I grew up in a sleepy, little town near the Jersey shore; one of those places where rope swings dangled from thick,gnarled tree branches; rocking chairs and flapping American flags welcomed guests to our front porches; doors remained unlocked and friends entered without knocking. Although we lived equidistant from New York City and Philadelphia, our bucolic little world was untouched by the bustle and mayhem of the cities. Occasionally we ventured to New York, “the city”, to catch a show or visit a museum. Coming of age in the 70s, my sister and I swore to our parents we would steer clear of the forbidden neighborhoods: Central Park and any place north, the peep shows and XXX movie theaters west of Times Square, and the notorious Hell’s Kitchen. We hopped off the train in Penn Station and sneaked into these tawdry neighborhoods, tempted by the underbelly of urban life.
Philadelphia didn’t exist in our safe haven lexicon, a city reserved for those extremely foolish adventurers with no appreciation for the sanctity of life. Philadelphia was a city built entirely of forbidden neighborhoods. The only time anyone ventured to Philadelphia was to take a seriously ill child to the Children’s Hospital. These visits were discussed between our parents in hushed whispers. Philadelphia was synonymous with bad news. Oh the times they are a changing. My son, Ryan, lives in and loves Philadelphia. Pat and I consider it a “short listed” city for our future home. Philadelphia’s charms lurk beneath a crusty veneer. Yet trendy neighborhoods, restaurants and bars are popping up like dandelions. After living in Central Europe, the grime doesn’t frighten us – it feels like home.
Manhattan is also a different city from the one I knew decades ago. This past weekend, I wandered freely, romping across parks and zipping up and down the island from stem to stern. Where once I found verboten neighborhoods, I now strolled streets with dizzying rent prices alongside men pulling up the sleeve of their custom suits to check their Swiss timepieces before hurrying their pace and woman clipping along in their Manolo Blanicks. I picked a hotel in the garment district, a selection my son classified as “the coolest decision you have even made in your life, mom.” The hotel exuded a vibe pretty distinct from my normally uncool life. Power brokers met in the bar to hash out seven-figure deals; “We’re gonna make you big, we’re gonna take you global.” When I was a kid, immigrants stitched garments in these same buildings. Today, scaffolding lines the streets as workers create still more bars which will pour pricey micro-distilled whiskeys and fashionable, twelve dollar cocktails to throngs of parched and newly minted millionaires. Gone are the work shops of my youth. Gone too are the workers.
My favorite neighborhood is Greenwich Village. The last time we stayed in the village Ronald Reagan was president. Pat and I swapped our Catskill mountain home with a dentist who lived near New York University. I remember the seediness of Washington Park – a neighborhood which felt safe, but not too safe. The days of dentists living in the village vanished along with folk singers – a non-existent next generation of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez wannabees flopping in cheap rooms and cutting their teeth by playing to packed coffee shops. These coffee houses now serve a Sunday brunch of chorizo poached eggs, apple-bacon glazed beignets and glasses of Sancerre. The children of the 60s have grown up, started companies, sold them for millions and flocked back to where it all started. They scratch their heads wondering where it all went.
When Pat and I visit cities, in the back of our minds we are on a house hunting mission of sorts. We consider if this place could become home. Would we feel comfortable living here? I went to New York assuming I would find my American version of Paris – a place where we might consider settling despite the closet sized flat and other sacrifices we would make, a reversion to the early, living on love days of our marriage. The fabulousness of the city would make all our sacrifices worthwhile. I left nostalgic for the days of the seedy New York of my youth, the swathes of ruined and forbidden streets, theater tickets a family could afford on a bricklayer’s salary.
New York attracts a young and frenetic crowd racing towards success. I find this constant buzz a bit unsettling. The last day of my trip, I sat in the perfect lobby bar enjoying my new-found coolness. A young woman, perhaps seven months pregnant, tilted back on the sofa chatting on her phone and relaxing as best she could. Suddenly her husband sprang from the elevator and not breaking stride barked, “Move it Megan, we’re out of here.” She jumped up and scampered off to chase after him. I jumped up myself, headed to Penn Station, to JFK airport and onto Budapest – glad for my visit, thrilled to see our kids, but ready for the peaceful quiet of a less stressful home.
Categories: The United States