I’m done with New York.
I’m leaving before the gentrification that’s eaten this city’s soul devours my own eternal spark like a miniature cupcake. My soul isn’t a miniature cupcake yet. It’s still a gritty old steak from Tad’s, like the city’s soul used to be. But, sooner or later, gentrification turns your soul into a miniature cupcake. Then it eats it, because it doesn’t matter how big a meal gentrification just had, it’s never too full for miniature cupcakes, especially if they’re the peanut butter and jelly ones.
I won’t become just another fashionable nibble for the yuppifying leviathan to pop into its insatiable maw. I’m gone.
I moved to the East Village in 2003. Grime Time. You had to be gritty to survive that much grime. I lived on 2nd Ave and 9th. One of the most recently dangerous corners in town. How recently? I remember telling a bartender where my apartment was, and he told me that in 1992 he’d been afraid to buy heroin on that corner because this one crazy-eyed junky really freaked him out. Back then, a mere 11 years was all that separated me from some schizo Tompkins Square survivor plunging a dirty needle into my innocent Texas heart. I didn’t care. I hadn’t moved to Kansas, I’d moved to New York God Damn City.
Yeah, I should have been scared. I mean, at that time there were only four bank branches within a two block radius of my front door, as opposed to, what, the eight there are now? Imagine the comfort and security of always having eight extremely convenient, well-lit bank branches just a few steps away. Now divide that number in half. Not so comfortable, is it?
Heightening the feeling that I was living in a DMZ was the Burritoville on my corner, which had way worse service than all the other Burritoville locations. You had to wait forever, and usually they screwed up your order on purpose, as if a “Mystical Frisco” burrito could possibly be confused for a “Lost in Austin” burrito. But that was Downtown. It was tactless. Lawless. Remorseless.
Emphasis on “was.” That Burritoville’s long gone now, replaced by a procession of novelty eateries that, combined, lacked even one ounce of that particular Burritoville location’s punk rock authenticity. Even more depressing, it’s now been 12 years since buying heroin in the East Village was potentially fatal a mere 11 years ago. Hit up any frat boy stumbling out of the 13th Step and he’ll have no idea that -- just a little over a decade ago -- he would have been walking with his head on a swivel knowing that, had he ventured onto this block just a little over a decade before that, he’d have been dead meat.
But 2003 wasn’t just about the somewhat recent violence; nor was it just about the nihilistic food jockeys who continued to not give a crap if you ordered the Holy Mole burrito and not the picadillo beef burrito. It was about the artistic scene that all that recent violence and ongoing lack of concern for customer satisfaction had until recently produced. When I arrived here, wet behind the ears, eager to lose myself in a maelstrom of sex and decibels and psychologically-but-not-physically addictive drugs, it had been a scant 29 years since the Ramones first yelled “1-2-3-4!” at CBGB, and only 21 years since Bad Brains’ demanded allegiance to hardcore during their legendary three-night set. Walking the Bowery while Limewire downloads of those bands’ relentless compositions assaulted me from my rudimentary 2nd-generation iPod, it felt like I’d unpacked my bags right in the almost-middle of a revolution.
These gentrifiers, they don’t know how alive missing out on that scene by only a few short decades made you feel. All they know is that they narrowly missed out on some Back Fence cover band that played songs by both the Dave Matthews and Zac Brown bands. I pity your ignorance, bros.
These gentrifiers, they don’t know how alive missing out on that scene by only a few short decades made you feel.
I am just kidding. I actually don't harbor any sympathy whatsoever for all these daddy-bankrolled bankers sauntering towards endless iterations of expensive and inventive brunches. You would have never seen this kind of frivolous foodie fetishism in the ugly Early Aughts. If you wanted an East Village brunch in the dystopian wasteland that was 2003, you had maybe 14, 15 choices tops. If you wanted “inventive”, your best bet was getting eggs Norwegian instead of eggs Benedict. Maybe eggs Florentine if you were lucky and the wait at Simone Martini Bar & Cafe wasn’t too long. I’m not complaining. That kind of privation sparked the ferocious creativity that made this neighborhood what it is.
Was. Again, was.
Look, I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I fought gentrification as long as I could. Instead of frequenting some new-style “Downtown restaurant” like Allen & Delancey and eating dramatically overpriced Washugyu beef crudo with charred onion puree and Meyer lemon, I frequented Veselka and ate a plate of three pierogies that only cost me $8.50. Sometimes I would also get the Panino della Nonna at Cafe Centosette (RIP, you fought the good fight). I stayed away from cocktail “speakeasies” with their undrinkable $14 “creations”, biding my time instead in one of my neighborhood’s few remaining dives, blocking out fatalistic thoughts while I sucked down $9 vodka tonics -- a more reasonable price, from a more reasonable era.
Eventually I even tried moving to Alphabet City. I still remember the first time I caught wind of the place, in 2004, sitting at the counter of an old-school (it opened in 2003) coffee shop located kitty-corner from my $1,400-a-month craphole (it’s almost surreal how cheap rent was back then). “Adventurous, Brave, Crazy, Dead” is what the barista -- who grew up in the Bronx -- told me his friends had called Avenues A, B, C and D, all the way up until the middle part of the second half of the ‘90s, when they’d stopped referring to them that way in the present tense and only used the reverse-acronym to describe how fraught with peril the area had been back when they’d been several years younger.
But what in 2004 had very recently been a battle zone, was by 2013 not quite recently enough a battle zone. I started to complain about the appalling safety of my erstwhile dicy surroundings, but as someone who had moved into the neighborhood several years after the days when it had been a waking nightmare only five years previously, was it my place to complain? I started to to feel like one of those impostors who’d moved into the East Village in 2010 -- spoiled brats who’d had the temerity to complain to me, a veteran of that hardscrabble neighborhood since 2003, about how white everything was getting. “You are white!” I’d raged then. But after the move, I couldn’t stifle the creeping fear that I’d become white too. Spiritually and not just ethnically. A miniature cupcake, devoid of grit, ready to be popped.
Well, I’m not going to let that happen. I’ve still got some fight left. I just need to get someplace hard enough to beat the softness out of me. I’ve heard that as recently as 2009 it was pretty easy to get murdered in virtually any neighborhood in Detroit. Motor City, here I come.
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