool artists to start moving in and make the neighborhood unaffordable for BG and everyone else who resides here. That's city living for you.