Shadow Cities

On a late spring morning almost two years ago, while walking on Broadway, I suddenly noticed that something terrible had happened to Straus Park. The small park, located just where Broadway intersects West End Avenue on West 106th Street, was being fenced off. A group of workers, wearing orange reflector shins, were manning all kinds of equipment, and next to what must have been some sort of portable comfort station was a large electrical generator. Straus Park was being dismantled, demolished.

Not that Straus Park was such a wonderful place to begin with. Its wooden benches were dirty, rotting, and perennially littered with pigeon droppings. You’d think twice before sitting, and if you did sit you’d want to leave immediately. It too had become a favorite hangout for the homeless, the drunk, and the addict. Over the years the old cobblestone pavement had turned into an undulating terrain of dents and bulges, mostly cracked, with missing pieces sporadically replaced by tar or cement, the whole thing blanketed by a deep, drab, dirty gray. Finally, the emptied basin of what used to be a fountain had turned into something resembling a septic sandbox. Unlike the fountains of Rome, this one, like the park itself, was a down-and-out affair. Never a drop. The fountain had been turned off decades ago.

Straus Park was, like so many tiny, grubby parks one hardly ever notices on the Lower East Side, relegated to a past that wasn’t ancient enough to have its blemishes forgiven or to feel nostalgic about. One could say the same of the Art Nouveau-style statue of what I mistook for a reclining Greek nymph lost in silent contemplation, looking inward, as it were, to avoid looking at what was around her. She looked very innocent, very Old World, and very out of place, almost pleading to be rescued from this ugly shrub that dubbed itself a park. In fact, the statue wasn’t even there that day. She had disappeared, no doubt sold.

The thing I liked most about the square was gone. The way so many other things are gone today from around Straus Park: the Olympia Deli, the Blue Rose, Ideal Restaurant, Mr. Kay’s Barbershop, the Pomander Bookshop, the Siam Spice Rack, Chelsea Two, and the old Olympia Theater, drawn and quartered, as all the theaters are these days, plus the liquor store that moved across the street but really disappeared when it changed owners, the flower store that went high tech, and La Rosita, which went from being down-and-under to up-and-coming.

Why should anybody care? And why should I, a foreigner, of all people care? This wasn’t even my city. Yet, I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past. I wanted to rescue things everywhere, as though by restoring them here I might…

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