AN ATTEMPT AT UNRAVELING RIDGEWOOD, QUEENS

by James McGirk

New York City’s skyline should be familiar to most readers, a vertical city, slender shafts of steel and glass erupting from a jostling street culture, with an occasional verdant hamlet lurking in its shadows, courtesy of Jane Jacobs and Frederick Law Olmsted. At its core the city is a ferocious machine, churning through money and real estate. But at its periphery in places like Ridgewood, New York City remains riddled with shelters, and slightly strange.

Radiating out from iconic Manhattan are four chunks, the “outer” boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island. The outer boroughs are more residential than Manhattan, entire sections consisting entirely of semidetached houses and tenements, the vistas seeming to spool as you traverse them, replaying the same scenes again and again, with only an occasional bodega or Laundromat interrupting the repetition. Yet here too, the sidewalks teem with life, foot traffic clustering around transit hubs.

These nodes connect to one another by tunnels, bridges and subway lines. The lines act as a root system, connecting and nourishing the surrounding areas; allowing the city’s pedestrian culture to flow through and expand. Beyond Manhattan’s densest, most prosperous districts, the city has a pre-automotive feel, recalling a time when most city-dwelling Americans took streetcars and trains. The transit infrastructure is over a hundred years old, an industrial age scaffold shaping and supporting an amorphous superstructure.

Vestiges of this primordial New York are most visible along the boroughs’ peripheries. Where the textile of inter-borough transit frays, the creative destruction of capital is not as ferocious. While most of New York City quickly calcifies into whatever form its developers, tradesmen and consumers mandate, the new does not cohere as well to the old in the industrial zones wedged between boroughs, and the layers come apart. Municipal control, surveillance and landlord micromanagement fall away. Hollows and niches form in the godowns and abandoned factories, providing shelter for artisans and other financial refugees among the dead canals, rust blistered iron, and rotted docks splitting the counties of Kings and Queens.

The M and L subway lines converge near one of these peripheral zones, a roughly triangular district on the edge of Brooklyn and Queens named Ridgewood. Here, one of the densest concentrations of professional beauty supply stores in the city has grown; along with a bingo parlor, an ample selection of fast food chains (rare for New York City), and numerous off-brand furniture and department store retailers. The land slopes downward, Ridgewood, Queens lies above; Bushwick, Brooklyn slightly below. The price per square foot rises with the topography, though rent tends to edge higher around the subways.

To the driver, Ridgewood is a necropolis, a tomb world of clipped decisions, direction, distances and long-dead Dutch and English surnames. Onderdonk. Stanhope. Troutman. Many of the lots are slightly triangular. The Italian and German families who built the neighborhood at the turn of the century have all but vanished (many of them interred in the local cemeteries, New York’s literal necropolis, which stretches for miles and is one of the largest green spaces in the city), a few moved further east into nearby Glendale and Maspeth, others out west and dispersed onto the mainland.

Ridgewood remains a blue-collar neighborhood. Only the demographics have changed. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have settled near the border with Bushwick; higher up in the hills live the Eastern Europeans and Russians. Much of the property is owned by Orthodox Jews and Chinese. A few Baptist Churches serve the small African American community (most of the local churches are Catholic). A new constituency has also arrived. College educated, predominantly Caucasian youth, some perhaps, distant relatives of the original Dutch and English farmers have moved into the industrial areas beyond and set up cottage industries, or at least pretended to.

Each community has its orbit. They come and go at different times. Riding the subways at five am, laborers and busboys clips nails and gnaw breakfast wraps beside hung-over “hipsters” returning home. Then waves of office workers pack the cars. Then come school children. Morose in the mornings, and avoided by all in the afternoons; then a smattering of creative types who don’t have to get up as early in the morning, then the college students, the grad students, the afternoon shoppers and women rolling strollers. All moan when the subway fails (as it frequently does for construction over summer weekends, or during inclement weather.)

Each orbit eventually intersects with all others. There are three long promenades, Myrtle Avenue, Wyckoff Avenue and Freshpond Road, and in all but the very worst weather these are crammed with people. Though ethnicity and socioeconomic class divide patrons at individual stores, the streets force encounters. Often not much more than a huffed “excuse me” or a brush past one another on a crowded sidewalk, Ridgewood’s citizens are constantly made aware of one another. At all times they must note their neighbor’s taste in fruit, fast food, clothing, consumer electronics, family size, perfume, and walking speed. Store windows are another sensory assault (or delight – depending). Vegetarians are routinely appalled by dripping meats and whole chickens turning on spits in restaurants; teetotalers by liquor superstores, prudes by plump-bottomed mannequins in discount lingerie shops, and libertines by the dozens of wedding dressmakers and party stores hawking wares.

All of Ridgewood must eventually enter the supermarket. There are only a few in the area. One of the largest, which shall remain nameless, is infested with birds. They nest in the insulation above the frozen food aisle and perch on the hanging fluorescent lamps. The produce is mostly made by Goya and other Latin American megabrands, but in the International section you can find tins of British baked beans and perfume-smelling Polish cakes and potent Asian spices and tubs of frozen ham hocks, and the local supermarket conglomerate seems to be exploring the idea of premium deli items (brie and blue cheese crumbles and sticks of salami), and a few organic items have turned up. The birds stay away from the poultry section and prefer to do their pecking in the bread and biscuit aisles. Droppings aren’t ever seen, which is a relief and occasionally a worry. Many shoppers, including some of the young creatives, pay with food stamps, which now come in card form, and are all but indistinguishable from a bankcard.

But like many New York neighborhoods, the pace of change in Ridgewood is starting to accelerate. A new supermarket that doesn’t yet accept food stamps has opened after a six-month wait for fire department approval. Unlike the other two markets, this one, with a decorative rusted metal façade that folds upwards is open 24 hours a day and caters almost exclusively to the young creative community. It is located in the heart of the old warehouse district and sells everything from cigarettes to condoms to pricey organic food in a meticulously designed, climate-controlled environment.

What this means is that for the first time someone living in Ridgewood could have complete control over his or her environment (aside from riding the subway, but most sensitive New Yorkers have long learned to pare their senses down to the bare minimum required for survival while riding). Theoretically you could work in Manhattan, commute to the city, shop at all-hours, and return home to your loft without having to intersect with anyone else in the Ridgewood community other than a fellow creative.

For some the opportunity to live without eating bird-pecked croissants is a boon, but for others, their little sanctuary is beginning to catch up with the rest of the city and soon it will be time to move on. And as the market continues to identify and customize little micro-markets within Ridgewood, it will become slightly diminished each time until it too is indistinguishable from its flashier neighbors.

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