New York

On the Outside Looking In

Making music in a gentrifying New York, then and now

by

“I realized that from yesterday through next Tuesday I’m going to be working over 60 hours.”

“Wow! But you have a show this weekend?”

Text exchange between my daughter and me — she in Bushwick and me in the Hudson Valley, 2018 

“How you been?” said Sal.

I sat down at the counter of my once-favorite pizza place on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg. The young man who used to ring up the slices now looked halfway between the tough guy he’d been and the old man who used to make the pies. The old man was nowhere to be seen. I’d called them Young Sal and Old Sal, back in the early Nineties, when their neighborhood had become my neighborhood. Now he was just…Sal?

“You want some wine, too — with a little ice?” Sal asked.

I nodded. “I used to come in here a lot,” I said.

“I remember.”

We talked about the changes in Williamsburg: the flood of young people and European tourists; high-rises and luxury hotels. He shook his head when I mentioned the gigantic swimming pool at McCarren Park that had eventually been renovated and reopened after decades of neglect.

“Where you living these days?” he asked.

“Upstate,” I said, as if my exit from Brooklyn had been a straight line up the Thruway. The true story was too complicated. He asked about my daughter, where she was now, whether she was coming up to visit this summer.

I sipped my wine and thought about my first day in the neighborhood, almost thirty years before.

***

I’d never wanted to live in Brooklyn. When I moved to New York City in 1976 to attend Parsons, Manhattan was the goal. Drawing, sure; fashion, graphic design, illustration — fine. But the main reason for leaving Pittsburgh, or anywhere, was to live among the skyscrapers and lowlifes on a numbered street in the grid of dreams. A diagonal avenue like Broadway or Greenwich was acceptable, or if things went really well maybe one of those little angled blocks in the West Village.

I went to CBGB and fell all the way in love with music. I saw every band — the Ramones, Blondie, Television, X-Ray Spex, Wire, Pere Ubu, the Cramps, the Clash — and helped start a dance club that turned into an obscure but essential no wave nightspot called Tier 3. I still aimed to make a living as an illustrator, but the creativity of bands and clubs and the excitement of being in a scene were my main focus. Visions of doormen or elevator buildings or even a working intercom gave way to downtown roommate lofts and squats and a dark storefront. For a year I was happy with a sixth-floor walk-up room rented from Honeymoon Killers guitarist Jerry Teel. It was cheap and sunny with a bird’s-eye view of the busiest drug supermarket in Alphabet City. I started a band with my brother Michael and some art school friends and discovered I could write songs.

I felt like I’d finally hit the real estate lottery in 1983 when my former Parsons roommate, no wave photographer Julia Gorton, sublet me her rent-stabilized studio. After a year I signed my own name at the bottom of the lease. It was on a decent block (no blatant criminal activity) just across from leafy Stuyvesant Town on far East 14th Street. My tub was in the kitchen and the toilet sort of was too, but the building had decent heat and hot water. My neighbors were fellow artists and writers and musicians who I’d hear practicing or see hauling portfolios toward the subway at First Avenue. Being laid off from a job hand-painting fabric in the garment district bought me almost a year of freedom thanks to unemployment benefits, and then I discovered the world of temporary office work, at a time when word processing was still a sought-after skill. I wrote hundreds of songs on East 14th Street and recorded them by boombox and then four-track while my band Last Roundup played gigs and made a record. I felt like I was set for life, until —

Life. I married another musician. We had a kid.

The building went co-op.

I don’t know why the co-op conversion surprised me. I’d worked as a temp for Time Equities, one of the biggest real estate companies in the city, for a few years. I’d done my tiny part to make those real estate transactions happen, typing forms and copying documents for hundreds of closings. The legal terms and lingo — “sponsor,” “red herring,” “major capital improvements” — were so much a part of my life I’d written them into lyrics for a song called “File Clerk Blues.” Those words had all been so much colorful jargon until the day in 1990 when the letter offering an opportunity to own shares in a piece of Manhattan arrived in the mail, along with the Con Ed bill and an overdue notice from a diaper delivery service we’d stopped because we were three people living in two rooms.

The asking price was $34,000. It was a non-eviction plan, meaning we could stay if we wanted and continue paying $300-a-month rent that would go up incrementally every few years. My husband and I surveyed the ever-filling space around us. Our one-year-old had just started walking, or would have if only there’d been floor space. 

