Anatomy of a New York City Neighborhood

I already knew that there was an order to the apparent chaos when it comes to New York City neighborhoods.  Within each borough, there are five: Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx; there are many neighborhoods.  Even within these neighborhoods, there can be divisions, “the North Slope” meaning the northern part of the Park Slope area, for example, or “Little India” versus “Latin town”  if you’re referring to a single neighborhood in Queens.

However, I think it was a week spent in Berlin last spring that led me to reflect seriously upon what makes up a NYC neighborhood.  In the Kurfurstendamm neighborhood (within the “burg”of Charlottenburg) of that city, I felt right at home.  I found myself comparing it to Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Brooklyn Heights, or to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In an easily walkable stretch, there was world-class shopping, numerous coffee shops and bakeries, small but worthy cultural institutions, convenience, liquor and tobacco shops, drug stores and small groceries, and of course, small restaurants that catered primarily to neighborhood residents. There was a sidewalk florist, a few small churches and even a cinema.

So, what is the skeleton of a NYC neighborhood?  At the head are the residents.  In many cases, residents are not just those that live there, but those that spend many hours a week working in the neighborhood.

The residents drive commerce, therefore,the arms of the neighborhood are: retail and food.

One of several potential spines holding NYC neighborhoods together are the streets themselves, and the cultures of the people and businesses inhabiting them.  Without an understanding, a sort of “we’re all in this together” mentality, we would not have a neighborhood, just an area.

The legs of any good NYC ‘hood have to do with access.  As oddly provincial as we city dwellers can be, we still have to venture out of our work and home neighborhoods from time to time.  A proper NYC neighborhood must have transit options.

We’ve come to the feet now.  At the base of any neighborhood, in NYC or elsewhere, is what came before.  Even in a seemingly constantly changing metropolis, there are clues to the inhabitants that lived in the same blocks years earlier.  While many of these clues are too deeply buried to go into here, others are more obvious.  Take these images taken in Manhattan’s trendy and very expensive West Village.  Not everything has changed!

I’ve come to the end of my cursory postmortem of a New York City neighborhood.  This is my tribute to all of the bodegas, mom-and-pop stores, grass roots cultural organizations, spirited people and historical references that are occasionally overshadowed by the new, large and glitzy.

I’ll leave you with three shots of Berlin.  In this vibrant city, I saw many parallels to my own.

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