Monday, 13 January 2014

district X

aka. Mutant town aka Alphabet City 

Mutant Town is a fictional location in Marvel Comics, a neighbourhood based on Alphabet City in a post-apocryphal New York primarily inhabited by mutants. There is some sort of link to X-men in there. I'm no comic expert. Clearly.

But I saw no sign of mutants in the real Alphabet City. Although it was eerily quiet the day we walked around there. Alphabet City is an area in the East Village. It gets its name for Avenues A, B, C and D, the only avenues in Manhattan to have single letter names. 

Alphabet City has had a few names, and Mutant City has not been one of them. Klein Deutschland, Loisaida, Nu Yorica all reflect the immigrant populations who have lived and worked there and tried to make their way in their desire to live the American Dream.

Until the early 19th century, Alphabet City was marshland. The riverbed was drained by developers, reclaimed and built on. The first wave of immigrants to pass through were German. By the 1880s, Eastern Europeans replaced Germans as the dominant group, jostling for space with Eastern European Jewish arrivals, Irish and Italian immigrants. And when I say jostling, that was absolutely the case. By the turn of the 20th century, Alphabet City was among the most densely populated areas of New York City. The inhabitants lived in tenements, most of which did not have running water, and many of them worked in the garment factories located in the area. With the advent of the subway system, the population decreased significantly as workers were able to live in other (cleaner and safer) areas and take the train to work.

As the calendars turned over and the turn of the twentieth century kicked in, a new wave of immigrants poured into the area. Thousands of Puerto Ricans began to settle around the A-D avenues and the Spanglish word for Lower East Side, Loisaida, was being bandied around. In the sixties, seventies and eighties, Alphabet City was the scene of a strong movement to develop the cultural identity of the Puerto Rican people. This Nuyorican movement was largely led by intellectuals, poets and artists.

In the eighties, Alphabet City epitomised all that is bohemian. It was home to many of the first graffiti writers and b-boys, rappers and DJs. It was also pretty well known for drugs and crime. Law and Order: SVU would still have you believe it's dodgy.

The latest incarnation of Alphabet City is a gentrified, more hipster one. Shabby-chic and still sporting the colourful murals that belie its bohemian past, Alphabet City is now all tidy streets, nice looking restaurants and bars and quiet neighbourhood parks.

Walking around the streets, azure sky above, snow crunching underfoot was the perfect way to digest a pastrami sandwich.

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