A random Monday posting, and not the usual L2 fare. In the main, it’s a story, one of three that I’ve written for The Masters Review flash-fiction competition. The story is fictional, but it draws upon the many real-life tales told in a disturbing book titled Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul, by Jeremiah Moss.
Our dear Torontonian friend, SL, was staying with us when I picked up the book in Barnes and Noble. “Good for you,” he quipped. “Now you can be one of those irritating people who are always banging on about how New York isn’t what it used to be.”
What we didn’t know was that during the course of the weekend we would all become those people who said that New York isn’t what it used to be. Browsing through another book on our coffee table, 111 Places In New York That You Must Not Miss, SL identified Il Vagabondo, a small bar on East 62ndStreet, featuring an indoor bocce court, that was founded by proprietor Ernest Vogliano’s grandfather in the early 1900s to attract the Upper East Side’s Italian immigrants. We made a plan to go there for coffee or a glass of wine, only to discover that it no longer existed. “It’s fun to watch the competition from a courtyard table, sipping wine and savouring scrumptious Italian cuisine,” boasted our coffee table book, published in 2015. Fun we wouldn’t have in 2018. Shame.
Next on SL’s list of places to see was The Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. According to 111 Places, the market offered “a huge array of edible treats you’d otherwise have to hunt down all over town, and diverse merchants you wouldn’t think could coexist under one roof. Mom-and-Pop grocers, many there for decades, sell oxtails, oranges, cuchifritos and couscous, next to booths run by bankers-turned-bakers.”
Not for much longer they won’t. Moss warns us that The Essex Street Market and indeed the entirety of Delancey Street is about to be eviscerated to accommodate the Essex Crossing, a $1.1 billion dollar “manufactured utopia of the future” featuring hulking glass towers comprising “luxury condos, office space, floors of interior shopping-mall-style retail, glamorized suburban food courts, and some “affordable” housing”.
Moss asks, “In the glitzy future mall, expanded to accommodate more new upscale businesses, will the old school merchants survive?”
There’s a similar story behind the High Line. Who, when visiting New York, hasn’t walked along the High Line and thought, how great is this? What a genius idea, and what a fun way to spend an hour or two. Read chapters 13 and 17 in Moss’s book and you might not feel quite so unadulteratedly positive. I enjoy a stroll along the High Line as much as the next person, but I have to admit that when I look at the immense, luxury condominiums that have sprung up alongside the tracks since the project was completed in 2011, and think about all the homes and small businesses that were wiped out to accommodate them, I can’t help but think that something has gone awry.
Gentrification. Progress. The way of the world. There’s nothing new in that I suppose, except the sheer scale and pace of it in a city like New York. Perhaps it has ever been thus. Back in the late nineteenth century, the American writer, John Jay Chapman, wrote that “the present in New York is so powerful that the past is lost.”
Even when that powerful present comes up with a genius idea for turning crumbling railway tracks into a raised walkway bordered by wildflowers in the middle of the city, the loss of the past is undeniably sad. And we are all a little bit complicit.
Here’s my story.
Under the High Line
Number One, Hudson Yards – forty floors of shimmering sapphire. A young woman emerges from its revolving doors into the oppressive late afternoon heat. Joanna, married to Zach, who is at that moment sitting in his sleekly furnished office in Bloomfield Place, cooking up deals and manoeuvring large sums of money in ways that Joanna does not even try to understand. Her work is with words, not numbers.
Joanna walks east, towards the entrance to the High Line at West 30th. Partially constructed towers of steel and blue glass rise up around her like lumbering titans. She barely registers the intense noise that once overwhelmed her – the crashing of metal poles, the juddering of Jackhammers, the beep-beep of reversing cranes, the rude blasts of car horns that is the soundtrack to New York life.
There were many things that had attracted them to their building, things that more than made up for the noise and the chaos that surrounded it: the river, just across the West Highway, and the amazing facilities in the building itself – a state of the art gym, a pool, an outdoor roof terrace and an indoor entertainment room, a basketball court, a bowling alley – a bowling alley! Everything you could possibly need, as well as a few things you definitely don’t, she and Zach are always saying to guests.
