Archive for the ‘NYC’ Category

ben

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

“According to [confidential informant], there was a robbery at the Source Awards in Manhattan that never got reported to the police: a man named Zack with Biggie and the Bad Boy camp had his gold chain stolen. I received word that Ben O’Garro aka Killer Ben, the notorious gunman from Myrtle Avenue in North Brooklyn had something to do with that. Not soon after, Killer Ben was shot with a .40-caliber handgun while talking at a pay phone in his Myrtle Avenue stomping grounds.
Informants in the street tell me Ben’s death was payback for that robbery, with Biggie commissioning the hit.”

l.e.s.

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

“Around 1995 New York started getting clean, New York sobered up essentially,” he explained. “What happened was New York is a victim of its own success. It’s become so fancy and so affluent that the interesting people who made me want to stay in New York have all had to leave. So my neighbourhood, the Lower East Side — I don’t really know anybody in my neighbourhood anymore.”

qu

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

103 – Land Of Dream (fr) from ARTE New York Minute on Vimeo.

red, white, and blue

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

i’m from here, last of the mohicans

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

One of the better written pieces about the current status of the city and the deterioration of the native New York culture … from Last of the Mohicans.

I’m from here. It’s a statement of fact, a banner, a challenge. But mostly it’s a memory. A New Yorker breezes down concrete canyons grooved like a record, to paraphrase my favorite NY band. We live and breathe New York in these toxic times, looking forward, our heads spinning with nostalgia. A New Yorker is someone who longs for New York, and looks askance at the Americans flooding in these days, that unstoppable wave.

We see kids we went to high school with, or knew from that time, and we’re reaching to the back of our minds for the names, more often than not surprised to get them right. “That kid’s old school!” we chatter excitedly to one another, spirits lifted by recognition—you’re not in this alone, this separateness of native New York kids who have stuck around. The last of the Mohicans.

Back in ’91 or ’92, I was strolling with my man Lex on St. Mark’s, thinking about the anxious ride home through East New York on the L train. It was the the era of motherfuckers punching people in the face just for livin’. I was 16 or 17, and the only white faces I ever really noticed on the L were my people, the Polish, disembarking at Bedford Avenue (or at Lorimer for the G train to their Greenpoint stronghold) back when that part of Williamsburg was still known as Northside. Maybe you saw a Jewish kid or two, heading to Canarsie, or some stoic Russian lady on the way back to Starrett City, guardedly clutching her cheap pleather handbag.

Tattoos were an extreme rarity on the L then, a heavy metal t-shirt perhaps a bit more common, but these were still far and few between. With my bad haircut and Suicidal Tendencies shirt, I played the “metalhead game” with whatever other wary metal kid I chanced upon once in a blue—positioning myself in plain sight, maybe taking off my jacket when it might have been a bit too chilly on the train to warrant it, hoping to be noticed. I dreamed of a friend in my neighborhood to listen to beaten-up Misfits and Metallica cassettes with.

I lived with my folks, a teenager with the immense sprawl of Brooklyn separating me from the beating heart of my downtown upbringing. Starrett City was a place to sleep, eat, watch TV. The East Village was home, a stomping ground of cheap eats, punk rock record stores, head shops, and bars, alien and foreboding (though, at the time, we could probably be served in almost any of them). You could be free there, I thought.

On that walk with Lex, I wished that the Village would expand into Brooklyn, all the way to Canarsie, everywhere a record shop or thrift store. Years later, on the way to my aunt’s place out in Starrett, I saw artsy whites getting off at Bushwick/Aberdeen, a sight that would’ve made my head explode years earlier. I thought back to my misplaced desire, wondering “Was is my fault?” You must understand: I had not lived in New York since 2003. I had missed the memo that artistes were spilling over into the deeper, browner enclaves of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy.

