Shithouse rat

I'm a bipolar writer in the Naked City. I'm not playing with a full deck. I don't have all my dots on the dice. My cheese is sliding off my cracker. I don't have both oars in the water. I'm a bubble off plum. In other words, I'm crazier than a shithouse rat. These are my stories. Comments--short or long, nasty or nice--always welcome!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Is New York "over"?

After graduating from college on the New York suburb of Long Island in 1979, I returned to New York City and got an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with my then-boyfriend. Every now and again I'd make the trip down to the Lower East Side to visit my aunt and uncle, who had raised me after my parents died when I was 15. Though I took the subway there, by the time I left it was dark and my aunt insisted that I take the bus across the street rather than walk to the subway. They'd watch anxiously from the window to make sure I was ok as I waited for the crosstown bus that would first take me to 14th Street and 1st Avenue, where I'd transfer to the second bus that would transport me on the long but pleasant ride back home to the East 80's.

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.



At 10:40 AM, Anonymous al said...

Move over Wright and Fuller. The truly great architect of the 21st Century: Walt Disney. EPCOT is here, and it is (becoming) us.

Excellent post, EB, leaving me curious, as I am of the fate of my adopted NYC home, about its future direction.

At 12:30 PM, Anonymous pia said...

Great post. Manhattan is so over. Few people can afford to live here and actually have a life also

The Bronx is the last frontier. Truthfully when I first saw Kingsbridge and Jerome, in the early 90s it seemed like paradise because Manhattan was having its own problems

It wasn't paradise. Even The Paradise Coffee Shop closed.

Heard so many stories of drive by shootings. Our clientele at SSI included many children of people who had gotten AIDS from needles and crack

The Bronx has much potential, I think. It even has the most amount of park land in the city

At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fuck off you poor loser. New York is king, and will remain so until the world ceases to exist.

At 8:28 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I was born and raised in Jersey City, and I am happy to know that the city of my birth is poised to enjoy its own renaissance. When I was attending high school there in the mid 60's Jersey City was exhibit A for the deterioration of urban America. It was suffering from just about every economic, political and social crisis that infected Newark, Detroit, Washington D.C.,Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other less familiar but no less rapidly deteriorating and decaying urban areas.

In simplest terms, the base of tax rateable had long since evaporated with the simultaneous departure of the railroads from their staging yards along the banks of the Hudson river, and the flight of the middle class to what was perceived as a safer more appealing quality of life in suburbia. Montclair, Glen Ridge, Orange, South Orange, Caldwell, Wayne, Bergenfield, Fair Lawn, Paramus, Tenaneck, Tenafly, and many more recognizable destinations too numerous to mention. What was left in the wake of the exodus was an ever increasing indigent population which brought greater demand for municipal services, i.e. police, fire and hospital care, while being unable to contribute to the tax base in any significant way. Crime escalates, the housing supply falls into disrepair, and a once thriving industrial and commercial center became a ghost of past glory.

What has always been remarkable to me, is that while so many of the third and fourth generation residents who were educated professionals withdrew to the outlying suburbs, many of these families still deemed it essential to have their sons educated at ST. Peter's Preparatory School For Boys, located on Grand Street, close to Colgate Palmolive's famous clock which stood in front of what was one of the largest soap and sundries manufacturing facilities in the world. Almost half of our student body hailed from the suburbs of Bergen and Essex counties, and these students obviously endured a significant transportation challenge. In the greatest number of cases, these boys were the sons of men who themselves had attended ST. Peter's as residents of Jersey City. This highly demanding and fiercely competitive academic environment existed as a venerable tradition in Jesuit training. It provided valuable foundations for the success and opportunity to escape the choking pollution and escalating social disintegration of Jersey City. And so we were a two tiered student body, with those of us still residing in the city being viewed as perhaps a more sooty and grittier aspirant, less unwilling to engage other students from local public schools in the occasional, and later more serious fisticuffs that called the local residents to feel we were easy prey because of our appearance in tie and required jacket. One half of the school dressing in Ralph Lauren classics, while local residents were heightened versions of delinquent greasers. Of course there was no recommendation of greaser sensibility permitted on ST. Peter's campus, it remained the boys from the 'burbs were demonstrably more genuine and comfortable in their Preppy attire.

I have digressed into a marginally relative and highly personal reminiscence.

Sincerely grateful for your patience and understanding, I will close this comment to say only that I am now living far, far, far away from all of that reality in the twenty first century explosion of the future on steroids called Las Vegas. I love this city, and I do not miss Jersey City, but I am very pleased to know from your commentary that Jersey City may resurrect itself and still be standing at some future date when I will travel with my children to show them where their father once lived and was well educated and prepared to traverse the challenges he would inevitably face later in life.

At 4:22 AM, Blogger Ruvy in Jerusalem said...

Hi Elvira,

So home disappears into time as well as space, and the pictures of the memory are all that remain.

The city I left when you graduated college is truly gone. Let's put it this way. I pay $239 a month rent on a house with a view of the mountains, minarets, No drug dens, very little crime - just the very serious possibility of missiles flying overhead and war...

Guess you can't have it all, eh?

Hanuka SameaH,

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know New York magazine was joking around with the Jersey City article, but it's funny that you even have to mention - you need to own a car to live in New Jersey. That includes insane NJ car insurance, NJ driver's license, etc.

If the pioneers of hipness are surviving in NJ based on the Grove Street PATH station (and not the light rail - I doubt they're going to West New York or North Bergen), they're out of their gourds.

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't *have* to own a car in NJ any more than you *have* to have one in NYC (what's with all these Iowa and Kansas license plated pickups in Bushwick anyway?)

I live along the NJ Coast Line rail line in Monmouth County, work in the city and don't have a car ... at all! Haven't had one there for *three years.* I'm making it work, you just have not be so damn lazy, folks.

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: the anonymous poster's "New York is king, and will remain so until the world ceases to exist."

Replace "New York" with "Rome", translate the whole thing to Latin, and you've got something you might find carved on a broken stone tablet buried under the Coliseum.

At 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well that was an excellent post Elvira. I'm familiar with a lot of what you depict having worked on the Lower East Side when it was pretty much as you described early on; and having lived for a short time on the Upper East Side in a 6th floor walk-up on York Avenue. Oh and lest I forget, born in Jersey City. Isn't everyone who hails from New Jersey?

Thanks for the stroll through Manhattan Real Estate - always interesting. Lots of luck on your apartment sale.

At 10:22 PM, Anonymous vjb2 said...

Having spent about as long as I could stomach of Jersey City, that being two months earlier this year, may I note what a festering pile of maggot-ridden crap that town is? Particularly in the Lincoln Park vicinity, where I lived? Thank you. A several square block area of urban renewal nestled within miles of crackheads and hookers does not a 'hip' neighborhood make. If noting that makes me an elitist, I won't lose any sleep over that.

Incidentally, neither JC nor the Bronx is "the final frontier"; it's Staten Island. Think of it like Champaign, IL, in your backyard.

At 6:11 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

A much belated thanks for all the comments here. You've given me additional insights as well.


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