By Annette Hinkle
“You should have seen the size of the rats that used live down here,” said my husband, Adam, using his hands to indicate the length of a three-footer in what I suspect may have been a slight exaggeration, just like some of the fish he’s caught over the years.
Or maybe not, based on my memories of the ye olde New York City back in the long gone days of the 1980s.
Either way, my, 16-year-old daughter, Sophie, remained unimpressed and turned away to do a pirouette on the fabulously green lawn.
It was Saturday last, and we were hanging about under the Brooklyn Bridge (on its namesake side of the river) exploring a veritable paradise that didn’t even exist in the imagination of the most fertile minds back in the years to which my husband was referring.
Just like that annoying old codger who regales young ‘uns with tales of how much snow he had to walk through to get to school when he was a kid, Adam and I were both shaking our heads. Once again, we were getting a first-hand education in the many ways in which this gritty city we once proudly proclaimed our own had been transformed into a clean, well-managed and downright enjoyable place now that we don’t live there anymore.
It was like we were the tourists this time, with mouths agape at the beautiful gardens and expansive grassy lawns that occupy the former no-man’s land known as the DUMBO neighborhood down under the Brooklyn Bridge. The shocked expression on our faces must have revealed our confusion as well-meaning metrosexuals disembarking from the mid-town ferry with their brightly colored $900 Electra bikes stopped to ask if we needed directions.
“Yes,” I was tempted to say. “Can you tell me how to get to Brooklyn?”
This somewhere-over-the-rainbow version was not a place I recognized. It was populated by happy dogs and fit owners playing ball, while countless sets of brides and grooms — wedding parties and guests in tow— lined up for photos and ceremonies, as flower girls in taffeta squirmed uncomfortably from the formality of it all on such a hot June day.
Nearby, Jacques Torres Chocolate was serving European lattes and scooping a rainbow of gelato flavors into diminutive cups and from there, we explored a newly renovated brick factory building that has been transformed into a hyper-fancy retail space with high end dining, sparkling clean restrooms and even a West Elm store.
Then we noticed a second factory closer to the bridge that has been repurposed as a performance space. It’s a building that both Adam and I remember well from the old days when we toiled for substandard wages while working on super low budget and often super bad films and music videos in that very spot. This frightening strip of desolation under the Brooklyn Bridge was extremely popular in those days amongst a certain ilk of young director and, like the High Line on the West Side, was so decrepit and seedy, it made an ideal location in which to recreate apocalyptic end times.
These shoots under the Brooklyn Bridge were always night-into-day, which meant you’d start at dusk, work 12 hours or more in the dark and wrap the set after the last shot at sunrise. As the rising pink dawn illuminated the cables of the bridge, it would also shed light on the filth and debris you’d been unwittingly trudging through all night long. It was just you and the motely vampire crew hanging out under the bridge with the vermin in a location so far from civilization the nearest flush toilet was a half mile away. Inevitably, at some point during the morning wrap, that collection of plastic, cardboard and blankets piled in a dark corner would move, indicating there was a person beneath it who had been sleeping there all night, unbeknownst to you.
There were a lot of these kinds of productions going on in New York back then because at that time, it was hard to imagine New York would ever go in the opposite direction by becoming desirable.
But so it has.
This is a hard thing to impress upon children raised on the East End. Whenever my daughter takes offense at an odd odor emanating from a food shop when we visit Chinatown, I always remind her that she hasn’t lived long enough to know how bad a truly terrible New York City scent can be.
That reasoning does little to cheer her up.
Like mothers everywhere, I blame myself. As I write this column, I’m sitting in the comfortably air-conditioned bedroom of a vintage brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It’s a beautiful place, and has become one of the homes that we swap regularly. It belongs to a couple who own the building and we have the run of two whole floors, along with the back garden. They travel a lot, which means we’re able to stay here a lot, and come August, we’ll pay them back by giving them our place for a week or so while we’re away.
Nobody in New York really lives this way — certainly not me in the ‘80s. But Sophie has become used to this high-end style. These summer sojourns into the city have become something of a tradition, mainly because this is the time of year when we take in teenage exchange students from Europe. Right now, we have 17-year-old Laura from Vicenza, Italy staying with us. This is her first trip to the U.S. and she loves New York and was very excited to see the sights and, most importantly, hit the stores that teenage girls tend to favor.
Among them is the Times Square Forever 21, which stays open until a ridiculous 2 a.m. On Saturday night, Laura and Sophie stayed downtown and hit the store at 11:30 p.m. after Adam and I headed back home to sleep. The girls then caught a cab and arrived back at the brownstone in the wee hours of the morning with lots of shopping bags.
This all still seems really surreal to me — the nice apartment, a revitalized Brooklyn, the cheerful shopping opportunities, and particularly the idea that teenage girls can safely roam Times Square late at night alone.
There must be something real left to see her, I reasoned.
Fortunately for Father’s Day, Adam wanted to check out Pig and Khao, a Filipino/Thai Asian restaurant on the Lower East Side way down on Clinton Street almost to Delancey Street. If any of ye olde New York still existed anywhere in Manhattan these days, I reasoned this might be where we’d find it.
But I’m here to tell you, that place has been tidied up in a big way as well. Sure, there are still graffiti-covered walls and crazy women walking even crazier dogs while they talk to each other in some secret language, but upscale and hip shopping, drinking and eating opportunities abound in the hood.
The Pig and Khao is decidedly one of them, and it turns out owner Leah Cohen was a competitor on “Top Chef.”
Totally figures — and the food is excellent by the way. But just as I was about to write off the Lower East Side as yet another place that has been completely gentrified, a loud rap song began blaring from the speakers in the restaurant. It was raw and gritty, just like ye olde New York, with lyrics laced by language so foul and filthy that even a sailor would blush. Laura, our exchange student, seemed to appreciate the authenticity of it all while Sophie and I just exchanged knowing grins.
It’s kinda like Dorothy’s longing for Kansas, and maybe you can’t find the real New York anymore when you go looking for it — but sometimes, it might find you just when you need it the most.