Now, black and Latin families all over Brooklyn, and a little bit in Queens, rub elbows with the new aliens: the sometimes bespectacled and tight-clothed kids springing up out of the woodwork, many of them with that Midwestern, standard-English accent cutting through the rumbling din of the J train. Some have tattoos, some are rich, many are middle-class, some are poorer. Even this late in the game, I still freaked a bit when I saw two emaciated, coltish model chicks chattering on the platform as my train pulled onto the Chauncey Street platform.

Do I resent this new breed of New Yorkers? I know more than a handful of transplants who I really like and admire. They inspire in me a feeling not unlike that of the older sibling who takes their younger brother or sister to their first metal concert; you sometimes look through new eyes at something that seemed obvious, or even tired. I bond with them almost instantly, because they get it. They’re curious and amazed, but respectful, and can hang with anybody. I imagine these same transplants, perhaps born in time to hit college age in the mid-to-late ‘70’s, when the Bronx was burning and N.Y was getting the finger from the highest offices in the land, coming here to make it then, too.

The longer someone has been here, especially if they came in the early-to-mid 1990’s, the more likely my connection to them. Perhaps unfairly, foreigners, especially immigrant strivers, get my unofficially stamped ghetto pass—if they’re from another country, it’s all good. Many come for economic opportunity, and not because of the high-end, plastic image of New York lusted after by fans of Sex and the City. But perhaps 90 percent of the newcomers I see inspire in me a feeling not unlike someone ramming a rusty shank through the fleshy webbing between my fingers.

Lately, there’s the guarded, evasive answer to a straightforward question, “Where you from?” For awhile, around the early 2000’s, I would hear, “I’m from Brooklyn,” only to clarify upon further interrogation that someone was, in fact, an Ohio native with about 3 years of Brooklyn living under his or her belt.

These days, transplants are more likely to admit their origins from points distant, perhaps due to the backlash to their sometimes flippant responses. But there’s still the ole “Well, my parents lived in New York.” Or they were born in Syracuse, or they came to ballet camp here at age 10. Do some of them sense the growing resentment among the restless natives?

Inevitably, their lexicon is peppered with bits and pieces of convo that NY natives would rarely be caught dead saying: A neighborhood is “up and coming,” “they got a cool scene there,” and “it’s not too shady.” For a masterful skewering of this attitude, check the still-relevant Onion.

The old-school Italians, Russians, Polish, Irish, etc. (ie, ethnic whites) spent years making sure their kids didn’t stray into Bushwick or the Do-or-Die. Such an excursion was considered instant suicide, though you could probably count on one hand the white victims who perished simply from straying onto Marcus Garvey Boulevard, and you’d still have three fingers uncounted. For the old-timers, this river of young transplants—hipsters, yuppies, out-of-staters, carpetbaggers, “yunnies,” or whatever you wish to dub them—seems to be flowing the wrong way. Didn’t they struggle tooth-and-nail to circle the wagons around places like Glendale or Howard Beach, not to mention nearly all of Staten Island?

But the new American immigrants are filling up those apartments in the former badlands that once rented out for a pittance, skyrocketing the rents, paving the way for the alternative bookstore, which is eventually swallowed up by the Pinkberry or Starbucks. Playwright Danny Hoch brilliantly lampooned the lamentations of this intermediate wave of urban “pioneers” in his one-man show on gentrification, “Taking Over.”

Paying tenants are good, the landlords agree, especially ones that don’t complain. Once in a blue, they get that pain-in-the-ass whose parents are lawyers (perhaps native NY’ers themselves), and that hallway light will get fixed a bit quicker. But the new people are seen as docile, ineffectual creatures, mostly. Landlords don’t want those pesky native NY’ers, though—too much hassle, too much accountability. A native NY’er knows a cousin whose wife works in the Department of Buildings; another one’s got a friend who’s connected, the next one’s an iron worker who used to mess up the landlord’s cousin on the regular in junior high. Too much hassle, too many connections, bullshit-tolerators running on empty. From Sunset Park to Long Island City, to the the neighborhood formerly known as the South Bronx, there’s a common refrain: “We want Manhattan people.”

