When Williamsburg Was on the Wrong Side of the River

That summer, he was found dead, face down, his body rotting in the summer heat. The only reason anyone had known anything was wrong was the smell. For months after, he was still online on my Instant Messenger screen.If bad things ever happened to me in South Williamsburg, though, it wasn’t the neighborhood’s fault. I…

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That summer, he was found dead, face down, his body rotting in the summer heat. The only reason anyone had known anything was wrong was the smell. For months after, he was still online on my Instant Messenger screen.

If bad things ever happened to me in South Williamsburg, though, it wasn’t the neighborhood’s fault. I liked it there, by the river. Living by a body of water felt like a luxury. I never knew what Manhattan looked like until I moved to Brooklyn and could look back at it. I felt like I could stay for a while, in this place where no one I knew wanted to live.

And then suddenly everyone did want to live there, beginning in 2005, when the waterfront got rezoned for twenty-story condos, and people pushed out by Manhattan prices suddenly moved en masse. Others were also lured to the area by (relatively) cheap loft spaces, made glamorous-ish by assholes like me who kept writing about it and talking about it and posting pictures of it on the Internet and documenting it in other places. Suddenly, I was giving directions to tourists. Go that way, I’d say, and I’d point north. We were the edge of cool, down there by the river, on the way to the intersection of the expressway and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I couldn’t get mad at the tourists. It was my fault, and the fault of people like me. If you want something to stay secret, don’t write about it for a decade. If you don’t want to ruin a neighborhood, shut the fuck up. (Or don’t move there in the first place.) And, anyway, it was beyond our control. You can’t stop the monster, the city of New York, the hungry giant, looking for land and sky and space.

I moved to the building in 2002, a year after 9/11, from the apartment I had occupied in Union Square: a pretty studio with a fireplace, which I could only afford because of my corporate-entertainment job, an apartment that at any other time in my life I would have appreciated, but in that moment symbolized a trap. This happened to a lot of people after 9/11. Not the moving-to-Brooklyn part, although plenty of people moved somewhere new after 9/11. But this desire to immediately do the thing you had been waiting to do. What were any of us waiting for? It could have been us in one of those towers, staring out at this city that had blessed us and then cursed us. Everybody knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone. There were photos of missing people everywhere, taped up to walls at Union Square station, and there were vigils in the square, with candles, their drippings piled high, and flowers, and messages of all kinds, everything just strewn about, our feelings strewn about.

It was the thing we never imagined could happen, and for a while we believed it could happen again, and then that city ate itself, and ate itself again, and new people moved in, and there were new problems and a new mayor, and they erected a building we could all visit so we would never forget, and every year, there was a light show to remind us, and posters and signs that said NEVER FORGET, and I have to tell you—there are plenty of people who have forgotten. Even sometimes I forget, except for what it looked like, standing on the roof of my apartment building, watching a building burn and then fall. Nor can I forget how the city smelled to me, this unpleasant roasted-plastic smell for days, and how I had to show my I.D. to get into my neighborhood, how suddenly everyone was suspect, and also how sad everyone was, an entire city so devastated and sad and angry and scared.

I didn’t want to live in Manhattan—where I had lived for four years—anymore. Manhattan seemed like a dead end to me, because I was never going to be rich, I was always just going to be working, endlessly working. And I didn’t know if there was any other way to get rich except to marry someone with money, a thing people actually talked about openly, jokingly, but also quite seriously—as if life were some Jane Austen novel—and that seemed unlikely, based on my taste in dirtbags. I hated working in corporate America. I had just turned thirty-one. I kept getting jobs and raises and then I kept quitting the jobs. If I quit working my corporate job, then I wouldn’t be able to afford my apartment in Union Square. I was about forty pounds overweight and I did cocaine on the weekends and also sometimes during the week and I worked late and ate dinner out and drank Martinis, like, several Martinis in a night, without blinking. I spent sixty hours a week at the office, easily. I worked so hard, but nothing I made belonged to me. I knew I wanted to hide out in Brooklyn and make some art, although I didn’t know what yet.

There was never a time in Brooklyn when I looked across the river and thought, Take me back, Manhattan. I only ever thought, I made it out alive.

There was another thing about Manhattan: in that year after 9/11, I had claustrophobia, which manifested in anxiety attacks. I didn’t realize that was what was happening to me because I had never had them before. I knew only that I had trouble now in trains and bars and movie theatres. That’s how I thought of it: “Trouble.” I was always searching for the exit, I always had to sit on the aisle. I always needed to know I could get out. What was the escape route? My heart would race otherwise. I walked to work for months except when it rained. I didn’t want to go underground. I had read Murakami’s “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche” coincidentally just a month before 9/11, and the book, a nonfiction examination of the 1995 sarin-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system told in interviews, remained stuck in my head; I quietly believed that was where we would be struck next. Eventually, I got over it, but all I did, really, was pack the anxiety away for a rainy day. For another future event. Because hadn’t I been looking for an escape route all my adult life?

One way I took care of the anxiety was to move near the river. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I felt safer living near water. The buildings couldn’t collapse on me if there was a river I could escape to, I thought. I could flee from fire.

