Yorkville High Street is what the stretch of East 86th Street outside my door might very well be called if this were London, where streets pick up and discard names every couple of miles as they pass from one former suburb, now thoroughly embedded in the metropolis, to another. We will save the derivation of 'Yorkville' for another time, and while we're at it, the history of what used to be a thoroughly German, working-class neighborhood. Today, Yorkville's population seems mostly to consist of unmarried young urban professionals - although they must have all gotten married two years ago, since they're all pushing strollers now. One thing may be said with certainty: Yorkville is not a fashionable quarter. It does not really include posh East End Avenue, which runs along Carl Schurz Park - the site of Gracie Mansion, where the mayor's abandoned wife lives - and it extends only a few buildings beyond Lexington Avenue to the west. Its lateral boundaries are 79th and 96th Streets. To the north lies Harlem; to the west and south, the vast, affluent plain of the ZIP code 10021.
East 86th Street, then, runs right through the middle of Yorkville. Unlike most cross streets in New York, especially outside of midtown, it features a thriving commercial axis, stretching from First to just beyond Lex, that for sense of place trumps the intersecting avenues. The gridded portion of Manhattan hasn't got anything else like it, although the 'outer boroughs' do. It's a sign, in fact, of Yorkville's deeply unfashionable character that its principal street could be in Queens. We're not in Queens, but in the view of young people about town we might as well be. Certainly nobody strolls up and down East 86th Street savoring the flavor of New York. The only tourists to come here on purpose are German-Americans, and they only come once a year, for the Steuben Day parade in the fall.
When we arrived, in 1980, East 86th Street was still said to have been 'ruined' by Gimbels, a branch of that late department store having been thrown up in the 60s. Gimbels brought in hordes of shoppers from other, mostly poorer neighborhoods - or at least that was the common wisdom. Certainly the street became the closest venue for Harlem shoppers looking for mall-level quality. These days, 125th Street, Harlem's main lane, is well into an economic renaissance, but if that's had an impact on 86th Street, I haven't noticed it. Gimbels disappeared into an elegant apartment house, built on its girders, well over ten years ago. A new branch of Banana Republic will be opening any day at the corner of 86th and Third, the heart of Yorkville and right across the street from a funky holdover, the Papaya King.
Like the main streets of English fiction, the Yorkville High Street stretch of East 86th Street is where you go shopping for almost anything you need if you live in Yorkville. You can shop there if you come from somewhere else, as long as the hip and the chic don't characterize your shopping list. Clothes, gyms, banks, book and record stores, electronics and computer outlets, supermarkets and greengrocers, flowers, liquor, health foods - I was going to add chocolates, but venerable Elk Candy had to leave its 86th Street address a few years ago when its building was demolished, and it moved down Second Avenue a block and a half. Whatever's not on 86th Street is just off it. Pet shops, dry cleaners, at least a dozen different kinds of restaurants. Doctors and lawyers line the upper floors, along with tai kwon do and pool parlors. There are fourteen movie screens distributed among four theatres. Convenience is a New York specialty for which the city gets a bit more credit than it deserves, but it would deserve much less if it weren't for Yorkville High Street.
