Visit the things you used to know and chances are they’re not the same. They may be gone forever. Because I grew up in Lower Manhattan, they’re not just gone, but gone with a vengeance. Such is the nature of change.
Walking through the neighborhood where I grew up, I am struck by this wondering, awestruck displacement and—I will admit it—a completely unreasonable sense of hurt and betrayal. Below the conscious, rational mind lurks the childlike and tenacious belief that I am, and should be, eternal. That the things that I have touched, and that have touched me, should be treated with respect.
Around the corner from my boyhood home there once stood a scurvy little bar called La Conquista, where I spent an inordinate amount of time becoming an ace at the video game, Defender. The place was perpetually dark and had the distinctive smell of roaches or roach eggs (if you have lived in NYC, chances are you know this particular reek). I learned to love salsa music and merengue there, because that’s all the jukebox contained, and it was playing constantly.
La Conquista is long gone, of course, replaced in succession by a cheap clothing store, a Korean deli, an expensive clothing store, and an indeterminate number of businesses in between. There is now a Lady Foot Locker on Broadway where La Conquista once exhaled its hangover breath.
TriBeCa is transformed; the Lower East Side is unrecognizable. The SoHo of artists and art galleries is gone, replaced by a playground for the rich. Some of the changes are cheeky, impertinent things, but not without a sense of humor. The corner of my old block is now a four-star French restaurant and boulangerie, Balthazar, that offers “service a toute heure.” It looks as if Balthazar has been in its place since the days of La Belle Époque. Like Édith Piaf might have serenaded Nazi occupiers here, her image reflected a hundredfold in antique mirrors and yellow lamplight. But no, it was created in 1997 in a space abandoned by a garment manufacturing plant.
Far from being a bad thing, progress is good. Excellent, even. For instance, the polio vaccine is a salutary development, marauding Vikings are bugbears best left safely in the past. It’s just that every once in a while I realize that time is a Class VI whitewater rapids, and that is a sobering thought.