Sunday, December 22, 2013

105. New York Mosaic: The Neighborhoods

     This post is about neighborhoods in New York City, some big and some small, some ethnic, some commercial, some residential, and many often a mix of two of these or all three.  I couldn’t begin to mention all these neighborhoods, which abound in every borough, so I’ll focus on a few in Manhattan that I have encountered personally.  They are well worth looking at, as they give color and verve and to the city.

The Diamond District


So read the signs in the store windows or hanging around the necks of solicitors in the street (though posted signs warn consumers not to deal with the latter).  In the windows are lavish displays of scores, if not hundreds, of twinkling diamonds.  In the stores and on the street are numerous Orthodox Jews, all black hatted with black suits and shoes, and white shirts devoid of a tie, all but the young ones bearded, with ample sideburns or long side curls in front of the ears. 

File:We Buy 2w47 St jeh.jpg

     A shopkeeper, seeing a woman eyeing a gold necklace in his window, darts out to address her, “If you like something, ask me, gorgeous.”  Other salesmen accost other passersby, waving them in and promising a superlative deal. 

      This is the Diamond District on West 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, a busy little strip of Manhattan avoided by some because of the never ending hustle, but savored by others more tolerant of the hustle or simply in search of a necklace or ring at a reasonable price.  The district came into being from 1941 on, when dealers began moving uptown from an old district, still in existence, near Canal Street and the Bowery, close by Chinatown.  With the threat of Nazi Germany looming over them, thousands of Orthodox Jews had already fled the diamond centers of Amsterdam and Antwerp to find shelter here, and most of them remained here after the end of World War II. 
Ultra-orthodox Jews joke in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem
     I have often passed through this district, usually going to or rom the now deceased and much lamented Gotham Book Mart, a legendary bookstore that happened also to be on this block.  I was never hassled by salesmen, but always encountered black-garbed Orthodox Jews talking excitedly or striding down the street.  Though not all the shopkeepers are Orthodox, most if not all are Jewish, and the Orthodox impart a distinct and dominant flavor to the street.  I have also seen them waiting at the curb along Fifth Avenue and wondered why, until late one afternoon I saw a bus full of Orthodox Jews pull up to the curb and take on the waiting passengers, who were then whisked off to some Orthodox enclave elsewhere, probably Crown Heights or Borough Park in Brooklyn. 

Bleecker Street

     Here is an example of how neighborhoods change.  Bleecker Street in the West Village, which I can see from my windows, living as I do at the corner of West 11th and Bleecker, used to have restaurants, antique stores, and bookshops.  But all that began to change when the upscale clothing designer Marc Jacobs opened a store across the street from us, its windows featuring fancy with-it clothing draped on faceless, soulless female manikins in odd postures.   That was the beginning.  Soon other designer clothing stores appeared, rents soared, and the restaurants and antique stores, faced with a tripling of their rent, moved out.  Now the street is all upscale clothing stores from Bank Street to West 10th Street, though not beyond.  People flock and look in the windows, and I suppose that some of them buy.  But these displays don’t interest me, whereas I could always feast my eyes on the antique store displays, and Bob and I loved a Thai restaurant that has long vanished from our neighborhood. 

Marc by Marc Jacobs Women's
The Marc Jacobs store at Bleecker and West 11th Street.

     Yes, Jacobs has opened a bookstore, Bookmarc, across the street from us, diagonally opposite the clothing store, but when I ventured inside once, I found not a single title that interested me; the books too are all very “with-it,” very “in,” very upscale – whatever all that means.  I’ve just checked a few reviews of the store online.  One raves about the “cute little knickknacks” available there; another mentions “hip and cool titles that fashion types might read”; another, “a mix of (overpriced) humorous, kitschy items”; another, “fun stuff,” including books that are “pretty modern and chic.”  But here’s the one that really got my attention: “This is the type of place I like to visit when I’m in the mood to have twenty people pressed against me, elbowing my back, blocking my path, and whacking me with their purses.  Which is never.”  All of which confirms my initial reaction: too upscale, too trendy, too “fun stuff” for a confirmed fuddy-duddy like me.

     There was once an interesting biography bookstore on that corner, but it too, alas, is gone.  New York is constantly in flux, not always for the better.  At least the Magnolia Bakery is still downstairs from our apartment.  I don’t buy their sugary concoctions, and yes, they too are trendy and crowded, but I like their still being there, and those cupcakes in the window – real works of art – don’t turn me off.

File:Magnolia Bakery, 401 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014, USA - Jan 2013 O.jpg
 The stairs in the lower right are well known to me, as I have descended there a number of times, usually banging my forehead on the way, to clear out the Magnolia's clutter of cartons, so Con 
Ed could read our meter.                 