Although I see and nod to familiar faces from time to time as I make my way up and down the street, it would be a mistake to regard Yorkville as a homey little village. The neighborhood is probably one of the city's most diverse, economically, and in the middle of the day, astride the rush hours, black and brown and white faces mingle in seemingly equal numbers. What makes Yorkville High Street special is an ordinariness that you'll have a hard time finding anywhere else. (October 2000)
The artist who thus signs his chalk drawings and inscriptions on city sidewalks has been active again here in Yorkville. When I went out to lunch yesterday, I crossed an obviously fresh inscription - 'Poverty is a horrible idea that works so well' - and when I came out of the Chinese restaurant that I'd decided to visit in person for a change (instead of having lunch delivered to the apartment), there was another: 'There is so much going on in the world outside this tiny box' - the words 'tiny box' appearing in a tiny box. Returning home, I passed a huge new drawing that hadn't been there an hour before - the outline of a vaguely mesoamerican profile smoking a cigarette and exhaling the stylized letters spelling 'Cancer.' Twenty people could have stood inside the outlines of the head; there was no way I could have missed it earlier. So I was not thunderstruck to see, fewer than fifty yards away, right across the corner of 86th Street and Second Avenue, and right outside our building, a crouching man at work. But I was very excited. I walked past him and turned around to watch him finish the drawing from behind. Just as he finished, a Traffic cop walked by. I don't think she had any intention of harassing the artist, but she may have worried I and some other old people standing nearby were going to press her to 'arrest that man' for vandalizing the public thoroughfare. Although De la Vega seemed to pay her no mind as he stretched to his full height and nonchalantly walked off, heading up Second Avenue and then trotting through oncoming traffic across to 87th Street, I don't think he could be said to be unaware of her, or of anything else going on in the street. His face hooded by the visor of a baseball cap, he seemed both very sure of himself and intensely guarded. Here is what it took him about three minutes to draw.
Like almost all of De la Vega's lapidary inscriptions, 'Most poor river fish are unable to experience the wealth of the ocean' resists transliteration. There's a warning against conformism there somewhere, or at any rate a regret about it, but when I wonder what the wealth of the ocean might be from a river fish's point of view I know that I've lost contact with the work before me. When I returned to the drawing, moments later, with my digital camera in hand, I cursed the afternoon light that would soon sweep the shadow from the closer half of the drawing, but I knew I had better take the picture and not count on coming back later. I can tell you that the small shape in the center of the sunlit area represents the a little fish and its wake - the exception to the rule laid down in the words. But trying to make sense of De la Vega's message only distracts from its beauty.
Let me know if De la Vega is active in your neighborhood. (February 2001)
Since it appears in the ‘New York’ issue of The New Yorker (Feb. 22 & Mar. 1, 1999), I don’t have tell you that an essay by Cynthia Ozick entitled ‘The Synthetic Sublime’ is about the city I call home. Unless you’ve never read anything about New York ever, you’ve come across other examples of the genre to which Ms. Ozick’s essay belongs, which for convenience’s sake I’ll call ‘Helluva Town.’ It celebrates the extremism of which New Yorkers are so volubly proud. "New York," Ms. Ozick writes, "is where you go to seize the day, to leave your mark, to live within the nerve of your generation." Nuff said. Although ‘The Synthetic Sublime’ presents about as choice a catalogue of New York’s marvels as essays of its kind ever have, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about Chicago, where the living, while perhaps not so glamorous as it is here, is every bit as hard. The difference between the two cities is probably that Chicago is all-American, whereas New York is a depot for immigrants and outsiders. On the isle of Manhattan, native-born New Yorkers certainly seem to be a minority. I happen to be one, although I spent my childhood and adolescence in a Westchester suburb, and what I dislike most about New York – after the oppression of the imbecile grid layout (which some people actually admire!) – is nothing other than the static electricity generated made by all those self-selectors who have come here to seize the day, make their mark, and live within the nerve of their generation. (Ms. Ozick only had to trek in from Pelham Bay.) Fortunately, they’re not the whole story. If New York were really replete with such strivers, it would be the most provincial spot on earth. Everyone would be too wrapped up his or her personal trajectory to give undivided attention to writers as fine as Cynthia Ozick usually is.
This is not to say that New York is ‘just like’ anywhere else. Its geography suffices to make it as unusual as the world’s other island cities. Its inhabitants’ self-conscious and breathless pursuit of limits is therefore unnecessary. Nor is it very constructive. Overbooked calendars and frazzled time-outs make most of their victims behave like hyperactive children, cranky and too wound up to go to bed. The New Yorker’s conceit that Planet Earth is being monitored, if not actually commanded, by a cohort of sleep- and thought-deprived overachievers is actually pretty scary. To all these maniacs, I say, in earnest, ‘Give it a rest!’
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