“We could take the buyout and move?” one of us said. The paltry $3,400 buyout offer wouldn’t cover a month’s rent in the same building now. But at that time, for two struggling musicians with a kid and not a credit card between them, it could pay for half a year’s rent for twice the amount of space — if we moved to Williamsburg.

My new group, the Shams, had started recording at Coyote Studios, a block from the first L train stop in Brooklyn. We’d played a gig or two in repurposed art spaces (a former funeral parlor and a social club) impossible to find by daylight. I’d made a few pilgrimages to Domsey’s used clothing warehouse  off of Kent Avenue. “This neighborhood is coming up,” a childless friend who was grandfathered for life into a rent-controlled one bedroom in the East Village had said on one of those excursions, as we made the endless march back to the L train. “Maybe you should think of moving out here?”

I’d looked around at empty manufacturing buildings, the elevated subway tracks casting a dark web the length of Broadway. A lethargic prostitute, still standing on a street corner even though Friday night had ended hours ago, glared at me. I remember shuddering.

“Never.”

I hadn’t moved to New York City to live in a grimmer, more expensive version of Pittsburgh. But my husband, Will, and I put daughter Hazel in her car seat and drove over the permanently under-construction Williamsburg Bridge to look at apartments. We got lost navigating the one-way streets bisected by avenues that radiated from an unknown center point like the spokes of a stolen bicycle wheel. Above the whole mess loomed the BQE, an elevated, pockmarked conduit between the two boroughs I knew mostly from Welcome Back, Kotter and All in the Family and New York Post headlines reporting crime and racial incidents. The few times I’d traveled through this part of Brooklyn into Queens via a yellow Manhattan taxi headed for LaGuardia Airport, I’d looked out the cab window into apartments mere feet away from the crumbling, traffic-clogged six lanes and seen shocking signs of everyday life — curtains and cats, suncatchers and flowerpots. “What kind of hapless losers end up living here?”

***

Withers Street. The name alone suggested this corner of homely Williamsburg was where dreams sloped off to die. The block was anchored by a gas station and deli on one end, auto parts and lumber stores on the other. There’d been an auto parts store on 14th Street and Avenue C, but this auto parts store sold strictly used mufflers, retreaded tires. Bamonte’s Restaurant was the jewel in the middle, its red facade and light-up sign straight out of a Dean Martin song.

The coziness of Brooklyn was a shock after years of Manhattan anonymity. Most of our Withers Street neighbors were Italian and kept tabs on one another and everything that went on in the block from morning to night, either leaning out their front windows or sitting in lawn chairs on the sidewalk outside their buildings. The couple downstairs dressed like they were still in the old country: pinafores and hair in a bun on the mother; suspenders, baggy pants, and undershirt on the dad. He reminded me of my grandfather, who’d come to America from Abruzzo in 1920. Our new neighbors hung their clothes on a line, made wine and tomato sauce in the garden out back, and had never been into The City. Their grown son, a biker who loved Meat Loaf and David Allan Coe, lived next door.

This was unknown territory. Except for a dozen or so friends in Hoboken, everybody I knew lived in Manhattan. Getting people to come visit even one stop into Brooklyn was a challenge. My brother made the trek after verifying that the L train did indeed run all night, both ways.

“Look, Michael!” I said, showing him the spires of Manhattan in the distance over our downstairs neighbors’ underwear flapping from the clothesline. “There’s a view!”

He nodded sadly. “But you’re on the outside looking in.”

Our first day on Withers Street, Will and Hazel and I walked to a pizzeria on Lorimer Street. The other patrons, in tracksuits and Brylcreemed hair, regarded us suspiciously.

The older pizza man eyed us up and down. Will’s hair was wild and curly, longer than mine. He wore a T-shirt proclaiming “Piggie Park” in neon letters. I wore a pair of short flowered overalls over tights and cowboy boots. The younger guy behind the counter’s face softened when he saw Hazel in her stroller. “Lookit the head of hair on this kid,” he said and handed her a butter cookie, our parental status buying a smidgen of grudging respect.