File:Magnolia Bakery, 401 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014, USA - Jan 2013 A.JPG
People have sold their soul for these.


     SoHo (from South of Houston) is a neighborhood bounded by Houston Street on the north, Canal Street on the south, Lafayette and Centre Streets on the east, and West Broadway on the west.  Today it is known for artists’ lofts, art galleries, and boutiques – another “trendy” location, but this is only the latest phase of its development.  In the nineteenth century the district housed residences, theaters, and fancy stores, not to mention brothels on the side streets off Broadway, but the growing commercial tone of the area drove middle-class citizens farther uptown, and small factories, lumberyards, locksmiths, and book publishers moved in, often into buildings with cast-iron façades.  By the 1880s and 1890s large manufacturers came there, and SoHo became the wholesale dry-goods trade center of New York. 

     After World War II the textile industry decamped for the South, drawn there by lower wages and the lack of strong unions.  The large cast-iron buildings they abandoned became small factories, sweatshops, warehouses, and printing plants, or were demolished to make way for filling stations, auto repair shops, parking lots, and garages.  Firefighters christened the district “Hell’s Hundred Acres” because of the frequent fires in half-abandoned warehouses, perhaps not unrelated to insurance claims. 

File:NYC SoHo Green Street.jpg
Cast-iron buildings on Greene Street, SoHo.
Andreas Praefcke

     Then, in the 1960s, artists began discovering these empty buildings with low-rent lofts offering large spaces, high ceilings, and large windows admitting natural light, and saw their possibilities as a combined residence and studio.  Even though the lofts were not zoned for residential use, they moved in and began adapting them.  The city tried to stop the movement, but under pressure yielded, amending the zoning regulations in 1971 to allow artists to reside and work in the lofts.  Two years later SoHo was made a historical district, further enhancing its status.  Already, in 1968, the name “SoHo” had been coined.

     I witnessed this development when two friends of mine, an artist and his banker partner residing in Brooklyn Heights, bought and moved into a loft occupying two-thirds of the fourth floor of an old building on Wooster Street.  For a New Yorker like myself, used to cramped studio apartments, the loft was magnificent: wide spaces, lofty ceilings, and huge windows looking out on the street.  Urban homesteaders of the twentieth century, my friends had to hire electricians and plumbers and carpenters to make the place livable, but the result was impressive: a bedroom, two bathrooms, an ample kitchen, a living area adorned with chinoiserie from the banker’s childhood abroad, a spacious indoor garden, and a vast area for the artist’s studio.  All this occurred before the city relaxed its zoning regulations, but they were confident that the city would not expel “squatters” who were doing such positive work to upgrade a neglected district – an assumption that proved correct.  So a desolate industrial area was transformed into an artists’ residential area -- further proof that the city’s neighborhoods are in constant flux.

     But that wasn’t the end of the transformation of SoHo.  From the 1980s on the district was enhanced or afflicted – depending on your point of view --  by a phenomenon known as gentrification.  More affluent residents began moving in, attracted by the area’s spacious lofts, interesting architecture, and “hip” reputation.  Lots of the artists remained, including my friends, but many galleries moved to Chelsea, just north of the West Village.  Trendy boutiques, restaurants, and fashionable clothing stores became the norm, tourists flocked, and real estate values soared.  Vibrant it certainly is, but trendy vibrant, money-driven, posh with a few rough edges.

File:La boutique J.F. Rey à Soho (New-York), un des points de vente exclusif de la marque..jpg
A SoHo boutique.


     Chinatown stretches from Delancey Street on the north, where it rubs elbows with Little Italy, to Chambers Street on the south, and from Broadway on the west to East Broadway on the east.  For most visitors, it means an array of signs in a strange language; groceries exhibiting exotic foodstuffs such as jasmine rice, oolong tea, lotus root, lichee nuts, shark fins, bamboo shoots, black duck eggs, and water chestnuts, few of which I could recognize or identify; souvenir shops with gaudy junk, fine chinaware and jade, and benign little Buddhas; and above all, restaurants. 

Derek Jensen

Martin Dürrschnabel

   It was always for the restaurants that my partner Bob and I went there.  We had a fixed routine.  First we would stop at Esther Eng’s Restaurant on Pell Street and settle in to a front table in a nook beside the entrance, have a drink there, and watch people pass by on the street.  We knew that she was a successful businesswoman and, rare for Chinatown, an avowed lesbian, but only now, researching this post a bit, have I learned that in the 1930s, before she went into the restaurant business, she had a distinguished career directing and producing Chinese-language films – another first for a Chinese American woman – in both Hollywood and Hong Kong.  She died in 1970.

