Monday, October 29, 2007

A Bad Case of "The City," Part III

My first visit to the City sans father came when I was in fifth grade. My class visited most of the major sites, including the RCA building, Rockefeller Center, the World Trade Center, and the Statue of Liberty. We wandered through Chinatown and Little Italy, and ate at open-air vendors. Looking back, I realize that my only real danger came from our lodgings: my school was run by Opus Dei, an ultraconservative Catholic group, and we stayed in a seminary. Not to brag, but I must have seemed like major eye candy for some of the young priests-in-waiting.

I remember being nervous on the trip. After all, this was THE CITY, the home of sleaze and slime, death and danger, my father's bete noir. However, I quickly got into the swing of things, and found myself wishing that I'd just brought a little more money so I could pick up some of those cool Black Cat, Cherry Bomb, and M-80 firecrackers that they were selling in Chinatown. This, of course, was before you needed a pyrotechnics license or a South Carolina address to buy Class C fireworks, and those little Black Cats were strong enough to blast a hole in a tin can.

As our teachers shepherded us from place to place, distracting us from the advertisements in Times Square, I told myself that this area must be safe, and that my father was worried about some other place in New York. On the other hand, his face went white when I got home and told him about walking around Rockefeller Center after dark.

In college, I started taking my own trips to New York. On every visit, I would stake out a few new places to explore. I found myself wandering through Greenwich Village, Astoria, Long Island City, Union Square, Coney Island, and various other exotic places. The summer before last, shortly before the wife and I decided to move, I actually visited Central Park and was surprised to discover that there wasn't a mugger hiding behind every tree. In fact, I didn't see any muggers at all, which left me a little disappointed.

I still was apprehensive about the Bronx. This, after all, was the heart of New York's urban decay, forever immortalized in The Howling and Fort Apache, the Bronx. This was the home of urban prairies, scenes of burned-out buildings, crack addicts, and vacant lots. America's Dresden. Civic despair writ large.

As time went on, however, it became increasingly clear that the wife and I were going to end up living in the most famously blighted borough. The other options were either the hinterlands of Queens, an unfriendly street in Bedford-Stuyvescent, or a roach motel in Bushwick. The place in Queens was a brutally long commute, Bed-Stuy was sketchy, and the landlord in Bushwick took one look at my wife and kid and decreed that the place wasn't for us. Upon visiting the apartment, my wife immediately agreed that, barring the acquisition of a nasty drug addiction, we probably wouldn't be interested in living in the building.

In our research, we discovered that crime has massively dropped in the Bronx, and that many areas have a lower crime rate than comparable neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. Upon visiting Fordham Road, my wife pronounced it livable, and even beautiful in places. I was still worried, particularly given my friend Rich's dire statements regarding the area. He had lived in our neighborhood years ago, and told me about the attitude that I would have to adopt if I wanted to make it out alive. He promised that he would come up and make his presence known for us, if need be, and would sort out any messes that I got myself in.

Needless to say, this was less than reassuring. Coming from Southwest Virginia, I felt like I was entering the belly of the beast, and Rich's offers of assistance only made me realize how ill-equipped I was for life in the Bronx. Rich is a former thug who later became a chef, and the stories he's told me of life in New York would make my hair curl, if I had any. Even now, Rich sneers at gentrification, wistfully remembering the days before New York became a private refuge for "whitebreads," when "it was for everyone." This is the point at which he and I usually differ. He points out that the City is now largely oriented toward those with lots of money, to the exclusion of everyone else. I, on the other hand, point out that it used to be oriented toward those with criminal intent, to the exclusion of anyone else. I guess it comes down to politics: Rich favors a sort of Darwinian meritocracy, in which the survival of the fittest is played out on a daily basis. I, on the other hand, favor the rule of law.

