Is New York "over"?
lower manhattan skyline from the brooklyn heights promenade
Originally uploaded by limonada.
At the time, my aunt had a subscription to New York magazine, which came out weekly. She'd save up the old issues and present the bundle to me when I came to visit, along with jars of homemade chicken soup, to take home to my cramped one-bedroom fifth floor walkup. From perusing the magazines and observing the street scene on the bus, I learned a lot about how neighborhoods can change over the years--in a gradual but inexorable metamorphosis from seedy to trendy to unaffordable.
Manhattan was a somewhat different city back then. Though the "hellhole" days of Manhattan (think "Taxi Driver" or "Midnight Cowboy") and the concomitant dirt-cheap rents had started to wane, by the time the '80s hit it was still possible to emerge fresh out of college and get an apartment in the city. And indeed, the Upper East Side (or the far East side of it at any rate) was a kind of ghetto for young singles back in the day. It was reasonably safe, and had all the city amenities I craved--bars, restaurants, bookstores, and all-night delis where you could grab the Sunday Times on Saturday night on your way back from dinner or a neighborhood movie.
The Lower East Side, however, was a different story. It seemed to have been suspended in time, its roots as the starting point for countless 19th and early 20th century European immigrants still very much apparent with its ancient tenements and unhip demeanor. To me, the Lower East Side didn't even seem to be part of Manhattan at all, but a dowdy enclave where many working and middle class predominantly Jewish families, my aunt and uncle included, had settled in the big apartment complexes on Grand Street that offered affordable coop living. But after dark, when the local shops closed, if one ventured down the nearby tenement side streets, your only purpose (or so it seemed at the time) would have been to risk life and limb to buy drugs.
There were numerous other Manhattan areas that were still "sketchy" as well. In those days, the Bowery was still "The Bowery"--complete with winos and flophouses. No one was doing real estate speculation in Harlem. Alphabet City--the southeasternmost stretch of the "East Village" that ran from Avenues A through D--was still largely a "no-man's land" to the more monied class.
When the Manhattan housing boom began in earnest and once crumbling areas became desirable, the scope of its course took some folks by surprise. But there are a certain subset of New Yorkers--especially the New York magazine reading contingent--who are forever searching for the next big thing, months or even years before others catch on, whether it be the hottest new restaurant or the next big neighborhood. And if one had the wherewithal to invest in real estate, this foresight would pay off richly in the decades to come. Unfortunately, it would also mean that many poor and even middle class residents would be pushed out, little by little.
Meanwhile, on my periodic sojourns home on the Avenue A crosstown bus, I began to see gradual signs of my aunt's Lower East Side 'hood's inevitable transformation. Avenue A in the adjoining East Village had already become safer and more "accessible," especially after Tompkin's Square--the local park--had been cleaned out by the city and totally renovated. Previously a site where homeless would literally set up camp, it was transformed into a kid and family friendly space. The same had been done with other parks including Union Square--which now hosts a thriving farmer's market several days a week and has a tony outdoor cafe-- and Bryant Park, which went from druggie hellhole to a midtown oasis with cafe tables and chairs for lunching and relaxing, films in the summer and host to runway shows during New York Fashion Week.
In any case, the trendy ambiance of the East Village eventually traveled further south til it finally landed in the Lower East Side proper. More and more neon bar signs glowed and beckoned as my bus traversed Essex Street which transformed into Avenue A at Houston. At some tipping point, bars, boutiques and restaurants sprung up like mushrooms on the once-desolate adjoining streets as well, til young people from all over turned the area into a bona fide party space. Along with this came rapidly rising rents, and those who could not afford a space alone might double or triple up with like minded young hipsters so they could afford to live in the center of the action.
Eventually, as neighborhood after neighborhood in Manhattan gentrified and became more and more unaffordable to the average resident, the outer boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island) gradually experienced their own renaissance. As a result, most of Brooklyn can now be almost as pricey as Manhattan, with amenities to match. Queens, for many years considered an unhip Archie-Bunkerland, started to develop hip enclaves as well. The boundaries of well-heeled--or at least more "desirable"-- New York living had extended to the adjoining boroughs of the city in earnest.
Perhaps the biggest shocker was when the press started reporting on development in the South Bronx (nicknamed SoBro by real estate brokers). In the 70s, the area was a national symbol for the most extreme urban blight. But the combination of significantly lower crime citywide, an infusion of funds to improve parks and other amenities in all five boroughs, and real estate mania had finally started to hit one of the most unlikely of neighborhoods.
