I walked by my childhood apartment the other day. It’s on the corner of 12th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, above a newly out-of-business home goods store that was called Surprise, Surprise (insert any number of dry-humored jokes about the “surprise, surprise” of another long-standing business going defunct here) and catty-corner from a brand-new gourmet emporium. When I was a kid, the three neighboring corners were parking lots. Then we were woken at first light by jackhammers and the birdlike squawks of machinery in the making of NYU dorms. The campus expanded before our eyes. The corner across the street, where I learned how to ride a bike, became a place where undergrads in woolen hats congregated to smoke Camels in the cold, sheltered somewhat by the dorm’s red-bricked facade.
Gourmet markets are no longer relegated to the snootier neighborhoods, places of pastry reverence and salmon worship, but instead live like denigrated gods among men, often finding unlikely homes in bodegas in Brooklyn of late. When we lived on 12th Street, my mother and I frequently took the fifteen-minute walk to Balducci’s on 9th Street and 6th Avenue to buy De Cecco rotelle and farfalle (wheels and bowties to me), fragrant cheese and delicate cuts of Dover sole. There were often tiny cut samples of raisin cake or crumbles of crunchy chocolate chip cookies at eye-level on tall glass counters, and my mother would sometimes let me have a bitesize snack.
Back then, our neighborhood was sketchy. There was nothing posh about the punks on St. Mark’s four blocks down or the bums lining the Bowery farther south. Tompkins Square Park was a tent city and Union Square was just a slight notch more refined. We would have been hard-pressed to find a water cracker or petit-four within a ten-block radius. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit—Open Pantry, one of the sole remaining businesses that existed back then, carried soy milk and soft ur-granola bars full of chewy raisins back when “vegan” was still pronounced “vay-gan” and no one had even heard of gluten, much less considered going without it.
The other lasting mainstay is Angelica’s Kitchen, which is still tucked in the next block over, on 12th just east of 2nd Avenue. Their dragon bowls are still on offer, but their price has quadrupled, from $4-ish to now $16. According to a friend who frequents the place, the menu has recently become even more expensive because of raised rents, and the restaurant’s lease is in jeopardy.
It’s understandable that prime real estate that used to house parking lots has been guzzled by NYU, and that one no longer needs to trek west (or north) to find lox or quinoa or whatever rarefied food one’s heart desires, but the idea of the disappearance of a perennial commodity like Angelica’s is hard to fathom. I have accepted that the East Village of yore is no longer the neighborhood in which I grew up. I’ve said goodbye to the Carnegie Deli and Ben & Jerry’s, tiny thrift shops full of old silk dresses and a particularly special camera store on 3rd Avenue that used to be our supplier of high-speed film and flash bars, which came in foil packaging and provided ten satisfying pops of light.
I am not sure, however, if I am ready to bid adieu to Angelica’s, or Open Pantry, or the two movie theaters of my childhood that have survived: Village East and Cinema Village, or “Cin Vil,” as my family called it, where I saw countless films both mainstream and independent over the course of my youth.
As a native city dweller who now lives in Brooklyn, I’ve embraced the culture of what my family once considered an outer borough. The pace of Prospect Heights, my neighborhood, is akin to that of the East Village in the ‘90s. In the summer, I am often lulled to sleep by marimba and the smell of pot fills my block, corner to corner. People are always out on the street, yelling to each other and grilling pork on charcoal grills, their kids playing basketball in the street or racing up and down like tiny sprinters or splashing in the gush of an open hydrant.
When I was young enough to run shrieking through sprinklers (I was never allowed to roll up my jeans and play in the hydrants, though I would have liked to do so), Prospect Heights was dangerous. I doubt there were many kids running free back then. The one time my mother accidentally took my brother and me to this part of Brooklyn on the subway, after a missed stop, she acted like she’d taken our lives in her hands (and she may well have). So, then, the circle of neighborhood life: The vibe of what was once the artsy and dangerous East Village has now traveled southeast to Brooklyn—first Williamsburg and Bushwick, trickling down to places like Crown Heights, Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy and other parts of my area. In another twenty years, it’s possible that these places will be too fancy. Maybe Queens will be the place then. Maybe father uptown.
Or maybe—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—the East Village will have another time to shine. I don’t think so, though—there’s a magic hour to neighborhoods in the city, a gloaming in the years before heavy gentrification when artists move in to nest and procreate—as my parents did in the late ‘70s—before developers get on the bandwagon and build towers of glass and steel.
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