Recently, driving with my grandmother to meet family for dinner at a French restaurant on Lafayette, mouth watering in anticipation of filet mignon, I bemoaned the fate of the once urban wasteland, now over developed, over exposed Lower East Side we had both grown up in. As I ranted she nodded, indifferent to the hipsters in suede boots weaving through traffic coming off the Williamsburg Bridge.
In Yiddish I call my grandmother “Babbi”. She was born on Pitt and Houston Street in 1932. Her Lower East Side was an Eastern European Shtetl transplant; a small Jewish village. By the time she was born, the Depression was hitting hard. Her grandfather owned a dairy store on Stanton and Rivington, her father a butchery down the street. Exchanging cheeses, eggs and meats for fruits, vegetables and other necessities, got them through hard times.
She couldn’t understand when my bohemian parents decided to buy an old tenement on Eldridge Street between Delancey and Rivington in the 80s with some of their struggling friends. My Babbi worked hard to get out of that neighborhood, becoming a governess at fifteen, struggling through college and finally getting a PhD in child psychology. My dad insisted it was the best business investment of his artist’s career—that one day the Lower East Side would be gentrified and our building worth millions.
My Lower East Side was vibrant with pastel graffiti murals, hydrants blasting jets of water into the streets when it was hot, old Puerto Rican men arguing over Domino games, shoes dangling from street lamps, street walkers in pink spandex, junkies collapsed in pools of cheap liquor. As a child, I thrived on it. The constant energy of New York’s downtown jolted me alive making me feel even more that I lived on an edgy, enchanted Island.
Growing up a middle class white Jew in the Puerto Rican, Dominican and African American dominated Lower East Side of the early 90s was confusing. It gave my childhood an air of displacement. My parents made do, integrating the challenging neighborhood into their lives, hoping like all pioneers that one day their investment would pay off.
My dad picked up garbage, weaving it into his papier-mâché masks. My mom always had her keys in hand a block before she reached our front door for safety and practiced Spanish at the bodegas and restaurants where my early breakfasts were eggs over easy, bacon and home fries orange from Sofrito all for $3.00.
To support his family and his artwork, my dad worked as a social worker at FROSTED a residence on Houston and Allen streets for people who were AIDS and HIV positive. Over dinner he regaled my younger brother and I with stories about his clients tearing up their rooms while on crack and trying to finagle subway tokens from social workers to exchange for drugs.
My Kindergarten playground was a hot bed of AIDS urban legends. One had it that a man went around putting AIDS infected needles in the coin return slots in payphones, another that he left them upturned on movie theatre seats. Instead of being frightened by my surroundings, I was spurred on in my ambitions to seek out a better life than I knew my poverty stricken friends would have.
I made friends easily, but always felt like I was on the verge of being disowned by them for my better circumstances. My best friend in Kindergarten, Eduardo was shocked when my mom took us to eat in a restaurant after school across from Tompkins Square Park.
“You mean I can tell her what I want and she brings it?” He asked, open mouthed, pointing at the waitress.
“Duh.” I replied.
“Two Orange sodas.” He blurted grinning, half unsure whether his request would be granted. Eating out for him was McDonalds, Burger King or other cheap fast food. Eduardo was delighted with waitresses, but there were times he would break my toys in anger not because I had hurt him, but because I had them and he didn’t.
Like my grandmother, I wanted a better life than the Lower East Side could offer. First I majored in visual art at LaGuardia high school on the Upper West Side, and then went to a remote clothing optional liberal arts college in Vermont where I was bored out of my mind—missing the thrum of the city.
By the time I got home the Lower East Side yet again had a changed face. Post 9/11 New Yorkers were fascinated by a neighborhood on the edge of Ground Zero, caught up in its cheap, rough, down and out chic.
Bistros and boutiques lined the streets where I had cautiously trick or treated on long ago Halloweens. Musician Moby’s Teany Café had $5.00 espressos and marked up Vintage Dior sparkled from store windows. The Pentecostal Church on my parents’ street no longer threw block parties in the summer where they blasted Bachata all day and sold arroz con habichuelas with fat chicharones on the side. Drunken frat boys from Idaho wandered the streets and bored trust fund babies spent their time smoking cigarettes outside atmospheric wine bars.
I was surprised, nostalgic and not able to afford anything in the Lower East Side that was such a dysfunctional childhood backdrop. My parents still lived in their tenement, shopping at the Whole Foods on Houston, comfortable that their investment had in fact paid off. I moved to Brooklyn, where I took solace in Bushwick—a ghetto still thriving despite gentrification. It felt like home.
“I don’t belong here anymore.” I said sadly, as my Babbi parked off Kenmare, outside the French restaurant, smells of escargot and red wine wafting towards us through the rolled down car windows. “Zaest Frin an alta shtudt macht a naya shtudt,” she said, patting my knee comfortingly and translating from Yiddish: “From an old city, we make a new one.”
Royal Young was born and fled the Lower East Side. He now resides in Brooklyn making rap music and is a regular contributor to Pomp & Circumstance magazine. He can be reached at myspace.com/therealroyalyoung