July 4th: Reflections from the Lower East Side

I love the Lower East Side. It’s part of my DNA. I rep Brooklyn ’til I die, but my move there wasn’t on purpose; gentrification hit the Lower East Side early (before places like Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Harlem got tooken). An LES native removed by gentrification and then back on the LES by tragedy, happenstance, and a little bit of luck, I identify with the indomitable Jean Grae when it comes to geographic identification: “Not Brooklyn I was born, but in Brooklyn I was formed, not Brooklyn I was raised, but Brooklyn I was taught to form a young woman, dawn of my first love, first love is back.

As a Puerto Rican Jew, outside of Williamsburg where Jews and Ricans have been living back to back for decades, I don’t know if there is a piece of New York City geography that is more built for me.

The area is especially significant when I consider my history. I’ve dabbled in activism, art, drugs, and writing. My mother, a Brooklyn born Jew who moved to the LES from Brooklyn when she was 19 and had an apartment in her name at 21, is part of the cultural fabric of the Lower East Side and is a professional writer herself.

In 1975 she met my father (pictured below) two days after the Nuyorican Poets Cafe opened (some people say 1976, but my mother says 1975. So it’s 1975. Because my mommy said so).

My father. The looker. My father. The reason my cleft chin is as deep as the ocean.

My father was the original bartender at The Cafe. Miguel Algarin, Lucky Cienfuego, and my uncle, Miguel Pinero (pictured below) are the founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Founded on 6th street in the 1970s, The Cafe moved to 3rd street by the time I was four years old; the year I read my first poem on stage. According to my mom, the poem was about hotdogs. I’m sure my audience was captivated.

Miguel Pinero aka Uncle Mikey captured by Martin Wong.
Miguel Pinero aka Uncle Mikey. Baby Sashi. Mommy. Captured by Martin Wong.

I often question what I’m doing with this space. I frequently doubt whether I have it in me to be a writer, even on this small level, despite my mom being a writer and having spent the better part of my childhood among poets, artists, writers and addicts. As a child of the Nuyorican Poets maybe it’s my birthright (while Lucky and Mikey are no longer with us, Miguel Algarin is still alive and has an affection for me, and I for him). The pain, and mental and emotional exhaustion of trying to properly express myself on the page sometimes feels…impossible. Overwhelming. SOMETHING I DO NOT WANT.

A whole lot of shit has happened between my hotdog poem and now, including having my entire life turned upside down by a house fire. But here I am. After almost 25 years, I’m back on the Lower East Side. Instead of living in a tenement, I own my apartment in Gouverneur Gardens. Gentrification wiped out much of what I knew as a kid, like Tompkins Square Park having its Bandshell removed. According to my mom it’s the stage where I learned to climb steps. I did this while the stage wasn’t actually in use, but still received resounding applause when I successfully made it up the stairs to the stage without falling. My favorite store Love Saves the Day is a coffee shop now. There’s still a lot that’s familiar, though. Puerto Ricans and Jews are still living in close quarters. At any time of night I can find a loosey spot within 10 minutes of my apartment. I can always find an ongoing dominoes game, Puerto Rican flags still fly high (there’s one in my window right now), and the piragua man is still ringing his bell.

I don’t give a fuck about July 4th or the Declaration of Independence or the genocide committing, slave owning “Founding Fathers.” But tonight is my third July 4th back on the LES and again I find myself introspective and emotional.

In NYC where real estate is beyond hard to come by, it’s downright unattainable, I have an apartment on the LES that I own. From my window I can see the fireworks as if I were on some fancy rooftop of the apartment of a girl named Mackenzie whose parents pay her rent.

Because my dog Diva, pictured below, has been traumatized by being given up by her previous owners and then caught in a house fire, I stay home with her on July 4th. And I couldn’t be happier.

Diva.

Tonight, with a beer in my hand and Jay-Z in the background, I sat in a comfy chair in a t-shirt and pajama pants, and, for the third year in a row I watched those fireworks from my window and I cried. Because so often I find myself feeling undeserving.

This year I wrote a beautiful 100 page thesis about hip-hop, I presented my research at an academic conference, and I’ve started writing again. So I sat with my anxiety riddled dog, my beer, my Hov, and my view of the fireworks and once again I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

I can write thousands of pages on my heartbreak, trauma, white knuckling survival, at any time. But tonight while folks are out grilling or setting off fireworks or bustin’ shots of the roof, I can sit back and say, thank you, Universe.

You did good.