When I think back to growing up in New York City, childhood images float into view and place themselves next to the ones all around me now. I remember running downstairs to the blue and white Good Humor truck on the corner of Central Park West and 92nd Street to buy a SpongeBob ice cream with black gumball eyes. Down the block, I would hear hip hop blasting from a car radio. A group of girls and guys would move to the music, hang on one another and smoke. I see another image of myself hugging bright, colorful horses, slowly moving on the Carousel in Central Park. I can still taste the cotton candy on my tongue, pale blue and pink swirls of sweetness. I hold memories of my family on nighttime walks in the city. I watch my parents point out stars and dippers to my sister and me. “Breathe in the fresh air,” my Dad says. On kindergarten mornings, my Dominican babysitter Loli and I pick up a hot cinnamon roll for me and an extra light coffee for her from a man named Danny with a thick Italian accent who owns a food truck and knows our names. Then we sing songs in Hebrew as we walk past people smiling at us on Columbus Avenue. I remember the playground near my school, a maze of shiny slides, rope ladders, tire swings and soft cold sand. In the heat of summer afternoons, I would run through the sprinklers in just a bathing suit and water shoes.
Eventually, my family moved east of Central Park into my new neighborhood, quaint and fresh. I remember lots of small stores with pretty awnings on every block. In my mind, I still see the shop around the corner with huge slabs of beef hanging in the window like fancy dresses. Mario in his bloody apron winks at me and says, “I know you want the one with extra fat, mi amore!” Down the block, I see the image of waiters at a Greek diner, Three Guys (named after its owners: George, George and George) who know my order by heart: French fries extra crispy with a black and white milkshake.
Today, all of it is gone. The playground is an office building. Three Guys was pushed out by a big dirt pile that is going to be a residential glass palace. The butcher, newspaper store and Alysia’s Salon with its Spanish music and beehive dryers humming to the neighborhood ladies – all of them shuttered, one by one. “For Sale” signs look out from dusty windows. I do not hear the bell of the Good Humor truck or the chimes of the Carousel. Now all I hear is the blast of iron against cement, shredding my city streets like toy trucks tearing through a sandbox. At night from my window, I see the glow from Con Edison tents. I watch workers in blue hard hats burrow underground and dig up my city even more. I look up at the stars, but all I see now are shadows of skyscrapers. In the morning, traffic cops split the street into lines of angry cars. Even Central Park has to wake up to buses barging through. Strange, steamy gases rise from the manholes.
Development is destroying my city. The Second Avenue subway, a steel snake of construction and chaos, disappears underground like a mythical monster. Development is the army of high rises and chain stores – like Starbucks and Staples, CVS and Chase Bank. They march up Madison, Third Avenue, Broadway, firing at all the weak walk-ups and scared shop owners in their way. Development is erasing the immigrant foundation of my city. I wonder where Mario, Alysia, Danny and the three George’s all went.
Sometimes on Sundays, my Dad and I rent Citi bikes. We ride as far south as Central Park will let us. On those days, I feel like a bird soaring above the trees. We park our bikes and buy hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut from a man whom I do not know, who does not know me. When I close my eyes in that moment, I am holding my jump rope and running through the gates of the Wild West playground. The Saturday afternoon sunshine and Nico’s steaming hot dog stand with its smokey, savory treats is still waiting for me.