Running into a native New Yorker is like running into a ghost. People of a certain generation who stuck around, throwing their hat in the ring here rather than striking off for the territories, can almost always tell. You might ask about the high school, treading delicately, not raising the defensive hackles, diplomatic. “Oh word, you went to Franny Loo? Or Seward Park? I knew mad kids at Art & Design. Yeah, Mobb Deep, those kids used to hang. Nah, I didn’t go there, but my boy did. Remember when the Brooklyn Tech skinhead and metalhead kids came down and tried to steal hats at Stuy? You know the real story of the kid who started the Decepticons?”

In our extended web of interconnected NY’ers, native and otherwise, you hear a common lexicon, a shared and increasingly obsolete vernacular, soon to be gone like the snows of yesteryear: dope, fresh, aiiight, front, Unique, NASA, CBGB’s, Alcatraz, Save the Robots, Munchie Burger, Bar 81, Tompkins Square Riots, Summer squatters, ABC No Rio, Le Q, TMR, DMS, RFC, The Slimelight, Maskarave, Kim’s Video, Lemon Ice King, L’amour’s the Rock Capital of Brooklyn, Paled’s, the Building, the Batcave, Wetlands, Siberia, and a thousand more.

Since I returned in March 2010, I’ve been on various vagabond sojourns and trips throughout the city. Before landing my corporate gig, I worked part-time as a mover in the summer, hauling furniture downstairs and packing it into the new apartments of the Americans who’ve inundated the new glass boxes springing up in Williamsburg, and refurbished brownstones in Bed-Stuy. I’ve seen lots of New York neighborhoods, many familiar yet alien now. I realized I really can’t feel comfortable in Park Slope. I love iced coffee and Thai food as much as the next guy, but the Slope and its immediate environs, while cozy-comfy, clean and safe, feel so much whiter than the New York I remember. Even the people of color seem white. Helicopter parents, child-worshippers with purebred dogs, clog the sidewalks. I mistrust the way Park Slope, so bland and whitewashed, feels like someone copy-pasted or grafted San Francisco onto a giant chunk of Brooklyn.

The holdouts are still there, mostly older, many of them Latin or other immigrants. Crossing the canal at Union Street, I’ll bypass the unrecognizable strip of Smith, and saunter over to Court Street, still the enclave of cigars, funeral homes, and real bakeries and pizzerias. Cops, firefighters, construction workers, and Mafiosi still keep Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill somewhat real, along with the Puerto Rican from the P.J.’s a little to the east, the unofficial border between the Slope and the setting of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.

That accent I love, in its many incarnations, still rings through the candy shops, even as it mixes with clipped, precise English of Ohioans brunching it up at some new spot. I understand the language of gastropubs, lattes, and artisanal this-and-that, but my ears perk up when I hear someone say “Word up!” or “Yo, I’mma hit tha A-rab.” I realize people like nice things, but everything seems so polished, new, and interior-decorated. That grass-fed bison burger is OK, but what’s up with the $10 markup?

Many of the kids I know from Stuyvesant and other specialized high schools went to good schools. We learned about political correctness and economic imperialism, white flight, and the rest. But our real lessons on race relations—the ones that really stuck—we learned in the staircases and hallways, on the playgrounds, and on Eyewitness news. The bloodcurling tensions of the 80’s and early 90’s still resonate with us, Al Sharpton and his Korean deli boycott, the Crown Heights riots, Tawana Brawley, Howard Beach and Yusuf Hawkins shot down by guido cuzzes in Bensonhurst. One day freshman year, 1989, I was coming home on the L with some nerdy friends from my homeroom, and two older black dudes proceeded to punch us each once in the head before de-training it at the Livonia Avenue stop, shouting over their shoulders, “That’s for all you Bensonhurst motherfuckers.” Yeah, we didn’t do anything; we were nerds then.

