Last week I took my son to college in New York, where he will live in our old apartment for the first time in five years. So the trip to my hometown was a bit of a homecoming. My deli man recognized me (“Where’ve you been?”). The doormen in our building seemed happy to see us. I ran into more than a few familiar faces on the street.
The neighborhood, the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side, had been under siege while we were away. Work on the “long awaited” Second Avenue subway had been a nightmare, especially for many of the merchants on the avenue, some of whom did not survive the temporary walls, chain link fences, and Jersey barriers (not to mention the dynamite blasts in the early going).
Somehow the Heidelberg Restaurant, the last remaining link to the neighborhood’s early and mid-20th century history as a German-American enclave, had survived. Perhaps renewed good times await, since the MTA is almost done, and the avenue has slowly begun healing up in sections, like a long wound.
When it opens in January, the 2nd Avenue subway will hook up with the Q line at 63rd Street, head downtown and then into Brooklyn. A number of empty lots have sprung up in the neighborhood, awaiting development; in each case, a single apartment tower, of at least 25 stories, will eventually replace a handful of four and five story brownstones.
Despite the fact that it’s far too wide to be a truly satisfying pedestrian experience, Second Avenue before the subway construction was still a lively thoroughfare, full of bars and restaurants. It was an object lesson in the durability of urban density, what it can overcome when even infrastructure is rigged against it.
In the 1970s and 80s, these bars catered to a twenty-something crowd—and some of them still do—but the bulk of that scene fled first across town in the 1990s (when the Upper West Side was perceived as “safe” for drunken frat boys from Westchester) and then in the aughts to (where else?) Brooklyn, leaving pockets of the scene on the East Side.
Last Sunday I had drinks with an old friend who’s lived in the neighborhood, on and off, for almost three decades, and we were marvelling at the demographics in the wine and craft beer bar we had chosen. The place was full of young people, the likes of which I had not been seen in Yorkville in years. They were young and fashionable, trending toward the hip.
That word was never previously associated with Yorkville. The neighborhood was, in fact, aggressively unhip for years, before the term hipster was even coined, long before the Brooklyn renaissance. Comedian Scott Blakeman, a former roommate, once described Yorkville as “our little slice of urban suburbia.” For a Manhattan neighborhood, it was always “family oriented,” decidedly uncool, a bit square (befitting the tall brick boxes on the avenues), and, by most appearances, overtly heterosexual. It didn’t pulsate, in other words, with any particular urban beat.
And yet here I was, with my friend Barry Weintraub, also a comedian, sipping craft beer, amid swarms of young people, on a hot summer afternoon. “Not a baby stroller in sight,” Barry said, with a bit of bewilderment in his voice. What we were witnessing, I think, was the “spillover effect.” They had migrated to sleepy Yorkville, because the neighborhood had become the affordable (a relative term, of course) option.
How did that happen? It happened because cities like New York are always changing. Cities are fluid and dynamic (even dying ones). They’re not only communities of people, they’re economies. New York (especially Manhattan) has seen nearly 20 years of uninterrupted growth. The result is a different city: physically, economically, demographically, psychologically. It’s cleaner, safer, and much more expensive, but also far less diverse, raw and vibrant. Who knows whether this is a decent trade off?
I would be hard pressed to live today, the way I lived in the 1970s and 80s, as a younger man, when the city’s economy was a lot more forgiving, apartments were plentiful, and life on the margins (writing unpublished short stories and working in bookstores and comedy clubs) was cheaper and more accessible. Does mourning the loss of that city, for other people, make me nostalgic? A typical old foggy pining about the old days? Or am I simply uninformed about the cost and location of today’s margins?
Young people keep arriving, redefining and reinventing and reshaping New York. And if your frame of reference spans several decades, as mine unfortunately does, you’re likely to roll your eyes at almost anything. (Even something as innocuous as craft beer.) As a visitor to New York now, I am continually faced with a difficult equation: figuring out, exactly, how much of my bitching and moaning about the state of New York is based solely on my age (a cliched point of view, I concede) and how much is based on observable fact (a quick internet search shows 3-bedroom apartments in Bushwick, Brooklyn renting for $3500-a-month! What the fuck is up with that!?).
Maybe there’s my margin: $3500, divided three (or four or five!) ways, becomes manageable rent for the itinerant actor or writer. And if living with a basketball team-sized contingent proves too emotionally draining, there’s always East New York, or even the Upper East Side (east of 3rd Avenue). Young people, somehow, always make New York work for them, often against great and (in retrospect) adventuresome odds. We don’t need to worry about them. Now, the working class family formally from Bushwick, they’re the real story. But no one is telling it, and for a simple reason: they are gone.
Featured image of Second Avenue subway construction via the New York Times.