To be honest though, SoBro--as well as most of the Bronx with the exception of the perpetually tony enclave of Riverdale to the north-- is still pretty much "Wild West" territory to many New Yorkers who can afford not to live there. But whenever I now visited my boyfriend BG--who lived in Manhattan for decades but moved to the Northwest Bronx over eight years ago--I began to witness subtle yet gradual changes as the months and years went by.
The day BG was shown the apartment, the first thing the super told him was: "I'm not a policeman. If you have trouble, don't call me. Call the police." BG's soon to be new abode had a second entrance which led out into a back hall/stairway which was basically used as a fire exit. When the super showed it to him, there were chunks of tobacco and cigar stubs strewn all over--remnants from the spliffs that local kids used to create, I believe, mammoth joints, or perhaps pot mixed with crack.
Not long after he moved there, BG opened his front door and found blood smeared all over the floor in front of his apartment, with more in the elevator. Loud and boisterous weekend revelry on the street below used to be the norm--when his brother visited he liked to say come Saturday night that it was "getting real Bronx." The parks were not particularly well-tended, and folks would routinely park their SUV's on the street in front of them and turn the volume on their radio to 11 for a kind of urban version of a rowdy tailgate party.
Still and all, it didn't seem that much different to me than the Lower East Side of yore, and I felt pretty safe on the streets, all things considered. And over the next several years, as the real estate market continued to jump upwards in leaps and bounds, I saw a 'hood that already had a lot going for it become even more so.
Increased police presence had something to do with it, as did a fresh influx of funding from the city. Though there were few coops in the area, the one development that I had had my eye on for years has now doubled in price, though it's still dirt cheap by New York standards. The local parks are being revamped, and the nearby Kingsbridge Armory is at long last poised for commercial development after sitting almost vacant for years on end. Work is underway to develop the waterfront, and the old Yankee Stadium is being replaced with a new one (though for the life of me I can't quite see why). BG's building, now under new ownership, has become harder for interlopers to use as a drug den. And the streets are now almost eerily quiet on the weekends.
In addition, this part of the northern Bronx was pretty darn fancy long ago. After the IRT subway system expanded to include access from Manhattan to the Bronx in the early decades of the 20th century, a lot of people who wanted to escape the cramped tenements of Manhattan, including the Lower East Side, moved here, and builders took the opportunity to create buildings that had amenities which were novel at the time. All up and down the Grand Concourse--designed after Paris' Champs Elysees and called at the time, I believe, the Park Avenue of the Bronx--elegant buildings, many with elaborate art deco features, were built to accomodate the Manhattan refugees.
As a result, this now "economically challenged" area still has pre-war buildings in good condition, rife for conversion to coops. But already the ugly side of "progress" has become apparent, as some ruthless real estate investors are trying to force old tenants of a few buildings out by any means necessary.
In any case, the Bronx is still far from "hip," but I see it headed in the inexorable direction of eventual gentrification, for better and worse. And as soon as I get the money for the sale of the LES coop which I co-own with my ex-boyfriend in my desperate, grasping hands, I plan to get a place near BG in the coop development I've coveted for years.
Though still the ultimate "promised land" for millions, Manhattan has become increasingly unaffordable and even bourgeois over the past several decades. Though it suddenly became hip to live in other boroughs, the intitial "pioneers" selected only some parts, starting with the areas closest to Manhattan and gradually moving further "inland" as rents climbed upward. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a great case in point, and New York magazine did a brilliant, snarky piece about its rapid development awhile back. The author rode the entire route of the L train in Williamsburg, noting that the hipster contingent was slowly making its way further and further into the wilds of the borough. He used a legend with cute little illustrations to note the transformation of each area, with the first stop having all the hipster accoutrements-- yoga studios, wine shops, bars, sushi joints, soy milk, New York Times, lattes, and bakeries--while the newer, "sketchier" areas had fewer.
Since I've been trying to sell my apartment for the past several months, I was elated when New York magazine published some pieces on the allure of the Lower East Side and the real estate "bargains" to be had on Grand Street.
But this past week, New York magazine has again come out with a rather outrageously ingenious article, claiming that the hipness factor has accelerated so quickly that now the upcoming "scene" is no longer even within the city proper. In a word, they have proclaimed that Jersey City--which is part of the neighboring state of New Jersey, of course--is poised to be the next annointed neighborhood.
TO BE CONTINUED.