No matter how much I’m told a neighborhood is up-and-coming, I’ll still stare wide-eyed at any lily-white graphic designer who tells me (and it could be a year or three from now) that they just “bought in Brownsville,” the homeland of Iron Mike Tyson and Mash Out Posse. I’m still amazed that I come back to NY and everyone, white, black, or other, is holding their $400 iPhone out in plain view, texting up a storm or switching tunes. It’s hard to digest for a kid who took off his headphones off at Morgan Avenue and didn’t put them back on again until he was safely on the bus. Even then, that 15-year-old me would take a good look around for any potential threats. The city never slept, for the villains and creeps.

If you walked down a NY street in the late 80’s, or early 90’s, you would see many different kinds of people. It depended on the street, of course. The insufferable, Armani-clad Wall Streeter, a trophy wife in a mink on his arm, parodied brilliantly by Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, has always been part of our landscape. But he strode the manicured thoroughfares of Park Avenue on the Upper East. The boorish frat boy stumbled along with the granola head-shop devotees on Bleecker street, but there were punks skimming the record shelves at Second Coming or Generation Records, too, along with the foreigners, the mom-and-pops holding on against the tide of cafes catering to the nouveau-riche, Korean proprietors with their sneaker stores and too-bright delis (God bless them, but they’ve always overcharged).

I’m not the first to decry the ultra-commodification of downtown New York. Enough bloggers have focused on the Giuliani and Bloomberg-era switchover from the old New York to the new one in which the rich seem ubiquitous. Among them has been Jeremiah Moss, of the enjoyable yet disheartening blog, Vanishing New York (http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com). He calls the new breed of city resident “Yunnies,” a take on the classic “yuppie,” with a twist: young urban narcissist. The new luxury buildings fill their needs, the explosion of Sex and the City-inspired cupcakeries sate their pallets, and the thousand new wine bars quench their thirst. The dive bars that still dotted the downtown landscape 15 years ago—some of which still hang on by a thread—have been reimagined and replaced.

They’re even making new dives, these ones faux interpretations, a la Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, geared toward carousing fratboys and their mid-20’s incarnations. The crotchety characters of yesteryear, the random freakshow of any East Village bar that captivated the imaginations of millions of at least somewhat original people who flocked to New York between the early 1970’s and late 1990’s, are a dying breed. Beer pong, too many TV’s, and other “safe” elements have crept in. It’s the suburbanization of New York nightlife, just as the big chains long ago suburbanized New York businesses. When does New York simply become a manufactured memory of itself?

Fratboys and professionals in their 20’s and 30’s who wear pink, button-down shirts? Whatever, these are easy targets. Seeing them through the native New Yorker lens, I can hardly believe they don’t realize the cliché they are living. Someone cloned the smug high-school villains from an ‘80’s movie and set them loose with a taste for mojitos.

Even much of the new wave of so-called artists and creative people are as suburbanizing an influence on the city as the “douchebags” they supposedly abhor. The douchebags are merely their athletic older brothers who they’d never measure up to, Dad’s favorite who went into corporate finance while little Herman went all wussy with his Women’s studies or English degree (full disclosure: I am an only child with a B.A. in English).

They might fancy themselves the high school misfit who never fit it in, but I imagine them more as the bland middle-class of suburban high school life. Yes, perhaps many were freaks, burnouts, etc. But that umbrella of subcultures, the outcrowd, has been the mainstream since the mid-to-late 1990’s. Alternative is the new normal, and the North American Hipster is simply another member of the moneyed classes, albeit in a different uniform. He is the consumer who keeps on giving. To their credit, many young people one might lump in with hipsters do espouse positive lifestyles—Do it Yourself (DIY), sustainability, local agriculture, bike culture, and activism. Many are volunteers, or are aiming for careers and work that they feel promote social justice and equality.

But this is hardly an academic treatise on the changing demographics of New York. I barely have time to figure out where I fit in here anymore, much less analyze every last newcomer to see if they get my admittedly NY-chauvinistic FDA rating. Who am I to arbitrate what is real, legitimate, authentic, or simply “New York?” I’ve been proven wrong many times recently, and I pray that their part of the mosaic makes us all richer somehow.

