Thursday, November 7, 2013

New York: Been there, seen it change

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m a genuine New Yorker: born in Manhattan, lived here my whole adult life. I grew up in Queens, a short subway ride to the delights of “the city” every weekend: dance and cello lessons when I was a kid, the Museum of Modern Art and hanging out in Washington Square during my high school years. New York is a favorite setting for mystery writers. Many of them, like me, “write what they know.” I’d give the blue ribbon to Lawrence Block. His New York, or that of his protagonists Matt Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr, is different from mine, but it’s deeply authentic. Others have to do the research. For some, it includes emailing friends like me for tips on accuracy in location, speech, and culture.

The catch in writing about New York settings is that the city is constantly changing. When I started counting up the changes I’d witnessed over the course of sixty-plus years, I found the list is almost endless.

I saw West Side Story when it first appeared on Broadway in 1957, the year I graduated junior high. The gang-ridden, working class neighborhood it portrayed was not what we now call the Upper West Side (which runs from 59th to 125th Street), but Hell’s Kitchen, just below it. That whole side of town changed irrevocably when Lincoln Center opened in 1962. I moved into my present building at West 86th Street and Columbus Avenue in 1967. I remember the first time I heard someone say “fashionable Columbus Avenue.” I laughed myself silly. Later, a gentrifying Hell’s Kitchen was renamed Clinton (my series protagonist Bruce refers to it as “a grateful recovering neighborhood.” But the name didn’t stick. In the past year or two, I’ve noticed that shops and restaurants in the West Fifties and on Ninth Avenue use the name Hell’s Kitchen as a sign of the neighborhood’s panache.

I don’t remember the Third Avenue El, an elevated subway line that closed in Manhattan in 1955, but the neighborhood was seedy for a while after it came down. The transformation came with the building of glass and steel skyscrapers in the East Forties and Fifties, some of which housed the publishing companies I worked for in the 1960s. Sixth Avenue underwent a similar metamorphosis: I worked in one of those glass and steel towers, still in publishing, in the 1970s. Avenue of the Americas was another name that didn’t take—I’ve never heard anyone but a tourist use it—and in the last year or two, the name Sixth Avenue has finally been restored to street signs.

The earliest change I remember—a fragmentary memory: I must have been four—was the groundbreaking for PS 164 in Queens, where I was part of the first first-grade class. No, probably even earlier was the building of the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills, on Main Street down the block from my house. It replaced a small farm with chickens and other domestic animals that remains another of my earliest memories.

The recent change that shocks me the most is the disappearance of the Bowery as New York’s Skid Row. I first knew it in 1983, when the Men’s Shelter on Third Street was notorious for knifings and drug deals. I visited the last few bars and flophouses with the last few cops whose job had changed from rounding up drunks to throw in jail in the “drunk tank” to recruits for the alcohol detox program where I trained as a counseling intern. By the time I directed an alcohol program there in the 1990s, the shelter had become a model facility providing services for homeless substance abusers. The view out the window of my office was a magical wilderness hidden by the square block of buildings that bounded it, originally an 18th century cemetery, though any remaining gravestones were hidden by tall grasses, wildflowers, and the occasional tree. Today, the whole neighborhood is unrecognizable: a fashionable 21st century enclave of chic shops and restaurants (one has an outdoor patio from which you can see that hidden graveyard) and high rise residential buildings.

Another New York landmark that didn’t exist when I was a kid: Columbus Circle before the Coliseum, much less the high-end mall that replaced it. The buses to my Girl Scout camp at Bear Mountain used to leave from there before they built the New York State Thruway. Harlem has changed considerably, but until a few years ago, who knew that it would succumb to colonization by white yuppies? Other places that didn’t exist include the South Street Seaport, Battery Park City (built on landfill) Chelsea Piers, SoHo, NoHo, and TriBeca; the latest is Trump Place in the West Sixties overlooking the Hudson, where the old railroad yards used to be. I remember when the World Trade Center opened: my first husband had a photographer friend who worked on the 77th floor; we laughed when we discovered he never looked at the magnificent view, because he spent all his time in the darkroom. I’m one of those who found the twin towers beautiful only after they were gone.

Transformed in my lifetime: Roosevelt Island; the Christopher Street pier; the white working class neighborhood Yorkville to the upscale Upper East Side. And in the boroughs, my own Queens neighborhood from secular to Orthodox Jewish; Flushing to Asians; Astoria and Jackson Heights to a variety of ethnic groups and a lively restaurant and cultural scene. I could go on and on, and the change continues. So writers, if you set your scene in New York, make sure you do your homework! .


Sheila Connolly said...

My grandmother lived in Manhattan for as long as I knew her, and we visited regularly, but as you might guess, what my sister and I saw was (a) museums and (b) big department stores. And taxis. When we got a little older, we expanded to restaurants (I was allowed into Peacock Alley at the Waldorf if I promised to be very, very good). Believe me, I would not presume to write about it! But it is great to know that it is still a vital, evolving city.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I didn't mention what I consider the best new don't-miss tourist attraction (or "monument" as the French call 'em): the High Line, a stretch of long-abandoned elevated railroad track transformed into a pedestrian walkway beautifully landscaped with native vegetation with great views over the city and the Hudson.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I'd love to have you check my NYC settings. The Midas Bomb, Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder, and The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan all take place in and around NYC. We moved to Montclair, NJ a few years back and my wife has always had a love affair with the city--worked there during her youth. I derive story ideas from the news reports involving the tri-state area.
Yes, there are major changes. The one that hurts the most is the disappearance of the WTC towers. I'm also a folk music fan--Bleecker St. and vicinity just aren't the same as they were in the sixties. A positive: that High Line is nice and that marketplace down by NYU is too (can't remember the name). I still like the Circle Line cruises around "the island"--the traffic snarls start making sense when one sees the few entrance and exit points to Manhattan.
In a New York state of mind....
PS. Boston and Frisco are my other favorite cities. Curious, I guess, that they're all associated with ports and lots of waterways. We're located ideally in Montclair to have some peace and quiet while also having all the fun in NYC so close!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Steven, you might like my CD of original music, OUTRAGEOUS OLDER WOMAN, the end product of a love of acoustic music that started hanging out in Washington Square with the folkies in the late Fifties and going to hootenannies. My friends and I did a lot of sitting around on the floor (high school) and the grass (college) with our guitars.

Sheila Connolly said...

Liz, I've finally given in and bought CDs of the Peter, Paul and Mary records I still have in vinyl, so I can play them in the car. Bleecker St. comes up, and I'm somehow saddened to realize that I still remember the guitar parts for a lot of the early songs, like Stewball or the intro to A'Soalin. Haven't held a guitar since I don't know when.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, there were years when I was never seen without a guitar in my hands, and then a long period when my guitar was gathering dust. It's never too late to go back to it. (Or to check out my CD on

Steven M. Moore said...

I traded my guitar for a tiple when I arrived in Colombia, but I'm still the proud owner of the Joan Baez Songbook corresponding to many of the songs on those old initial Vanguard vinyls of hers. Heard her and Simon and Garfunkel live, but you're right (Simon's lyrics often celebrate NYC venues)--sometimes the impromptu hootenannies were best.
While we lament the passing of these eras with justifiable nostalgia, NYC is still a vibrant place. After 9/11, it rose from the ashes; after Sandy, it rose from the waters. One of the best classic sci-fi series of all time was James Blish's Cities-in- Flight series where--you guessed it--the main character was the city of New York...that rose from Earth on spindizzies! (Yeah, I know this isn't a sci-fi blog, but nostalgia has a tendency to spill over from the pot to the stove where all our dreams simmer.)