On a fine summer evening a couple of years ago, my wife and I gave into nostalgia and paid a visit to the old neighborhood. It was exactly how we remembered it-a miracle of joy and serenity and community off First Avenue between 14th and 23rd streets. Kids were riding their bikes and running around playgrounds; old folks were chatting on benches or listening to ball games on transistor radios; parents were swapping stories about their jobs. And if you listened closely, you’d have noticed that these jobs involved not mastery of the universe, but the education of children, or the arrest of perps, or the rescue of a family trapped in a burning building.
Granted, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village-where my wife and I lived in the early 1990′s-could never be mistaken for, say, Stockbridge, Mass. But the scene we enjoyed that evening surely seemed like a Rockwell painting come to life. The 100-plus red brick buildings that make up Stuy Town and P.C.V. have always been pretty undistinguished, but not so the tenants. They were World War II veterans and their families who had moved into the complex in the early 1950′s; they were cops and teachers (including a lad named McCourt, as I recall), and firefighters and nurses and systemsanalysts.They knew theirneighbors-their storiesandtheirheartbreaks-just like any other real community.
The tenants were predominately white, which the residents of equally white but decidedly more fashionable Manhattan neighborhoods saw as evidence of nefarious goings-on. But more than anything else, the tenants were solidly and unmistakably middle-class. Thanks to decent rents and Mother Met-our nickname for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., which owned and operated the complex-people like my wife and I were paying something in the neighborhood of $900 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in the early 1990′s. Even our poorly paid civil-service heroes could manage that, so Stuy Town (and, to a lesser extent, the more expensive P.C.V.) was the safest community in Manhattan: It probably housed more cops and firefighters per acre than any other place on this island.
But no more. The neighborhood press and The New York Sun have both noted that skyrocketing rents are emptying the place of yucky middle-class people. In their place, the landlords hope, will come dumb rich people who, upon hearing the place described as “luxury housing,” will empty their checkbooks for the privilege of telling others of their luxurious accommodations. This odious development comes at a time when New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is (with only some exaggeration, I think) announcing the end of middle-class America. Mr. Krugman talks about the relative economic equality of his Long Island in the 1950′s and 60′s. He might have used Stuy Town and P.C.V. as a starting point for his thesis, because it’s clear that various plutocrats have decided there is no longer a place there for cops and firefighters, teachers and nurses to live.
Of course, the middle class has been getting shoved out of Manhattan for some time. Longtime Village resident Dermot McEvoy notes that the class-cleansing underway in Stuy Town and P.C.V. was accomplished long ago in his neighborhood. Mr. McEvoy has written a novel, Terrible Angel, which is set in the Village of a decade or so ago. It reads like the history of a vanished era.
“If you’re an employer who relies on people who make middle-class salaries, where are you going to find your workers?” Mr. McEvoy said. “They’re going to be living two hours away, because they can’t afford to live close to work. And that’s robbing the city of its color and personality. We used to have a sense of community in our neighborhoods, but that’s gone. In place of people like my parents are all these soulless people who spend their lives talking about their investments and their 401(k)’s. It’s like they believe they’re taking it with them when the end comes.”
Mr. McEvoy lives near one of the Village’s reminders of another time, Faicco’s Pork Store on Bleecker Street. That’s where generations of Italian-American families from the neighborhood-parishioners at the Our Lady of Pompeii Church just a few steps away-shopped for their family meals. “But in another 10 years, you won’t see those people here anymore,” he said.
You can still see them in Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village-for the moment, anyway. But with two-bedroom apartments going for well more than $2,000 a month-more than double what my wife and I paid in 1993-they won’t be around much longer.
There is, however, some justice in this matter: The Sun notes that some rich people object to the idea of paying about $2,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
It’s not the price they find intolerable; it’s the ambiance. Too middle-class, they’re saying.
Oh, the horror of it all!