By Tom Allon
How many miles to Brooklyn? / Three score minutes and 10 — / Can I get there by candlelight? / Yes, and back there again…
Like a young Joan Didion or a middle-aged Woody Allen, I have had an enduring love affair with my birthplace—Manhattan, particularly its West Side.
In the raffish 1970s, when Columbus Avenue was home to street gangs in the days before alfresco dining, I went to elementary school on the same block where the iconic movie “Death Wish” was filmed. I walked the pock-marked streets of West End Avenue looking carefully over my shoulder to ward off any sketchy followers.
It was the era of Koch, Breslin, “Son of Sam” and the Miracle Mets—a collection of Runyonesque characters who put the fun into “Fun City.” There were blackouts, looting and the gilded streets of Fifth Avenue—all within three score and 10 blocks.
In the mid-1980s, back from college and the gorges of upstate, I returned to my ’hood like Odysseus to Ithaka. It was time to get a graduate degree in lower Harlem, on the un-pastoral urban campus of Columbia, just a stone’s throw from the mothership. Nights at the West End Gate or the gritty Times Square office of the New York Times, my early 20s were a time of hope, independence and roads less travelled on my way to the land of marriage and children.
A cheap walkup popped up in the West Village, neighborhoods away. I moved, a stranger in a strange land, but still in Manhattan, island of my dreams, the peninsula that saved my immigrant parents.
How do you get to Perry Street? Is Jane Street west of the hookers in the meatpacking district? Who moved my easy-to-understand grid of numbered streets and easy-to-remember avenues?
The Village was a haven for nightlife, for the single and unencumbered. I could walk from the Battery to Chelsea with nary a stroller or a toddler. The Village Gate, Comedy Cellar, the Back Fence—these were dens of iniquity for the thirsty and the rowdy.
And just as the long days of summer gave way to the cool breezes of the fall, my late nights at the Lion’s Head gave way to the yearnings of procreation and it was back to the Upper West Side, the land of parks and kindergartens. It was the early 1990s and Manhattan was being Giuliani-fied. Times Square became Disney-fied—no longer were peep shows the main attraction.
On the Upper West Side, back near the parents, it was safe to extend the family’s bloodlines. In 1994, a miraculous son was born, followed in quick order by two angelic little girls. Three was the new two. Everywhere you walked on the Upper West Side, you were tripping over little “mini-mes.” Urban parenthood became hip.
When the millennium changed and Y2K fizzled, I pondered the next phase. Apartment prices skyrocketed and trying to find a true three-bedroom wasn’t for the faint of wallet. But to the West Side I clung, converting two bedrooms with an alcove into a highly efficient living space. I felt vindicated when friends who fled the city complained of long commutes and weekends shuttling around by car.
And then the towers came tumbling down and everyone—parents, singles, seniors—questioned whether staying in Manhattan wasn’t akin to playing Russian roulette. We held our breath and soldiered on—with a new awareness that the unattended package could spell doom or that our kids’ Hebrew school could be a target.
But as the years rolled by like clouds in a hazy sky, the kids grew up, mom and dad passed away, the big brother moved downtown and there were only ghosts and stale memories on the Upper West.
Now, on the other side of 50, I am starting a new life—in Brooklyn Heights. As the Chinese proverb says: fall seven times, get up eight times.
Crossing the river, to the land of Washington, Whitman and Mailer, I say, “Goodbye to all that.” My new life is oriented downtown and in a gentler place like the Heights.
The West Side was the scene of the first 53 chapters. Now it’s time to write the next series of chapters in my new borough, my new home, the county of Kings.