     Leaving Esther Eng’s, we would go to the Port Arthur, a venerable Chinese restaurant founded in 1897 occupying the second and third floors of 7-9 Mott Street.  We dined on the second floor, at mahogany tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, on a white-tile floor under red lanterns, in a room adorned with ornate carved wood panels and ivory-colored silk screens embroidered with blue peacocks and other birds.  The food was Cantonese, not superb but reliably good, and reasonably priced.  On warm summer nights the French doors leading to a balcony with tables overlooking the street were opened, and all the sounds of Mott Street – bells and the babble of people passing on the street -- flowed into the restaurant.  We never dined on the third floor, which was reserved for private parties and banquets, but once we were shown its even more sumptuous setting, with many more ornate carved panels as well as screens, lanterns, chandeliers, inlaid tables, and teakwood chairs.  I doubt if any restaurant in Chinatown had more elaborate and dazzling furnishings.  Today, alas, it is no more, its site occupied by a supermarket.  Dining in the restaurant next door, through a window Bob once saw the Port Arthur’s ornate carved panels and other décor being taken out and loaded on a truck, bound for what destination we never learned: a sad farewell to a very special restaurant, unique, irreplaceable.  We still have one of its menus with a red cover adorned with a handsome peacock in blue.

Postcard circa 1940s (on Mott St. facing north). Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ng, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.
The Port Arthur restaurant (seen in the center), in a postcard from the 1940s.

     Of course there are still many fine restaurants – and many not so fine – in Chinatown, but if we’ve gone there less and less over the years, it’s because Chinatown has come to us; there are good and not-so-good Chinese restaurants all over town.  But not long ago Bob’s brother Bill, on a visit from Maine, went to Chinatown with his daughter and dined in a restaurant recommended by a friend of hers.  For most of the time they were lunching there, they were the only Caucasians present.  Dining among the chopstick-wielding Chinese, Bill says he enjoyed some of the best Chinese food he’s ever had.  They started with soup dumplings, eating which is evidently something of a ritual.  You put one on a soup spoon, pinch a small hole in it, thus releasing soup into the spoon, after which you eat the dumpling and then the soup.  Sounds complicated.  Good luck!

The restaurant Bill Lagerstrom discovered.
Bill Lagerstrom

      Chinatown has a long and colorful history; I can only touch on it here.  Perhaps the first Chinaman to come to the New York City area was Ah Ken, a Cantonese merchant who claimed to have arrived in the 1840s, and who came to the city around 1858 and opened a cigar store on Park Row.  The discovery of gold in California in 1849 brought an influx of Chinese immigrants, lured like countless Americans by dreams of elusive wealth, and many of them were later hired to work on the Central Pacific Railroad, dynamiting obstructions in the Sierra Nevada Mountains so the railroad could be pushed east onto the flats of Nevada and meet up with the Union Pacific in Utah in 1869.  Faced with growing discrimination in California, many of them came east via the new transcontinental railroad and settled in New York.  When the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers, there were some 2,000 residents in Chinatown. 

     At first these early Chinatown residents were mostly men, since only the most prosperous merchants could afford to go back to China, find a suitable bride, pay her family the bride price, and bring her back to New York.  These few wives were rarely seen; when they did go out, it was in a carriage with drawn blinds, depriving the frustrated bachelors of Chinatown of even the briefest glimpse of a woman of their race.  The solution of some of these lonely males was to marry Irish girls, though others found solace in brothels whose inmates were Caucasian, some of them under age; in gambling parlors where losers, having bet all they had and lost, departed clothed only in a barrel; and in opium dens where shadowy figures reclined in bunks, sucking on long bamboo pipes held over the tiny flame of a lamp. 

     In New York too the early Chinese immigrants faced discrimination.  Dressed in broad-sleeved jackets and baggy pants, and wearing cork-soled shoes and the long  queue that the Emperor required as a sign of loyalty, they stood out, provoking curiosity and sometimes suspicion and hostility, even though they were for the most part decent, hard-working, and quiet.  Indeed, vastly outnumbered and surrounded by those whom they sometimes referred to as Big Noses or Round Eyes, they might well ask, when insulted and attacked by thugs in the street, who were the barbarians and who the truly civilized. 

     Slowly the number of women in Chinatown increased, as did the population, though even in the twentieth century many of the women rarely, if ever, strayed beyond the bounds of Chinatown.  In time Chinatown became a tourist attraction offering innumerable restaurants, and souvenir shops with wares ranging from the cheapest gimcracks to the finest chinaware and jade.  As for the 1882 exclusion law, it was not repealed until 1943, when China was our ally in the war against Japan.  Today the population of Chinatown is estimated at from 90,000 to 100,000, and Chinatown itself has long since spread north of Canal Street into what was once Little Italy.

Canal Street today, traditionally the border between Chinatown and Little Italy.  But as the Chinese
signs indicate, Chinatown is creeping north into the Italian district.

