Tag Archives: gentrification

“Just Twist and Believe in Yourself”

Last night, I traipsed around Greenwich Village in the faux-dark that is Manhattan after sunset, something I used to do exactly 20 years ago when I lived on Bleecker Street and thought I was interesting because I listened to John Coltrane. It was technically evening, but lights were on everywhere and people were out in this light, like some Arctic white night block party. Many things have changed around the Village, and, thankfully, some things have not. It’s still a tart-mouthed, whimsical, oddly-shaped neighborhood with sidewalks suddenly twisting and ending like they do in European cities. No matter how many Chipotles, Staples, and Starbucks move in—and they keep coming because they’re the only ones who can now afford the real estate—the Village will always be Manhattan’s punk sibling who kept a nose piercing past middle-age.

Lamp post banners promoted the upcoming Village Halloween parade, a Mardi Gras-like event where men in drag rule the street. I went in 1995 and loved it. I was happy to learn the parade is sponsored, among others, by the Village Voice, Brooklyn Brewery, and a company that makes cannabis energy drinks (which seems like a paradox, but hey, whatever), and not the companies you find in a suburban mall, the ones with all the money dominating the view at Union Square. The artistry and puppetry of the Village Halloween parade is worth the cold and crowds, and if we didn’t have the tradition of hosting a suburban backyard bash after the kids were done trick-or-treating, I’d nudge the family into the car for the schlep into town.

I was back in the Village to listen to my friend Robin give a reading from her new collection of short stories “Reptile House” at Cornelia Street Cafe, another Village institution. We met last year at a writers’ retreat in the Berkshires and it’s good to wave the pom-poms for one another. I joined fans and readers downstairs. We huddled in a narrow basement beneath the restaurant while Robin and Jim Story stood on a very small stage in front of a velvety red curtain and read from their books. Tabletop candles glowed, and for $8, we got to try the house wine, which was included with admission. It was such a beatnik, underground poetry kind of evening I seriously thought we would start snapping our fingers. But no one snapped and no one smoked. This is 21st century New York, which means you can’t smoke anywhere anymore, no matter how good your poetry may be. Instead, I saw people eat green salads.

Afterwards, I wandered. There are cities I’ve always liked more than New York. London is a longtime favorite. Seattle is prettier than most cities deserve to be. San Francisco will always feel like the home I should have had. Washington, D.C., has that commanding, manicured, white-marbled exterior that I always loved seeing from a plane window. The New York skyline is fierce, a warning as to what really roils below, at street level. It’s a city addicted to competition, and this plays out in neighborhoods. Prada and Dean & DeLuca have taken over some prime street corners, but there were still insanely small bistros with kitchens the size of broom closets, tattoo parlors, specialty shops of every interest, someone selling goat milk soft-serve, puppies ricocheting off a window at some fancy schmancy pet store, someone selling vintage cookbooks, two very good violinists rocking their portion of the sidewalk, another reading happening at McNally & Jackson, and a cupcake shop with swings for seats. The cupcakes grabbed my eye so I walked in and asked the girl behind the counter (who wore a nose ring and was probably a diapered tyke when I lived in the neighborhood) if she had gluten-free cupcakes. She seemed excited I asked and explained the different flavors. I was pulling out some cash when someone asked nose-ring girl how to unlock the bathroom door. “Just twist and believe in yourself,” she said from behind the counter, and her tone suggested sincerity.

I smiled. New York City wears people down. It’s an exhausting, crowded, expensive place full of cranky folks who all dress like they are heading to funerals, not cubicles, and who all talk too loudly into their smartphones. But for a moment, I sat on a fake swing eating a purple cupcake and forgot all about that.

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Smoky Days

You can still smell cigar smoke walking down Seventh Avenue. More than a century after its heyday as the cigar-manufacturing capital of America, men—and women—lounge about Ybor City’s sidewalk cafes and enjoy a break from the Florida sun by puffing on a cigar. It’s a long-practiced, ideal way to wait out the afternoon humidity because the sunset hours are always the best in Florida, so why tire out beforehand? Just sit, relax, smoke slowly, and wait for that perfect part of the day to come because it always does.

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During my recent girlfriend getaway in Del Boca Vista country, we made the time to schlep an hour on the highway to stroll Ybor City and experience one of Florida’s oldest dining institutions, Columbia Restaurant, where the key lime pie is sweet and glossy like fresh lipstick.

