Saturday, December 3, 2011

Back to Alphabet City

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, NEW YORK, NY – In the late 1980s and early 1990s I lived in New York’s Alphabet City at 166 Norfolk Street, which is off of East Houston between Avenues B and C. Back then it was a pretty rough neighborhood littered with vacant buildings, empty lots, and dirty needles.  But the rent was cheap, and residents looked out for one and other. Lewis, an older gentleman who lived on the first floor, told me when I moved in to paint my bicycle my own colors so it wouldn’t get stolen. I took his advice and no one stole it.  Well, not until I moved to Albany, NY for graduate school.

I have fond memories of my old neighborhood and the people who lived there but don’t get to New York City much. So when I was there recently I decided to go back to the Alphabets. However, when I reached the corner of Bowery and East Houston I thought I was lost. On that corner, where there used to be an empty lot was a sparkling Whole Foods, and a little farther east, a luxury hotel surrounded by what looked like luxury condos. Maybe I’m not remembering exactly where I had lived, I thought. After all, I hadn’t been back since the mid-1990s. Still, I kept walking east and came upon the famous Katz Deli which looked exactly how I remembered, except for the modern glass apartment complex looming over it. Yes, I was definitely going in the right direction. Only everything looked different. The neighborhood had gentrified.

Things hadn’t completely changed, though. In fact, sporadically sprinkled in between the luxury condos were old dilapidated but inhabited buildings, some public housing which looked in pretty good shape, as well as plenty of mom and pop store fronts. It was almost as if the Old Alphabet was fighting back and I wondered how the more wealthy, newer residents interacted with the older-time, less wealthy ones who managed to stay. And more important, I wondered about where the residents went who could no longer afford to live here -- like the people I used to know at 166 Norfolk.

Right then a city worker called out to me: “Hey hon, why do you look so sad?” I stopped to talk to him and told him I used to live here. “Aw, you like it old school!” he said. I asked how much a studio would cost to rent these days and he thought it would be around $1,200. I asked him where the people went who couldn’t afford such a high rent. He thought Queens probably or perhaps even Atlanta. “It’s not like it used to be,” he said. "So when do you think Starbucks is moving in?" I asked. He shrugged and said "We need more grit not more Starbucks." I couldn't have agreed more.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be reached at

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