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Urban Villagers

The history of New York can be told in the ebbing and flowing of its neighborhoods.

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Illustration by Joel Holland  

Like every great metropolis, New York is too vast for anyone to claim it all as home. We define our perimeters in concentric circles, we patrol our turf, decide that this dry cleaner is ours and that one is not, follow the same immemorial cow path through the city’s endless array of routes because it means passing better shops or getting a glimpse of some especially whimsical gargoyle.

Neighborhoods are like geologic formations, carved out by a million insignificant decisions, a million vague sensations that I’m comfortable here. They are constantly in flux, shaped by currents of migration, prosperity, and decline, by a developer’s ambition, and by the random flutterings of fashion. That’s true now, as areas that were once grim and bedraggled get refurbished. It was true a century ago, when the subway bound the farthest reaches of Brooklyn to Manhattan’s breast. And it was true when the city was hardly more than a rustic Dutch hamlet.

A 1660 map that details the location and function of every one of New Amsterdam’s 370 buildings makes it clear that neighborhood dynamics were in play even then. A stretch of waterfront nearest the town’s sole pier functioned as the epicenter of urban activity. Governors, slaves, and smugglers landed across the street from where a doctor, Hans Kierstede, lived at one end of a row of warehouses. Down the block, the hatter Samuel Edsal kept his shop next to Nicolaes Jansen’s bakery. But the real attraction sat on the corner with the Heere Gracht canal: Hans Dreper’s tavern. This tiny nub of the future megalopolis even had suburbs. On the map, the gabled houses thin out to the north and west. Peter Stuyvesant commuted two miles on horseback every day from his exurban estate in Greenwyck (later Anglicized to Greenwich Village). Within a few years, the city had already developed some of the maladies that still pit neighbors against each other: slums, ethnic conflict, and nimbyism. In an early imposition of zoning, authorities insisted that cobblers take their foul-smelling tanning pits and get out of downtown.

Every neighborhood seems permanent for a while, because each patch of the city fuses with someone’s experience. To watch local stores opening or closing, and a new generation’s packing boxes piled on your block, is to see yourself mature. The history of New York is the story of old neighborhoods getting plowed under or transformed, of landfill pulling the shoreline out and towers pushing back the sky. New Amsterdam’s old waterfront lies along today’s Pearl Street, in an alleyway squeezed between high-rises. Outlying Dutch villages like Nieuw Amersfoort (Flatlands), Vlissingen (Flushing), and Nieuw Haarlem have all fused with the city’s connective tissue.

Change does not always tend in one direction. Whether a neighborhood is losing its character or finding it again depends on the reach of one’s recollection. It’s true that Greenwich Village has lately been scrubbed clean of the scruffy bohemianism of Jackson Pollock’s and Jane Jacobs’s days, but Henry James might note with pleasure that it has also recaptured its original atmosphere of luxe and respectability. The ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, he writes in the 1881 novel by that name. The area’s placid comforts were deliberate: Around 1830, the city turned a pauper’s cemetery into Washington Parade-Ground, setting off a real-estate frenzy of the kind that often accompanies a new public park (the High Line, say). Developers hired the architect Martin Euclid Thompson to design a row of Greek Revival houses along Washington Square North, which still stands. The square, James continues, has a riper, richer, more honorable look [than other wealthy neighborhoods] the look of having had something of a social history. And so it doesonly now that social history includes a few decades’ worth of pot smokers, chess players, skateboarders, sand painters, and barefoot guitarists.

The last twenty years have produced an epochal reversal in the pattern of neighborhood change. For 400 years, New Yorkers have gone in search of a better address by moving farther and farther uptown, westward, and out from lower Manhattan. Misery lagged behind. In the 1830s, for example, Samuel Bulkley Ruggles, the nineteenth century’s Trump, staked out Union Square and Gramercy Park as affluent outposts that provided both separation from and access to downtown. A century or so later, immigrants followed a widening gyre from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn and the Bronx, then on to the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey.

Today, their great-grandchildren are returning to the source. The Lower East Side is no longer a memory, but a destination. Fort Greene and Williamsburg have gentrified. A measure of graciousness has returned to the Grand Concourse. Residents have even returned to the financial district, near where Dr. Kierstede, Edsal the hatter, and Dreper the barkeep lived and worked in 1660.


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