I can only tell you, reader, how I feel. It’s a feeling of anger and sadness, tinged with some guarded optimism. The hole in our hearts from nine years ago, the creeping sensation that the city we love has been unmoored from its very soul, the ever-accelerating whitewash of all that was real and true about NY—maybe these are things we’ll just have to live with. I know my kids will have to spend some time here, to know what it means, even if the only way is to just tell them about how it was. Because how it was…I won’t lie: it was rough. But, man, it was magic.
* Props to Sonic Youth, Jeremiah Moss, and Nasir Jones, for the paraphrases of their work.

case2

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Guest starring Dezzy Dez.

guide

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010


King of the C’s, well … it was the Double A’s really.

the outskirts

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

st. mark’s 1983

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

life in new york, then and now

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

By John Podhoretz
May 2010

I live in a small city in the midst of a great city. It is the same one in which I grew up four decades ago, and its buildings and landmarks and topography are almost entirely unchanged. Usually the small cities in America that never change are the ones whose best days came half a century or more ago and are now literally rotting away before your eyes, their once-handsome houses mottling, their fences akimbo, their storefronts boarded, their grass untended, their gas stations abandoned on windblown corners. My small city could have been one of those static, increasingly impoverished, blighted places. Indeed, everything suggested it would be.

Nostalgia can be a treacherous mistress, because she glamorizes the past and downgrades the present in a way that threatens to make them both intolerable. Since I live only a mile from where I was born and raised, with only slight changes to the visual landscape, I find myself constantly under nostalgia’s threat. An indifferent French restaurant occupies the space that once housed the record store where I bought my first 45 rpm disc of the Cowsills singing the title song from Hair, and standing in front of it I split into two, the 49-year-old in the present and the seven-year-old in the past crossing its portal with a little brown paper bag in hand, excited beyond measure to get its contents home to place the needle on the 45’s ridge and watch it slide into the first groove, the sound of the scratches giving way to the opening blast of the Cowsills’ five-part harmony. In the same way, standing on a Thursday evening in front of the building in which I was born and raised, I am suddenly in the hazy light of an early Sunday morning at the age of six and managing for the first time to right the bicycle from which the training wheels had lately been removed and then wobbling my way down the block and around the corner and around the second corner and then around the third—and slamming the bike into a toddler who was wobbling his way forward in front of his building.

That memory is itself almost certainly a conflation of two moments that occurred months apart, but in retrospect, they blend high exhilaration and low shame, an almost perfect distillation of the bipolarity of childhood feeling. That is the ambiguous power of nostalgia, as the jagged recollection of hitting a tiny child with a bicycle still has the power to catch like a rusted nail four decades later and open a fresh wound.

Living in the precincts of one’s own past means that its fears and terrors are immediately accessible as well. And in this case, I don’t mean the universal fears—a closed closet door, a dark hallway, a school bully—but rather the very specific fears that came with growing up in my small city in the midst of the big city at a very specific moment. On the spot across the street from a friend’s building, I freeze with the sensation of having, right there, been jumped nearly 40 years earlier by four kids as I got off the city bus from school. They took my empty wallet and the little folder containing the invaluable pass that afforded me free access that month to that bus line. I was mugged four times before I was 14. I think this was the second time.

So my small city is the same and yet it is not the same, because it is today, in almost every way, better. Usually, when we talk about the differences in American life between past and present, there is a moment in which we feel compelled to denounce today’s pathologies in comparison with the moral certainties of older times. But on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my small city, social pathologies began to run rampant half a century ago, long before they broke into the wider culture. And every effort to cure them through large-scale government action only made matters worse, in one of the most potent demonstrations of the law of unintended consequences.
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The Upper West Side of my youth was in no way a fabled or especially notable area. In 1983, a sociologist named Richard Shafer told the New York Times, “The West Side is a neighborhood that always seems to embarrass the fashionable.” Its most attractive streets were and are no match architecturally or decoratively for the boulevards of the East Side, Fifth and Park Avenues. Aside from the Museum of Natural History overlooking Central Park and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial overlooking Riverside Park, the area lacks notable monuments. These days, double-decker tourist buses travel the streets of the Upper West Side, and I can’t imagine what narration the guides offer besides pointing out various spots at which the various incarnations of the Law and Order television series have been filmed on location. Would it be meaningful to a visitor in 2010 to know that Isaac Bashevis Singer lived in the Belnord on 86th and Broadway; that Singer’s brother Israel Joshua set the final section of his magnificent novel of German Jewry, The Family Carnovsky, at 94th and West End; that the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff spent his final years at 84th and West End? Doubtful.

