Upscaling Downtown by Richard Ocejo

upscaling-downtownLet me begin by saying that Richard Ocejo doesn’t spend 200 pages quoting other scholars. His book is the result of him exploring downtown Manhattan and experiencing everything firsthand. He spent four years, from 2004-2008, studying the change in downtown Manhattan, using tiny neighborhood bars as cosmopolitan windows.

Ocejo starts off with Milano’s, a tiny Houston Street bar that’s been there for decades. I remembered the place from 1995 when I was going to Pratt for the summer (then located in the Puck Building) and Milano’s was full of construction workers. Ocejo’s finds that by 2004, the clientele were a combination of long-time barflies, a few old musician, artists, and though he doesn’t mention it, probably outer-borough blue collar workers. Though the range of customers is diverse, they don’t interact in any way. Maybe they go there for the solitude? The bartender has a hard time kicking them all out by morning.

One of the unique things about this book is that the author begins when he’s just a student. You can sense how his understanding of history develops as the book progresses. He gives plenty of historical background; the Bowery was always lousy, full of cheap lodgings and cheap bars, the Great Depression made is worse, post WWII recovery reduced the number of hobos and winos. Then the El was torn down, and the neighborhood “saw sunlight after 70 years.” All of these things contributed to improvements. He does, however, stress that the crack epidemic of the 80’s made things worse. The worst thing a wino could do was puke on the sidewalk or shoplift, but crackheads, now they were scary.

I was amazed by Ocejo’s research, because he has the most amazing sources. Some of the books he quotes, like Bowery Man, have been out of print for decades, and I don’t know how he found them. In fact I never heard of them until I read this book, now I’m going through Amazon trying to find it. There are however, some things missing from Upscaling Downtown. I would like to have read more about the artists who lived in the lofts, and how they coped with the people and the resources of the area. Perhaps the cops who patrolled the neighborhood might have some interesting stories, like the ones we read of in Jim Wagner’s autobiography, Wags.

Ocejo describes how the restaurant suppliers ended up on the Bowery, and that’s where things get funny. First off, the Bowery had sturdy industrial buildings that were zoned strictly for commerce, so putting residential tenants in there was out of the question. Secondly, the Bowery could take massive trucks, so delivery wasn’t a problem. Third, the stores didn’t have to worry about theft, because nobody steals a stove, refrigerator, or tin trays. Televisions were a magnet for robbery, but nobody steals an extractor vent or exhaust hood. Customers didn’t care if the place was safe or not, because nobody shops for wholesale dishes at night.

The irony about this book is that the bars seem to have become a problem AFTER gentrification, not before. Since 2000 there’s been an explosion in the number of bars, so you have more drunk crowds rushing the sidewalk, and the noise increased. We tend to view pre-Giuliani New York as rough, but the area was largely silent at night. True, you didn’t go out at night, but who has the money to eat out or drink out every night? Has New York City become a credit card economy? I see the bars full of young people, night after night, and wonder how they pay for this lifestyle?

The characters are colorful. We have Jim Powers, the mosaic man, who squatted in “The Cave” until developers kicked him out. Then there’s Bob Arihood, who documented the East Village.  The dynamic of this book is that aside from Alphabet City, the rest of downtown Manhattan, particularly the Bowery and Soho, were not bad at all. Gentrification brought construction noise, traffic, crowds, and hordes of drunks. It also pushed up the price of everything. Back in the 1950’s, as you can see in The Lost Weekend, the street under the El was full of pawnshops, all gone now in age where you throw old radios away.

Upscaling Downtown is a brilliant work, not just for scholarship, but also an entertaining and amusing read. Ocejo, a John Jay College professor, does a great job with his research and his writing style.

 

 

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