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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Urban Legends

We were out the other day at the Bowery Bar for drinks. It was a beautiful afternoon, perfect for sitting outside. The three-day weekend was just ahead, with summer tagging along after it. The mood was cheerful and relaxed.

Above the garden wall, the sky was filled with a huge crane. There have been concerns about the economy but all signs in New York are optimistic. There has never been so much construction.

Everywhere you turn, something is coming down and something else is taking its place. The Bowery, for instance, always the symbol of sketchiness, is undergoing a major facelift. There’s a new hotel and swanky bar that everyone’s talking about. Skinny glass condo buildings are popping up alongside the shlubby tenaments still selling restaurant equipment.

Throughout Brooklyn, the skeletons of future buildings are everywhere. It’s most obvious when you’re on the BQE, which winds along the edge of Brooklyn: Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Long Island City. It is all happening everywhere and all at once.

Now that New York is no longer a dangerous place to be, there’s no end in sight. There will never be a shortage of people who want to live here, or own a little place to stay on their visits. The Times reported recently that the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $2500. On television, I’d heard it was $2900. Whatever it is, the cost of living for a young person just starting their career is prohibitive, unless subsidized by parents or sharing a Brooklyn loft with multiple roommates.

I have a theory that Law and Order could not get on the air until 1990, because by that time, the dangers of New York were more myth than reality. Its producer, Dick Wolf, spent thirteen years getting the show to television, where it now has a small empire. The early episodes capitalized on urban legends like waking up in hotel room without a kidney . Back then, New York was mythic and tinged with danger, but no one considered it entertainment until danger no longer lurked outside.

Everyone who’s lived here a while has his or her war stories. Alphabet City is a popular setting, or Washington Square Park, or simply the subway. The city had been littered with needles, bums and graffiti. Times Square was as uninviting as it is today, but not because it was an overwhelming tourist trap. It was a desolate, scary place to be.

My first summer here, I encountered a man lying on the sidewalk, who'd been stabbed near the Pennsylvania Hotel. It was just after lunch, and I was on a coffee run for my boss. It was my initiation to the hazards of the city and the finer shades of coffee (‘dark’, I learned the hard way, is wholly different from ‘black’).

The contrast between then and now could not be more striking. Now you can get an ‘Iced Decaf Triple Grande Vanilla Non-fat Latte’ on every corner, without fear of walking down the street. But affording an apartment here is another story altogether.