Neighborhood Changes

September 18, 2005

I’m not sure why some people don’t like change, but I guess it’s because it reminds us that we are not in control (we aren’t), that we are growing older (we are), and the worst part of all, that we will have to learn a new name or address or phone number, and we aren’t really sure that we have any room left in our heads to remember new things (we don’t).

A few moons ago I was walking down the street, as I am apt to do, and I noticed that a church in my neighborhood had a large sign on it informing people that the congregation would now be meeting in a different church several blocks away. As I walked by, I thought this a bit odd since why would a congregation not meet in it’s own church, but that thought was quickly banished from my mind due to a striking blonde coming from the other direction. That thought did not reenter my mind until several days later when I walked by the church again and found that some scaffolding had been erected around it, for what I thought was a touch up to the facade. Several days after my last walk by this particular church, I happened by it again. This time it was missing something…the top two floors! At this point I had no choice but to realize that they were tearing it down.

Now normally I wouldn’t give this fact a second thought, but this was not just any church in my neighborhood, this was the church that was attached to, and owned, the building where I went to high school. If they were tearing down the church, then in all likelihood, my high school would surely follow.

And there I was, about a week ago, standing in a pizza shop across the street from where the church used to stand (ironically, the very pizza shop where I was banned from while attending said high school), waiting for my sausage and pepperoni slices, and I could see my old high school, something that would not have been possible if the church was still standing. I could see the fourth floor where I attended numerous history, English, and math classes (and a detention or two); I could see the top floor where the science classes were held; and I could see the men on the roof tossing bricks down to the newly empty lot next door as they slowly started to dismantle my high school.

The church and school will most likely be replaced by high rise condos or a new wing for the hospital in the area that has been putting up new buildings like they were made of Lego. Will I miss the church or the high school? Not really. I didn’t pay either of them much mind until I saw that sign, but a little part of my past is gone. I will never be able to take my children, when I have some, and show them where I went to high school (and for that, I’m sure they will be grateful).

In a similar vein, a few days ago I was walking down the same street mentioned above and noticed that a new dining establishment had opened. This particular kind of establishment and it’s location, irked me. It’s a Pick-A-Bagel, and while I like bagels as much as the next guy, it’s located about five doors down from Bagel Works, a wholly remarkable bagel shop that has been at it’s same location for as long as I can remember.

This “shot across the bow” is eerily reminiscent of the great Champagne-Blockbuster video battle that waged here several years ago (without getting into specifics, Blockbuster opened a store right across the street from Champagne; Champagne is still there and the Blockbuster is now a Duane Reade). The sad thing is that Bagel Works truly is a mom-and-pop store in a land that doesn’t have many of them left. It’s small, has no seating, the shelving looks like it was made by cavemen (both the craftsmanship of it and the age), it’s almost always uncomfortably crowded with people trying to squeeze in and order without stepping on those who have ordered and are waiting for their bagels, there always seems to be a screaming kid on line, like there’s some rule that if you are under three years old and on line for bagels, you must scream at the top of your lungs until everyone else’s ears bleed, and the people behind the counter, while not rude, don’t exactly have time to be friendly. The bagels, on the other hand, are heavenly. Made fresh in the shop (the equipment takes up most of the store), they are exactly what a bagel should be: slightly hard on the outside, but soft and chewy on the inside. Look up “bagel” in the dictionary, and I have a feeling that it will say, “Just go to Bagel Works on the upper East side of Manhattan. Words here will not do it justice.” In short, it is exactly how a New York bagel shop should be.

The new Pick-A-Bagel on the other hand is quite roomy with lots of seating, windows, and an orderly, well defined area for ordering and picking up. The signage is bright, easy to read and has, I assume, accurate pricing. Everything is made of stainless steel which gives it an almost hospital cleanliness feel to it. In short, it has no character. It is to bagels what the Olive Garden is to Italian food.

The bottom line is that things change. There’s nothing you can do about it. Change, for the most part, is good. It keeps things fresh. It revitalizes and reinvigorates. Neighborhoods change little by little, store by store. Remember that Japanese take-out place? It’s still there, but has a new name and a new menu. Is it really that different? So what if combo #16 is now combo #12 (and for $1 more you can get 6 California rolls!)? Yes, I sometimes miss stores that close down, but it’s not the end of the world. I adjust. To be honest with you, pick a store in my neighborhood that has opened in the last few years and I will be hard pressed to tell you what used to be there (except for Kitaro, the sushi there was great!).

When I used to go to the high school mentioned above, I would usually walk or take the bus from my parents house about 20 blocks away. Since both were on First Avenue, it would be a straight shot up First on the way to school. At 59th Street, I would pass under the 59th Street Bridge (also known as the Queensboro Bridge for some reason), and it was not the most pleasant experience. It smelled, horribly, of urine, as if every homeless person in New York would hold it in just to use this one block as a bathroom. There were lights hanging down from the ceiling, but they had no bulbs, so it was a bit hard to see what you were stepping in (or on) and more than once that soft pile of brown grass would squeal and run away. And that was the best part of the bridge underpass. The parts to the East and West of First Avenue were caged in and seemed to be used as a dumping ground for every conceivable kind of garbage, and some you wouldn’t conceive of.

Then, as happens around here, someone decided that if it were cleaned up, the city could lease out the space under the bridge and something nice could be done with it. Kind of like urban renewal but on a one block scale. It took a few years, but it was done. Now, it is clean, well lit, doesn’t smell, and is home to a very nice restaurant called Guastavino’s that has to have one of the most spectacular spaces for a restaurant, there is a Terrence Conran design store, and the piece de resistance, a beautiful supermarket (by Manhattan standards) dubbed “The Food Emporium BridgeMarket”. Clearly, the change was very good (although the mafia might miss a prime dumping ground…for all I know, Hoffa could be buried under the produce section). The change in the bridge area has also fueled a small change in the surrounding area. Across the street from the bridge, where a gas station and Chippendales used to be, there are now high rise condos, and the building’s first floor houses a huge Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and a Starbucks. How could this kind of change be bad for a neighborhood?

I’m not sure who will win the great bagel battle of 2005, but I’m off to Bagel Works for what will undoubtedly be a delicious sesame toasted with butter, and will most likely include a side of screaming kid (at no charge). And as I drink my coffee, I will tip my cup to change, and hope that some things never do.

Update: As of July 2006, both Champagne and the Blockbuster’s a few blocks North have closed. Guastavino’s has also closed. The Food Emporium BridgeMarket is going to be closed for six weeks in September for renovations.