Kids, Then and Now

When I think back on it now, I can hardly remember any children. I first lived in the East Village in 1990, and moved back here for good in 1995. And back in those fin-de-siècle days it felt like everyone I passed on the street was around my age or a bit younger — mid- to late-twenties. Certainly west of Avenue A, north of Houston and below 14th Street — past the artificial, realtor-invented barrier separating the “East Village” from the Lower East Side and Alphabet City — and especially at night, it often felt like a neighborhood of college students and recent grads. If one were to graph the age cohorts, there’d be a ginormous bell curve with two hardly-visible tailings for the barely evident kids and seniors.

Of course youth, in addition to being wasted on those wastrel youths, comes well-equipped with blinders. And my now-middle-aged memory banks are far from trustworthy. Still, when I think back on the East Village back in the day (well, my day), I still picture the street life somewhat different than it is now. Sidewalks were clogged with twenty-somethings, and not only outside dive bars and cafes, and not only on the weekends. You barely saw pensioners and grandparents, save the occasional old Puerto Rican and Ukrainian ladies pushing wire-frame shopping carts.

And barely any kids — except in the Tompkins Square Park playgrounds, or the occasional street fair, or as you approached the housing projects lining the East River, where the neighborhood’s poorest families were, and still are, cornered.

But now? Well, even though the East Village is no stroller-mafia convention hall like Park Slope, it is remarkable how many kids — and strollers! — one sees on the sidewalks. On warm spring days (or the scarily more frequent warm winter days), the Tompkins playgrounds are SRO and there’s a queue for the swing sets. On summer days, cone-wielding kids stream out of the metastasizing number of ice cream shops. Dodging scooters and skateboards is now a necessary part of neighborhood survival. There are kids shoe stores and quaint toy shops and a growing number of pre-schools. And for the past few summers, the East Village has even hosted a hipster day camp for kids, with counselors toting iPads and serving organic snacks.

Yes, it’s partly the latest phase of the post-gentrification era — call it the East Village’s Reconstruction — as well as a symptom of the Bloombergification of New York, and Manhattan in particular, where the inequality gap widens each year (and looks to grow Martian-valley vast in the new Trumpian age). But so far, in my humble and affectionate opinion, far from diluting what makes our neighborhood so great, the kids have added to it. They are, after all, East Village kids.

And of course, now I have a kid of my own — a remarkable, endlessly curious, bird-obsessed six-year-old boy. He’s taught me to spot kestrels and red-tailed hawks in our once-grungy, now-gentrified, still-ramshackle neighborhood — a place where the spirits of squatters, old Yiddish theaters, W.B. Auden, housing activists, Emma Goldman, bodegas, and Joey Ramone still endure. And I’ve been lucky enough to befriend some other middle-aged dads who, like me, are trying every day to figure out this whole fatherhood thing — how to get our kids through the impending disaster of the Trump regime, the confusion of urban life, the sociological mysteries of school, and the wonders and adventures of childhood. How to be, well, fathers of East Village kids.

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