Lovin’ Avenue A — again, if not always.

It hurts to still be in love with a city you now barely recognize. The rampant hyper-gentrification always sucker-punches me when I return: irreversible, botched plastic surgery on beloved neighborhoods and skylines, not allowed to age and change organically or with any grace. Yet I still manage to find, here and there, a vestige of what I remember from the early 70s—tactile reference to a certain dignity when New York City was considered (by the non-believers) to be down and out. It might be a faded sign on a building, or a scrawl of defiant graffiti. Or the city’s marginal people who still somehow survive, defying the slick surfaces of the latest bland glass and chrome box, and the iPhone culture that has no perception of anything or anyone beyond that screen.

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Ave. A signage thru the decades
Deport Trump
Yes! Or better yet—JAIL!
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Willie shaving next to his chair-cocoon draped in a Hefty bag

Our neighborhood, and almost all New York, was dangerous. Full of litter and garbage, the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Beggars, drug addicts, and homeless schizophrenics taking up valuable real estate on the sidewalks provided a reason for me to develop that famous New York attitude of detachment: dodging deftly without breaking stride while staring straight ahead. No eye contact, ever. Compassion, fear, distaste, curiosity; I had no time to process these feelings, and instead began to hone what seemed a necessary tool for survival.

Movies that took place here (that I watched as if doing research, while still in the safety of suburbia) portrayed something that was decidedly not for everyone. Midnight Cowboy transfixed me: a dark, achingly sad yet funny valentine that I held as a ticket to my intrepidity. There were stories here, and dreams, and roses in Spanish Harlem. And now, two new immigrants to the New World.

In fifteen years, the East Village would be gentrified and sweet-tarted up for The Slaves of New York, and today the Lower East Side is morphed unrecognizably into a clubland for the new, moneyed millennials. But “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” meant something different in 1972. Sure, we wanted to have fun. We also just wanted to get home alive. A demographic virtually unto ourselves, my roommate and I did not loiter after dark.

I took the long, slow bus fifty blocks up First Avenue to my classes at Parsons, near Sutton Place. Peering out the window, my Army Navy bag and portfolio at my feet, I absorbed everything. The route took me through the East Village and past Bellevue, founded to serve “lunatics and paupers” in 1736, through Methadone Alley (I would learn later), past the immense and bland Met Life housing communities, then eventually opening up to UN Plaza, the elegant pocket parks of Tudor City, and finally into the high-rent neighborhood where Johnny Carson lived.

I carried a brown bag lunch the half-block from class to Sutton Park, overlooking the East River, and on days after my modest allowance arrived from home, would treat myself to a deli sandwich and almond horn pastry. Marilyn Monroe had lived here nearly a decade before, and on the corner of First Avenue I once caught a rare glimpse of the legend—Greta Garbo.

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Still in business!

The return route went down Second Avenue, depositing me at dusk near the Provenzano Lanza Funeral Home. My pace and my pulse picked up as I navigated east, choosing 6th Street for its strip of macrobiotic restaurants and hippie element as the first leg of my walk home. Next I zig-zagged, positively toward 4th Street and down First Avenue with its dairy restaurants and bakeries, to 2nd Street where I hung a left, past the housing project that was full of elderly immigrants living out their days. All of ten minutes from the bus stop, I arrived at Avenue A, where I picked up a pint of Haagen Dazs at Key Food and scuttled several doors down to our building, just past the minuscule Hispanic storefront selling candy and contraband. Finally, up five flights of stairs, until barred in safely for the night. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

“Nostalgie de la Boue”

Here is a phrase I only just became aware of: nostalgie de la boue (“yearning for the mud”). In his chapter on the demise of Times Square in Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul, author and blogger Jeremiah Moss further clarifies this, via architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, as “the sentimental attachment to decrepitude and sleaze . . .a venerable urban tradition.

Muschamp went further, in 1996: “Where have they gone, the chicken hawks and stiletto knife displays, the peep show shills, the pickpockets, coke heads, winos, pimps and tramps? We had a world class gutter here. Must we trade it in for a shopping strip of retail chain outlets?”

If Muschamp and Moss can lament, let me add my small voice to the chorus. That tawdry, tactile, magnificent mess of a neighborhood was my first home in New York City, and I too mourn its demise. The world it contained informed the adult-child I was in the early Seventies just as indelibly as had the small suburban enclave where I grew up.

Danger always flickers at the edges of any child’s universe. Disappearing fathers with their strong, reassuring arms catapult one closer to the flames, testing personal limits and capabilities of how to feel safe. Alone. All these years later, faint tracers of that trajectory still stream through my consciousness.

The last time I was on 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue and felt any vestige of that hyper-pulsating block (that I dared myself to walk down upon arrival, just to see if I came out of it alive), was in the late 1980s. I had earned my green belt in karate and needed to buy a bō, a long martial art stick, from a shop that might have been there all those years previous, tucked between peep shows and porn theaters. The irony didn’t escape me. All I was packing in 1971 was an eighteen-year-old “good girl’s” sense of daring. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and I knew it.

The Disney-fication starting to happen in the 1990s, and my red flags went up as the red light district went out. It all sort of sounded good, on the surface. Make things safer? Who could argue? Perversely, me.

