The dusty brown building casts a shadow on the corner of 93rd and Amsterdam. Unlike the Riverside or Douglass Projects’ clusters of dirt brown buildings, this single project is the Jane Doe of government housing. The concrete rectangle of small apartments reaches upwards of sixteen stories, with a well-hidden roof, and a playground in the back. There is only one entrance: the front door is thick and heavy and makes a buzzing noise if it stays open for too long; it’s nearly impossible to see what’s on the other side. Once you enter, the inside of the building has a different motif: tiny, baby blue tiles beneath your feet and thick gray paint on the rough walls, while the viscous aroma of stale piss wafts from the elevator. And there are always drug addicts heading up and down, up and down.
But I’ll save the tenants for later.
The dusty brown Jane Doe building does not have a name; it just has a number: 201. There are always at least five drug dealers who cluster around one of the building’s outdoor benches before dispersing to individual posts at the bodegas that litter Amsterdam. Their unspoken rule comes from a Biggie Smalls line: “Never sell no crack where you rest at.” Many of them come from Coney Island; although one proud resident, five-foot-two Willy, seems to have been hustling on the corner since the 90’s and is going strong at age twenty-seven (while still living with his mom). I did not choose to meet Willy, nor do I wish I had. Our first encounter: he told me I looked Puerto Rican from behind; I rolled my eyes. That initial exchange must have gotten stuck in his head because every subsequent time I walked by him, he would put his arm around me and tell me how “we look good together.” After months of me rolling my eyes at the baby-faced shrimp and finding creative ways to “just say no,” he decided that I was the home girl from down the street and began asking how my family was doing and if I needed anything. I figured I’d let him think what he wants. At least I know I have a set of eyes making sure I stay safe. Then there is Dijon. Like the mustard. But darker and spicier. Dijon seems to spend more time at 201 than he does at his real home- wherever that is. Sometimes he even brings his little girl around who is dressed completely in pink with two little bunches of afro puff that sit sideways on her head. But back to Dijon. Yes, the mustard-like drug dealer is at least six foot three and looks like the ring-leader. He’s the typical “be my woman and I will take you to get your nails done, hair did” type of guy. When he first started gabbing in my direction I would stop because beneath his sly words and over-sized jacket he was a truly interesting person. I listened to him. I don’t remember what it is that we talked about, but while I tried to get him to buy me food without those nails or strings attached, I thoroughly enjoyed arguing with the man. Eventually our corner debates got old and when I figured out that food was not really an option our moments were reduced to a quick look and a head nod. Now we don’t even acknowledge each other when we pass on the street.
Back before my middle-school days, 201 was christened “Vietnam” by the streets. Before the Upper West Side’s family owned stores had been eradicated by Starbucks and every national bank chain that exists in the U.S., gunshots were the norm throughout the night. Equally lethal were the fights that spilled out into the streets. Then there were the flat out comedic brawls. Around 3 am if you sat on a stoop you might catch an angry girlfriend cussing out her man or at the very least, another girl. One of my fondest late night memories was when I watched this rail-thin woman screaming at her boyfriend. I was over a block away, but I could see the woman’s friend grab her from behind, pulling her feet off the ground to keep her from beating up the poor man. She just kept kicking and throwing punches as her feet hovered in the air.
Some of my favorite noises came out to play as the air grew stickier; noises that were the marker for the changing of the seasons from Winter to Spring. The sweetest noise was the sound of those tiny wheels on strollers combined with the patter of hands on the congas (the true voice of the elders). Summer always came in with a blast from the speakers and late night parties. From Celia Cruz to Jay-Z, someone was always dancing or rapping. The yelling I heard emanate from the sticky outdoors was lively and energetic. It’s the type of racket I hated but miss more than anything…A true New Yorker needs noise to fall asleep.
You see, every time I come back home there is a shiny new restaurant that replaces a family-run eatery, or a new chain-store that puts the independent version out of business; it’s all about fast new money. We have a new Japanese restaurant (Kitaro) that’s two blocks away, still sparkling new and I cannot for the life of me remember what filled that space during the twelve years I lived on 93rd street. The candy store, after a brief turn as a children’s store, is vacant. My favorite bodega is now a Steakhouse, while the historic Mexican restaurant across the street has become an upscale nail salon. The music is a little fainter. The Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Caribbean, African American babies are outnumbered by fair-skinned babies; the batchata, hip-hop, reggaeton a little quieter. If you step outside at 2 am you see the last survivors of an era- the crackheads. Yes, they walk crookedly up and down the street, asking for money, yelling about life. The last rodents of 93rd street, old drug addicts against the backdrop of new investments. As long as the crackheads hide during the day and don’t reveal themselves to the neighborhood’s shiny, new residents at night, the realtors can sleep. They don’t care.
But I do. When I lived there, I could handle the drug dealers and the wanderers from the halfway house two blocks away. When I was still too young to stay out late but old enough to want to, the noises from outside kept me company. Unfortunately, many of the sources of that noise, the tenants, the businesses have run out their leases and the neighborhood has gotten a little quieter. For every shiny new restaurant that comes in, I see one less familiar face. I think the turning point was when the two dollar deli’s sandwiches doubled and tripled in price. It was a mayonnaise, mustard covered knife to the heart. I loved those sandwiches and always looked forward to the conversations I had while waiting for my turkey, lettuce, tomato, and mayo chunk of heaven to be prepared.
In spite of the unfortunate changes in the neighborhood, there are the few landmarks that have survived. Like my building, my safe-haven. But 220 has changed, gone from a nice middle-class building with a modest lobby and bullet holes on its side to a gaudy residence with an emerald green awning that stretches out into the street. But, like I said, some things have stayed the same. The synagogue to the right is still there, while the church across the street still opens its doors every afternoon to give out free food to the people whose paychecks may not stretch through the month. The middle school where all of the noisy pre-adolescents wreaked havoc has remained identical for over 10 years and thank the lord, we still have the shady bodega on 94th street and Broadway to scare away the rich people. But, there is still that same stubborn hold out. 201. One of the last places to mimic the neighborhood’s transformation, 201 is the same, yet different. I can still hear the cacophony of inner chaos but the building is no longer loved. The neighborhood seems to treat it more like a bastard child than a part of the family. But to me, that Jane Doe project is what created that family. It represents my generation and the ones that came before. It is 93rd St.
But I know, one day, 201 will change and the last remnant will fall. The only thing that I can count on staying the same is the desperation. The crackheads, who roam fearlessly at 3am. The hungry families who line up for food at the church. The Duane Reades, the CVS’s, the Starbucks, and the freshly painted high rises may come in and build on top of the roots of my city. The ‘money men’ may build upwards and sideways, spreading like a disease, asphyxiating the roots of our Manhattan culture, burying them beneath the false gleam of progress, but I know the truth. The desperation is still there. Just shifted to a new form. But for a true New Yorker, it’s easy to find. The rackets of 201’s despair are no white noise to me, because a true New Yorker needs noise to sleep.