New York City is a city of neighborhoods. Maybe most cities are, but New York neighborhoods shift and change with a pace that some folks find alarming. New Yorkers sometimes find it alarming also, but it’s a fact of life: rapid, dynamic change is what defines New York City. New Yorkers are usually fine with change.
Changing neighborhoods is one thing, but if you ruin it? That’s a different kettle of fish. The one thing that really riles people up is when their neighborhood is being “destroyed”. Of course, this is somewhat open to interpretation – one person’s improvement is another person’s destruction. Still, there are some basics that we can all agree on. I’ll leave it to city planners and local malcontents to hammer out the details, but here’s a guide to what makes a neighborhood in New York City.
Let’s start with what a neighborhood is NOT.
What a neighborhood is not
A neighborhood is not an island in the sky. Single-purposed buildings, whether high or low rent, are not neighborhoods. Housing projects are not neighborhoods. One57 is not a neighborhood. You can have a neighborhood that includes high rises, but the people in those buildings have to take part in local life, or it’s just a vertical suburb (or palace).
A neighborhood doesn’t have a gate. It may have natural defenses such as rivers, parks, or distance to subway. It may have social stratification, such as “only rich people live there”. But it doesn’t have a gate. Places in New York that have gates are generally in the “secret garden” variety, and not in the suburban “gated community” category. Instead of gates, New York neighborhoods have other defenses – neighborhood gossips, guys hanging around barber shops, and doormen, to name three.
A neighborhood is not a shopping district. Although you’ve got to have shopping in your neighborhood, shopping alone is not sufficient. Times Square is not a neighborhood – it’s a theme park. The Lower East Side is a shopping district but it’s also a neighborhood. Same with the parts of Chinatown (see video) that are not on Canal Street.
A neighborhood is not a single crop farm. Real neighborhoods contain single folks, married couples, families with children, old and young, straight, gay, male, female, on the fence. Dog owners and cat lovers, all living in one area. Rumor has it there’s a town in Jersey where, if you are a good looking guy in a straight bar, and a nice young lady asks where you live, and you say the name of that town, she slams her drink down and leaves. Why? Because you’re married. If you weren’t married, you wouldn’t be living in that town. That’s the married town — she’s living in the town for singles.
That’s not the case in New York City. Yes, the trendy and densely packed areas are usually for expats and singles, but a real neighborhood has people of all ages, all types, all stages of life. Including Miss Cantor, god rest her soul, who wanted to know why I kept calling her “Mrs. Cantor.” “I’m 98 and was never married a day in my life!” “That’s why she lived so long,” says her attendant.
What a neighborhood has
Now that you have some negative examples, let’s find out what sets a real neighborhood apart from other places.
A neighborhood has services. You can get your shoes shined, your hair or flowers cut, your quick lunch, your happy hour. You can get a dog walked, see a show, go on a walking tour, hire a babysitter, go out with friends. You don’t have to go far to do it – but you can,
and then you can get back home easily. A neighborhood has hardware and housewares. If you have to take public transportation (or — gasp! drive!) to get an allen wrench, a mop and bucket, or a potted house plant, you’re not in a New York City neighborhood.
A neighborhood has art. A real neighborhood has art and music. If it’s low-rent, you have starving artists, bohemians, writers, and bands. If it’s affluent and trendy, you have galleries. If it’s old-money wealth, you have museums. They are all neighborhoods, and they all have art and music.
A neighborhood has a park. A park is the heart and soul of a neighborhood. Doesn’t matter if it’s the size of a postage stamp or if it’s Central Park itself. Maybe you just walk by the neighborhood park on your way to and from the subway every day, and have never actually set foot in it. It’s still the center of your neighborhood, and you know it just by glancing at it for 2 minutes a day.
A neighborhood park starts the day with a city-provided or volunteer cleanup crew and early dog walkers. After breakfast, the parents with toddlers show up. By lunch time, maybe an artist is sketching and the ancient citizens with caretakers are sunning themselves and illegally feeding the pigeons. After lunch, the kids who have cut out their naps, but aren’t in school yet, are pulling hair and putting fingers up each other’s noses. Later, activity ramps up as school lets out at 3, and energetic ball games are being organized. After sundown, illicit activities include teens and herbaceous tendrils of smoke existing peacefully beside packs of illicit free-range dogs and their humans running past the “no dogs off leash at any time” signs. In even darker and seeder corners, you’d see things that make you blush. It’s all part of the fabric of the neighborhood.
A neighborhood always has local characters. Not character – characters. New York City has more eccentrics than the entire oeuvre of Flannery O’Conner. Everyone you meet will know who they are by description. “You know that guy with the walking stick…” “…and the stovepipe hat? Yeah. Saw him yesterday.” Here are some you may see.
The Italian Countess. She’s 5 feet tall, but the top foot is all hair. She’s ancient, has a dowager’s hump, is immaculately coiffed and styled, and her wardrobe turns high-end thrift shop owners green with envy. The first time you see her, you think “holy shit—did I just go back to Parma in 1932?” She goes about her business quietly and elegantly, refrains from interaction with the peasantry, frightens small children, and can be spotted a block away.
Duck Man. Duck man is a charming acquaintance and an accomplished actor with a resume in his own right. He sports a soft hat, but the thing you can’t miss is the large white duck on a tether that waddles along with him. Kids are delighted – the landlord less so.
The Elf King. Elf King is tall and spectrally thin, with long, flowing locks. He’s all over the place, never speaks, and no one knows how he makes his living. He brings a little bit of Middle Earth to New York City. If you told me he lives in a treehouse in the park that’s protected by an Invisibility Charm, I would believe you. Although he seems placid and innocuous, I’m not sure I would stay put if he walked towards me with a wand extended.
The Dog Whisperer Dog Whisperer can sometimes be a Style Whisperer also. She is on the far side of 50 but wears the type of large blond wigs and statement makeup usually associated with the more subdued contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race. She favors skin-tight bodice, frills, lace, fringe, and velvet in her wardrobe – makeup has been troweled on for extra panache. She carries an old carpet bag filled to bursting with liver treats. Even if you don’t know her, your dog does. Whenever she rounds a corner a block off, the pooch starts whimpering, wagging, and straining at the leash to get to her. She smiles, pops some treats out of her bag, and asks “May I?” before leaning over for 5 minutes of dog-whispering to your smitten pup. You just stand there – an unnecessary third wheel.