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Urban Villagers

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Mulberry Street, circa 1900.  

How do these transformations happen—how do neighborhoods take shape, dissolve, re-form, endure? Some are intentionally conceived, even if they have long gestation periods and difficult births; Battery Park City, which was planned a generation ago, is only now outgrowing its antiseptic phase and evolving into a vibrant waterfront district. Some are defined by public transportation, which can liberate residents from a neighborhood’s maternal embrace and at the same time accentuate the city’s hugeness: “When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world,” wrote the Brownsville native Alfred Kazin in 1951. “It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea.” Others coalesce around invisible threads linking patches of local real estate with different parts of the globe. Queens is a remapped world in which continents have been shuffled and territories overlap. Jackson Heights’s miniature India is just a few blocks from the Dominican Republic. Ireland abuts Korea, Armenians share turf with Romanians.

In this interconnected agglomeration of villages, there are no isolated events. A café on Smith Street gets a permit for sidewalk tables, and soon a tide of prettification washes over Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and Boerum Hill, splashing into Red Hook, and drawing young families out of Manhattan. Small pressures nudge a single block, ripple through a neighborhood and accumulate into an inexorable force that shapes the entire city.


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