Joanna’s favourite thing about Number One Hudson Yards is its proximity to the High Line, along which she can stroll amidst wildflowers, grasses and trees to get to the Meatpacking District. To her the High Line is an unequivocal marvel. A peaceful, rural experience amidst the grime and hurly-burly of the city. If she looks ahead, or straight up at the sky, she can forget that she is in a city at all. Of course, the illusion never lasts long. Not with those mega-condominiums (Number One Hudson Yards amongst them) looming on both sides.
This afternoon, Joanna is headed towards The Lobster Place in Chelsea market, where she plans to purchase some fresh sea bass for supper. Somewhere below her feet, Louisa de Denartis is removing one last tray of Pignolli cookies from the oven at the back of the De Denartis Pasticceria and Caffé, founded by her great grandfather in 1910. Like her father and mother, Louisa has worked in the Pasticceria since she was small, learning to bake Biscotti and Bombolonas, Semifreddo and Sfogliatelle. She is an expert on Italian sweet delights, and on the habits of the customers who buy them. People like Al Baldiccio who ran the auto shop down the road for thirty years, and used to come in for a Cartocci and a cappuccino every morning, or Fran Merkowitz, who brings one or another of her grandchildren in for a hot chocolate and a Cannoli most Saturdays.
“There must be a way,” Louisa had insisted, when her father had told her about the new landlord.
“There is no way,” her father said, already defeated. “When the Big Guys decide to come to town, there’s no stopping them. Look at what happened to Al.”
Progress, people call it. Louisa remembers hearing about the laudable project to develop the disused railway tracks that ran above the heads, homes and businesses of people like them, remembers thinking that it would enhance all of their lives and bring customers flooding into the Pasticceria. What she hadn’t realised – maybe nobody had – was that it would also bring the Big Guys with their money and their grand plans and their unblinking determination to demolish every pasticceria, auto shop, tailor, and coach house that lay in their path.
Development and destruction, breakthroughs and burnt offerings. Bound together as surely as omelettes and eggs, with a logic that is so easy to spout but so difficult to live with if you live on the underside of the tracks.
At four thirty, after closing the doors of the Pasticceria for the last time, Louisa dusts the Pignolli cookies with sugar and places them in a white pastry box. Leaving by the back door, she takes the box up onto the High Line, where she finds the spot she thinks must sit more or less directly above the Pasticceria.
She sits down, cross legged, and opens the box in her lap. Some of the many people walking along fail to notice her until it is almost too late, and she is aware of their stumbled steps as they try to avoid her. She remains undaunted, offering Pignolli cookies with a quietly outstretched arm. A small boy takes one, but most people pass her by without understanding or even seeing the fragile beauty of her gift.
Joanna, on her return journey from Chelsea Market and swinging a basket laden not just with plump sea bass, but with Pignolli cookies purchased from the giant food hall opposite The Lobster Place, sees the young woman sitting on the wooden boards and thinks that perhaps she’s in need of help. She kneels down.
“Are you okay?”
‘Would you like a Pignolli cookie?” the young woman says, opening her palm.
“Actually, I just bought some,” Joanna says, indicating the basket.
The woman ponders Joanna’s basket. “They won’t be as good as these,” she says. “You have no idea what you’re missing.”
She leans back, eyes narrowing as if to examine Joanna more acutely. A kind of silence expands around them, and between them, a thin, weighty line is pulled taught. It feels to Joanna as though she is being challenged, even accused of something.
How ridiculous, Joanna thinks, and forces herself to break free of the young woman’s penetrating gaze. She stands and walks away, keeping her eyes on the path ahead and her thoughts on the fish in her basket, which she must get into the fridge. But she can’t seem to walk fast enough. Her mind is gripped by the idea that it is too late, that the sea bass has already gone off and will be inedible, everything ruined.