There once was a bodega on my Brooklyn corner but then it closed more than a year ago and the windows were papered over. Someone was in the process of a very serious renovation but none of us could see inside. Rumor had it that an Italian caffe was opening there but it was just a rumor. The rehab was taking so long–well over a year–that I began to suspect the storefront was some kind of artistic performance piece. That or a crazy money laundering scheme. But then–almost on cue–the New York Times ran yet another story on the demise of the city’s bodegas and voila, the little caffe on the corner opened its doors.
Bodegas, for anyone not from New York, are the Latino equivalent of the 7/11. They are ubiquitous here; you can barely walk two blocks in Brooklyn in any direction without running into one. So the opening of an elegant caffe on my corner was fine with me but, as usual, there were a few grumblings from the permanently disgruntled among us who mumbled about gentrification and all that. I’m not one of those people. I like having a new caffe on my corner. Aesthetically, it looks a lot better than the bodega it replaced and there’s another bodega right across the street.
Besides, the gentrification wave hit Park Slope a very long time ago. Gone are the people who gave the block some of its character and by that, I mean the drug sellers, alcoholics and former inmates. They were amusing–I like watching a fistfight in the middle of the street as much as the next guy–but they cashed in to relocate. And they were not complaining when given hundreds of thousands of dollars to move on. They gladly accepted. (I admit here to missing some of the older ladies whose full time job it was to sweep the leaves off the sidewalk. There was, for instance, Louise and Little Louise, both in matching housecoats, sweeping away. Sometimes I see them in my dreams. If there is a Heaven, the streets will be leaf-free, I can tell you that.)
My view of New York City is that change is a constant. Stores come, stores go and sometimes people do too. New York was founded on commerce, not religion, and I think it will always be that way. For now, I’m happy with this fancy Italian caffe on the corner but someday it too may go, only to be replaced with who know what?. And that’s fine with me, so long as its not a real estate office.
As a young reporter, I remember city council members (Hello, Ruth Messinger) actually proposing commercial rent controls with a straight face. The proposals were taken seriously and debated and then roundly rejected. These days, no one dares even raise that idea–they’d be laughed out of City Hall even with our progressive leaders in charge.
Personally, I get a bit excited when a new store or restaurant opens in my neighborhood. (A cute little bookstore also opened up, replacing an old video store and that too was a nice addition.) The only thing I don’t like is when blocks grow stale. Let’s mix it up and let the best stores win. My approach is best summed up by a recent Q & A with comedian Sarah Silverman in Manhattan magazine. Here it is:
Do you prefer old New York or new New York?
Sarah Silverman: I have a story for this. … I love staying at The Bowery Hotel—which most people don’t realize used to be a Chevron station—because it’s in my old neighborhood. I was staying there not long ago, and [musician] Chrissie Hynde was also staying there and we had tea. I asked her, ‘Can you believe that CBGB is now a John Varvatos store?’ And she said, ‘I don’t give a f*ck. New York is always turning over. That’s what makes it New York.’ She was so right. We love New York, but it’s always going to turn over and change. You have to embrace it.
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