At any rate, I found the North Bronx to be a vibrant, lively place. This is not to say that it's safe--I still feel a little nervous walking around after dark, and there are streets where I have to put on a blank face and keep my hands in my pockets. I've had to practice looking mean and threatening, and I make a conscious effort to walk between my wife and the street. The death of my Mustang and the occasional arrests in my neighborhood remind me that this are is not exactly "nice," and the burned out houses and vacant lots down the block bear witness to the fact that the blight of the eighties touched my street.

That having been said, I still like living here.

I like the high-volume domino games. I don't even mind when I fall asleep to the sounds of tiles clacking and male voices yelling "YESSSS! IN YOUR FACE!";

I like the salsa music that pours out of the local laundromat, where the Puerto Rican and Dominican ladies sometimes dance (if I don't make them too self-conscious);

I like the Dominican food in the corner bodega, which is like Picadillo and stew and something else that I've never had before;

I like the Dominican faces that are a beautiful mix of black and white and native american, and remind me that Indians are repopulating the East Coast.

I enjoy the kids in the neighborhood, most of whom go to Parochial schools and clearly are not happy about the ties and jumpers that they have to wear.

I enjoy the young ladies, who wear jeans that are so tight that they don't have to take them off when they visit the gynecologist.

I even enjoy the young men, who are trying so hard to be threatening, but are usually just shy and awkward.

Most of all, I like watching this every day, seeing how it changes, and how it changes me.

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  • It sounds like you've gotten over your dads indoctrination into the City well enough.

    I think your block sounds compelling in a "life in your face" kind of way.

    My block is not compelling, and there is no good salsa music to be heard, unless I seek it out. But thats a date night.

    Glad you are settling in. It sounds nice.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 29, 2007 at 11:17 PM  

  • Growing up in a place where there is a mix of people, George is bound to feel comfortable wherever she goes because she will understand at the cellular level that people are only superficially different.

    You paint an exciting picture of urban life in The City, for when one is from New York, there is only one.

    I lived in the Village twice and walked all over the city, from Harlem to Little Italy and Chinatown. There is a vitality that doesn't exist to the same degree in other places, although I know that's a cliche.

    And I remember cherry bombs, although I was not allowed to handle them, and by the time I lived near South Carolina, I no longer cared.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At October 30, 2007 at 12:57 AM  

  • Did you stay in just a seminary or at the opus dei headcorters. I understand that it cost millions to build and must have taken a big chunk out of the collection plate.
    thanks for coming by my blog!

    By Blogger Nosjunkie, At October 30, 2007 at 5:39 AM  

  • You're acclimating!!! Have fun doing it!

    By Blogger Odat, At October 30, 2007 at 8:48 AM  

  • First...lucky you having taken field trips to NYC!! I think the most we got was a visit to the local museum!! Moving sounds like a great place to be-I can't help but think everyone should get a taste of that!!

    By Blogger Claudia, At October 30, 2007 at 9:01 AM  

  • There's something wonderfully liberating about living in great cities. When I moved to London as a hopelessly naive seventeen year old, I had no idea that I was living in the roughest part of the city and like you, I came to love it for its diversity.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At October 30, 2007 at 11:53 AM  

  • Reflecting Pool-
    My last block offered a fairly limited selection of fireworks, firearms, and the occasional rendition of "Proud to Be an American." I think I like this one a little more.

    I have to admit that cherry bombs still hold a little magic for me. Regarding the rest, I'm glad that George is learning to appreciate so much. A difficult thing is determining where to draw the line in her exposure to the world.

    They hadn't built the headquarters when I visited, so we stayed at a seminary in New Jersey. Regarding the current headquarters, I think that Opus Dei, like the Scientologists, deliberately recruits big spenders.

    BTW--I was happy to visit, and I will be back. And thank you for stopping by!

    Baby steps!

    It's good and bad, but I couldn't imagine going back. And, by the bye, if you want to stop by, let me know!

    Oddly enough, my first real urban living experience was also in London. I agree with you that there's something about unraveling the mystery surrounding "the bad part of town."

    By Blogger Crankster, At October 30, 2007 at 2:15 PM  

  • Welcome home.

    By Blogger The CEO, At November 2, 2007 at 12:58 AM  

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