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Growing Up in New York
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.
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.