Tag Archives: manhattan

Lower East Side (Mostly), 1996

I’ve written in this space about how when I was in college I used to wander through different neighborhoods in New York City, absorbing all the sights I could. Sadly, I have very little documentary evidence of my trips, unless you count my memory. However, I recently rediscovered a whole pile of old photos I took back then, and included in this pile are some pics from a walk I took through the Lower East Side and the East Village in May 1996. In my head, 1996 seems like yesterday. In reality it’s almost 18 years ago. These pictures make that time seem even longer.

In terms of pure aesthetics, these pictures are not very good. They were taken with a crummy point-and-shoot that had no zoom. This made it very difficult to get the shots I really wanted, because that would have required standing in the middle of traffic. So I’d either have to take very close shots or stand across the street and get wide-angle shots of entire blocks while cars raced in front of me. I usually chose the latter.

Picture quality is further compromised by the fact that all shots were developed at a Genovese on 8th Street. Genovese (one of many NY stores no longer with us) was a drug store that had a photo developing department that employed very few Ansel Adams.

Despite these considerable deficiencies, I want to share these pictures because most of the sights they captured no longer exist. I look at these pictures now and I can remember what the Lower East Side felt like in the mid-90s, when it hadn’t quite become hip, and certainly hadn’t become insanely expensive. If you strolled down Rivington Street on a Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t full of people stumbling their way to brunch. It had an unsettling ancient quiet that was impossible in most of Manhattan. The only sounds you heard were old signs swaying in the breeze and neglected buildings slowly crumbling.

I try not to be one of those insufferable types who longs for a city where “realness” was exemplified by nonstop murder and romantic heroin addictions. However, I look at these pics now, particularly the ones taken on Rivington Street, deep in the heart of what is now the most insanely expensive part of the Lower East Side, and I wonder what happened to the folks who got pushed out by the unstoppable wave of gentrification and development.

One of these pics shows a huge lot on Suffolk Street. You used to see many lots in the area like this, stretches of nothing that were reclaimed by local residents to be ersatz community gardens, junk yards, and flea markets. You can’t quite make it out in the photo, but there was a shack adorned with Puerto Rican flag insignia, whose occupant played a faint salsa soundtrack at all hours. The site is now occupied by a row of very ugly and very expensive condos.

When I took these pictures, the gentrification of the Lower East Side and East Village had already begun in earnest. It was confined to very specific blocks, but a sharp eye could see that it would soon creep everywhere.

Sometimes, you didn’t even need to look very hard. It was right there in front of you. In one photo, a repair shop on West 4th and the Bowery is being converted into the Bowery Bar. The mural on the wall of the building next door is being painted over to mark the occasion, an artsy non sequitur replaced by an enormous advertisement. You can literally see both the working class and bohemia replaced by luxury.

I realize that if you didn’t live in New York back then or don’t live here now, none of this means anything to you. In an effort to display just how much has changed, I’ve paired the old photos with new ones I took recently at the same spots. I did my best to recreate the perspective of the original pics, though in many cases changes in the landscape made precision impossible. And of course, there are the differences in lighting that result from May sky vs. November sky, and the differences in overall look between cheap point-and-shoot and fancy digital camera.

Some sites changed little, synagogues and churches mostly. At St. Patrick’s on Mulberry (the original St. Patrick’s), even the road work sawhorses look the same. Most of these spots have changed, though, enormously. It almost doesn’t matter if that is a good or bad thing, because the change has happened and cannot be unchanged regardless.

While taking the new pictures, I stumbled on a bunch of storefronts that had the look of turn-of-the-20th-century, florid serifed lettering and striped awnings. I thought it was an affectation adopted by boutiques, but then remembered that a TV series was being filmed down here, one set in the early 1900s.

The bustling squalor of that time seems quaint to us now, though life was tough and cheap for the people who lived in the Lower East Side back then. Few shed tears when the residents of the 90s were slowly pushed out for luxury condos and bars. Perhaps one day we’ll see them as picturesque enough to tell their stories. Continue reading Lower East Side (Mostly), 1996

Christmas Minus 10

At Christmastime 2001, I’d been out of work for over a year. When I was first laid off, I got a number of interviews. I even turned down a job offer for a position that sounded painfully uninteresting, foolishly thinking it wouldn’t be my last opportunity for full time work. But it was, for a very, very long time. To this point, I didn’t conceive of the idea that times could get tough for me, because apparently I’d blocked out my entire childhood.

Belt tightening followed. I gave my car to my dad because the insurance was killing me, even though I loved that car and knew giving it my dad was tantamount to a vehicular death sentence. I was forced to pay utilities only; student loans and credit card bills would have to wait. Except that student loan and credit card people didn’t see it that way, and so began the relentless, harassing calls and a mailbox stuffed with envelopes that screamed FINAL NOTICE.

