We have been almost a parody of multiculturalism on our little street. Black and white, Hispanic and Asian; straight, gay, and transgender; families of all kinds—extended, adopted, arranged by convenience or design. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist. I would come home and see the daughters of our Sikh mailman, before they grew up, playing baseball in the halls. In the evening, I sat at my desk in a little space, in this building cubbyholed with other little spaces and held together by what was once described as "a hundred years of spit and dust," and felt as though I were poised over the center of the world. Beneath me I could hear a hive of dinnertime conversations carried on in half a dozen languages, smell cooking that came from all over the world, hear someone ringing a gong and repeating a Buddhist chant.
It is through all these interactions, multiplied a million times, that a truly great city is made.
The street life—the warrens of little shops and businesses that once sustained our neighborhood in the sort of "exuberant diversity" that Jane Jacobs considered a prerequisite for a successful city—is being eradicated as well: the botanica on 96th Street that Susan, my sister-in-law, always visited to buy her healing herbs when she was in town; the Indian spice shop next to it, with the protective elephant-headed idol of Ganesh mounted outside.
These stores, like so many others in my neighborhood, have not been replaced. They are simply . . . gone. In an informal survey of Broadway, from 93rd Street to 103rd, I recently counted twenty-four vacant storefronts—many of them very large spaces, enough to account for roughly one third of the street frontage. Nearly all of them have been empty now for months or even years.