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Michele Carlo
Michele Carlo
Khushbu Shah

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New York Narratives: An Artist Recalls Her Experiences in a Transforming NYC

Storyteller and Bronx native Michele Carlo looks back on the NYC of her youth, and how things have changed since

Storyteller and author Michele Carlo was raised in the Bronx, but has lived in South Slope, Brooklyn, for nearly 30 years—and in that time, she's seen her hometown undergo a drastic transformation. Here, she recalls her youth and explains why "anyone can be a New Yorker."

My family was one of the first Latino families to live in our no-name neighborhood off the 6 in the East Bronx and, I believe, ever live in our apartment building. We moved there in the late 1960s, and the Italian and Irish families who lived there looked askance at us. I remember my father telling the O'Reillys and the Colettis that we came from "the Italian part of Puerto Rico," 'cause our last name is Carlo. And when I asked him why, he said, "So nobody burns garbage in front of our door," like people did to his family when they moved to Spanish Harlem when he was growing up.

Michele Carlo

So I grew up as the redheaded Puerto Rican in an Italian-Irish neighborhood living on this ethnic balance seesaw. To some of my relatives, I was the "Red Sheep" of the family. They thought I was too "white" because of how I looked and where I was growing up. But the second I opened my mouth where I lived and said what my nationality was, I was ostracized there, too. So for a very long time I hid who I really was. I told people I was half Italian and half Puerto Rican, and it wasn't until I was a full-grown adult, in my early 30s, that I felt safe enough to own myself.

Where I grew up was a very working class, Catholic neighborhood. There was a Catholic school or church every couple of blocks. No one's dad wore a suit to work. Suits were for funerals and for weddings, and if somebody was wearing a suit otherwise, it was like, "Well, he thinks who he is." And another funny thing was, there were a lot of people who had absolutely no interest in going "downtown," which is what we called going to Manhattan. I always wanted to go. I had a little group of friends who’d take the train down to Astor Place with me, which to us was the Village, and we’d walk around 8th Street and pretend we lived there.

I also remember there were a lot of really good things to eat in my neighborhood. It was full of delis, bakeries, butchers, and a lot of really good pizzerias. But as the years went by, a lot of the old-school people moved out as more Latinos moved in. My mom and brother still live in that neighborhood and it's a food desert now. You can get almost any kind of fast food, but try finding a crisp apple or a carton of unexpired yogurt. Sometimes I think, well, did we ruin the neighborhood? But all we wanted was a better place to live.

New York is like a shark. If it stops moving, it dies. There’s always evolution.

New York is like a shark. If it stops moving, it dies. There's always evolution. Neighborhoods in NYC change hands many, many, many times, but what I see now, which I think is quite different from what I've seen throughout my life, is that somewhere around the turn of the century, viable small businesses were not allowed to continue at a landlord’s whim. Leases weren’t renewed, or if they were, the rent was increased five, 10, or 20 times. Now, landlords would rather have a store or building be vacant, and when something does go in there, it's not an individual's business. It's not a mom and pop store or restaurant, or a service for the neighborhood. It's a chain store or other big box business that tells the residents, "This neighborhood is not yours anymore."

It’s like when you see a Wells Fargo or Rite Aid or Starbucks on a street in Bushwick, where 15 years ago if you were visiting your relatives they would tell you, "Get away from the window, you might get shot." Don’t get me wrong, I don't want to go back to the days where I had to run up five flights of stairs, yelling for my dad to open the door because I was being chased. I don't want to go back to the time when I got stabbed in high school. I don't want to live in fear walking down the street that I'm gonna get jumped—but there has to be some kind of happy medium between a complete corporate takeover and a New York City that is unique because of its people. A place where people come from all over the world because they think it's the only place where they can pursue their dreams.

I've seen it happen in Manhattan. I was part of the alternative comedy and performance scene that was on the Lower East Side from the early ’90s through 2004 or so. There were about a dozen performance spaces and storefront theaters where people performed every night. I especially remember Surf Reality and Collective:Unconscious. One of them had reclaimed a crack den; the other had replaced a brothel. And somewhere around 2000, I think, the New York Times discovered the scene, wrote about it, and then all of a sudden the neighborhood became the next hot thing. And within the next couple of years, every place I knew closed.

The last straw was when the Collective:Unconscious Theater and the very popular bar next door called Barramundi had their leases come up for renewal in 2004 and were denied. They were both healthy, vibrant businesses serving the community. Barramundi was full every friggin' night. Collective:Unconscious had received multiple awards for their artistic programming.  But they were both thrown out and that empty lot sat untouched until recently. Such a waste.