Conservatives sometimes invoke the Upper West Side in their lists of petri-dish-like leftist enclaves along with Cambridge and Berkeley, but despite its homogeneous radicalism, it didn’t then and doesn’t now offer much in the way of interesting, unexpected, or comical ideological excess. Even 50 years ago, its leftism was a lived-in leftism, a legacy leftism, dull and humorless and orthodox, inherited from parents and grandparents and already growing threadbare around the elbows like an old tweed jacket whose patches were themselves worn out from use.

It might have been the most integrated area in the United States. According to a 1966 study, out of 150,000 residents, 105,000 were white (of whom 40,000 were Jews); 26,000 came from Spanish-speaking homes; and 18,000 were black. “Only in Honolulu,” wrote the journalist Joseph P. Lyford, “is there a greater confusion of blood, ancestry, language, and culture in as small a space.” But though there were racial and ethnic tensions aplenty, and these would grow exponentially as the years passed, the division in the neighborhood was primarily one of class—a division between the middle class and the lower class. (There weren’t many rich people on the Upper West Side then, a situation much altered today.) And within those classes there was division as well. The middle class was split between the professionals of the New York intelligentsia—media and intellectuals and academics and psychoanalysts—and more down-to-earth educated folk, public school teachers and union officials and social workers. Meanwhile, the working poor found themselves menaced and increasingly overwhelmed by the burgeoning welfare underclass.

Indeed, the diseases afflicting the underclass surfaced on the Upper West Side perhaps earlier than anywhere else, leading to large-scale social experimentation of a sort that would not be practiced today. An article on the front page of the New York Times on July 6, 1961, reported: “Street fighting involving 400 Puerto Ricans and Negroes broke out in a West Side trouble block.” Two women began arguing “over a man,” and a brawl erupted. A pair of cops who had been permanently assigned to the block because of previous incidents fired eight shots into the air in an effort to still the melee but were “engulfed by the crowd.”

The Times described it as “a block of decaying tenements packed with poor Puerto Rican and Negro families and the gathering place of drunks, narcotics addicts and sexual perverts.” It soon became known as the “worst block in the city.” Mayor Robert Wagner announced a “shock attack,” an “all-out war on the forces of crime, slum blight and poverty” on the West Side. Police flooded the area. The block in question was 84th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. The very idea that it might once have been considered the city’s worst is very nearly science-fictional today, as it bustles with high-end baby strollers pushed by parents hurrying to homey restaurants on Amsterdam or Columbus or making their way to Central Park.

But in 1961, 84th Street was a nightmare, and something had to be done. So a volleyball net was erected. An asphalt crew came to repave. Social workers divided the block into “three play sectors,” with adults playing volleyball, teenagers playing inside at a youth center, and “younger children the east end.” Six months later, the Times declared that the problem had been managed: “‘Worst’ Is Over on West 84th Street.” The solution was depopulation and destruction: “The Department of Real Estate reported that 709 families had moved or been relocated from buildings due to give way for new schools.” Only then it was called slum clearance and urban renewal.

