I feel like a foreigner in my own neighborhood now. Which is funny, because
for over a century it was a neighborhood made by foreigners. The Irish
first, then the Italians, gave it its identity. And there are still some
signs of those times-though many of the signs have been restored,
like the old St. Patrick's Cathedral on my block. They now look more like
movies sets than the real thing.
Looking out your window to see where you've lived for 25 years change
out from under your feet is probably not so unusual in most American cities
these days. But in a neighborhood that seemed relatively stable for so
long, it's been a slow shock. I walk the streets like a ghost these days,
remembering the past. The scene is a mental palimpsest-memories of previous
haunts showing through the new facades: my sister's photography gallery,
once an Italian social club, now a shoestore; the old realtor's office
now a jewelry shop; ground floor apartments now a virtual mall-clothing,
accessories, cafes and restaurants-commerce taking the place of residence.
Actually, I was a foreigner of sorts when I came here. We called ourselves
the downwardly mobile-youngish mostly middle-class white kids
fleeing the suburbs to try out New York City, looking for the sense of
community that was already here, searching for a neighborhood.
It's not a neighborhood anymore. It feels like a suburb in the city, a
shopping and eating district, a destination rather than a home. My apartment
building has been renovated around me-tenements where whole families were
raised turned into one-bedroom apartments for the upwardly mobile. No
more bathtubs in the kitchen or cisterns over the toilets or interior
windows to meet the turn-of-the last century housing codes.
When I moved here, to share my sister's apartment, our next-door neighbor
was a first-generation Italian-American who had lived in the building
her whole life. She was born on the second floor, got married and lived
on the third. By the time we knew her she was on the fifth floor, having
moved up to take care of her father before he died.
Angie had stories to tell to match the stories of the floors she'd lived
on. She took us in metaphorically, just as she literally took in the overflow
from the Puerto Rican family below. Sissy, Willie, and Chris were the
children she's never had, and she fed us all on the potato croquettes
and chicken cacciatore her own mother had fed her when she was a child.
When Angie died, just after New Year's 2000, it should have been a sign
to me. It's taken me another four years to realize that it's time for
me to go, too. Unlike Angie, I started on the fifth floor and moved down.
I'll be moving out for good in November, leaving behind a place where
there's little left to say goodbye to.
by Sara Gearhart