I recently visited the Lower East Side in New York, the same LES where I was born, where my grandma lived for over fifty years, and where I worked as a cop for seven years in the 1980s. I felt like I'd stepped into an alternate universe. The Lower East Side that I knew back then was, to put it plainly, a drug-infested hellhole.Eddie Nadal has a new blog, 10-66 Unusual Incident. (Hmmm, 10-66 must be another one of them fancy NYPD terms I hear around town, like "perp," "skell," and "RMP".)
At the first "feeding time" (the early morning hours when junkies venture out to get their first fix of the day), the streets looked like an open-air market. Drugs were openly bought and sold, and hundreds of people congregated on the four corners of Avenue B and 2nd street. The neighborhood was overwhelmingly Hispanic — the only time you saw a white person down there was if they were on their way to cop or leaving after copping.
The city's leaders announced that they'd had enough of the lawlessness and crime of the area, and to clean up the neighborhood, the NYPD started Operation Pressure Point in early 1984. The LES was flooded with cops who were given carte blanche to kick-ass first, take names later. I was one of those officers.
Maybe I was just young and naive, but I truly believed that we were cleaning up the neighborhood for the benefit of the people who lived there, people like my grandma, people who were just trying to get by and live a decent life among so much squalor. Because despite the crime, junkies, and dealers on every corner, there was still life on those streets. There were still the corner bodegas, the panaderias with their delicious cafe con leche, the salsa music coming from open windows.
Now those bodegas and panaderias are mostly gone, replaced with organic wine bars and trendy art galleries. As it turned out, real estate developers had had their eye on the area long before we moved in to clean it up, buying up properties at bargain basement prices and waiting for the moment when the neighborhood became safe enough to be profitable. Millions upon millions of dollars were made in the following years. The city had no intention of cleaning up the neighborhood for the decent people who lived there — there was too much money to be made by forcing out the poor and working class residents and instead turning those buildings into luxury apartments renting for $3,500 a month. Rent control and rent stabilization did exist, but not nearly enough to keep the neighborhood intact.
The risks we took and the sacrifices we made back then were not to benefit the community I knew — a community that no longer really exists — they were to make money for the city and for the developers. Ihttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gift's hard not to feel a bit resentful of that on some level. And to me personally, it's upsetting to see that the neighborhood and culture I knew has more or less disappeared.
[update: here's an article from the New York Times with a bit of the same theme.]