Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week's question is from a local who wants to know which neighborhood is most quintessentially New York.
I have friends and relatives that come in to visit the City and a lot of the time, they will ask me to take them to a "quintessential New York neighborhood"; someplace that I would say shows the real New York. I've shown them around Carroll Gardens because I live there and to me, that is what a New York neighborhood is all about: mostly locally owned mom-and-pop stores, families, single young people, gay couples, restaurants, hangout bars, schools and parks. All of this contained in a couple of blocks and working (mostly) in harmony.
So I was wondering what places would you say are the quintessential New York neighborhoods?
A Fellow Native New Yorker (PS 117 to Stuyvesant to Columbia)
A native New Yorker responds:
Dear Fellow Native:
Carroll Gardens is a beautiful neighborhood—getting a lemon ice at Frank Monteleone's on Court Street, drinking a beer at Gowanus Yacht Club on Smith, or people watching at Carroll Park—those are all classic New York experiences. Walking around there always reminds me of Jane Jacobs talking about the energy of good New York streets:
"Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations." - The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Later in the book, she describes four characteristics that all vibrant New York neighborhoods have:
"1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two...
2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there..."
Jake Dobkin, right, and associate on an authentic NYC rooftop. (Courtesy Private Jake Dobkin Collection)
Most of the places I'd bring visitors from out of town meet all of these qualifications. My personal favorites: The West Village (with a walk on the Highline), Park Slope (with a tour of Prospect Park), Chinatown (and then a walk over the Manhattan Bridge), Long Island City (and then watching the sunset in Gantry Plaza State Park). But each New Yorker probably has a different set unique to them. My friends who are into food, for instance, take their tourist visitors to Flushing for Chinese Food, or to Sunset Park for tacos. When I have younger friends visiting, I take them to Bushwick to look at graffiti and then to one of the hipster bars in Williamsburg.
These are all valid choices, because just as there is no most "real" New Yorker, there is no "most authentic" New York neighborhood. Some people are confused by this, because they think that whatever type of neighborhood they grew up in (or grew up watching on TV) has got to have some priority over the others. So if you grew up watching All in the Family, you might think places like Astoria or Corona or Canarsie are most "quintessentially" New York. But if you grew up watching Seinfeld, it'd be the Upper West Side. This is bullshit, of course. As Jane Jacobs says, "the good city sidewalk never repeats itself" and a good neighborhood is always evolving and in a state of flux.
An appreciation of New York's past is a worthy quality: without that we wouldn't have New York institutions like Katz's Deli, or good dive bars like the White Horse. But a slavish devotion to nostalgia leads, strangely, to very inauthentic places. Have you been to Little Italy recently? Even Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, or Orchard Street in LES, have kind of a fake, "trying too hard," packaged feeling to them. Usually when a place calls itself "authentic" it's trying to sell you something.
This idea has political implications. Right now as a city we are grappling with "hypergentrification," as some neighborhoods turn over at a pace not seen in our lifetimes. This can lead to a knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction: an animalistic opposition to all new real estate development, all tall buildings, all new restaurants, and all new people. But it is impossible to freeze a neighborhood in time. Think about the West Village: while landmarking and zoning has largely physically preserved it, and the neighborhood is still vibrant in its own way, the relentless increase in rents and housing prices has completely altered the kind of place it is.
Change is inevitable. The best we can do is manage it to protect the most vulnerable people affected by it. In the past this meant the poor and the elderly, but increasingly it's also coming to include the young—kids recently graduated from college, and young families who can't find an affordable place to live. Helping these people is going to involve building a lot of new real estate, some of it potentially ugly, taller, and in much higher density than many neighborhoods have seen before. But when, as a society, we have to choose between architectural preservation and giving people a roof over their head, the choice is clear: we should preserve the best buildings and blocks and bulldoze the worst to make way for the future.
This can be a hard truth to accept, especially if you love your neighborhood just the way it is. But clinging to the past is unzen, and won't change anything besides. As Marcus Aurelius said: "Turn thy thoughts now to the consideration of thy life, thy life as a child, as a youth, thy manhood, thy old age, for in these also every change was a death. Is this anything to fear?"
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