What a tangled wwweb we weave...

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

There Goes the Neighborhood

There are these enclaves in New York. Area where time has stopped. Whereas real estate developers have taken over the obvious parts of Manhattan (Upper West Side, all of central Midtown, Chelsea), and begun building in the trendy areas (Lower East Side, Alphabet City), there are some neighborhoods that still have an old world charm, like the Upper East Side and Hell's Kitchen. More specifically, Hell's Pantry. Oh fuck it, this neighborhood is Hell's Armpit and it looks and smells like it. I'm not talking about the tree lined streets running between 8th and 10th Avenues from 43rd right up to Colubus Circle. I'm talking about the part of New York City that can only be described as gray, even on sunny days. From Penn Station to Port Authority from 9th to 11th Avenues, you are faced with three story buildings, some absolutely crumbling, bodegas, and tons of dive bars, where you can start drinking at 7am and be pissed in under eight dollars (believe me, i know). This is not a desireable part of the city. Part of it is called the Garment District, and though it may conjure up images of super models prancing around with their Chloe bags, trying on Jimmy Choos, the neighborhood was actually given that name because of the many textile manufacturing warehouses in the area. For Jimmy Choos and celebrities you're better off heading to the Meatpacking District, a neighborhood that just a few years ago was unsafe after nightfall and now boasts the title of the richest neighborhood in the world.

I work behind Port Authority, on a block with an outrach center, a small pizza place, an International Grocery, and the Sea Breeze fish market. At every hour of the day, the street stinks of fish and there are homeless people parading up and down the block. Not dejected homeless people, begging for money, but energetic and aggressive homeless people who shout, curse, tell loud jokes, and completely block the sidewalk. This all takes place under a Port Authority overpass which leaves the entire block in shadows most of the days. Pedestrians take one look at the people and trash on this dark dank block, they sniff the acrid scent of very fishy fish and they quickly cross the street. Not many wander into my little coffee shop. Which is a shame, because it's gorgeous and run by the Cupcake Cafe, one of the best bakeries in the city.

The Cupcake Cafe has been on 9th and 39th for the last fifteen years. When this neighborhood was still seriously threatening, when the hookers and crackheads still wandered down here from Times Square (not the Times Square we know) to shoot junk and give head in doorways, Mike and Ann, my bosses moved their tiny business in and struggled to find the residents and business people in this area and turn them into customers. Fifteen years later, Cupcake Cafe flourishes, with a satellite coffee shop across the street (where I sit now) and a large location in the shopping mall that is 18th Street. Wedged on a block between Bed Bath and Beyond, Old Navy, Express, and the GAP (I kid you not) is a small out post of Cupcake Cafe, inside the Books of Wonder children's bookstore.

But soon that will be the only Cupcake Cafe, since the original one, the FIFTEEN YEAR OLD ONE, is being pushed out of Hell's Kitchen due to real estate development. Their building has been bought and I'm not sure what is happening with it but I know that Cupcake Cafe has to go. And it seems ironic doesn't it, that a business that helped to make this neighborhood what it is, that invited people to this neighborhood when no one would set foot here, is being forced out because of how desireable the neighborhood now is. Mike and Ann refused to sell out and now they have to pay the price because of others who didn't.

It's funny, the Times ran this article a few days ago. Front page of the Real Estate section, praising this neighborhood and all it has to offer. Using a picture of Cupcake and mentioning it as a local attraction. Never once mentioning that in a month it will be gone. And the residents of this neighborhood, those who have lived here for more than the six months since Venus and Serena bought a loft nearby, the real residents are heart-broken. And a bit pissed off.

When you walk down these few blocks, there is a friendly feeling. Most of the shops on these blocks are food based. There is a meat market, Stilers vegetable and fruit stand, another fish market a block down, and assorted other family run businesses. The owners all know and purchase from each other. Many of them live in the neighborhood. The nice thing about working for Cupcake Cafe is that once you are hired, you are part of the family and many of the employees live in the same small building just a few blocks away. A building that was threatened with demolition if the West Side Stadium bullshit had been approved. Can no one leave this neighborhood alone? What will happen to that communal building when these blocks are infiltrated with Starbucks, Baby Gap, and thirty-floor apartment buildings? What will happen to the unexpected friendly feeling of this little neighborhood behind Port Authority that up until recently had been pleasantly ignored. What will happen when we are all forced out of Manhattan due to sky-rocketing real estate and capitalist greed?

I have older artist friends who remember when Soho was the heart of the arts movement and lofts were under $200 a month. Now Bushwick is the center and Soho is a laughable mixture of designer stores and gawking tourists. Our city is changing every day. It is becoming richer and greedier and more exlusive. Someday we will find it impossible to live on this Island at all. Where will we all go?
Austin!? Minneapolis!? San Francisco?! Berlin?! or...Scotland?!?!
It is heartbreaking and a question emerges: what the hell happens to the art's scene? Trustfund babies do not make great art (psst: it comes out of struggle!).
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