Before our dinner reservation, we had time to meander into Ybor’s many vintage and consignment shops, and what’s a girls’ weekend without a little shopping? My favorite was the addictive La France, a place described by its owner as being “like a museum without a cover charge.” La France had the enthusiasm of a gay pride parade with the diligence of a carefully curated exhibit. We were in there a while. Feather boas lined up by color, beaded flapper gowns, diaphanous hats that would send sunbeams ricocheting, hairbands with beaded skulls, necklaces with beaded skulls, earrings and bracelets with beaded skulls. (Did I mention the beaded skulls? A touch of Mexicana in Tampa, apparently.) Floridians, like Southern Californians, don’t shy away from color. Forget urban black and embrace the magentas, corals, ambers and periwinkles! I found Tampa’s vintage shopping more interesting than New York’s, not just because New York’s may feel too familiar by now, but because Tampa didn’t seem to be trying so hard. These shops screamed “we love color and old stuff, so check us out!” and that was that.

At one vintage shop, a chain called Revolve, there, hanging on the wall behind the cashier, I spotted a green, floral-printed Old Navy dress I used to own around 1999-2000. I had purchased my dress in Seattle, had worn it to London (there’s a photo of me wearing it, standing in front of the London Eye in August 2000, shortly after I got engaged), and likely gave it to the Salvation Army sometime when I lived in Washington, DC, and became pregnant in 2003. I’m sure it wasn’t the same dress, though size-wise it looked like a match, and secretly, I wanted it to be my dress still traveling without me.

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But that’s new Ybor. What about old Ybor? The original Ybor? Like many American port towns, Ybor has a “those-were-the-days” story, when this Tampa neighborhood was a thriving immigrant community, and, like the old whaling town of Hudson, New York, a planned community built around a single industry, cigar manufacturing. Ybor’s golden age began as the 19th century was winding down and the 20th century was gearing up, the spin-off years after the Industrial Revolution when Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Romanian Jews, Germans and Chinese flocked to the area to make something of themselves. In 1869, Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spaniard in the cigar-making trade, decided to move operations from Key West to Tampa, where there was an active port and a new railroad line, ample opportunity to move boxes of fresh cigars around. Industry always leads to indulgence, and bars, restaurants, theaters and dance halls sprouted up as business boomed. Folks rolled cigars during the day and then puffed and partied at night. It had to have been downright dreamy.

I’m part German, and I had a hard time imagining my fair-skinned ancestors coming from a place of mountains and snow and adapting to Tampa’s climate, but history says they were business leaders there, supervising cigar factories and working as managers and accountants, no doubt bringing their quintessential German efficiency to the task at hand. The Germans arrived to Ybor in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, the Great Depression had knocked the wind out of Ybor’s sails, and like everywhere else in America, things dried up. Difficult decades followed, and then folks started realizing the faded potential of Ybor’s old brick buildings, that one of the state’s best restaurants was just down the street, and that if things could be dusted off a bit, business could boom once again. That’s when places like La France began to bloom.

Walking Seventh Avenue in Ybor City now you hear roosters crowing—just as you do in Key West—though the street is quiet during the heat of the day and not as busy as it appears in the sepia-toned photos I found of Old Ybor. Trolley cars still crisscross town. You still smell cigar smoke, you smell sweat, you see signs for sangria and promises of sales and a Greek man standing in a window making the perfect crepe for the umpteenth time that day. There is French food, Cuban food, Greek food, Spanish food, bar food. You likely won’t hear music unless stepping into a restaurant or cafe or bar because everyone keeps their doors closed to ensure the air-conditioning doesn’t escape and evaporate into the street because it’s really, really hot in Tampa most of the year, and coolness—the tangible kind—is social currency; it literally draws people in off the street, as it did us.

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We cooled off at Columbia Restaurant, which has weathered Ybor’s various transformations over the decades since 1905. Sangria pitchers there weren’t $15, but the booze was light, smooth, and went well with the black bean cakes and grouper that I ordered. It was Friday night and packed. If you’re going to go, make reservations. I gluten-bombed during this dinner, but it was worth it. Order the key lime pie and if you’re gluten-sensitive, just eat around the graham cracker crust. I recall tasting delicious, silky key lime pie when visiting Key West five years ago, and thinking “Damn, that’s good pie!” Columbia makes all its own desserts, but our waiter informed us the key lime pie comes from Mike’s Pies, and let’s just say Mike gets pie. He really, truly gets pie. I once savored cantaloupe gazpacho at Daniel, an extremely expensive restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and blurted out loud so that every coiffed Upper East Side diner heard me: “That’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever eaten!!!” And the waiter there smiled because he knew; he had just never heard someone say it so bluntly.

Then came Mike’s Pies.

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