Ode to A Forgotten City

I grew up in New York City. I was born in a hospital on 12th Street. The Village. My Mom and Dad brought me home to an apartment on 18th Street. Chelsea. When I was nine months old, we all moved downtown, passed Canal Street to an undiscovered landfill populated by abandoned dairy houses. Today the neighborhood is known as Tribeca. The most expensive zip code in the country.

I lived in New York when it was still New York. I remember seeing “E.T” in a filthy movie theater somewhere near theater row. Somewhere in the 40’s and on Broadway. The theater was snuggled in between two peep shows. My mom was pushing my brother in an umbrella stroller, and she checked the movie times on the marquee and paid cash to a woman in a window. And we entered a popcorn-littered, dark room. The screen was big and bright, and we sat somewhere in the middle and watched the first film that made me cry.

When we left the movie house, it was night and my mother snapped up the stroller and tucked it under her arm, threw my brother on her hip and asked for my hand as we bounced down the subway stairs. Bubble gum stained concrete subway stairs and a yellow handrail.

She paid with a token, and I ducked under the turnstile, and we jumped on the “iron horse” heading downtown. Hitting all the local stops – 42nd. 34th. 28th. 23rd. 18th. 14th. Christopher St. Houston St. (not pronounced like a place in Texas.) Canal St. Franklin St. and our stop Chambers St.

We walked the desolate streets. When I say desolate, I mean not ONE person in sight. The 9-5ers had gone home, and there was no one downtown. Chilling winds ripped through us as we turned the corner and hit Greenwich St. It’s a kinda cold that only those who have lived somewhere off of the Hudson River in Manhattan know. It freezed the West Side Highway and crawled across Greenwich St. and over to Hudson Street and in between on Reade and Duane and Harrison and N. Moore Streets.

My mother and my brother and the stroller and I dipped into the “Food Emporium” – our neighborhood over-priced grocery store, and she filled the cart with the regular items. A large loaf of white bread, always checking the date first, making sure it was fresh. One pound of Land O’ Lakes yellow American cheese, sliced thin. If she thought it was cut too thick, she would hand it back to the guy at the deli and say, “Take it back. It’s too thick. I asked for thin. That’s not thin.” A pack of chicken cutlets. A container of milk. And maybe a pack of Oreo cookies. We’d get on line (Real New Yorkers say on line. Not in line) and wait. She’d pay with cash again. No debit cards. No checks. CASH. And we’d walk a few blocks more to get home to the building where we lived on the 30th floor in the “K” unit. That means the apartments on each floor were identified by floor and letter. My friends occupied apartments like 32G and 39C. My grandmother lived in 24L. My first real boyfriend lived in 36K. It’s a code only the 1st generation of Tribeca kids understand. Once a kid I grew up with, a kid I had a love/hate relationship with, told me he lived in 38G … I thought he said “D” he responded – “No. G. G as in God.”

When I was still little – there was a “black-out” – that’s when all the electricity in the City shuts down because of some malfunction, and we had to climb the stairs in the fire exits to get to our apartments. Pregnant women and all. Blackouts were fun and scary. Imagine being in a pitch black apartment on the 30th floor that looks out over the Hudson River and the only light available is the twinkling windows in Hoboken across the river and candle light. We’d wake up to natural light, but lamps and overhead lights wouldn’t go on again until a Con Ed generator kicked in, and the City lit up again.

Yes. We opened the fire hydrants in the summer, and we ran in and out of them all day long. My grandfather owned a candy store called “Betty’s” that housed the first Pac-Man machine in our neighborhood. Kids would line their quarters up on the screen to play next. I can still see them handing a single to my grandfather. I can still hear them asking, “Can I get four quarters?” The Chinese restaurant “Lotus Blossom” was right next door to “Betty’s” and when we had had our fill of sweets and craved something salty – we’d order “Beef on a Stick” from “Lotus Blossom.”

We rode our bikes up and down Greenwich St. We played manhunt with kids from other neighborhoods and traveled in packs. By June – St. Anthony’s threw a feast, a block party of sorts. Zeppoli’s and Sausage sandwiches. Store fronts that served as a cover for the Italian Mafia provided a hangout for the men who dealt cards in back rooms. Cigars and smoke and a Ferris wheel. Boys would have fist fights and girls would whisper among themselves about which boy was the “cutest?” The feast kicked off Summer time in the city.

The real New York had neighborhoods. REAL legendary neighborhoods. Chinatown, Little Italy and LES… (Lower East Side) Tribeca and Soho (aka The Village) Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. The Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem. Straight up Harlem. Central Park West. There were kids in all of these neighborhoods, and we mingled with each other through going to school mostly. A kid in our neighborhood went to school with a kid in their neighborhood and sometimes we’d all become friends and other times we’d all become enemies, and that was serious.

I guess I’m just reminiscing about my lost city.

The way I see it – the real New York is a City Forgotten. I’m getting reports from home -from my friends and family who hung on until the very end – saying they can’t afford it anymore. They’re relocating. They leaving. They’re going to Florida and Pennsylvania. They’re coming to Los Angeles in droves. Look for the out of place yellow and blue “Empire State” license plates when you’re stuck in traffic on the freeway.

A friend posted a status on Facebook that read, “I just walked from 14th Street to 34th and did not hear one word of English.” Someone else told me that the overpriced “Food Emporium” is closing and will reopen as “Trader Joe’s.” “Lotus Blossom” and “Betty’s” are long gone. The deli I bought 1 million bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches from, the one owned by Sergio – he used to be a security guard for our building but saved enough money to buy the deli … Yeah. Him. He’s from the Dominican Republic. Well, he’s gone, and so is the deli and the cleaners and the nail salon and the pizza shop. GONE. Replaced by a “TD Bank” a “Duane Reade” and wait for it … a “Starbucks.”

I know. Gentrification. That’s a nice logical word meaning: “Any facet of urban renewal that inevitably leads to the displacement of the occupying demographic.” I lean a little more toward the emotional side of things – I’m a Pisces … can’t help it – and for me, it means ripping the very guts out of the people who created the city itself. It means that there was a time when the occupying demographic was begged to stay and “rebuild and remember.” Those days were the days following the deadliest terror attack on American soil. Yep. 9/11. They promised us we could stay if we didn’t leave. They promised.

Now I’m feeling like Anne Hathaway in “Les Miserables” and maybe you think I’m singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” But honestly – I can’t sing. I had New York on my mind tonight, and I felt like my city deserved a little of my time. It didn’t ask to be sanitized. It didn’t know they would turn it to glass. My home … that City with it’s fantastic accent, and it’s very roots that bleed authenticity will never be forgotten by me. I will never forget any of it, and I hope I was able to paint a pure picture of what it was and what it will always be to me. HOME.

  1. Julie Anderson

    I miss the “old” NYC !!! I remember the days of grit and edgy energy. It was over night that NYC – Times Square in particular became Disney World over night … boo hoo

  2. Elizabeth

    Thank you- there was so much more to write. So many more stories and times/
    Thinking more about it- maybe it’s not “forgotten.” NY – the real one- is depicted in films and books I suppose – so it won’t be forgotten completely. BUT as the old timers are passing and we are getting older is much more clear now than it ever was before – that our city- and what it means to us … Is gone.

  3. Avatar

    Ok so I’m waiting at the bus stop on a NYC street and I am crying my ass of reading this. It’s poetry. It’s beauty. And I wonder how well people who can not picture what you write about, first hand, will respond. But I think you’ve captured NY… The beauty of who she used to be, her simplicity, and everyone can relate to that loss. I loved reading this.

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