Unemployment insurance helped keep my head above water while I scrounged for what I could. I worked temp jobs here and there, mostly proofreading for ad agencies. I conducted airline surveys at JFK and LaGuardia. On the creative side, I was doing some commentaries for NPR2, an embryonic satellite radio version of NPR, fun and easy work that, of course, dried up before long. I channeled most of my energy into online writing, pitching anything and anyone I could think of, and working on a novel, in the hopes that any one of these things would rescue me from predicament. They didn’t.

I did three full interviews with a financial publishing company, then was given a two-week “tryout,” copy editing, writing headlines, and doing light layout work in Quark. I got paid for my time, with the promise that if they liked my work the position would become full time. After the “tryout,” I never heard from them again, and later suspected this was really just a roundabout way of wresting temporary work out of someone without having to deal with an agency. Their offices were a few short blocks from what would soon be known as Ground Zero.

Continue reading Christmas Minus 10

A One-Way Street

Recently, I was reiterating my pet theories on city traffic. I was reiterating them to my wife, because I’m sure she loves hearing me say the same thing a million times. I’ve held for a very long time that, of the five boroughs, Queens has the worst drivers while Brooklyn has the worst pedestrians. These theories have been arrived at following years of both driving and walking in New York. Queens has a deadly mix of aggressive louts and the dangerously clueless behind the wheel, while Brooklyn pedestrians love to pop out from between parked cars and get within a hair’s breadth of your car as they amble across the street. (Don’t believe me? Try driving down Bushwick Avenue some evening. Go ahead.) I shouldn’t call these “theories,” since all my evidence is circumstantial and I have no idea what the root causes might be. Regardless, experience convinces me of their absolute truth.

While I expounded on these theories, my wife asked which borough had the worst bikers. I thought about this for a few moments and then realized it was a trick question. The answer is, they all do. Bikers in all parts of the city are completely terrible.

Spiritually, I am pro-bike. They’re obviously much better for the environment than cars, and you burn more calories pedaling than you do steering. Critical Mass? Sure, go ahead. But in reality, 99.9% of my interactions with bikers, as a pedestrian, have been miserable.

Perhaps because there is an assumed superiority of bike ownership, at least in this city. Sometimes it’s implied, sometimes it’s stated outright. Proclaiming that a bike is your primary mode of transportation is often said in the same manner as one might say, I don’t own a TV. It reminds me of what Paul F. Tompkins once said of San Francisco residents, that they’re very proud–not of the city, but of themselves for living there.

It is often stated by bikers that cars need to share the road, and drivers in this city definitely need to work on pretty much every aspect of driving, from signaling to not zipping across five lanes of the BQE at a 45-degree angle. The problem is, bikers in general do not extend pay that courtesy forward to pedestrians. I can not tell you how many times I have nearly been mauled by a biker who decided to ignore a red light or a stop sign, or to drive the wrong way down a one way street, or to hop the curb for no good reason. And in the vast, super-majority of these incidents, the biker will give me the stinkeye, like I’m the bad guy for getting in their way.

I was reminded of all of this yesterday as I walked up Hudson Street on my way to the L train. A good chunk of Hudson Street has a bike lane, and that’s perfectly fine. Considering the homicidal proclivities of cabs and trucks in this town, bike lanes are a legitimate public safety measure.

There is one awkward spot where Hudson meets Bleecker and becomes Eighth Avenue. Hudson curves eastward a bit, forming a weird little cobblestone triangle. This triangle has a tree and well manicured island surrounding it, guarded by large black pylons that I presume are meant to guard this elm from terrorist attack. It all conspires to leave very little room for a pedestrian to walk.

As I reach this junction, it is necessary to step temporarily into the bike lane. There is simply no way to walk this along this street without doing this, unless you want to go out of your way to a ridiculous extent.

Before I step off the curb, I give a quick glance behind me to make sure there’s no bikes coming, as a courtesy to bikers and my own neck. I see nothing, so I proceed. I take three steps and am literally angling to get back on the “sidewalk” at a more accessible point, when a chunky blur whizzes past my ear.

It’s an older gentleman on a well-worn bike, with a large gray Jansport backpack strapped on tight. As he zips past me, he says Get out of the bike lane. I would have put this in all caps, but his voice wasn’t quite an all-caps voice. It sounded more like Droopy Dog, or, if you listen to The Best Show on WFMU, frequent caller Spike. It dripped with harassed annoyance, even though I feel I’d taken all necessary precautions and was literally one step away from stepping back onto the curb.

Something about this guy’s voice absolutely infuriated me. Maybe it was the tone, the weirdly wimpy aggressiveness. Getting “yelled” at by such a voice was so weird and grating; imagine being reprimanded by Truman Capote. But I think, ultimately, what I found so galling was the idea that, by virtue of riding on a bike in a bike lane, this schlub felt instantly superior to everyone in his line of vision. Oh, how DARE I tread on the majestic and sacred BIKE LANE, me a common flesh-bag with not even a single wheel upon my lowly frame! A thousand pardons, fat guy with rusty old Schwinn!

Unfair? Trust me, if this guy had hissed get out of the bike lane to you as you were in the process of exiting said bike lane, you’d want to crush every Huffy in the world under a Hummer’s wheels, too.