I was raised on Long Island, New York in the 1960‘s, a place where children roamed free and exploring was encouraged. My sister Mary and I started to go to Manhattan when I was fourteen years old, and she was fifteen. We took the Long Island Railroad to visit my other sister, Pat, who lived in an apartment near NYU, or we explored the city on our own.
When I graduated high school I commuted into the Manhattan to go to Katherine Gibbs, a secretarial school in the old Pan AM building at Grand Central Station. On the graffiti filled subway cars I was pinched so many times by men my butt was bruised by the end of the week. This was in the 1970’s when the city was crime ridden and broke. A time of black outs, garbage strikes, police corruption, high crime, economic collapse, high unemployment, muggings and rapes.
The school was close to Bryant Park, nicknamed Needle Park. Most people didn’t go through the iron gates. Tall hedges hid the prostitutes hawking their trade, drug addicts shot up in hidden corners, and homeless people, curled up like babies in the fetal position, dotted the paths. Even under these conditions, a group of us from school, desperate for sunshine and a bit of air, brought our lunch to the park. We sat on a park bench, ate our sandwiches, and watched the show of humanity for one hour.
One character, a middle aged man in short-legged, high-waisted polyester pants, white socks and loafers, watched us eat through thick eyeglasses. He stood as close as he dared, put his camera bag on the ground and opened it. The inside cover was a mirror. He nudged the bag closer to us, just so, in the hopes of looking up our skirts when we stood to leave. This wasn’t a one time event. He must’ve had some success with other women to keep him coming back for more. (Cradoc remembered men walking around the city in the 1960’s with mirrors on the top of their shoes.)
When I graduated Gibbs in 1977, I landed a job at a small recording studio that produced public service announcements. I answered the phone, contacted radio stations about airing the announcements and greeted the musicians who came in to record their two minute blurbs. I met musicians like Chuck Mangione, Meatloaf, Kenny Loggins, Seals & Crofts, and Barry Manilow (yes hold your hearts, I met Barry Manilow). I had all the free albums I wanted and free concert tickets.
After a year at the job, on a hot summer evening, during a mad dash from the E subway stop at Penn Station to track 16 to catch the 5:19 train, I froze in the middle of the crowd. People pushed and shoved their way around me. All I could think was, ‘I’m twenty-one years old. Is this what I want to do with my life for the next forty-five years?’ No, it wasn’t. I didn’t want only two weeks vacation each year, didn’t want to sit in a stuffy office gulping for fresh air, didn’t want to sit on my butt all day. I went into work the next day and gave my two weeks notice.
That was the last time I spent any amount of time in Manhattan, until May of 2001, when Cradoc and I rented a small, funky apartment at NYU housing in the Village. We just finished writing a three year software update and were excited to explore the possibilities of our creative lives (photography, writing, music, travel). We wanted to divide our time between Manhattan, Florida and Paris. We already had our Florida home, and after our time in New York we were heading to Paris to check out the possibilities there.
Photography was a vital business in 2001.The city was alive with arts and culture, and filled with vibrant, creative people of all ages. People were excited about the future. Manhattan felt like a great adventure. Anything was possible. The city was cleaned up, but gentrification hadn’t crept into every corner – yet.
Our plan came crashing down when we returned from our summer in Paris a few days before 9/11. The world had changed. We headed back to Florida to wait things out while the country smothered itself with fear thoughts and the President fanned the flames to keep the smoke in our eyes.
Later that winter we sold our condo in Florida (for many reasons Florida wouldn’t work as a home base for us) and headed back to the Pacific Northwest. We put aside our creative lives and worked on another long term software project.
During that time our fantasy stayed alive; spend six months in New York, six months in Europe. The purpose of our trip to Nice, France in January was to see if Nice would be our home base in Europe (it wasn’t).
In October, 2007 we returned to New York for six weeks. We stayed in an apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This opportunity came about because of a house swap we did with a friend over the summer. Now we’d get to see if our fantasy of living in Manhattan was still a possibility.
After arriving in New York, and surviving a white knuckle taxi ride into the city, we settled into our apartment on the edge of Chinatown. The area didn’t have heart, but it had soul. No chain stores. No Starbucks. The streets filled with Mom and Pop stores and restaurants. There were still surprises around each corner. Little joys as you walked down the street and discovered a store that sold just accordions, pool tables, screws, or pickles. There was a raw funkiness to the area that reminded me of the city in the 1970’s. Chinese families played in Seward Park with their kids until late into the night. The streets smelled of pee, garbage, meat processing plants, and garlic. It was filthy. There hadn’t been rain in weeks, and the city was still hot, really hot for October (the heat wave continued for most of our stay). The streets were in desperate need of a pounding rain to clean off the layers of grime. People were hot and bothered. The subway stations crowded and suffocating. The F train station near our apartment was filled with garbage and rats.
