Thursday, June 02, 2005

Neighborhood #2 (The Dawn of Luxury)

I've always been fascinated with New York neighborhoods, their identities and borders and names, and how these have changed or been maintained over time. Henry James' Washington Square, for example, was not populated by purple sweatpant-clad undergrads, and I doubt that Belgian frites were then so readily available as they are today. My grandparents grew up on East 12th Street and referred to this until the day they died as the Lower East Side, when everyone (everyone my age, anyway) knows this as the East Village. This sort of change in nomenclature I count as organic. "Lower East Side" meant to them and to me that lower right-hand corner of Manhattan that was home to new and recent immigrants. When that immigrant community contracted, the area between Houston Street and 14th Street was subsumed into the East Village. Other changes in neighborhood names and identities are not so organic. Anyone who says with a straight face "NoHo" or "Clinton" (bonjour, M. H.K.!) or "East Williamsburg" probably holds a Real Estate license and also uses the word "character" in suspect ways.

Yet when I am asked where it is that Lillet and I live, I lie. I say, "Williamsburg,"
knowing very well that this is not true, or at least is inaccurate. Our neighborhood is properly known as "North Side," but I am uncharacteristically willing to give everyone a break in this case, because even historically the neighborhoods of "North Side" and "South Side" were almost unknown outside of North Brooklyn.

You may have seen our neighborhood, at least in the movies, because North Side is where Donnie Brasco was set and filmed, and while it is today not nearly as gritty as it was thirty years ago it is still very much Italian — every day we hear at least some (heavily dialected) Italian spoken.

Did you know that Tom Cruise was originally
to play the Johnny Depp role?
It's also still very much a neighborhood. We know most of the people who live on our block. Our landlord (who lives above us) was born on this block more than 75 years ago.

On the South Side, Graham
Ave. is Ave. of Puerto Rico

The photos I blogged yesterday are of Greenpoint, the neighborhood immediately to the north of ours. And I mean immediately — those photos were taken on a street that is literally a three-minute walk from our apartment, a street on which one will hear no Italian and can buy no smoked mozzarella.
In Greenpoint, Polish is not only a first language, but for many it is their only language.

The Italy/Poland border
When Lillet Capuletski started dating Trey Montagulio, she lived in Greenpoint and he on the North Side.

As you can see from the map,

McCarren Park
McCarren Park is the hub of several North Brooklyn neighborhoods. As urban parks go, it is not very attractive, but Lillet and I are very fond of McCarren Park and stroll there often. On a typical Saturday afternoon you are likely to see Dominican and Polish kids with no common language playing soccer together, long-time Italian and Polish residents feeding pigeons, and more than a few hipsters experimenting with exposure to daylight.

Concrete ball field with Manhattan skyline

The hipsters are inevitable, for the western side of the park abuts one of the trendiest
neighborhoods not only in Brooklyn but in all of New York. Technically, this is still North Side, but it is known to its newer residents and to Ken Firpo and his ilk as Williamsburg, even though Williamsburg proper is some two miles away. When someone tells you that Interpol is from Williamsburg (they're not — they're not even from New York) this is the neighborhood denoted by "Williamsburg."

What is it that makes a neighborhood like this so trendy, you ask? Is it the art galleries, the

Native habitat
hip restaurants and bars, the music venues, the record stores, the boutiques? No, I don't think so. I've lived in several trendy neighborhoods and they all have only two things in common. One is the easy availablity of very strong coffee. The other is the unavailability of groceries. Here it is easier to buy a $300 pair of shoes than it is to buy a quart of milk.

Continuing counter-clockwise back to our neighborhood we pass through a bit of no-man's land. This little stretch between trendy Bedford Avenue and where Lillet and I live was until recently mostly industrial. There were and to some extent still are auto body shops, mattress warehouses, tool and die shops, and some kinds of
businesses you just didn't inquire about. A few weeks ago, walking along the southern end of McCarren park, I passed by the building you see pictured here. You're to be forgiven if you took this to be an abandoned building, a bit of urban blight. It does look like that, and — take my word for it — it smells worse, like the Knicks have been storing their dirty uniforms in there since they last won the NBA title. It turns out that it is no such thing at all. This is — or soon will be — THE AURORA ... THE DAWN OF LUXURY.


I should apologize for my silly reality-based photographs. Here you can see the Aurora in its true glory.

(Bullshit) Artist's rendering

I want to make it clear that I am not one of those idiots who fetishize poverty. I think that abandoned, burnt-out buildings are not good things. I don't think that living in poor neighborhoods is glamorous or edgy or arty or in any way helps the poor. I like nice, clean things.

(Bullshit) Artist's rendering
I think that everyone should get to live in safe and well-kept neighborhoods. But I think that if you're going to live in a city you ought to live in a neighborhood. Urban life makes sense only if you embrace the idea of living in close proximity to people — to lots of different kinds of people — and want to interact with them. The Aurora brings suburban fortress-style living to an urban neighborhood. My generation, whose parents and grandparents fled the cities for the suburbs, is returning to bring suburban life to the city.

View from the Aurora

I think its a shame that urban neighborhood culture is disappearing. It's gone from Manhattan and is now being chased out of Brooklyn. I don't think it's a universal Good, but it's a Good. I like it, as do others. It has as many advantages as it does drawbacks. I'm sure that suburban life does, too, as little as it may appeal to me. I just don't understand why it is that suburban life has to eradicate urban life.

Only I do.


Blogger Mr. H.K. said...

Thankfully, there seems to be a resurgence in the use of the term Hell's Kitchen, snice even the realtors have given up trying to refer to us as Clinton.

Though with the gay gentrification in full swing, it's sometimes referred to as Hell-sea (rhymes with Chelsea)...

It's changed so much around here. And changing.

7:19 PM  
Blogger landismom said...

What a great post on your neighborhood. You said really, really wonderful things, and made me want to go there (but to leave my suburban fortress at home).

1:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home