DemosNews: Neighborhoods
By: Anita Spertus

In the eighties when my children were young, we were intrigued by an oversized Swiss picture book, The Changing City, by Jörg Möller (republished in English by Atheneum, New York, 1977.) No words, just successive, meticulously researched views, folding out to nearly 1 foot by 3 each, depicting the same corner of a little Swiss German town at three year intervals, from 1953 to 1976. The drawings, as sympathetic and welcoming as a child’s picture book, invite long careful observation. The first includes in the scene a bike shop tucked under a little stone arch, a few stalls of street market, a news kiosk, a neighborhood café. Each five- story old house differs from the next—tiled mansard roofs, interesting fenestration and surface ornament, palette of ochres, brick and mauve. Some streets retain cobbles, a spit of river wends through the space, and a trolley (still a great charmer today in Europe cities) cruises along. Old people visit with one another on their way to market or watch street life from their windows. Kids play kickball on the quieter lanes. Over the ensuing years, incrementally, gardens and squares constrict or disappear, the river is roofed over and morphs to street, old buildings cede one by one to large, modern rectangles of glass and steel. A subway takes local travel underground, and high speed car traffic rushes by overhead. Möller doesn’t present this evolution sarcastically. Each step feels real and understandable. People still make snowmen in the park, have fun on temporary carousels, march the streets in protest, and go about the needful. But flapping from the end picture back to the beginning packs a wallop. By the last scene, chain stores and sleek completely efface old town personality. Street life, human pace, and casual street interaction all but disappear. The disarming, children’s book character of the drawings that are carefully filled with life detail, like the counterintuitively effective comic strip form of Maus, give huge force to the message.

Throughout America these last decades, rural or empty lands seem to change suddenly, starkly, from one year to the next. Developments spill into the deserts near Vegas or Santa Fe or California’s Central Valley, and crowd the almost continuous megalopolis between Washington, D.C. and Boston. Rich farmland west of the Chicago suburbs where we used to buy our corn is now blanketed with back-to-back gated enclaves, where malls supplant towns and kids no longer can bike independently to sweet shop or movie or school, but must be driven. The interior of large, still productive cities like New York, however, reinvent themselves a bit more slowly. Much of the land in Manhattan is already built up. Mass tear-downs and aggressive new building strike neighborhoods unevenly.

Our area of Manhattan’s Upper West Side generally enjoyed a developmental reprieve during the 70s and 80s and 90s. The area was still very mixed, rich and poor, and some streets held a whiff of danger. The city was recovering slowly from financial difficulties. Our local parks and services were run down. There were grand apartments on Central Park West and Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, and brownstones —some still single-family, most broken into 8 mini parts—along bald side streets. The large housing projects above 96th Street marked an unofficial boundary of legitimacy for the bourgeois. We in the know, however, delighted in more than our share of intellectuals, writers, and aesthetes, augmented by the spillover from Columbia University. Rent control still obtained, and anyone with a toehold stayed on long term.

I moved into an eighth of a brownstone in 1968 in the west 70s At $135 a month rent, a young person could still taste big city life like “My Sister Eileen” without piling six roommates into a small space The little triangular turf and benches at Broadway above 72nd Street was known as Needle Park. Junkies shot up there. Hookers, straight and transvestite, traipsed by at night. Smack alongside the park towered a glorious bank built just before the Depression, with high coffered ceiling, and a bronze vault door about a yard thick to the safety deposit enclave in its cellar which takes one’s breath away. (I still retain a box there just for the pleasure of returning to that space.) There was an old milchedikke restaurant on 72nd street, probably around since WWII, where old Jews came to have blintzes and borscht. My butcher Manny, around the corner, presented us two fillets when we got married. There were hardware stores with opinionated owners, and half a dozen fine bookstores specializing in kids’ books or mysteries or poetry that were staffed by real readers always eager to steer one to something interesting. The guy who sold vacuums and sewing machines serviced them too and, with his gawky twin, was surprisingly colorful. A rotating striped pole still announced the Italian barber who massaged my husband’s noggin and skimmed his cheeks with a straight razor. Our florist always asked details about the characters whose moment we were celebrating, and raised her children in the same school as ours. The pharmacist offered safe haven to any kid who felt endangered. Our local dentist, an old Viennese Jew, played classical music as he bored. During that period, jealous of the beautifully shaded East Side, we Westsiders all chipped in with the city to plant trees along our bare streets, carefully watering them and cooling their roots with posies. Thirty years later, they do look grand.

Fairway (now an iconic, multi-site emporium of every delicacy) arrived newly to the area in the early 70s. Then barely the size of a small supermarket, but crammed only with huge heaps of fresh vegetables and cheeses in dazzling variety, it revolutionized daring and wide palette on a large scale when the few veggies in standard markets at the time came cello-wrapped and good cheeses, even if one could find them, were scarce or gone bad because they didn't circulate quickly enough. (Korean grocers hadn't brought their green bounty to every street corner yet.) The guys who started Fairway live right in the neighborhood. I’ve passed them on the street for years. They still stand round the store advising from time to time, somewhat silver haired, or sporting a hearing aid. And Citerella next door – well there’s a New York story! Citerella used to be a small, fine fish store presided over by a red haired, round faced Irishman with a huge smile. He loved the ladies, and leaned over beaming as he dispensed the beautiful fish fillets, almost pinching one’s cheek. It didn’t transmit as lechery, though, but good will. He used to joke that he’d buy a carriage for any of his pregnant flock who bore a girl. I got fatter and fatter with my first, and then thin. Shortly thereafter, he happened to pass me on the street, and asked after the baby. When I said it was a girl, I felt him press something into my hand. With an “oh, pshaw” I blushed and put it in my pocket. At home I realized it was a $100 bill! I did buy a carriage. Citarella, now sold, enlarged, and glamorous with gourmet foodstuffs of every kind, has additional branches and a restaurant elsewhere in the city. But soul?

I’ve lived a mile further north from my first spot for the last 30 years, in a big pre-war building overlooking Central Park. It was still unfashionable enough an area at the time to get lots of space and a glorious view for little money (and to be able to park a car easily on the street.) But it’s changing now very fast. I count seven tall fancy towers presently under construction within a few blocks. So I commented to the local fishmonger and to my butcher “Well, at least it’ll be good for business for you to have all these rich people move in.” “Are you kidding?” they retorted. “These people with their million dollar apartments don’t cook. They eat out, or they send out, or they order ready-to-heat from the ozone via Fresh Direct. They float right over the neighborhood. And to add insult to injury, the new restaurants and boutiques that follow them price all of us small venders and service guys right off these streets.”

The wonderful poem by Robert Hershon published by the Times many years ago often rattles through my brain::

The Driver Said

boerum hill?
it used to be
this ain’t no
if ya butcher
comes to ya funeral
that’s a

© 2024 Anita Spertus of DemosNews

June 7, 2007 at 3:43pm
DemosRating: 4.8
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Genre: Perspectives (Serious Views)
Type: Creative
Tags: gentrification

Guille de Soho   It is a telling poem....
Robert David Cohen   this is a wonderful, wistful and thoughtful piece about a ne...
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