When I moved to Alphabet City in the fall of 1994, I had grave doubts whether I could survive in my dangerous new neighborhood, much less feel at home. But an incredibly affordable apartment with a view—and its own washer and dryer? I allayed my fears by thinking that I wouldn't ever have to go out, even to do laundry. In New York, everything's deliverable, right?
For the first few months, I actually didn't go out much, at least after dark, and the winter passed uneventfully. I learned that 10th and 12th Streets were safely passable east of Avenue A, but that 11th and 13th were not. An inveterate Lower East Sider informed me- -whether accurately or not, I still don't know—that the pairs of sneakers I saw knotted together and thrown over the lampposts on 11th Street were markers of gang territory. After he told me that, I began to notice, with creeping unease, the murals memorializing dead gang members spray-painted on bodegas and thrift shops throughout the neighborhood.
That summer, things changed. I began seeing blue NYPD barricades on 13th Street. Like most locals, I'd heard rumblings all summer about disturbances between police and squatters on 13th Street, but I'd never seen any actual squatters, and it hadn't occurred to me that violence might break out. The squatters really didn't threaten me, but their grungy presence did keep the neighborhood downmarket. Their buildings at 535 to 545 East 13th Street looked decrepit and made the neighborhood's atmosphere tenser.
That July 4th, I'd gone to a party on a friend's rooftop. Walking home after 11, I'd looked up long enough on Avenue C to notice a couple of helicopters hovering over a nearby intersection. Hearing the rapid tat-tat of firecrackers and the boom of M-80s—favorite toys of Alphabet City's teens any night of the year, and especially on Independence Day— I felt like I'd stumbled on to the set of Apocalypse Now. When I reached my doorstep at 12th Street and Avenue B, a teeming mob en-gulfed me.
Just one block from the police barricade that sealed off the commandeered buildings on 13th Street, a noisy group of squatters' rights sympathizers had gathered. The crowd chanted "Pigs go home," as a phalanx of policemen in riot gear fanned out across Avenue B, on the north side of the intersection facing us. The police helicopters I'd seen from afar chattered loudly overhead, sweeping searchlights over the scene. That night, New York's finest seemed menacing and repressive: after most of the protesters ignored a command to disperse, a wall of shields and helmets plowed its way down 12th Street. I watched as police body-slammed people on the pavement, handcuffed them, and carted them away. It all looked like a war zone: something out of Terminator or the L.A. riots.
This was the bleak scene in my neighborhood almost four years ago. Now the picture is quite different, thanks to the Giuliani administration's refusal that night and others to back down from its hard line on neighborhood renewal. In August 1996, police finally drove the squatters from 13th Street, and, soon after, the city gutted and refurbished the squalid buildings they had occupied. Now they look clean, safe, and well managed. Police cruisers patrolling now are a common, and benign, sight. I'm no longer afraid to walk after dark in my neighborhood.
Other neighborhood benefits have followed the squatters' removal. Restaurateurs are now willing to set up shop here. Back in 1994, a high-end French bistro, like the new Café Margaux that today flourishes on 11th and B, couldn't have enticed even the most intrepid of the uptown taxi set to el barrio. Now the swells come willingly and often. Last October, the popular rotisserie Radio Perfecto opened its doors on Avenue B between 11th and 12th Streets. Every night it draws friendly, clean-cut crowds of young professionals. I stop in often to chat with owner Peter Dupre, whose ebullience is catching and will, no doubt, flow out into the street this spring, when Radio Perfecto rolls up its entire facade—a glass garage door—and serves the masses alfresco.
Now that the NYPD, which I wrongly had thought excessive that frightening evening four years ago, has made my neighborhood livable, chances are I'll be dining outside too—and well after 9 PM.