Cafe Gitane

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