This is the second part of a longer essay on being a native New Yorker who lives in New York. More to come over the coming weeks.
My by-birth New Yorker friend and I found ourselves discussing Bowlmor Lanes, a bowling alley across University that served as a hub for the pizza parties of my childhood. These days, I hear it’s a hotbed for hipsters, NYU undergrads and the occasional celebrity. I would say I don’t know what happened, but I do. I know exactly what happened. Rents rose at a vertigo-inducing rate, and it became a total publish or perish situation: What was once an unsafe neighborhood in an area full of artists and drug addicts turned into tony real estate for the finance types of the world. Those who cashed in, like Bowlmor, via tweaking their profiles or catering to the right demographic or a stroke of luck, stayed afloat. The others? Like I said, most places in the neighborhood are less than seven years old.
One of the best anomalies of the neighborhood is Dinosaur Hill, my favorite toy store when I was a kid. It still exists. I don’t have any idea why. It’s still chockablock with cooperative board games, wooden trains and blocks, and nontoxic watercolors. The till is still nestled at the back of the shop, which is four hundred square feet, tops. It’s on a quiet street near Veselka (another old-timer, but they rebranded their little Ukrainian asses off and now feed the elite and old-neighborhood types alike, as well as everyone in between). It’s unassuming, with a hand-painted wood sign. More of a shingle, really. I haven’t been inside for several years—the last time was with an old boyfriend, to show him the scene of my youth. He wasn’t impressed, but that was because he wasn’t impressed with anything.
Even some of the buildings themselves haven’t survived the gentrification. Really, it’s The Gentrification, capital T, capital G: New York is unrecognizable to itself twenty years ago in a way it never was between, say, the 1960s and the 1980s. Sure, everything has sped up since then—we’ve come a long way from LSD and the Model T, and in such a short time—but this is something else. It’s so odd that it’s a common topic of conversation for those of us who were here to see the difference.
The change in architecture is especially disorienting. Sure, the place that used to be Ben & Jerry’s is now a boutique vintage shop, but you get used to that. Pretty soon, I stop thinking of the storefront on St. Mark’s as being The Space Formerly Known as Kim’s Video and accept that it’s a bubble tea joint or whatever it is now. But walking by the spot an old building used to occupy only to see its futuristic, fancy replacement is strange. It’s like winding up in Oz at last only to find that it’s just a shitty little town that looks just like Paterson, New Jersey.
One of my closest childhood friends and I walked the neighborhood recently and talked about how everything up and down the street is clearly a front. The seedy dry cleaners? A front. The shits-inducing Chinese place on the corner? A front. Momofuku? Obviously a front. We jested, but our jokes were based in truth. How many of these little bodegas pay the rent selling up-priced toothpaste? Certainly some, but there’s more than meets the eye around here.
What’s happened is that we’ve all wound up in Brooklyn. My friend from lunch lives in Williamsburg, and I am in Prospect Heights. I can’t afford the city, and, quite frankly, I don’t want to right now. I thought I did when I first returned: I stayed with my one childhood friend who still lives in the West Village, and though there is a certain allure to whisking oneself from one place to another without having to deal with the C train and its flakiness, I love Brooklyn. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Brooklyn is the Manhattan of yore.
That comes with its own set of problems. One can’t dash home to take out the dog, or touch up makeup, or take a nap. So I don’t have a dog, and I carry blotting paper and lipstick in my bag, and as for the nap—well, there’s not much napping in my life right now.
There are definitely more verifiable New Yorkers in Brooklyn than there are in Manhattan. Most of the holdouts in Manhattan are rent-controllers, which means they’re old; there’s also the occasional diehard, as it is with my friend in the West Village. But, for the most part, we’ve emigrated. We’ve grown beards and wear clogs. We have to: Call it urban armor. With all the commuting back and forth, who has time to shave? And who, pray tell, can wear heels all the time?
Every time I see a familiar storefront with an unfamiliar logo, I think—there goes the neighborhood. The nice thing about living in Brooklyn is that I don’t do that. I can’t do that. I came here plenty as a kid, sure—we even lived in Brooklyn for two years before my mother flew the coop with us to New Jersey after she left my father—but I don’t know whether the laundromat on the corner used to be a deli or not. I have no idea what formerly occupied the space that will soon be an artisanal bread shop nearby, and I don’t care. I leave that to the lifers. They exist, for sure—I’d put money on the guy I saw puffing away on a cigar the other day in his tiny “front yard” in Carroll Gardens, on a bench near a white alabaster-y statue of the Virgin Mary—and they, I’m sure, have their own things to say about the Brooklyn version of The Gentrification.
Truth is, it’s happening everywhere, in all five boroughs—I just notice it most in the downtownmost part of the city, because those are my stomping grounds. That’s where I’m from, so that’s what I care about. I’m a New Yorker, so I’m unapologetic about that. I care about what I care about, I don’t give a shit about the things that don’t catch my interest, and I’m just downright not going to pretend, to your face or anywhere else. I take up the space I need to take up. That’s a direct effect of growing up in the city, and I am grateful for it. I don’t want to apologize for who I am, or what I do, or what I think or need. If I have children, I’d like to raise them here, and I imagine they’ll have the same worldview. It’s not entitled; it’s honest. I don’t believe in hiding our basic instincts. This opens room for the important things: space for our art, our breath, our thoughts. Psychic claustrophobia? I think not. Not for me, and not for any of my fellow locals. We’re from here, and we’ve figured out a way to make the city work for us—not the other way around.