Thursday, February 9, 2012

a city that never sleeps

Someone asked me what it's like to live in New York. Well, I could probably write a rambly essay with a million tangents about this, but I'll try to stay focused. So, first off, to be clear, I don't live in Manhattan; I live in Brooklyn. I've lived in Brooklyn since the day I was born, so I've seen many changes over the decades, in my own neighborhood and in neighborhoods in the city (whenever anybody says "the city," they always mean Manhattan), in the people, in the general way of life. When I was growing up in the early 1980s, the city was a scary place. At least, that's how I perceived it. I can't remember my parents taking me that often, but it was always something of an adventure to ride the subway. All the trains were covered in graffiti and un-air-conditioned, and the stations were dark and dangerous. There was a myth where if you came home shopping from places like Macy's or Bloomingdale's, you had to hide the store name on your shopping bag or else you'd get mugged. I specifically recall hating going to Chinatown because it was smelly and crowded (this actually hasn't changed at all). As for Times Square, what is now the glittery beating heart of Disneyfied tourism, we weren't supposed to go there at all because that's where all the hookers, bums, and drug addicts were. Central Park? Fuggeddaboudit. Full of gangbangers, more bums, and more drug addicts, and not the haven of nature that it is today (of course, one must use common sense in such sprawling wilderness). Greenwich Village was still shocking for its openly gay residents and the sex toys displayed in shop windows; now it's like...meh, seen it. So as a child, life in my area of residential Brooklyn was clean and quiet in comparison, and I never really ventured beyond my familiar sidewalks that led from my apartment to my elementary school, which was conveniently just a few blocks away.

As examples of how I remember those days, here's a set of Flickr photos of NYC in the '80s, a fantastic look at how things used to be. Things were...pretty crappy! But hey, it had character! Hollywood capitalized on NYC's terrifying (and filthy) aura with movies like the Charles Bronson Death Wish series, and of course the cult classic, The Warriors. After seeing those movies, I can't imagine why anybody would want to visit NYC, or even live there. But I remember clearly seeing TV commercials advertising NYC tourism: the I <3 NY logo and campaign was born. I used to sing the jingle to my parents when I was a toddler, that's how embedded it was in my consciousness. Here's one of the commercials, which features a startling amount of awesome celebrities and ethnic diversity (and also drag queens!):


In the 1990s, there was a thing called gentrification. For a long time, many parts of the city and its outer boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island) were uninhabitable because of lack of proper housing and crime, basically. As an example, I'll cite the northern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. For decades, nobody ever had a reason to go there. That area of Brooklyn is deeply rooted in industrialism, so there were a lot of factories, warehouses, those sorts of structures -- not really family friendly. Many of these places were abandoned or fell into decay. Again, not family friendly. I mean, to this day, only one subway line even goes all the way out there, that's how disinterested people were. But most likely during this shift in the mid-1990s, young people started moving there, because the rent was dirt cheap. Realtors noticed the influx and started buying up the dirt cheap properties, either turning them into condos, or tearing them down to build new hi-rises, and steadily raised the rents. Skip to the end: HIPSTERVILLE.

It's happened to lots of Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Park Slope, which used to be very working class, now it's like a celebrity hideaway and a breeding ground for the stroller set; Bergen Street, where my father used to live in the 1970s when it was a skeevy shithole, now it has outdoor cafes and a cheese shop and a Ricky's and what-have-you; and the Atlantic Avenue junction where there never used to be anything of importance, but now there's the Barclays Center, which, as soon as it's finished, the NJ Nets will call home (I guess they'll be the Brooklyn Nets?). WHAT IS THIS MADNESS.

Some changes are good, some are bad, but that's the way things roll in a big city. Change happens really fast, and you have to take note of what's standing today because it could be torn down tomorrow. The city is a paradox of nostalgia and progress. I think that's the essence of "what it's like" to live here: be prepared for change, because movement never stops. There's always something going on, always something new to experience, always something old to discover. I have no idea what it's like to live somewhere where not much happens in the span of a year, or someplace I know so well that I've become too familiar with my surroundings. Personally I've only just begun to explore the places that, as a child, I'd wrapped up in mysteries of the unknown and the forbidden. And while they've lost a lot of the mystery since then, I still can appreciate what they used to be and what they mean to me now.

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