Alphabet City & Gentrification Revisited

45-51 Avenue B between 3rd and 4th Streets in the Alphabet City area of the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City. — Beyond My Ken

Let’s hit the wayback machine. Here’s a letter I wrote to the Village Voice in August of 1999 regarding a story in the Village Voice about the good ol’ days of Alphabet City in New York. I was living at 2nd Street and Avenue B at the time, and I think you can tell from the tone below that I was a bit defensive about the sort of criticism Norah Vincent was leveling. At the same time, I understood that this threatened lashing out is a reaction to the all-too-familiar trend of gentrification gone mad in New York, which is something I was just beginning to be cognizant of 14 years ago:

Busy B

Re Norah Vincent‘s article “B Is for Bistro” [August 17]: Although I understand the feelings of hostility that gentrification brings about, I was disturbed by the romanticization of the days when Alphabet City was little more than a hellhole. I live at 2nd Street and Avenue B, and I am certainly not a “frat boy” nor do I have that much money. However, I am not a pale, pretentious, heroin-chic wannabe either. It does little good to gloss over the past. Junkies are not cool, and I think it’s irresponsible to lament the previous identity of abuse and poverty— which actually hinders the delivery of the message that poorer residents are being phased out of their own neighborhood.

I probably wouldn’t go on about “pale, pretentious, heroin-chic” wannabes or “junkies” too much if I were to have written this today. Truthfully, it really wouldn’t apply much to the current inhabitants of Avenues A & B. Also, come to think of it, “hellhole” seems a bit harsh. However, I would still say that a war between improving the lot of the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city and the voracious tide of upscale real-estate expansion rages on. The balance of providing economic justice for long-time locals, while preventing the creeping hand of gentrification that pushes these people further to the margins, is what the city should be struggling with today. Except all too often the real-estate tide just wins out and handily.

If Bill de Blasio can deliver a more equitable New York City in 2014 and onward, I’ll be pleasantly surprised — but really surprised nonetheless.

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