The village within the city. Even in towering New York, there are still places where people know, and help, each other
THE rumor is that the New York City neighborhood is dead - and gentrification, fear of crime, and plain old apathy did it. New Yorkers are obsessed with finding, finagling, and hanging onto their apartments, so the rumor goes, but no longer have any real sense of turf.
Yet, when New Yorkers talk about where they live, they can reveal the most passionate attachments - not just to their neighborhoods, some of which are as closely knit as villages, but even to single blocks.
For there are still blocks where the warning ``I'll tell your mother'' can send a kid flying. Where clothes left in the dryer at the corner laundromat will be folded - not stolen - when you get back. Where everything from breakups to break-ins are reported by someone - generally an elderly woman - who practically lives by a window. And where relaxing at the end of the day means a cold drink and a good spot on the stoop.
East Seventh Street, between Avenues B and C, on the Lower East Side, contains newly restored co-ops and burned-out buildings, gardens thick with rosebushes and lots strewn with rubble. It also contains residents whose first loyalty, after family, is East Seventh Street.
``There are people on our block who hardly ever leave it,'' says Emily Ruben, who has homesteaded there for eight years through a sweat equity program. ``This is where everybody feels most comfortable. Even on a hot summer day, when music drifts over from the park, everybody prefers the stoop,''she adds.
The people in Ms. Ruben's building are especially close: 20 families who turned an abandoned shell into six floors of spacious, light-filled apartments. Building maintenance and gardening chores are shared. And there are no hired baby sitters - everybody helps out with the residents' 30 children.
Block pride has managed to join together people with fancy jobs and no jobs. Last Christmas, everyone got together and wrapped almost the entire block in lights. And recently everyone pitched in to build a huge garden on an empty lot and began clearing rubble from the remaining ones.
Ruben, who frequently comes home late from her job as program director of Charas, an arts organization, says she often feels afraid - in spite of having a black belt in akido.
``But when I hit my block, I feel a sense of relief. People are watching out for me, and I know I'm safe.''
Bordering Prospect Park in Brooklyn is a neighborhood even closer in feeling to a village: Prospect Lefferts Gardens. There's an old man there who hunts turtles in the park. The 9-to-11 set is fishing mad, arguing every summer over whether corn or pizza makes better bait for bass.
Neighbors aren't content with ``Hello, how are you?'' but give advice and criticism freely, just as they did in the West Indies, the first home of many of them. ``Baby still using a pacifier? He'll be sucking it when he's 18,'' a neighbor warns. ``Girl, go home and put a slip on! Can see right through that,'' warns another.
Mrs. Franklin, a resident of Parkside Avenue, one of the main streets of Prospect Lefferts Gardens, is an unofficial block-watcher.
Neighbors stop below her window to pay their respects, since she's been in and out of the hospital the past few years. But when she's home she sleeps by her window, and she can smell smoke, hear a brawl, or spot a burglary before anyone. If she likes you, she'll signal you in and share the latest.
There's a whole etiquette to apartment stoop sitting - the favorite summer entertainment on Parkside Avenue.
The highest step is reserved for the old and unwell, who sit on folding chairs. The men, generally leaning back on their elbows, rule the next three or four steps. The women stand in small groups near the sidewalk, so they can spot-check the maze of kids. And the teen-agers stand - in their own country - in a tight knot by the rail.
The teen-agers of St. Mary's Nativity Parish, next to Kissena Park, in Queens, think their neighborhood is the next best thing to paradise.
There's the park, where there's always a ball game to join; tolerant store owners, who sponsor the games and let the kids congregate outside their shops; and Millard Fillmore's, the local hangout and hotbed of dart throwing - where each kid is greeted with a ``Hey, hey, hey.''
But best of all, there's a sense of rootedness, of having a connection with just about everyone in the square mile of the parish.
Some of these connections go back a couple of generations. ``My grandfather, who was a carpenter, helped build the church,'' says Dennis Ryan, a freshman at New York Technical High School.
``And last year my parents went to the 50th anniversary reunion of the elementary school,'' he says.
The neighborhood, formerly all Irish, is now also Italian and Asian. And the groups of teen-agers reflect this mix. Fights are generally about ``ball games, things said, or girls,'' says one 17-year-old, and not about race.
Dennis's father, a retired policeman, and his mother recently moved to Florida. But he and his older sister decided to stay with friends until they could find an apartment together in the parish.
``There's no way I'm leaving,'' says Dennis. ``No way. ... For me, it's the only neighborhood.''