When you walk through the neighborhood, you can’t avoid them. They are everywhere, the predatory derrick cranes, angling over corniced rooftops, ten stories high, the sunlight gleaming on their latticed booms, turning their guy lines to chains of gold, their hooks dangling like baited lures over the streets where moneyed suckers stroll dreaming of luxury condo lives.
Entire blocks have been blocked. The construction crews have rerouted sidewalks into narrow corridors fenced by blue-painted plywood walls and plastic mesh fences printed with the names of the new retail-residential complexes, illustrated with pixellated images of giant youthful bodies power-cycling on gym machines, lifting fizzing flutes of champagne, laughing mightily, toothily, in glass-box penthouses. Up there, the new New Yorkers nest, oblivious in their glossy towers, as down below the lower buildings slump beneath rusted tin entablatures, bricks shrunken and shivering, waiting their turn to crumble to dust.
I could create a long catalog of the lost. Permit me to list just a few of the missing whose faces you won’t find on the backs of milk cartons: CBGB, where punk rockers loitered out front, stabbing the night air with spiked hair; Kurowycky Meats, the windows hung with garlands of sausage, warm-lit on winter mornings; George’s (also known as Bar 81, also known as the Verchovyna) for cheap drinks, a perfect jukebox, the colored glass over the bar that said Have a Happy; Jade Mountain's Chow Mein lettered in pink neon casting a blush across the rain-washed sidewalk at night; Kiehl’s, before they sold out, when the place was still small and filled with antique motorcycles; The Variety Theater, where Travis Bickle met Easy Iris in Taxi Driver and now the Toll Brothers tower; the Gentle Touch Car Wash, where you could get “a whale of a wash” from a grinning Moby Dick; Gertel's, the Bakers of Reputation filling Hester Street with the fragrance of chocolate rugelach; LaRosa and Sons warming Elizabeth Street with the tangy yeast aroma of baking bread; The Second Avenue Deli, once mid-century chrome and Kosher, now a Chase Manhattan bank; and, most recently, Teresa’s, my every Sunday brunch, my challah French toast, my pierogis and borscht, my sad Polish waitresses sliding on rubber-soled shoes across the greasy tiled floor, laughing in squashed syllables. All of them gone.
For a while, I was making pilgrimages to sites that bore the obvious look of inevitable doom, following rumors of closure before the doors were locked for good. I lunched one last time at Katz’s delicatessen, breathing in the gorgeous salty smell of pastrami. I went to Coney Island and rode the Wonder Wheel before they could knock it from its moorings and roll it into the sea. I ate hamentaschen from Moishe’s Kosher Bake Shop, matzoh ball soup at the B&H Dairy, potato knishes at Yonah Schimmel’s, and walked to Guss’s for a final taste of pickles fished from briny barrels. I said a prayer to Jesus in sun-struck, butter-yellow St. Brigid's Church. I even did a memorial load of darks at a Laundromat destined to become another Dunkin Donuts where for years the pretty Polish girls folded my underwear lovingly. I took notes and snapshots and watched them all breathe their last gasps before my eyes. I could not reach them all in time. They passed away much too fast. And then they began to go even faster.
One week, I’d hear about two more places. The next week, three more places. Like the dominoes that old men used to play on the sidewalks here, they dropped one after another. “Lost Our Lease” signs went up everywhere, along with “Thanks for a wonderful 20 years,” or a wonderful 30 years, 40, 50, 60 (Ratner’s deli on Delancey lasted 97 and yet succumbed). And as quickly as the hand-lettered paper signs went up, the old buildings came down.
There were demolition men everywhere, stomping their yellow workboots and clapping dust from their denim, dining in lazy rows on the sidewalk, munching sandwiches from between their knees and making their common comments to women walking past. The streets shook with demolitions. Hydraulic crushers, pulverizers, and shears hammered and ripped and drilled. Bricks spilled red onto sidewalks like body parts scattered after a bombing. Dust hung in the air, giving the East Village its hazy 9/11 look. Rats hustled out of their humming holes. Dreadful smells oozed from ancient basements suddenly uncovered. Newspapers from World War I spilled out of gutted walls where they’d spent a century as insulation. My windows rattled in their decaying muntins.
Now I wait, hiding inside these bricks, blighted and condemned, for the wrecking ball to come for me as it will eventually come for you. In the end, we will all be lost in the pile of this vanishing city.
drawing by ben katchor