Here’s how much I like to walk by storefronts. If I see up ahead of me that the block on my side of the street is a hospital or a big housing project or a big post office or a school, I’ll cross to the other side of the street to have shop windows alongside me. Even if I go blocks without really looking in one of them, I like the variety and the small size of the stores with stuff in the windows, off my shoulder, out the corner of my eye, as I walk along.
Main Street in my small rural hometown in western New York was a block long. I liked being on it more than I liked being at home. I’d get depressed in my grade school years when 5:00 came and I had to turn the corner by the Bryant House, a long-ago hotel, then mostly a tavern, and head the two or three blocks to my house.
“I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village.” John Lennon said. Who wouldn’t want to have grown up there? The scale of things is wonderful. When my now-Brooklyn middle daughter lived in the West Village and once ran the marathon, the little dry cleaner/laundromat on Waverly Place taped a sign in the window wishing her and a couple other neighborhood runners good luck. On the corner of that street is a small bookstore. My daughter used to stop in it almost every day.
There’s no small bookstore in my neighborhood. And as of a month or two ago, five small shops have closed, all in a row, right across the street from my building. A very popular Italian sandwich place, a quirky vintage dress shop, a pizza place, a wonderfully welcoming Chinese laundry, and an Irish bar they said was a cop bar. They’re all dark now. They’re being dismantled. There’s scaffolding up. The three and four stories of great, old brick apartments are being gutted.
I’ll miss looking at, or sensing at least, the different shades of brick on them and the zigzag fire escapes. There’s no look better than that to my eyes. What’s planned for the half block that’s being razed is a 20-story apartment building. That means 300-400 more people on the block with five fewer stores. I wonder what will go on the ground floor. Or will it just be another colorless monolith like I’d normally cross the street to avoid if I were on one of my walks?
‘You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. Damage has been done to your city. You say, ‘’It happened overnight.’’ But of course it didn’t. Your pizza parlor, his shoeshine stand, her hat store: when they were here, we neglected them. For all you know, the place closed down moments after the last time you walked out the door. (Ten months ago? Six years? Fifteen? You can’t remember, can you?) And there have been five stores in that spot before the travel agency. Five different neighborhoods coming and going between then and now, other people’s other cities. Or 15, 25, 100 neighborhoods. Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.’ Colson Whitehead, The Colossus of New York
Kurt Vonnegut once called New York ‘ Skyscraper National Park.’ He should see it now. You wonder who wants to live in one of those Cape Canaveral buildings. Is their vanity so driving them that they’ll wait for the elevators to the 50th floor just so they can live in a building that’s advertised in the Sunday Times magazine? What if they forget the letter they meant to mail? Will they go back up to get it? I live on the second floor of my normal-size building. You can’t beat it. They might think it’ll all be worth it for the view. A friend of mine lived outside Denver where he said when he’d go to the kitchen sink for a glass of water he could often see moose out the window. After awhile, he said, you’d just get your water and not think to look. Same thing will happen in those tall buildings. But then the only view those residents really want is the one of themselves living there. Like people in an expensive watch ad.
When my friends from Cleveland, where I lived after college before moving here almost 20 years ago, ask what it’s like living here, I tell them it’s like living in my small hometown. It is. More than Cleveland was, with its mall-oriented, car-driven way of life. Here it’s neighborhoods that are like little towns. Alistair Cooke once said, ‘New York is the biggest collection of villages in the world’. I, like you, want them, knowing we’re impossibly wishing, to stay busy and small-scale and familiar, like that life-giving Main Street of mine.
Bill Gunlocke is the editor of the blog email@example.com. His Street Level column will appear here bi-weekly