Thursday, March 13, 2008

Neighborhood Stories, How They Came About

It all began a few years ago when Mitzi Pratt had her annual bookmaking sale at her sister's loft which is next to ours on Prince Street between Mulberry and Lafayette Streets. In the course of the party I had reason to look through the variety of bound volumes and I found a photo album which struck my fancy. It was an extraordinary work whose cover was made up of small sheets of pressed lead from old bottles of wine. It seemed to capture the whole spirit of downtown as it used to be. It looked like any one of a number of metal doors from lofts and elevators left over from the time when some of the buildings in Little Italy were small factories.

It was then that I had a thought. I would buy the book and fill it with small 4" X 6" photos taken in the streets. After making the purchase I went out the next morning to have a look around. What I saw was our old neighborhood in the process of being gentrified. Everything that was old was out of style and everything that was shiny and new was in. The new shops had to attract the tourists and the rehabbed buildings had to gleam in order to attract the rich new owners and tenants.

After I had completed filling up the book I gave it to Mitzi as a gift. Then I had another thought. Little Italy was changing rapidly and soon it would become completely gentrified. All the old timers would be slowly displaced and there would be nobody to tell their stories. I decided to write down some of the stories I knew.

In December of 2007 Mitzi has her last book party. Noni, Mitzi's sister, was in the process of selling her loft and moving to Queens. In February of 2008 Noni actually moved out. That's another change which is symbolic of what is happening to our neighborhood. Many of the activities which we associated with culture rather than commerce are disappearing. By culture I do not mean the public pushing into museums and chattering ignorantly about the latest thing being promoted by professional curators and museum directors. By culture I mean the way in which people live together as a society or in a small community and interact over a long period of time. It is this culture which is under attack by the process of rapid gentrification. It is this culture which is in danger of disappearing entirely.

The photo which illustrates this story was taken just a few steps from here and is of a manhole cover which dates back to 1866. Water used to come into the neighborhood all the way from Croton, New York. The manhole cover is one of the last visible remnants of that system of pipes and aqueducts.

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