City neighborhoods losing character to condos, chain stores
For 20 years, I have followed two neighbors, Robert, my locksmith, and Boris, my shoe repair guy, from place to place as they struggle to remain on the lower East Side.
The last time I took my boots to Boris, the gates were down and the store was gone. Robert recently set up shop on Rivington St., but he looks sadder every time I see him as he contemplates an imminent - and impossible - doubling of his rent.
Robert and Boris are, for me, the tragic faces of a new New York - a city that, neighborhood by neighborhood, is being washed over by a bland sea of chain stores, luxury condos, restaurants, bars and upscale boutiques.
I see a city that's losing its texture, its character, its grit. Yes, New York City is still the greatest city in the world. But it is no longer the most exciting and surely, it now ranks as the most heartbreaking.
In 1984 I walked a New York of fabled, unique neighborhoods - Hell's Kitchen, Harlem, Loisaida, Alphabet City. It wasn't always pretty and you had to watch your step, but the mix of cultures, the music and language in the red-brick tenements and grand brownstones communicated a rich history.
The Little Italy of wiseguys and grandmothers with babies, sitting outside butchers and barbers, has given way to slick restaurants and "Sopranos" souvenir shops.
The lower East Side and East Village, once full of Jewish hatters and tailors, Polish bakeries and Ukranian diners, have been crammed with boutique hotels, expensive bars and destination restaurants named for the places they've displaced: Barrio, Mission, Tenement. Rents are astronomical.
The fabled shopping district of Orchard St. exists now only on historic signposts.
Harlem, the beating heart of black history, was once rich with churches and mosques, soul food and fried fish, hip hop and James Brown. Now the black vendors are losing their leases and black residents their homes as condos go up and real estate speculation steps in.
The Meatpacking District and the Fulton Fish Market, pre-dawn furies, have become a luxury shopping destination and a seaport theme park. The Bronx Terminal Market, wholesaler of ethnic foods - gone. Manufacturing in the city - endangered.
Some call it simple gentrification - but what we're witnessing is much more profound. In the city I remember, people found each other. The punks had CBGB and St. Marks Place. Christopher St. and the West Side piers were fiercely gay. Storefront clubs lit up abandoned downtown with art, music and dancing. Squatters renovated abandoned buildings - teaching each other skills, recycling materials, raising families. Community gardens bloomed on empty lots.
Real estate is king in the new New York. Too many immigrants can't afford to come in. Too many longtime residents are driven out. We are losing our sky to a hideous skyline and our streets to a generic wash of prefab apartments, banks and storefronts.
As Manhattan is squeezed, so suffer the outer boroughs. The Italians and Poles of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are dislocated by hipsters whose creative lives are emphatically commercial. Every possible place is built on, or up. The Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn promises the same on a massive scale.
Rents in Queens and Brooklyn are skyrocketing. Coney Island - which I suppose was too real - is poised for annihilation.
In just the last decade, I have seen New York morph into a wealthy, homogenized, tourist-friendly town. This place - that birthed the Beats and Be-bop, Harlem and hip hop, that defined the gorgeous melting pot - has become the billionaires' city. Its new mantra seems to be: Pay to stay.
We've lost our shopkeepers, barbers, cobblers, diners, record stores, our butchers and bakers. We've lost the vibrant mix that made the city unique, the spontaneity that gave New York its edge.
Have we even lost our soul?Maggie Wrigley, a writer and photographer, is a contributor to the book "The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World's Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town?"