Derek Jensen

      My war with the creepies:  Yes, I am at war -- at violent, unremitting war -- with the creepies, my name for the bugs, ranging in size from infinitesimal specks to creatures about a third of an inch long, that have invaded my apartment.  They crawl over my toothbrush, creep into my empty coffee mug (used for tea), crawl into the straws we use to sip beverages, and have even been found in a large box containing Bob's medical supplies in the living room.  These aren't bedbugs or roaches, but their presence is reprehensible, since they don't pay rent.  They approach my food even while I'm eating (and often pay the price), and flee of the oven, one of their favorite nests, if I'm baking or roasting.  But mostly they are night feeders, and I discover them when, heeding the bladder imperative, I get up at night and suddenly turn on the light in the bathroom, and after that in the kitchen, which sends them scurrying in all directions.

     To keep these invaders in check, I have various stratagems.  I have cleaned them out of a nest in Bob's medicines, emptying the box and then dumping them out on the kitchen table, where I could massacre half of them -- about forty -- while the other half escaped.  My weapon: an empty pill bottle, held upside down, so that the cap, when slammed down on a flat surface, mashes anything organic underneath.  I also leave glue traps about in strategic locations in the kitchen, where they slowly accumulate dozens of victims.  One trap has now enticed some forty of the bigger ones, and so many little ones that I couldn't count them.  Also, since they seem to have a predilection for my coffee mug, I heave it half full of water and in the morning often find one or more floating on the surface, drowned.  R.I.P.

     But the real confrontation -- the true battle of battles -- occurs when I turn on a light at night and find a slew of them ranging about the bathroom or kitchen.  For best results, I leave most of the kitchen table free of objects, so as to create a broad killing field where I have a better chance of mashing them; other killing fields include the sink and stove top, and the wash basin and bathtub in the bathroom.  Against these white, smooth surfaces their dark bodies appear in sharp contrast, which gives me a further advantage.  Not that I massacre all the wee beasties so discovered; since they scurry in different directions and there's only one of me, half of them, and sometimes more,  escape.  Escape to where?  Any crack or crevice within reach, the undersurface of the table and sink, the dark, infernal depths of our ancient (circa 1930) stove, or any bit of clutter where they hide.  The little ones -- the specks -- can't run fast, so I get most of them, but the big ones are very quick indeed.  If, out of three of these, I slaughter two or (rarely) three, I feel great satisfaction and  deep glee.

     Browder a hunter?  Those who know me well would scoff at the very thought.  Long ago my father, a true hunter and fisherman, told me that hunting is an instinct, stronger in some people than in others.  And his younger son, a bookworm, possessed this instinct not at all.  I hated the recoil of a discharged shotgun, which made my shoulder ache, and had no desire to slaughter rabbits or blackbirds, the intended targets of my father's forays.  As for lake fishing -- the only fishing available in our midwestern setting --  I hated the long, hot hours in a boat waiting for something to happen; hated the sight of our bait, a squirming worm transfixed by a hook; and hated the rare spectacle of a fish thrashing about the floor of the boat in a frenzied panic.  So if I derive satisfaction from slaughtering the invaders of my apartment, it is much less the thrill of a hunter than the vigilance of a human defending his hearth against dark forces conspiring against it, invading it, polluting it by their very presence. 

     As I fight the good fight, a literary quotation comes to mind.  No, not Blake's line, "For everything that lives is holy," since I deny holiness to cockroaches, mosquitoes, and creepies.  No, it is a line from King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport" (iv.1.37-38).  This line is spoken by Gloucester as he wanders the heath, blinded, questioning if there is justice in the universe.  Is this how I appear to the wee beasties, assuming they have a modicum of intelligence?  "Why does this looming monster hate us so?" they may well ask, "when all we're doing is finding a little sustenance?  He has plenty; why not share it?  Isn't there enough for all?"  And if they wax philosophic, they might ponder the arbitrariness of doom.  When the towering monster strikes, some are pounded to a mash, while others escape.  Is this all simply a game of chance, or is there some underlying principle, some cosmic law that escapes their finite minds, but may be clear to a higher, perhaps divine, intelligence?  Ah, deep thoughts provoked by my slaughter of the beasties, but thoughts to be pursued with caution, if pursued at all.  For are we humans to higher beings as the creepies are to us, or as flies to wanton boys?  I dare not push this further; it's too unsettling, or maybe too ridiculous.  I kill the creepies to keep them out of my toothbrush, my mug, my meals.  Enough said; I conclude.

     Coming soon: Inanities of the 1960s, as recorded by me in an Inanities File, with thoughts about the inanities of today.  Another deep probing, leading I'm not sure where.

    ©  2013  Clifford Browder

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