I arrive at the corner of Bleecker and Sixth Avenue with a decision to make: continue clearing out Aunt Clair’s apartment or head home. I take a breath after running around to three banks to close out Clair’s accounts and dropping off her cable equipment. Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably mild weather, I am overtaken by sadness. It hits me: an era has come to an end. Clair’s apartment is just a block from where I stand, having made her home in Greenwich Village for 60 years. Though I know I can return any time to wander these streets, window shop, sit at a café, or see an Off-Broadway play, it won’t be the same.
It isn’t just Aunt Clair’s passing that accounts for my unsettled feeling. Everywhere I look I see empty storefronts, signs advertising retail space for rent, shop windows papered over. Empty booths for outdoor dining line the already narrow streets. It may be mild for February, but it is still too cold to eat outside. The sidewalks are busy, though. A steady stream of people coming and going. I hear hammering, metal striking metal, and look up to see construction workers on a fire escape working on a building. Greenwich Village is in transition again.
Memories of other visits to the Village flood in. Like many neighborhoods in New York City, the Village has gone through many incarnations. When I was a teenager in the 1970s there were multiple independent bookstores, side by side with headshops and record stores. I would come with a friend, and we would go in and out of those stores. I loved browsing the aisles of Azuma, a store featuring decorative items imported from China and Japan. SoHo wasn’t a thing yet, there was nothing but empty loft space below Houston Street. Though I enjoyed walking the neighborhood, I was wary of the strung-out junkies hanging out on the corners, the panhandlers, the odd characters who mumbled to themselves and the general seediness. That was the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Photo captured from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf206HJ55ts – retrieved 2/13/2022
As the decades passed, the bookstores left, New York University expanded its footprint, chain stores moved in, and the Village changed. It was strange to see the same stores (Gap, Banana Republic, American Eagle) I saw in the mall near my house in upstate New York, now just blocks away from Washington Square Park.
Like other parts of the city, the change was a mixed bag. The neighborhood no longer felt seedy; it felt safer. Some of the charming shops remained, but pricier restaurants replaced the mom-and-pop places. SoHo became trendy featuring interesting art galleries. Rents went through the roof. Aunt Clair’s building was bought by a fancy property management company. She was fortunate to be grandfathered into the rent-control program; it was the only way she could have stayed in her place. In fact, she likely could not have afforded to live anywhere in Manhattan had she been forced out.
One of the last times I walked through the Village with Aunt Clair, not long before the pandemic, change was already afoot. Some stores were vacant, much to her consternation. She explained to me that for large real estate companies there was some kind of tax advantage to taking a loss on these properties – there was no incentive to rent to a fledgling new business, hence the empty retail spaces. In her estimation, the neighborhood was paying the price to protect the interests of the rich and powerful – something that violated her sense of fairness. Not knowing enough to question her, we went on to other topics, but her analysis stayed with me.
My travels this morning, to settle Aunt Clair’s affairs, also took me past the NYU-owned building where my mother sublet an apartment for several summers. After my dad died in 2005, my mom hoped to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in the Village, a prospect distinctly unappealing to Dad. Aunt Clair, Dad’s ever resourceful sister and devoted to Mom, found a list of apartments offered for sublet by NYU professors when they went on sabbatical or taught abroad for a semester. Aunt Clair got Mom on that email distribution list and found a place for her. Mom spent at least three summers seeing shows, going to museums, and meeting up with Clair and other friends and family, a dream fulfilled.
As I stand on the corner, I think of all the experiences on these streets. I am grateful that I noticed as I ran errands that morning that three of Clair’s favorite shops – a coffee roasting/tea shop (Porto Rico Importing on Bleecker), a homemade pasta store (Raffetto’s on West Houston) and Rocco’s Bakery (also on Bleecker) are still open for business despite the pandemic and the economic turmoil that comes like waves over the decades. Some things are constant – or seem to be, until they aren’t.
I continue standing on the corner lost in reverie. I consider my options: stay and try to accomplish more clearing out of my aunt’s apartment, the essentials are done but the task could be never-ending, or get on the road to head home with enough time to beat rush hour. I look at the time on my I-phone. It is about 2:00 in the afternoon. Rush hour can be an all-day affair in New York. Driving uptown any time after 3:00 can get hairy, with schools letting out and some trying to beat an early exit from work. I haven’t eaten lunch and I still have about an hour on my parking meter. I stand there paralyzed with indecision. Slowly I realize I have had enough. I am worn out.
I walk to my car wondering when I might be back here and what I will find when I do. Whatever happens, it will be without Aunt Clair there to witness and offer her unvarnished, insightful commentary.