But the gentrification of the neighborhood was evident everywhere. Small trendy cafes opened and old tenement buildings were being redone with signs announcing Deluxe Condos for sale. The building we stayed in had been redone, and was beautiful. I was the first to admit that having a beautiful apartment with central air conditioning made our stay much more comfortable. Everything new and shiny, but boring and predictable.
We spent quite a bit of time in the Soho area going to the Apple store to attend classes. Soho, once the center for artists and creativity, was no longer a creative neighborhood. Not many artists could afford to live, or show, their work there anymore (they moved to Chelsea). Soho had become a shopping destination, with sterile expensive designer stores, fancy restaurants and galleries enticing you in with warm lighting and promises of happiness if you bought this piece of artwork, that article of clothing, or ate another fancy meal. The chain stores had taken over. Everyone bought the same black clothes, to dress the same way, to talk on the same cell phone, to say the same things and drink the same coffee at Starbucks.
Soho was hip and expensive. The young people, who now filled the city, were willing to pay $775 for a lime green retro down vest from some designer; the same vest I paid $19.95 for in the 1970’s. They were willing to rent dumpy two bedroom apartments for $4,000 a month and live with five other people, living beyond their means for the experience of living in NYC.
There were moments I was lured into this lifestyle. On one of the first cool evenings since we arrived in the city, we went to Union Square to go to a meeting at a company our software company does business with. I came up from the F train, the air fresh and cool. I walked along and felt the vibrancy, the juice, the power of Manhattan. I turned to Cradoc and said, “Maybe we’d get used to it. Maybe we should find a place here.” After our meeting we walked out into a windy, rainy night. at 7:00 P.M. I thought rush hour would be over. Silly me. It was just beginning.
I wanted to go “quickly” to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s located across from Union Square. Whole Foods went alright, although I felt like a rabbit running around with hundreds of other rabbits in a warren down in the basement in the packed, narrow isles. TJ’s was two long blocks away and I left Cradoc to finish up at Whole Foods. I walked out into an even busier scene of chaos. The wind blew umbrellas inside out. People lined up thirty deep, blocked the sidewalk, while they waited for a bus.
I hesitated before entering TJ’s, but it didn’t look too crowded. I grabbed some things and looked for the line, only to realize the line wrapped around the entire store. That was why it hadn’t looked too crowded. Everyone was lined up in the last isle and along the back of the store. I joined the line, almost more for the experience than the food I had in my basket. When I got to the front of the store there were about thirty registers going full blast. Almost a quarter of the space in the store was devoted to the registers. Someone told me this store had a problem keeping their shelves stocked they were so busy.
Now it was almost 8:00 P.M. and the streets swarmed with people. We walked a few blocks to the subway station juggling our bags and umbrellas. When we reached the 14th Street underground station hundreds of people stood packed along the platform. A train hadn’t come in a long time, but I was hopeful one would come right away. But we waited for over twenty minutes, and when a B train came, which I’d never seen on the F and V line before, I didn’t care where it was going. I had to get away from the stifling air and packed platform. We got on. Luckily it went to Broadway/Lafayette where we jumped on the V train to 2nd Ave. Then we walked up and over to another platform where we only had to wait for ten minutes for an F train.
It was an epic journey. I arrived home stressed, exhausted and unhappy. In many ways I was glad the delay happened. It brought me back to my senses about how crowded and busy city life could be. I blamed my moment of insanity when I thought I could live in the city on the calming negative ions in the air right before the rain started.
The “Vanishing New York Blog Spot,” tracks all the changes and the businesses being closed down because of the gentrification of the city. A section on the blog reported on overhead conversations around the city:
Lady: Excuse me, but I’m looking for a book.
Store chick: And?
Lady: I don’t remember the title or author, but the cover is purple.
Store chick: Our purple books are downstairs.
Lady: They sent me up here.
Store chick: We’re sold out of purple books. You want something in a yellow?
–Barnes & Noble, Brooklyn Heights
Chick #1: I didn’t get into any of the colleges on the east coast I applied to. I’m so bummed.
Chick #2: But you got into Miami — that’s pretty cool.
Chick #1: But that’s not on the east coast. I’m going to have to get a passport and some crazy shots to go there.
–W 10th & Bleecker
Hipster girl #1: I bet she had a frontal lobotomy.
