Paris or Shanghai, London or Hong Kong, Amsterdam or Singapore -- the more I travel and live abroad, the more I notice that no matter how international or how charming a city is reputed to be, all cities feel more or less the same. What makes a place special? During the years living in Paris, I learned what I value about a city is the relationship I develop with the people living there and the neighborhoods. While the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, Montmartre, Seine, and Eiffel Tower all ring bells of greatness for Paris…. what will stay in my memory are the little details: my love for the neighborhood of Belleville, biking along the Canal St Martin up to Parc Villette, speaking with the locals who live there.
In Summer 1992, my family moved to Avenue C also known as Loisaida, in Alphabet City of East Village, Manhattan. It was a summer of transition for me; I just finished elementary school and was going into junior high school. It was also a period of transition for East Village; it just finished an era known as the dodgy 1980’s of crime and drugs (a time when Madonna was said to have lived here) and going into an era of gentrification. I went away to college in 1998 and came back in late 2007 to a neighborhood that has totally changed - but then, so did I.
The Lower East Side area has long been a first stop in New York City for new immigrants, because of the cheap rents and the ethnic enclaves. Puerto Ricans first settled in Alphabet City or Loisaida of Lower East Side in the 1950s. Loisaida is term first coined by poet Bimbo Rivas in his 1974 poem "Loisaida" and was officially added to Avenue C in 1987. Only recently have I learned the right pronunciation: "LO-EES-EYE-DAH"; it is Spanglish for Lower East Side. In the 1970s the culture of Loisaida began to flourish - characterized by art, poetry, gardens, and community organizations. Poetry was the favored form of cultural expression and the Nuyorican Poets Café began during this time, “Nuyorican poetry took on the characteristics of expressing the sorrows and struggles of Loisaida life but also celebrating Puerto Rican heritage”. Today the association is still a strong neighborhood landmark.
In these past six months that I’ve been back in East Village, I am reminded of the many things that make this neighborhood so quaint. Alphabet City has a local treasure that not many people know about. Community gardens were first formed in the 1970s from neglected lots and are tended by volunteer neighborhood residents. There are several scattered throughout the neighborhood. Across the street from my building, at the junction of Avenue C & 9th Street are two community gardens, La Plaza Cultural and the Ninth Street Garden. This is a haven for Lower East Side residents, a piece of Nature among the fields of concrete buildings. In both my community gardens there is a gigantic willow tree - my favorite tree.
I jog around Tompkins Square Park every morning and know ever corner blindfolded. As I jog by I would greet a group of senior citizens huddled together, deep in discussion over the daily news. On another side, I’d hear the sound of Chinese instrumental music coming from a portable stereo player before I catch the sight of people doing taichi. In the middle of the park is a dog run area where the owners chit chat with one another, while their pets roam carefree. Morning exercise is great for the body, but a good environment can strengthen the spirit and the soul. Running at Tompkins Square Park is peaceful, and the scenery is nice. In October, I was mesmerized by the colorful Autumn leaves - and now as Spring is here, I am in awed of the new green buds on the branches of trees. Each season really comes and goes so fast, and I am more aware than ever of how fast our days go, as I jog right through it.
Gentrification has changed the Loisaida neighborhood immensely. Bars, cafes, high end supermarkets, condominiums have all sprung up - I noticed the change especially by ears; it’s a lot noisier at nights now. Like all other gentrification in cities throughout the world, this is the case of young urban professionals moving in, rents rising, Puerto Ricans and now other Latinos fighting to keep their homes and institutions. The Lower East Side has the presence of public housing to act as a defense, but still it is not strong enough. Looking at the situation, I feel hopeless and very sad. I lived in this neighborhood during the formative, the adolescent years of my life. Looking back now, I believe growing up in this neighborhood helped shaped me to who I am today. It is a neighborhood of different culture, history, and vibrating arts. And because I lived here from an early age I developed a sensibility to be more aware and appreciate the different aspects and beauties of life. Losaida of Alphabet City is a special place.