I Want a City, Not a Museum

Some years ago, as my mother and I were walking on New York City’s Upper West Side, she pointed out a redbrick townhouse in the West 70s where, she said, my great-grandfather had lived as a child. It was an awkward building, the door set back under a large arch, the roof sharply peaked, and I wondered that it had survived as the city rose around it.

I have since discovered that many of the places in New York where my ancestors lived are still standing: tenements on the Lower East Side, brownstones in Brooklyn Heights, a squat apartment building in Astoria, a two-family building in Canarsie.

Look around most neighborhoods in the city and you’ll find that the stage on which New Yorkers live and play, the physical city, hasn’t changed much in a very long time. More than half the city’s housing is in buildings constructed before 1947.

I take pleasure in wandering around this museum of family history, but it also makes me sad. The buildings survive because New York is preserving the corporeal city of bricks and steel at the expense of its residents and of those who might live here.

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