Over the course of the next four years, 20 houses on the block would be demolished and replaced with a high school named for Louis Brandeis and a relocated elementary school. Of the 35 brownstones that lined the block, only seven remain today. While any such demolition of livable housing stock would be greeted with cries of horror today from poverty advocates and landmarking experts, the policy was strongly advocated by neighborhood clergy, who had high hopes that the struggling poor could make a better life in public housing. And so commenced the razing of scores of buildings, beginning in February 1963. As Lyford wrote in 1966, “a twenty-block site of a multimillion-dollar urban renewal program laying between Eighty-seventh and Ninety-seventh streets and bounded by Central Park on the west and Amsterdam Avenue on the East” was the fulcrum of this massive slum-clearance plan, involving the loss of 6,344 households.

It went badly. The destruction and construction took years, leaving behind rubble that became at-hand weaponry for kids and gangsters and boarded-up tenements that became crime sites and drug dens. Eventually the projects were built, but by this point the displaced residents of West 84th and others like them had been moved like chess pieces around the New York City board to other neighborhoods, worsening them. And the new projects that rose up on the Upper West Side became breeding grounds of concentrated disorder, causing thousands of disintegrating and disintegrated families to fall under the sway of an even more destructive lawlessness easier to ignore, perhaps, precisely because it was so concentrated and because so much of what was awful went on indoors.

The “broken windows” theory propounded by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1983 has entered into the realm of cliché—the idea that if you don’t replace a broken window on an abandoned building, more of the windows will be broken and the area around them will decay as well. They might have called it the “airmail” theory. In Lyford’s celebrated 1966 account of the Upper West Side’s decline, The Airtight Cage, he writes of the “airmail” that landed in the backyard of his brownstone on 92nd between Columbus and Central Park West from the windows of the row of tenements on 93rd street:

My first introduction to airmail was a bag of rotten food that landed in my back yard a week after I bought the house. … I could not get the police or the sanitation department to stop the airmail so I collected it. Twice a week I would go out back (after a few beer bottles whizzed past my head I wore my tin hat from World War II) and shovel up three or four days’ accumulation of chicken bones, pieces of rancid fowl, chop bones, half-empty cans of beans and other vegetables, eggshells, bags full of fat, condoms, and bloody bandages, which I at first mistakenly thought were battle dressings for the victims of fights I had been hearing. I finally made the right connection when I discovered several glass ampules and hypodermic needles.

Lyford then dumped the refuse over his fence onto the concrete apron outside the offending tenements so that their superintendent could collect it, bag it, and leave it for the garbage men. A neighborhood in which people think nothing of tossing their garbage out the window is a neighborhood both literally and spiritually diseased.

A little more than a decade later, my sisters shared an apartment in a midrise next door to what had been Lyford’s brownstone. They were mugged in the lobby one night after taking a taxi home from our apartment 15 blocks away. At the time, I was going to high school a block away and walked every morning past the tenements from which the airmail had been dropped on Lyford’s yard.

That mugging was nothing unusual. Everybody got mugged. Once, after I was punched, my wallet stolen, my glasses (!) pulled from my face, and my sneakers removed outside the side exit to the Olympia movie theater on 107th between Broadway and Amsterdam, my parents called the police and two mammoth cops showed up and drove me around the neighborhood looking for my two assailants by checking out sneakers. But I had to wear my old prescriptions and couldn’t see very well.

On that very block in 1972 (probably two years before my mugging), a 10-year-old boy named Jimmy Wallace was found in the hallway of his apartment house with stab wounds in his back and neck. Jimmy’s penis had been cut off. Left for dead, he lived, the only surviving victim of a serial killer who prowled the neighborhood for a year. He murdered and castrated four boys. We neighborhood kids came to call him, with the horrible bluntness of adolescent boys, Charlie Chop-off. He struck on 106th between Broadway and Amsterdam, a block from my building. He struck on 104th and 103rd.