Fear is a basic instinct—nothing else heightens the sense of feeling alive as that breath you finally exhale when you get just past it. Yet, I guess it’s all relative. For me, the all-consuming plague of corporate porn is far worse than the old-fashioned garden variety that once flourished in Times Square. I could never attempt to match Jeremiah Moss as he describes meticulously why it this is so, in Vanishing New York.

All I know is that I feel gutted when I visit my old neighborhood.

8th Ave.

How easily I plugged into that throbbing street energy, and with it, the tactile seediness. My suburban backdrop faded into history—bland Colonial and ranch houses (reflecting even blander life prospects), slow trawls through the local hangout, McDonalds (required first stop with a newly acquired drivers license), unrequited crushes on boys (both squeaky clean jocks and the shadier rebels without a cause)—all just an out-of-town tryout for the stage set before me.

Our turf. Irish bars with wafts from steam table fare and stale beer snaking over the sidewalks, pawnshops beckoning with diamond rings and musical instruments long abandoned by desperate owners, shoeshine men stationed on high-traffic corners with stained fingers whipping the rag, over and over, and tired hookers tucked into sooty SRO doorways trying to meet nightly quotas for their pimps, who, like cockroaches, were rarely seen in the light of day. Enveloping, even nurturing—while soaring above it all—was that ever-seductive siren, the Broadway theater world: the heart of the sexy beast beating deep behind velvet curtains.

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there’s always magic in the air.

 

Second Day in NYC – Mon. Sept. 6, 1971 (Labor Day)
[Letter to high school friend]
Dear D____ ,
Tessa and I were walking all over town today—I really like her. The Y is fantastic—big room (not dingy at all), good location (the theater district). Like 8th Ave. is junky, but things improve as you go east. The location is good cause it’s a 10 minute walk to Central Park, 5th Ave., & any other midtown place & subway. Yesterday we got in at 1:30, lugged all my junk up (my mom got the look-over by the elevator guy & told me to watch out for him). Tessa got in at 6 and we didn’t go out, just talked and talked. Today we found out 8th Ave. is the prostitute hang-out, & there’s a porno movie house opposite our room. But there’s also, just catty-corner from us, a Howard Johnson’s, a deli (with YOGURT!) around the corner—like everything is so convenient. So we’ll likely stay here all year. We fell in love with the city today. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

lyrics copyright Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller

 

 

 

Whose Skyline Is It Anyway?

It’s every generation’s lament. When I look at the downtown city skyline, I barely recognize anything. The area—especially around and below Houston Street—is now shimmying with new kids on the block. Ubiquitous glass and chrome high-rises continue to shoulder their way into old neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. I know change is inevitable, I know Manhattan was founded on the bedrock of commerce—but like most aging New Yorkers, I also love to complain about it. New millennial money, faux immigrant hipsters, and corporate chutzpah have made me avoid my old stomping grounds for over a decade. But this past weekend I wanted to take in a block festival in NoHo, see an art exhibit on Eldridge Street, and purchase my favorite plastic summer slippers in Chinatown. Where I finally found a skyline that I could still embrace.

East Broadway

My very first apartment was on 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. In 1971, you made sure you were triple-locked-in at night. But—oh!— during the day, there was nothing more exotic than exploring the Lower East Side.

Avenue A

 

Tessa and I pooled the last of our five dollar bills and moved our meager belongings out of the YWCA—one trip via “Man with Van”—down to 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. Our new home would be a fifth floor walk-up with the prerequisite ornate fire escape, dingy hallway, cooking smells, and marble stairs; each one literally worn down and sloped to the center from a century of treading shoes. The heavy door had a peephole and the old iron police lock—a bar that angled up from a slot in the floor on the interior to brace the back of the door against a break-in. Once inside, we were standing in the small kitchen dominated by a claw-footed bathtub next to the sink. A tiny water closet off to the side was large enough for a toilet, with its pull chain connecting to a wooden box suspended above. I loved the very quaintness of the antique plumbing, every yank of the chain metaphorically flushing away the rube I had been. Exposed brick walls added the kind of charm I could never even imagine in my suburban fantasizing, and a non-working potbellied stove plunked in the central room was altar to our new sanctuary.

2nd Street unpacking
“Wow. I can’t believe we’re here in our own place!” I circled slowly to take it all in. The pièce de résistance was a partitioned area that housed our separate closet-sized bedrooms. Each held a loft bed platform with a built-in desktop and clothing rod below. There was no natural light; the windows faced an air shaft with a foreshortened view of the next building that we could almost touch. A burglar gate was in place over the kitchen window next to the fire escape. Who needed light? We were positively beaming!

 
Our landlord had even given us a modest stipend to furnish the flat. Feeling like kids let loose in a candy store, Tessa and I first bought thick foam cut to order on East Houston Street—two mattresses for our loft beds. That was our first encounter with Hassidic shopkeepers who were ruling over their individual fiefdoms in cramped and dusty storefronts while I had been wheeling a cart in the wide-aisled Weis Market and selecting sheets in Bowman’s department store back home. Next we purchased a used wooden kitchen table and an old rocking chair, precariously hauling them by foot down Avenue A on a mover’s dolly. Home Sweet Tenement! —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

chinese slippers
There’s no place like home!

copyright Sharon Watts