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Friday, July 24, 2009

"A wondrous toy"

In a couple of weeks, Greg will be moving from Portland to New York. He found an apartment to share with two others on East 4th between Avenues C & D, on the border of the East Village. It is a couple of blocks from the lower East Side, which was his grandmother’s first home.

I was raised with stories about life on the streets that Greg will soon become familiar with: Eldridge, Orchard, Delancey, Rivington, Houston (pronounced “House-ton” in those parts) and The Bowery. Tin Pan Alley songwriters of my mother’s age wrote scores of pop tunes about the neighborhood, songs about “Second Hand Rose from 2nd Avenue”, and “It’s very fancy / On old Delancey Street you know” ... And tell me what street / Compares with Mott Street in July / Pushcarts gently rolling by”.

In the almost 100 years since my mother’s infancy, the tenements have changed hands and tunes many times, the street smells changing from garlic and paprika to chili peppers and cilantro. I’ve heard that a sort of gentrification has beun to alter the mood again, though it retains its diversity and all that goes with it, good and bad.

Unlike urban sprawls like L.A. which consist of miles of suburban areas linked by freeways, New York City neighborhoods are measured in square blocks, not square miles. They are often pockets of perhaps a block or two square. Walk around the corner from tenements and pushcarts and you may find a street or avenue with awnings and doormen, Mercedes at curbside, poodles on leashes.

If he walks west and south on Houston, he’ll find himself in SoHo, among the lofts that rapidly evolved from warehouses, to artists’ studios to high priced homes.

When Greg walks a few blocks further north and west, he will pass the house where my brother had an apartment in the early 1960's, a 5th floor walkup on E. 11th Street near 3rd Avenue. He later lived in one of those houses with a doorman, East 9th and Broadway, round the corner from the West Village.

Greenwich Village may be the most famous neighborhood in American pop culture. Washington Square, The Mews, Bleeker Street, and MacDougal, where Bob Dylan first sang for quarters in the Café Wha? [Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan, p. 9.] where he writes that he waited to meet Dave Van Ronk. “Once on a cold winter day near Thompson and 3rd, in a flurry of light snow when the feeble sun was filtering through the haze, I saw him walking toward me in a frosty silence.” [Id., p16.]

In those days, The Beats still thrived. Their self-proclaimed poets along with the new aspirants to pop celebrity, the Folkies, occupied the cafés and clubs during the days, giving way to the hip young comics, who brought in paying customers: Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers.

The Minnesota kid Dylan describes noting that Café Bizarre was housed in a building that once served as Aaron Burr’s stable. I hope Greg will explore as Dylan did.

“New York City was cold, muffled and mysterious, the capital of the world. On 7th Avenue I passed the building where Walt Whitman had lived and worked. I paused momentarily imagining him printing away and singing the true song of his soul. I had stood outside of Poe’s house on 3rd Street, too, and had done the same thing, staring mournfully up at the windows. The city was like some uncarved block without any name or shape and it showed no favoritism. Everything was always new, always changing... [¶] The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.” [Id., p.103-104.]

So right, Greg.

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