Imagine such a thing today. It would dominate news coverage in the country for weeks, if not months. We would remember it now as we remember the Son of Sam, and the Washington snipers, and the Hillside Strangler. But in 1972 and 1973, Charlie Chop-off had so little resonance beyond the blocks near me that when I made mention of it in a short story I read to my eighth-grade class—in a school on the Upper West Side—my classmates hadn’t heard of it. In part that was because the then-senescent New York Post hadn’t brought new life to tabloid journalism and forced the fat and happy and rich New York Daily News to follow it, which is what happened in the summer of 1977, when the Son of Sam went on his rampage. And in part it was due to the difficulty the media had, even in the wake of the 1960s, reporting on the details of the crime (the New York Times, in every one of the five—only five!—articles it published on the case, referred vaguely to “sexual mutilation”). Others would doubtless claim that because the victims were black and Hispanic, there was less interest than there would have been had the victims been white; more likely, there was newsroom concern about stigmatizing these beaten-down poverty–stricken populations.

And there was also the simple fact that the small city and the larger city had both grown pessimistic about the ability of authorities to do much of anything to prevent these horrors, so it seemed almost churlish to report on them. A fine and forgotten 1975 book by Barbara Gelb called On the Track of Murder—it reads like a nonfiction version of Ed McBain’s glorious 49-year series of police procedurals about the 87thPrecinct, a lightly disguised version of the real-life 24th Precinct on the Upper West Side—tells the story of the homicide squad formed to catch Charlie Chop-off. In a striking sentence reflective of the fatalistic attitude of the time, she writes, “Crime prevention was, of course, the Police Department’s first priority, as preventive medicine was the primary concern of health administrators. But murder, like cancer, was rarely preventable.” Charlie Chop-off was never caught.
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The reclamation of New York City from the forces of criminal chaos and social decay is a familiar tale by now. The statistics for the 24th Precinct offer the most dramatic portrait of the vertiginous rise of crime and its exhilarating plunge. In 1964, the year the national crime spiral began, 3,228 felonies were committed. By 1990, there were 5,641 felonies. In 1998, that number had dropped to 2,000; last year, in 2009, only 987 felonies were committed there.

The area continues to be among the nation’s most integrated. The 24th Precinct has about the same racial and ethnic makeup it did when Lyford published his book in 1966. (The 20th, in which West 84th Street sits, has become somewhat more, as they say in the census, Caucasian.) The great surprise, perhaps, is that while it is no longer the home of the Jewish intelligentsia—in part because the Jewish intelligentsia doesn’t exist as it once did—it is, if anything, even more distinctively and vibrantly Jewish. For the reclamation of the neighborhood proved to have a spiritual component as well.

The 40,000 Jews who lived there in 1960 were primarily secular and in flight from their faith. Three conservative synagogues in a 15-block radius from 100th Street to 86th Street had fallen into decrepitude and near-dormancy. The neighborhood’s smattering of Orthodox residents did little to manifest their observance publicly. But over the past 20 years in particular, the Upper West Side has turned into the most affluent shtetl the world has ever seen. One doesn’t walk a block without seeing a yarmulke; the three conservative synagogues are alive and buzzing with congregants; the neighborhood’s gans, day schools, and yeshivas are educating some 4,000 children; a dozen kosher restaurants and two kosher supermarkets profitably serve an increasingly observant community. This is genuine urban renewal, which rose from once-rank soil after the soil was, finally, properly tended and tilled and brought once again to life.

It is an expensive place to live, but then it always was. My children, who are very young, will know, as my sisters and I did, the oddity of being both entirely privileged and yet significantly poorer than most of their classmates and friends. What they will not have to learn, as my sisters and I and our wealthier friends did, is how to accommodate and make normal an ever-present sense of everyday menace. The city’s population shrank by nearly a million people between 1960 and 1980, with 300,000 gone from Manhattan over the course of those 20 years. Some of that was due to the destruction of housing not only by the city’s own slum-clearance policies but also by the ravages of rent controls that led to the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of apartments. But it was also due to middle-class flight, to people who chose to live free of the menace.

“We were giving up so much of our city,” Myron Magnet has written in a beautiful essay on Saul Bellow’s great 1970 novel of Upper West Side (and Western civilizational) decline, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and how it spoke to his experience as a neighborhood resident. “We came to wonder if New York was a place that stunted human possibility instead of expanding it.”

It did. It no longer does. To hell with nostalgia.