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Sunday, September 18, 2005

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? --Corinthians 1, 5:13

I was never really one of those "N.I.M.B.Y." people. Being raised on the Upper West Side, which used to be a funky, racially & culturally diverse, artsy, boho neighborhood (any native New Yorker over the age of 30 can attest to this--although you'd never know it by visiting it now), I was no stranger to watching a community undergo drastic changes. Basically, it hurts. I know that nothing lasts forever, and that to move forward, stuff needs to evolve, etc., but it stinks to watch everything you loved about your childhood nabe slowly disappear. And in reality, the gentrification of the Upper West Side of Manhattan was not all that slow. Slower than Williamsburg, yes, but that's not saying much.

I fled Manhattan as a young adult. And "fled" is all wrong; I didn't go willingly at first. My mother raised me (inadvertently, of course) as a bit of a Manhattan snob. Outer boroughs were where "real-old-fashioned" NYC could be found, which may be terrific to visit, but you certainly don't live there. I moved from my Mom's to the then-more-affordable Upper East Side, but could only hold down the fort for two years, even with my three jobs. The romance of working three jobs, seven days/nights a week in order to pay for your first apartment is short-lived. My boyfriend at the time lived in Beautiful Western Queens, which I thought was really funny, but he helped me find a solid, clean 1BR right around the corner from his place, which presented several advantages: it was $150 cheaper than what I was paying, twice as big, and I would save a small fortune in cab fare since I could get to his place on foot. I occupy that apartment to this day, although that romance has faded, and I'm happy to point out that I'm now paying a mere $57 more per month than my last Manhattan apartment--ten years ago.

In the ten years since the move, I have developed a different perspective on what "real" New York is. I know that visitors and novice NYC-dwellers believe that Manhattan is all there is. I even know people who take some sort of moronic pride in not venturing North of 14th Street. Back in my bartending years, not a week would go by without some 22-year-old actor/dancer/screenplay writer/sculptor/student/photographer sidling up to the service area, clasping their hands under their chin, sigh deeply and declare their deep love of their new life in The Big City

"Ohmigod, I'm crammed in a windowless studio apartment with my boyfriend/girlfriend/buddy-with-benefits, three other roommates and four cats on Avenue C and can you believe my share of the rent is only $900!"

This conversation would invariably turn to "...and where do YOU live?",the answer followed by a look of pity for my apparent lack of New Yorkerness.

I try not to feel anger toward these folks, although they offend me to my very core. Mostly, I pity them right back. Hey, if you want to pay non-stabilized market-value rent for a shoebox in a Manhattan neighborhood where all the surrounding stores and restaurants are the exact same ones you left behind in the local mall of whatever town you abandoned to come here: be my guest, fool! This goes double for tourists. I have nothing against tourists. We need as many tourists with cash as we can get our hands on; but if you traveled 3000 miles to walk around Times Square, go see "Beauty & The Beast" and gorge on all-you-can-eat salad and breadsticks at The Olive Garden, then you've missed out on New York City in a big, big way. But that's alright. We still need your money. But I digress.

The point I wanted to make was about neighborhoods and how they change. One of the things I love about my hood is how slow it has been to morph into something new. Areas all over the city are transforming at lightning speed. Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Ridgewood, Washington Heights, Fort Greene and Harlem come to mind. They are vastly different than they were even only five years ago. Not true of here. In fact, every couple of years a magazine headline will declare


but it has yet to happen. This is fine with me. The local population has changed somewhat, and in the most interesting ways. Lots of college students (mostly Japanese), some new young families just starting out, groups from various countries whose names end in "--stan", many Moroccans, a smattering of Central Americans, a bevy of Brazilians, and an inexplicably sudden wave of folks from Tibet. And those are just the newer residents! This has been a traditionally Greek neighborhood for many years, and they're still sticking around. As you can imagine, the food choices around here are simply unbelievable.

Change. Right. Back on track. My block is changing. Let me start out by noting that this block is very pretty. There are some prettier blocks in the world, but this is up there. We have the cleanest streets, the daintiest little old ladies, and the strongest trees. We also have a lovely old church right in the middle of it all, complete with an adjoining church house and a second church house that is so perfect in it's houseness, that it resembles something a child might draw if commanded to do so. It is a brick rectangle with a porch, a central front door, and a pitched slate roof. I realize that the world is also full of houses. The majority of New York City is not, so it's a novelty. It's the local (and I think only) Presbyterian church, and it is scheduled to be torn down.

That church is one of the reasons I chose to live on this block. It's quieter here, I think. That's a lot of land that isn't occupied by an apartment building or two, which means that fewer people live on the block in general. As it turns out, the Presbyterians with have figure this out, too. That church has a painfully small congregation (about 35) and whoever is in charge has decided that they need to be getting more bang-for-their buck in terms of land use. What could be better than a 10-story housing unit with a "churchy" area on the first floor and a free apartment for the pastor?!

Here's my problem with this idea: Firstly, constructing a 10-story building is no joke. That will be loud, dusty, and will take a long while. Secondly, there isn't a 10 story building ANYWHERE around here. Most of the housing on this block (and this whole neighborhood) consists of three-story six-family residences, with the occasional 5 story building scattered around, most of which are so old as to not have elevators. There's been some new construction, certainly, but nothing topping 5 stories. Nothing. I feel as if Mr. Burns is trying to block out the sun. Also, nothing against Presbyterians in general, I'm concerned that whoever is in charge of this decision may not have their priorities straight. This new building is slated to be "low-income housing", which is fine, but includes a freebie apartment for the Pastor, who supposedly has a $45,000-a-year income. He also drives an $80,000 car. That car is likely owned or leased by the church, since it has a "Church Van on Church Business" sign displayed prominently in the window so as not to receive parking tickets.

The project has everyone's dander up and those defending the project claim that they've been working on this proposal for years, and no one else came up with any better ideas. I walk my dog three times a day 'round these parts and I didn't see any flyers for any community meetings. Funny.

The larger question is whether or not it is the church's right to do whatever they wish with their own land. Apparantly, there is no requirement for any construction to pass a community board, nor does this project get put to a vote by the district, simply because the land in question in owned by a religious body. Believe me, if Wal-Mart bought the lot, they would not be able to stick a Sam's Club on it.

Fact is, it's a lovely old church and even though I never attended a service there, it has been a commanding presence on this block. The day will come when it will get smacked by a wrecking ball, and that day will be terribly sad. New York City neighborhoods inevitably change. Basically, it hurts. It just hurts.
posted by missbhavens @ 7:20 PM |


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