The Block

by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

We moved into our apartment on Second Avenue between 1st and 2nd streets in 1970: my seven-year-old son, merchant-marine husband and I.  It was a walkup with five rooms and a terrace, large enough for planting flowers and even vegetables. We installed a picnic table and deck chairs.  The view was a parking lot, not very pastoral but teeming with sunshine.

Next door was a tombstone showroom filled with handsome marble monuments, inscribed in English and Hebrew, awaiting their eventual owners. Past that on the First Street corner, was a ramshackle old house inhabited by Gypsies, whose modus vivendi involved selling stolen car batteries at bargain prices, often to their original owners. A busy Puerto Rican funeral parlor stood on the Second Street corner.

And a block away on Third Street was the Men’s Shelter where many of our nearest neighbors lived. They were young and old: junkies and alcoholics and sad homeless madmen. When we walked our dog, he lunged at those who came too close, barking fiercely. It didn’t seem to bother them; they were probably used to it or too high to notice.

The Seventies saw the beginning of surprising changes in the neighborhood, occurring gradually over what we used to call the Lower East Side. Now they named it the East Village, giving it a sexy, bohemian aura associated with Greenwich Village. Young white strangers from elsewhere started moving in, drawn by the promise of glamorous danger.  We called them, scornfully, Yuppies!

And then, the residents became aware of the changing scene.  They sold their businesses for high prices, raised the rents on their apartments and joined the growing real estate cabal that forced many of them to move away.

Living alone in the apartment, having broken with my husband; my grown son gone, I started getting hints from my landlords that they would be selling our building and could not predict the new owners’ plans.  They clearly wanted me out and showed it by cutting off the heat, hot water and gas, refusing my rent checks and other nasty strategies.

Finally I stopped resisting and relocated but convinced my son, now married and a father, to move back into his childhood home.  He is there now, still paying our modest rent and fighting legally to remain while the war of money roars ever more lavishly on.  Bars, restaurants, chic boutiques, antique shops flourish on what used to be, charming, shabby old Second Avenue, a place preserved only in our memories.


I began writing in high school and can’t seem to stop.