I’d lived alongside the Puerto Ricans, the Ukrainians, and the artists and junkies of the East Village with the feeling that we were all interlopers, but this part of Brooklyn had a settled quality that repelled outsiders, like a plastic cover on an upholstered sofa. I’d heard there were artists and musicians living among the Italians and Polish and Dominicans and Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg, but it was hard to tell, because most of the time the streets were just deserted. I pushed Hazel in her stroller toward McCarren Park, its huge outdoor pool long shut and left to decay. Crack vials crunched underfoot in the adjacent broken-down playground while the wind whipped along Driggs Avenue. A stern-looking Polish grandmother in a stiff woolen coat drove an old-fashioned baby carriage toward the lone bakery on Bedford. Was Manhattan really just over there, a few minutes away by subway?

Turning back toward the BQE, I saw a woman with round cheeks and a headscarf pushing a similar stroller, a toddler hanging off the side. I wanted to cry out: “Hello, can we be friends? I’m a bohemian, tooooo!”

***

When I’d finished my wine and my slices, paid up, and said goodbye, I wondered if Sal really still remembered me.

He did. And he didn’t. In the layers of neighborhood archeology, I was mid to late Mesozoic. He knew I was out of a simpler past, he just wasn’t sure which one. It’s painful to admit the Withers Street part of my life was the beginning of a trajectory that would take me out of the city forever. The sense of dislocation mixed with a realization that life was happening to me now, not in some glittering possible future — that illusion so easily available in Manhattan — had a lot to do with figuring out what I had to say as an artist. I just never imagined that Sal would be one of the few fixed points I’d have left from that era.

I got divorced and moved with my daughter from Brooklyn to Nashville in 1999. I’d sublet my last New York apartment to a friend — does anybody leave New York without a re-entry plan? In 2001, the landlord wanted to sell and was asking something like $225,000 for the entire building. Could we all go in together and buy it from him? I was struggling to pay the rent in Nashville while trying to land a publishing deal there. Bye-bye, Brooklyn…forever.

They opened an impressive new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville two years after I arrived. Not long after, the city shut down the dozens of massage parlors that had operated in the low-rent shadows of downtown for decades. Huge changes were on the horizon for the city. I wrote a lot of songs, made a few records, learned to tour, and left before the pedal taverns and unchecked development took hold.

I lived briefly in Cleveland and then went to rural France with Wreckless Eric, who is now my husband. He has an aversion to big-city life, so moving back to the city wasn’t a possibility when we were trying to find a home in the Northeast in 2011. That’s convenient because there’s definitely a statute of limitations on re-entry plans, and mine ran out somewhere around 2006. No matter how much time you put into living in the city, once you’re gone well over a decade you’ve got to get back in line with all the other starry-eyed hopefuls. (See, I’ve been gone so long I can’t honestly use the New York vernacular “on line” — it just feels dishonest.)

Eric and I couldn’t afford Hudson, with its galleries and posh restaurants and shops, or Saugerties, or one of the more popular towns in the Hudson Valley. Deb Parker, a visionary from East Village days who started Beauty Bar and No-Tell Motel and runs a junk shop upstate while doing some real estate on the side, recommended looking in a rundown town called Catskill. When I heard a stranger refer to it as “that dump” and someone else call it “Crackskill,” a reference to a fairly recent past, it all felt so familiar I knew we’d found home.

My daughter moved back to New York City in 2013. She and her boyfriend scraped their way into a rent-stabilized apartment in Bushwick that they share with a roommate. She plays in a band and works two jobs.

In 2017, my old East 14th Street apartment was on the market for $340,000.

That last Williamsburg building I lived in (the one the landlord sold for $225,000 in 2001) is currently for sale for $3,999,000.

***

“Eric!” I said recently, when a coffee shop, bar, and café finally opened in Catskill after a few years of making do with Dunkin’ Donuts and trips across the river to Hudson. “There are young men, with beards! Walking down Main Street!”

I hate to admit that I’m kind of a widow-maker for places. I have a knack for living in and moving out of neighborhoods and cities before they become sought after: East Village, Williamsburg, Nashville. Catskill? It’s a thing artists do. We look for somewhere cheap to live. As soon as I crave a couple of upscale amenities and even a few neighbors with something in common, I’m guaranteeing that somebody else will get rich and I’ll eventually move on. I just feel bad that things are moving too fast now for my daughter to have a Sal.

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