My new view of the city
Amid the demolition across 86th Street, an upper East Sider reflects on New York’s constant reinvention
By Lorraine Duffy Merkl
I have a picture window in my living room. I know, good for me. But picture this: Three four-story, attached, brick townhouses; one with a blue door, the next black, and the last red. For the past 17 years, this was my Upper East Side view. With plenty of airspace above, I also had lots of light. Then, at the beginning of the year, the demolition started.
Like most New Yorkers, the minute the scaffolding went up, I thought, “Oh, no,” then “Oh, good. Yet another sidewalk turned into an obstacle course.” It didn’t take long before a few neighbors began to complain about the noise, especially on Saturday mornings because the men work six days a week. Also, my building had the exterminator pay a special visit, because if the houses had any vermin living there, they’d be looking for a new home, and since we’re right across the street …
At first, I didn’t even want to look out the window. The massive mesh screens. The huge dumpsters and even bigger trucks that haul them away. And the ugly orange and white barricades. Yuck. But I did look, and found the process as fascinating as my now 22-year-son did when he was two and made me stop every time he saw what in his mind was a giant version of a Tonka truck.
Monday through Saturday about a dozen men show up in their neon vests and yellow hardhats. I have watched them take the top three floors apart with their hands. It has given me a new respect for the blue-collar workers of our city.
People come to Manhattan to make it on Broadway, Wall Street; in publishing, advertising, medicine and law, to name a few careers. No one comes with the dream of being a construction worker or the like, even though these professionals keep the city running just as much as their more glamorous white-collar counterparts.
When the demolition is done in a few weeks, the scene I will set my sights upon each day will be a huge hole. Then the vista will alter again with whatever the next crew builds in its place.
This whole “down with the old, up (eventually) with the new” occurrence has served as a microcosm of what I’ve experience happen to New York, since I migrated all the way from the Bronx in 1983. I’ve seen everything from storefronts to the skyline transform (sometimes for the better, sometimes not). I must confess, more and more I find myself nostalgic, not just for the 99-cent pizza place on 86th off First that met its demise a few years ago; or The Society Boutique on Third Avenue, whose proceeds went to Memorial Sloan Kettering, but for places like Charivari.
Walking on the Upper West Side not long ago, my husband Neil and I hit 72nd Street and began what has become an ongoing conversation. “Remember,” I said, as I pointed to the southeast corner where the high-end store used to stand in the ‘80s, “when I shopped there even though I couldn’t afford it?” I have also begun sentences with the word “remember” while on the Lower East Side, in the Village, Murray Hill and, most recently, in midtown, where I gestured to the Scribner’s plaque on the Fifth Avenue building, and rather wistfully reminded Neil that the publisher of Hemingway and Fitzgerald is now a Sephora.
What’s worse than pining for symbols of a long-gone New York, is coming upon a construction site and not remembering what was there, as happened a couple of weeks ago in Chinatown, when Neil and I racked our brains trying to recall what once stood on the Mott Street corner we’d passed so many times over the years.
I should know by now that reinvention is simply part of the hustle and bustle that makes NYC what it is — and comes in the form of the buildings, as well as the people and businesses. And so, I will recommit to embracing my new cityscape, whether the change is across the street, across the park or across the panorama of skyscrapers. As long as I’m looking at — and living in — Manhattan, a little change may do me good.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Back to Work She Goes” and “Fat Chick,” for which a movie version is in the works.
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