Hipster girl #2: Really? I was thinking she might be slightly autistic.
Hipster girl #1: Maybe she’s just really happy.
–Court & Warren, Brooklyn
College girl #1: Last night was amazing.
College girl #2: With the three West Point guys?
College girl #1: Yeah. When I got back to my room they were all passed out there. The one who was rolled in puke was in my bed. I wish more nights were like that.
Teen boy: Do you ever wonder, like, if you die, what will happen to your MySpace and your Internet stuff?
Teen girl: Yeah. You have my password, right? Promise me you’ll go on and approve the good comments?
–N train, Brooklyn
Bill Moyer’s closing comment on his T.V. show, “Now,” was the story about an experiment done with processional caterpillars.
Processional caterpillars moved through the forest in a long procession feeding on pine needles. They derived their name from their habit of following a lead caterpillar, each with its eyes half closed and head fitted snugly against the rear end of the preceding caterpillar.
The renowned French Naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre, did an experiment where he enticed processional caterpillars onto the rim of a large flowerpot. He was able to get the lead caterpillar to connect up with the last one, creating a complete circle, moving around the flowerpot in a never ending procession. He thought after a few circles, the caterpillars would discover their predicament, or tire of their endless progression and move off in another direction. But they never varied their movements.
Through force of habit, the caterpillars kept moving relentlessly around the pot at about the same pace for a period of seven days. They would’ve continued even longer if they hadn’t stopped from sheer exhaustion and hunger. As part of the experiment, food had been placed close by in sight of the group, but because it was out of the path of the circle, they continued in their procession to what could’ve been their ultimate destruction.
In their procession around the flowerpot, they blindly followed their instincts, habits, past experience, tradition, custom and precedent—the way they always had done things. In reality, they got nowhere.
When I walked around the city and looked at the blank, unsmiling faces of the people living and working there, I saw a procession of caterpillars following each other with their heads down, along the rim of a very small island, blindly following their dreams.
Manhattan’s history as an economic power in the world, as a city of industry and commerce, didn’t disappoint. One reason we went there was to do business, and in that way the city didn’t fail us. The ability to network and be surrounded by power was alluring.
There were also a good changes. Mayor Bloomberg was determined to reduce noise pollution, and a $350 fine for honking your horn helped. Even the sirens weren’t bad. Gone were most of the bums and panhandlers, the Bowery drunk car window washers, the sleazy area of Times Square – cleaned up and sanitized like Disney Land. Bryant Park was redone in the 1980’s by the Rockefeller’s who created the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation. Beautifully landscaped, no tall hedges blocked the view of long ago illicit happenings. Bistro tables and chairs were scattered throughout the park, like the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. There was even an ice skating rink and bocce ball court. Policemen patrolled everywhere, the streets safe with a crime rate the lowest in forty years. And there were plans to plant over a million trees to help with pollution. Mayor Bloomberg was making the Big Apple green in more ways than one.
But what made a city civilized, rather than domesticated? Where was the balance between safe and boring? When one complained about the gentrification of the city the argument given back was, “Would you rather go back to a crime ridden city?”
Why did gentrification and a low crime rate go hand in hand? They were separate issues people constantly linked. I wanted a safe city, but an interesting one. Why did it take chain stores paying big rents (and running out local independent businesses) to demand the sidewalks were kept safe for their shoppers? Why were those against gentrification labeled as being against change, when all they wanted was balance, so families didn’t lose a business they owned for generations, so the unique architecture that made a city great (like diners and old brick buildings) weren’t demolished to make way for yet another high rise bank building, so the average person could afford to live there and everything wasn’t a precious play ground for the rich and famous.
The reality of life in Manhattan didn’t hold up to my fantasy. I came looking for a way of life that was long gone. Perhaps if I’d stayed for only a week or two the fantasy would’ve survived, But six weeks was long enough to see the underbelly of the beast. If I tried to live and word there I’d be back where I was thirty years ago, standing in Penn Station wondering if this was all there was to my life.
New York mirrored what was going on in the rest of the country, and to some extent in the world; less emphasis on creation, innovation and the arts, and more emphasis on marketing, profit and distribution. When money became the focus, rather than doing what you loved, or doing something that contributed to society, a void was created in the world. And when ethics were thrown out the window in exchange for “progress” the true meaning of community was lost.
The Big Apple was shiny and bright with its new waxing, but it felt mushy, with a bittersweet after taste. I longed for a bite of a crisp, tart apple with a few bruises on it; so I’d know I was tasting the real thing.