I see this happening in my neighborhood now, too. I’ve lived in South Slope, Brooklyn going on 28 years and still see the same buildings boarded up. Multiple buildings that have been that way ever since I first moved there.

I moved to Brooklyn in the late ’80s because it was just about the only place that wasn't the Bronx I could afford. That was a shock to my family because in traditional Latino culture, girl children aren’t supposed to move away from home. But I had gone to art school [The School of Visual Arts] and knew that a traditional life wasn’t for me. I moved to Brooklyn shortly after a boy had been killed by a bear in the horrible old Prospect Park Zoo. It was a terrible thing for those kids and their families, and it was a big deal in the news at the time.

To me, that was also the tipping point for the changes to the surrounding neighborhoods. After that happened, there was this great public outcry and the zoo was shut. Shortly after, the Prospect Park Alliance was formed. Trust me, that park needed improvement. I remember walking in there with my then-husband and seeing homeless men bathing in the waterfall, and junkies having sex in the woods. Almost everything was in disrepair. Even in the ’90s, there were still places in Prospect Park that were "walk at your own risk." But little by little it was renovated and became the beautiful oasis it is today.

When I first moved to South Slope, by which I mean the higher-numbered streets above 9th Street, it was full of Latinos. Now it seems I’m one of the few left. And some of the newer residents that have been moving in don't always look kindly upon the people that grew up there. I overheard a conversation where these two young-ish mothers, who were basically blocking the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue with their double-wide strollers, were talking about how this was such a great neighborhood because there were "hardly any leftovers" on their block anymore.

I lived on the same block for 25 years—almost half my life—until 2013 when my landlords died and there was a dispute over who owned the two-family house. While the families battled it in court, the house fell into disrepair, and when the family that won the settlement found out fixing it would cost more than they could afford, they sold the house. The new owners basically gave me six weeks to get out.

Having to move really opened my eyes because I hadn't registered how my neighborhood had changed. It was like when you look at your face in the mirror and you're 26, and then you look at your face again and suddenly, you're 52. You're like, what happened? The changes are so gradual, you don't see them. But now, I noticed many of the businesses I’d known were gone and that I wasn't hearing Spanish or Italian or Polish or Russian or Korean anymore. People I used to see all the time were gone. But against all odds, by the grace of El Señor and the spirits of my grandmother and my father, I was able to find another apartment nearby that I could afford. So I get to stay in the place I love and call home, at least for now.

I absolutely believe that as Prospect Park began to be cleaned up, the surrounding neighborhoods also began to gentrify—for want of a better term—which is not entirely a bad thing. As I said earlier, nobody wants to be chased up five flights of stairs screaming, "Open the door," because you're about to be jumped. But why can't there be some kind of common ground that respects the elderly and longtime residents that do not have the wherewithal or desire to relocate? How do you tell a 75-year-old woman who's been living in the same apartment for 40 years, and her children are gone, and her husband is dead, and she lives on a fixed income, that you’re going to throw her out? How is it right to tell a family, "Well now that the neighborhood’s safer, the park is clean and the schools are better, you don’t get to live here anymore."

And where are we all supposed to go? Some would say, "You move where you can afford the rent." Yeah, okay, so let's say three years ago I couldn't find an apartment and ended up moving back to the Bronx where a new artisanal bakery-café has now opened on my mom’s corner. How long till I’m displaced yet again?

Why can't there be some kind of common ground that respects the elderly and longtime residents?

And let’s say I had to move to Yonkers, or Mount Vernon, or another suburb? Cheaper rent? I don’t think so, because now I have to pay for Metro North commuting as well as a monthly MetroCard, so I'm not saving anything. I'm actually paying more to live further away from my job, my family, my friends, or anything that I would want to do. I'm a working artist. I don't come from a rich family. I don't have a subsidy. I don't have those resources.

What kind of culture do we have where it's better for a landlord to keep buildings vacant that families could be living in, or have small businesses kicked out so another ATM can be there instead? I don't know. I guess that's why I'm not rich, 'cause I don't get it.

But one thing I do know is money always follows artists. Artists move to a place nobody wants to be, and then once the money comes, neither they or the original inhabitants of the neighborhood can live there anymore. So the future of New York City could go either way. It used to be people came to New York City to create something, who had something to share and wanted to make it their home. But what I see now are people moving in who treat this city like a disposable amusement park. Anyone can be a New Yorker. You don’t have to be born and raised here to be a New Yorker. If you’re a real New Yorker, you’re here with your spirit and your heart.

New York Narratives is a collection of first-person accounts commemorating, celebrating, and reflecting on the lived experience in New York City. Read more stories here.

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