Rental Dementia: How Long You Lived Here?
Along West 187th Street there used to be a tiny closet-sized kitchen where you could buy a whole roasted chicken through a small storefront window. The chicken window closed to make room for the hip new restaurant. It was meant to be “downtown uptown,” with its lounge-style lighting, red velvet couches and imported world music. The timing couldn’t have been better … or worse depending on how long you lived there.
The gentrification of Washington Heights would be forever linked, in my mind, to the opening of that one restaurant. Obviously one restaurant can’t possibly sway an entire neighborhood, but it wasn’t long after they placed a flowery menu out front that I began to notice an inordinate amount of new people strolling along Ft. Washington Avenue. You had to ask yourself, had the neighborhood already changed enough to warrant such a restaurant? Or did the restaurant attract more new buyers to the neighborhood?
It was more East Village than Washington Heights, and a good portion of the neighborhood welcomed it with enthusiasm: “Exactly what we needed.” The local real estate agents would frequently walk potential buyers past, whether the apartment was en route or not. It quickly became an absurd showpiece, “See, we even have a cool new restaurant. Things are changing.” It wasn’t long after that the term “Hudson Heights” started popping up in conversation and in classified ads. But of course, only the new arrivals and the real estate agents ever called it that.
I hated that restaurant at first. Until then, I felt as though Washington Heights was my discovery, a precious secret. I remember sitting at the top of 187th near the stone ledge where teenagers drank or made out, and where you could watch the sunset over the Hudson River. An old woman asked if I was new to the neighborhood, and if I liked it. I answered emphatically yes to both. “Good,” she said, “don’t tell any of your friends. “
Roughly two years later, Frank the Butcher expanded his space and changed it to a gourmet market, the pharmacy got a new awning and window display, the deli stepped up, another cool restaurant opened across the street, a coffee shop and bar around the corner, a Starbucks on 181st. The new-construction condos with river views were getting set to open, and the gentrification was nearly complete. Across the hall, the Dominican family of six moved out. They headed further east to the other side of Broadway.
I moved to Washington Heights in 1996. My co-workers were baffled, but I absolutely loved it. Summer nights with nothing better to do, I would walk along 181st with the river behind me. Music poured from car stereos and first-floor apartments. In small, lit-up beauty salons, women danced with curlers in their hair, while little kids chased each other in from the street with water pistols. The neighborhood enjoyed a playful excitement, and you knew people really lived there. They weren’t all just passing through.
Although I had heeded the old woman’s advice (my friends wouldn’t even come up for dinner, let alone move there), word had still gotten out about an affordable, green and gorgeous little enclave above 181st Street. More young families, more young singles, more professionals, artist types, Julliard teachers, Columbia students and people like myself who were simply sick of getting squeezed every month, started piling up at the 181st Street subway stop. The once comfortable ride downtown was getting claustrophobic.
And with them came the new competition, because it would now be especially important to keep track of exactly when you moved there and how long you lived there before it got polished. It was the only way of differentiating yourself from the happy throng of shiny wine sippers gushing over life in Hudson Heights. Strangely enough you didn’t hear that annoying boast from the people who actually grew up there. Only the transplants like myself, who enjoyed the safe distance from the rest of “Manhattan,” bragged about how long they had lived there.
As obnoxious as it may be for one transplant to look down on another, there was something incredibly annoying about watching a new arrival get all worked up and excited about their move to the neighborhood. It was certainly an irrational resentment, though the fact still remained. I moved up there long before it was a safely accepted and recognizable neighborhood. I lived there for years without the perks, without the restaurants and gourmet markets, the coffee shops and “like-minded” neighbors who sprawled inside them. I loved it exactly the way it was and never asked that it add anything new or extra to suit my conveniences or comforts. In fact, I thought it was a lot better without all of that shit.
In a city where just about every neighborhood is changing rapidly, it’s the new conversation and the new badge of honor: How long did you live here before the idiots moved in and ruined it? How long before it started to feel exactly like the rest of Manhattan?
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