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On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School

2013

Glistening
A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux

Archive

Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
Cafeterias
Back-to-the-Land
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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Growing Up in New York

posted 16/04/08


In a recent column I described walking through the dense, lively streets of NoLita (North of Little Italy) - an acronym of recent vintage. It’s a neighborhood that has gone through a radical transformation, in the last decade or so, from an Italian-American community with a sprinkling of Hispanics - to an upscale, youthful enclave where small, charming, and often expensive, boutiques, cafes, and bistros predominate. Still, the worst effects of rapid change have so far spared this neighborhood: some of the narrow streets are tree lined; tenements with ancient fire escapes abound; and no Gap or Starbucks can be found.

But what’s most interesting to me is the feeling of a very different world that existed in this once ethnic enclave, before gentrification took place. There aren’t too many people left on these streets who have lived through the area’s previous incarnation. But by a happy accident I fortunately met up with an Italian-American woman in her mid-forties, a manager of a Lexington Avenue furniture showroom, born in 1963, who continues to live a few blocks from where she grew up.

Gina’s (not her real name) world overlaps with the milieu of director Martin Scorsese’s youth. But her view differs markedly from Scorsese’s version of the neighborhood in his early, richly textured and sociologically penetrating semi-autobiographical film, Mean Streets. Scorsese focuses his film on “the boys” - a post-adolescent male universe that hovers between the purposeless, semi-criminal ethos of the streets, and the possible integration into more traditional marriage and family life. In Scorsese’s version of the past, his characters’ behavior can be warm and steadfast, or aimless, violent, and self-destructive. His Little Italy is a circumscribed world with limited options, and an angry wariness towards anybody who was different - gays, blacks, and even people from other parts of the city. 

Gina’s version of growing up, however, provides a much more positive view of that past. She remembers streets that were “mystical,” “magical,” and safe - where she and her many friends hung out on the corners until late at night. Her loving mother, a matron in the school system, who died in her forties, kept their apartment door open to neighbours, extended family, and Gina’s friends - often cooking meals for them. According to Gina, it was a caring, communal neighborhood - where she knew almost everybody who lived on its streets. It was an area where people (including the Italian social clubs and the local firehouse) were protective of and loyal towards each other. And institutions like the Catholic Church, which Gina attended every Sunday, provided a sense of identity and spiritual support.

She admits that some neighborhood boys became drug addicts and went to jail (while others became lawyers), and her mother warned her away from some blocks not too far away because they were supposedly dangerous. But that’s not what is most memorable about the past for her. The neighborhood was far from a moneyed one, but Gina felt “rich in her heart”  - and attending a Catholic high school on the Upper East Side with kids from more middle class backgrounds caused her no unease. For Gina there was something luminous and intensely intimate about growing up in Little Italy. Despite the fact that many of her friends married and left the neighborhood for more space and a new life in the New Jersey suburbs, Gina clearly never felt that she had to flee the city she still loves.

Today, Gina remains deeply linked to many of the same friends she grew up with - the few who held on and those who moved away. They return to the old neighborhood filled with fond memories of the past, but though there are a couple of bars and Italian restaurants that have survived gentrification, it’s just not the same place. Gina told me that when her brother comes to visit, he’s resentful that the young affluent residents treat him like a tourist. He feels he’s no longer on home turf, but for Gina, given the age and poor quality of the neighbourhood’s housing, gentrification was a much more desirable alternative than the area’s turning into a slum.
Talking to Gina moved me to reflect again about my Bronx boyhood. I too have vivid, often pleasurable memories of the old neighborhood, but in my memory open doors and communal warmth weren’t the rule. And though I had many friends and acquaintances then, I have only one friend remaining from that period in my life. Most of us lost touch, going in different directions, and few looked back at that time in our life as a golden age. There was also nothing to return to, as we grew older, since the neighborhood turned to ashes in the seventies, and was rebuilt in the nineties with few remnants of the past enduring. So my boyhood survives only as a montage of memories of schoolyards, movie theatres, art deco buildings and tenements, and neighborhood faces and friends that sometimes pop up in my dreams.

 It’s very different for Gina, who seems to have sustained an almost seamless relationship between past and present. But I was looking for something other growing up than the kind of fabled working class rootedness and warm heartedness of Italian-American communities. I was looking for an alternative existence, but moving to the suburbs had no appeal for me. I desired and achieved an urban cosmopolitan existence. But I have always have been moved by worlds like Gina’s. So whenever I stumble on to a neighborhood where huddles of men and women can be found innocently and animatedly talking in front of stores and buildings, my heart begins to take a leap.