Much Ado on 2nd Avenue
Mark Kurlansky, Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue
Ballatine, 2005. 336 pp. $24.95
Summer, 1988, on the corner of Rivington and Suffolk: A woman in pink curlers hangs out of her second story apartment window, swaying to the Latin beat bopping out of her tiny radio. A graying man on the street yells up to her in the neighborhood's hybrid language "Spiddish," "hey chica, turn the dial, you meshuganah!" Around the corner a fading advertisement for Chaim's Egg Creams peels off the brick façade of the new multiplex theatre. Neighborhood drug pushers shuffle down the street, murmuring "smoke, smoke" to passersby. And the vine tomatoes growing among the weeds of an abandoned lot turn an indecent shade of red.
This is the cultural ecology of New York's Lower East Side, circa 1988, that author Mark Kurlansky describes in his new book Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue. Not everyone gets along, but somehow everything seems to find its niche and purpose in the neighborhood's larger rhythmic pulse. But according to Kurlansky, everything is changing as the Lower East Side succumbs to the pressures of (swell terrifying music…) gentrification.
Kurlansky is best known for his book-length examinations of everyday things. His two books Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (both among my college-reading favorites), are well-researched enough to convince readers of the significant impact that regular table salt and the seemingly unglamorous cod have had on the course of recorded human history. Aside from being gems of historical writing, both of these books tell lively and passionate narratives about their subjects.
If Kurlansky's Salt and Cod are reminiscent of a Ken Burns' documentary series, then the majority of Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue (his first book length work of fiction) reads like a program on the Nature Channel. The beauty of an intricate ecosystem is introduced to the viewer, followed by a description of the danger that ecosystem faces as a result of over-development or habitat loss. Boogaloo, like such programs, mixes equal parts celebration for what currently exists and despair over the fading beauty's inevitable demise at the hands of gentrification.
Boogaloo's central character, Nathan Seltzer (pun intended), is an independent copy shop owner whose own life oddly bridges the neighborhood's growing gentrification gap. Raised on the Lower East Side by parents who go on weekly egg cream and Yiddish theatre dates (though over the years Yiddish theatre has been replaced by multiplex cinemas), Nathan is a neighborhood old-schooler. But as an idealistic 30-something with a Mexican-Jewish playwright wife and a young daughter, his life brings him into dangerous affiliation with the "Smarts" – Kurlansky's brilliantly caustic term for the yuppies who were just crashing the neighborhood at the time Boogaloo is set -- and who have since largely taken it over.
As the Lower East Side buckles under the weight of hasty development, Seltzer is pressured to sell his copy shop to make way for a flashier corporate version. His dilemma mirrors that of the neighborhood itself: he can either stand by his neighborhood integrity but struggle financially, or sell the shop for a hefty sum and ensure his four year old daughter a comfortable future. The weight of Nathan's decision is compounded by his guilt over the mandates for righteous fathers in the Jewish tradition: "Somewhere in the Talmud, the obligations of a Jewish father are listed. Teaching the Torah, teaching a craft, finding a mate. After a couple of millennia, is it time to revise the list of a father's obligations? Preschool, summer home in Putnam County, sell your business and take the money." Nathan also faces a second kind of pressure – an intense sexual desire for the heiress of Edelweiss Pastry Shop – the neighborhood's long standing German bakery. Nathan knows that the daughter, Karoline, is strictly forbidden – he's a married man, and she's German - but Nathan is utterly lured to her intoxicatingly permanent scent of butter. Summer wears on. Anxiety ensues.
Though Nathan must face his personal temptations alone, Kurlansky assures readers that the ripples of gentrification spread throughout the neighborhood. The Smarts are moving in and smoothing out the neighborhood's rough edges with their seersucker suits and sensible, clicking heels. Property values are rising and gourmet eateries are replacing the casitas and bodegas. The drug pushers and squatters are being pushed out of the neighborhood and residents are no longer able to pay their rents. "Already most Latin people [are] gone from First and Second Avenues," Nathan notes. Some of the heartier Lower East Siders find ways to adapt to the neighborhood's new climate (Felix the fish peddler, for example, tries his luck in the newly popular sushi business). But for the most part, "Loisada es casi acabado -- the neighborhood is over."
Some readers might accuse Kurlansky and Boogaloo of unnecessarily glorifying the Lower East Side. Others might criticize him for over-sensationalizing the trend gentrification (a word originally coined in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass), which at this point in history seems to be an inevitable – almost yawnable - phenomenon. But Kurlansky is justified in reminding readers that all too often the most cherished bits of a neighborhood get reduced to memories and – if they are lucky – immortalized as street names. Boogaloo takes place on the Lower East Side in the 1980s; the transformation that takes place during its pages is, by now, more or less complete: Avenue A glitters with bars, Avenue B with high-end restaurants. But the sting of gentrification is still very present throughout Manhattan and increasingly across the river in Brooklyn (e.g. a new Whole Foods is scheduled to open alongside luxury condos on East Houston street and another is slated for historic brownstone Brooklyn).
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