May 5, 2005

East Village Exodus

This is a good piece in today's NY Times about the push that makes the East Village into an unhappy never neverland that I just don't want to be a part of (as mentioned here).

May 1, 2005
New York Times
Generation Ex

WHEN I moved here, drug dealers still worked First Avenue. Let's not get carried away; they were just selling dime bags of pot. Nonetheless, they were doing something illicit. And downstairs from my apartment, the only refrigerated drink at the "health food store" was a lone bottle of Snapple. Then one sunny afternoon, the owner was shot and killed right on my stoop.

This was in the days right after the city had mysteriously dispensed with all the homeless people who used to live in Tompkins Square Park, but before they sent an armored vehicle to help clear out the squats on 13th Street.

The neighborhood wasn't all anarchists and drug dealers. There were also lots of regular folk. Families. Fat people. The old lady with the dapper boyfriend. Ugly folk. Artists. Ukrainians. Latinos.

Now they are almost all gone. And it is time for me to leave too. I'm the final sweep in the cleanup of the neighborhood. After living in the East Village for more than a decade, I have gone the way of bathtubs in the kitchens. It's not a forced eviction, as it has been for others who came before me. I've simply been written out of the script. I'm just too old.

The first signs of what was to come started showing up about eight years ago, when I found myself in Los Angeles for work. We took a tour of the Fox lot, and there it was: my street. Or close enough. A little salmon-colored building, just like my own, with graffiti on the door. The frame of a bike locked to a spindly traffic sign on the corner. They even had the garbage.

Back home, practically every other day, a refreshment truck for a production company sat parked near my corner, there for the filming of an episode of "Law & Order," or maybe "Sex and the City." Or one of an endless stream of movies. Sometimes there was singing and dancing. Occasionally Chloë Sevigny showed up. Eventually, a new crew of fresh-faced beauties started to appear. I didn't know who they were, and I stopped paying attention. I did notice, however, that it had become hard for me to tell who was in the movie, and who was, in fact, my neighbor. Everyone walking down Second Street had begun to look like an ingénue.

These were inklings into a future I could feel bearing down. But still, I was proud to be part of the scene. I loved the new restaurants, and the growing throngs of young people who flooded the streets when the sun went down. I preferred the boutiques to the bodegas they had replaced. I would have been insanely hypocritical to complain about the changes. After all, I like a new sake bar, or five.

It's just that the 20-somethings who tirelessly return to those bars every night of the week seem to have taken over. A friend put it this way: She hated seeing versions of herself 10 years younger, walking down the same streets she had walked down 10 years before. It is strange, she added, when everyone on the street seems to be a younger, hipper version of yourself. Especially when you are barely in your mid-30's.

I'm not sure exactly what happened. Maybe everyone over the age of 25 suddenly moved away, or was locked up, or died. Whether it's art imitating life or vice versa, I don't know, but in any event, a new crop of really young people has replaced the old. Even on those rare days when the cameras are not rolling, living in the East Village feels like living on an MTV set.

I think I feel about the newcomers the way the crazy 98-year-old lady upstairs felt about me. She and her equally crazy 80-year-old daughter lived on the top floor of my fifth-floor walkup. I saw them every time I left my apartment because they were always walking up or down the stairs. "Who are you?" the 98-year-old used to yell at me. Her daughter used to chime in: "What are you doing here?"

BOTH are long gone, replaced by four Armani-clad 23-year-olds who bound up the stairs to their fabulously renovated "loft-like floor-through duplex," as the real estate brokers put it. Where did such apartments come from? Who are these people who live in them? What do they do in those cafes all day? How come no one ever seems to go to work?

Once I am gone, my apartment will be gutted. They'll tear out the tin ceiling. They'll get rid of the antique glass doors. It will be the end of that curious interior window. They'll replace the beautiful, ancient floors. The place will probably look nicer. Those lablike stainless steel kitchens will look great against the exposed brick walls.

It's O.K. I never had any intention of staying this long. It was just that, once here, I could never think of any place I'd rather live, not just in the city, but in the whole world. I will miss the old neighborhood. To leave earlier would have been like listening to classical music during the jazz age. I don't regret a moment of it.

On a recent morning as I headed to work, it was business as usual. A refreshment truck was parked on the corner near my building. A fake homeless person slept under a pile of cardboard boxes. A fake street salesman pretended to sell me a book. A fake mother walking her fake son to school. I even saw what appeared to be the same fake subway stop that I had seen once on a studio lot in Los Angeles. A fake transvestite danced her way down 10th Street while a beautiful young man serenaded her. The pair, both of whom looked as if they were in their teens, headed toward me, music blaring.

"What are you guys shooting?" I asked.

" 'Rent'," a snarky young production assistant barked back. "Can you cross to the other side of the street, please?"

I knew the drill, of course. Obediently, I crossed the street, out of the frame. When I got to Avenue B, I was, as usual, the only person who was actually going to work. "Are the buses running?" I asked another production assistant. "Intermittently," he replied.

Finally a bus made its way through the cameras and the crowd. Aboard were real people of all ages. I took my seat among them as the bus slowly snaked its way out of the neighborhood.

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