One time, my friend Lauren came to town for business and stayed the night in my loft. She had just finished a new book, had a certain confidence and glow in her red cowboy boots. The next morning, we walked across the street to the ferry terminal, which had opened three years earlier and had altered the dynamics of the neighborhood yet again. While we waited, she squinted at the river, gauged it, and said, “I could swim across that.” She had been a star on her high-school swim team; when she looked at the river, she thought of it as a challenge, something she could surmount. And I just looked at it as a safe distance between me and Manhattan. I’d been there twelve years by then and still felt that way.

My building in Brooklyn ended up being one of those places where everyone I met in New York had been to for a party, at least once. On the graffiti-strewn roof on the Fourth of July, at a famous photographer’s monthly dinner party on the third floor, at a New Year’s Eve party on the sixth floor. Even I had been to a party there before I moved to the building. I remember I met a man that night who, in an extremely specific late-nineties brag, claimed he had been dancing with Cameron Diaz in a club the night before. “What was she like?” “So sweet.

I paid just over a thousand dollars a month for the first three years I lived there, utilities included; I think I was a small fry to the building owners, so they forgot to raise the rent on me. The building was owned by a grumpy, old Hasidic man of indeterminate age (he was either a hundred years old or a thousand years old) who mumbled when he spoke, so you never were really clear where the conversation had landed when you walked away from him; sometimes I wondered if his manner of speech was a deliberate act of subterfuge. Nothing in the building was fixed in a timely fashion, if at all. Before it was a residential building, it was, reportedly, once a pasta factory, and after that, storage for weird odds and ends: electronics, clothing, off-brand sodas. Outside, sex workers and junkies roamed. Even after people moved in, it took until the second half of the decade for that to change.

A shrewd red-haired woman named Marla managed the building from an office in the lobby; I wanted her to like me, because I like it when older Jewish people like me, and also so things would get fixed (or at least attempts would be made). For a year, I had roaches in my apartment, and no matter how much I cleaned or the exterminator, who visited monthly, sprayed, we couldn’t get rid of them. Marla and I both scratched our heads. Then my latest next-door neighbors—who had a baby—moved out and Marla informed me that their apartment was filthy and riddled with bugs. After that, I had no more roaches.

In January, 2008, we were all evicted by the Fire Department because the building wasn’t up to code. There had been a functioning matzo bakery in the basement for years. The grain silos down there were fire hazards. The building could blow at any moment, the department said. And it turned out that those rustic red pipes running through my apartment did nothing in particular but add to the charm. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of a functioning sprinkler system. Two hundred people were forced out of their home on a Sunday night before a government holiday on one of the coldest nights of the year. And yet, months later, when the building was up to code (or close enough), many of us moved back in. Because we loved our space. It was our home.

A few times every winter it would snow, and the weather might get cold enough that the East River would freeze in parts close to the shore, and the sun would come out and I would walk down to the river to watch the glittering chunks of ice and snow break and flow with the river, sunlight bouncing like mad against the ice, the water, the city itself. When I first moved to Brooklyn, I still went to rock shows at night. I drank too much, I did drugs, I slept with strangers. I did this well into my thirties. I made bad decisions, but after a while they were the only kind I knew how to make, so then they just became, simply, decisions. Chunks of ice, breaking in the sunshine.

I had Thanksgivings in that building, I had Passovers, I had Halloweens, I had birthdays, I had love affairs, I had friendships. I went broke several times. I adopted a dog. I quit smoking in that building.

I was living there when I sold my first book, at the age of thirty-four, and also my second, third, fourth, and fifth. Five books in a decade, in one apartment building.

In my forties, I began spending winters in New Orleans, a city I deeply loved. I had started to see how my life could look different. Easier, and calmer. I did not want to grow old in New York. I had been young there, and that was enough. In 2016, I bought a small house in New Orleans.

The next winter, the Williamsburg apartment building was sold for fifty-six million dollars. There had been whispers it had been up for sale for months, or years, even. The new owners were reportedly connected with Jared Kushner, who was rumored to be one of the worst landlords in the city, employing aggressive tactics to intimidate or evict longtime tenants. Almost immediately, people lawyered up. Cameras were installed all over the building. Eviction notices were posted on doors. And yet, still, nothing that needed to be fixed was fixed. People moved out—either kicked out or bought out—and rents got higher. Everyone was stressed and anxious, all the time. The sunsets on the roof and the river outside the front door didn’t change the fact that there were big, new condo buildings everywhere. The neighborhood had changed. It’s not what it used to be—a typical moan in New York City, but it was true, the actual physical landscape had changed.

In the fall, I closed up my apartment, packed the rest of my belongings, and, with my dog, made a complete move down South. I started over, with no dreams except to live a quiet life in a special city, be a positive part of my community, and continue doing my work.

I cannot bring myself to visit my old apartment building whenever I am back in New York. So much of my coming of age is wrapped up in it. For the moment, I prefer it as a memory. An idea of who I once was, perched in a building on the river.

The address was 475 Kent Avenue.

This excerpt is drawn from “I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home,” by Jami Attenberg, out in January from Ecco.

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