May 13, 2008

Walking Off the Lower East Side: Anxiety and Permanence on Orchard St.


Walking the block of Orchard St. south of E. Houston early this afternoon, I started experiencing not so much the anticipation of discovery as the anxiety of place. The buildings that I thought were along in here were no longer here, and in their stead were some new buildings and construction sites of buildings yet to come. I'm having a hard time remembering what the old places looked like, and I can't imagine what the new buildings are supposed to be.

I've spoken with several people about the kinds of neighborhood changes they see in rapidly changing places like the Lower East Side, and they share with me this regret over not being able to remember the places that we may have taken for granted but are now gone. I'm not opposed to change, nor do I mourn every single building that's torn down, but I do worry when the connection between place and memory, especially when it's personal, becomes disrupted.

May I also remind readers that I come from a very different place. That would be a mid-century ranch house in the old Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. I recently discovered that not only does Google now have the Street View function for Big D on their maps but I was able to pull up recent images of my neighborhood street and my very childhood home and see that it is exactly the same now as I remember it - the wisteria-covered pergola on the front porch, the unpaved driveway and the long grassy front lawn that meets the street without any curbs. It was surreal, because after a few decades, I was expecting physical changes.

Living in the speculative world of New York real estate, the neighborhoods change all the time. Walking down Orchard St. today, I can see where people are coming from when they worry about the relationship of the taller buildings to the prevailing scale of the neighborhood. It throws off the pace of the street, but it's really about scale, power, and who controls the territory, the images, the menu prices, the rents, and the history. It's not a done deal yet. I like this street very much. I hope that everyone who lives here feels a part of it.

The Lower East Side is where I learned how to be a New Yorker. I'll explain the details some other time, but suffice it to say now that I realized then that millions of people came to the city, especially to this neighborhood, with personal memories and the culture of their original place and that it was okay to be who one was, really, even if the transition is hard, and it was okay to speak with a different accent and to walk to a different beat.

Images: Orchard Street, early afternoon, May 13, 2008. For the record, a snapshot of now.

Additional photos from Orchard St. and elsewhere on the Lower East Side today on WOTBA Flickr.

Part of a series about the Lower East Side. See related posts.

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