From the archive
Sure, one could pick any thoroughfare in the city, or devise your own 26-mile spin through New York, and note change. But the marathon’s route, year in and year out, draws runners from across the globe and declares, in its punishing and entertaining way, “This is New York.”
Consider this, then, a how-we-live-now guide, observed in tank top.
Following the graceful curve of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, runners practically coast into Bay Ridge, their introduction to Brooklyn.
For most of the 20th century, this was a tight-knit enclave of Scandinavians, Irish and Italians, drawn by work on ships. When Grete Waitz, the nine-time marathon winner from Norway, went whizzing through there, her country’s flags would be flapping, said Bob Carlsen, 72, a third-generation Norwegian who cheered her on.
A Miss Norway is still crowned every spring, and Nordic Delicacies sells tins of fish pudding on Third Avenue.
But in the 1970s, Norwegians had seven social clubs, Carlsen said; now there are two, and they share space. And attendance at the annual Norwegian parade, held in May, “seems to be more limited each year,” he said.
The Irish and the Italians are dwindling as well, as Bay Ridge over the last 15 or so years has experienced the turnover and tumult of ethnic change.
New faces belong to Russians and Asians, with a huge Muslim population, too. Women in purple and gold hijabs stroll down Fifth Avenue past the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a popular mosque that is the community’s spiritual heart.
Ziad Khaled, 48, a Muslim born in Lebanon, now owns Hookahnuts, a store that sells pistachios with its tobacco pipes. A window sign promises “alcohol-free perfume.”
Muslims are among the fastest-growing segment of new arrivals in New York. And while the aftermath of Sept. 11 produced all sorts of discomfort and unease — many Pakistanis, for instance, either chose or were forced to leave — the arrival of Muslims in the city continues unabated.
Khaled, a Muslim, still feels the sting of the post-9/11 anger and anxiety, and from people who say all who practice Islam are terrorists. He said, “I’m ashamed to say this, but we need a lot more education in this country about religion.”
But he is not going anywhere, as he and his fellow Muslims in New York continue what can no doubt feel like their own marathon toward acceptance.
Slightly less than a third of the way into the route, the marathon takes a sharp right onto Lafayette Avenue, and thus into the heart of perhaps one of the neighborhoods more representative of change in New York: Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Its rebirth reflects some of the sweeping changes that have altered daily life in the city: reductions in crime, explosions in property values, and the development and deepening of the city’s cultural life outside Manhattan.
Those changes, of course, have also ignited in Fort Greene the kind of conversation taking place in many corners of the city — about the merits of gentrification, the complications of integration and the implications of aggressive policing.
The shifts, seismic or nuanced, good or controversial, are beyond dispute. Shaded blocks, like those along South Portland Avenue, boast antique row houses with inviting stoops. Intersections are anchored by stylish eateries like Olea Mediterranean Taverna at Adelphi Street. There is dance and art, concerts and readings.
Access to all that doesn’t come cheap; one-bedroom apartments fetch half a million dollars. Prices have also soared for basics. Back in the 1970s, Ralph’s, a corner market at South Portland, was a Budweiser station, for marathon watchers or runners looking to reload some carbs. Now, Ralph’s stocks River House beer for $18 a six-pack.
Williamsburg can seem timeless, and for decades runners entering it have mingled, mostly with mutual respect, with the neighborhood’s Hasidic Jews in their traditional attire.
The neighborhood today, just a little way up Bedford Avenue, is the authentic, if slightly overexposed, frontier of one of the more significant demographic developments in New York in the last decade or so — the influx of young people from places other than New York. They have poured into the Lower East Side and the South Bronx, Bushwick and Astoria, but Williamsburg is the de facto capital of the infusion.
Of course, the hipsters of Williamsburg can have a retro take on their own dress that might make the Hasidim smile.
On a recent evening, near North Seventh Street, a man in a floppy blazer held what looked like a lime-green banana to his ear, then began talking into it. It was a plastic telephone handset, the kind that graced most America homes through the Reagan era, though its cord was plugged into a digital device. Following him, a group of girls giggled in awe.
The surge of twenty-somethings here in the past 10 years — the area’s construction fences are tagged with literate squiggles like “the world is crazy but you don’t have to feel like that” — is evident with the arrival of each L train at North Seventh Street, and is at least responsible in some significant part for driving the average age of a New Yorker to 36.
Already, though, the adjoining neighborhood on the marathon’s route, Greenpoint, looks at Williamsburg and sniffs: too old.
Patrick Ferrell, 27, moved to Greenpoint from Greensboro, N.C. A record label employee with Buddy Holly glasses, Ferrell also plays bass for No Man, No Eyes, an “experimental rock band.”
Ferrell said he would never relocate to Williamsburg; too many aging poseurs, he said. “Way too many ‘rad dads’ floating around,” he said.
In a legacy-solidifying push, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration has rezoned some 20 percent of the city, a vast relaxation of restrictions on the building of housing, housing and more housing, much of it awfully expensive.
Long Island City’s changed character and altered look are a testament to that rezoning and the rebuilding that has come as a consequence. Yes, there are still myriad taxi depots, used-car lots and garages. Not to mention that huge billboards, for department stores, orange juice and cellphones, catch the eyes of commuters on the Long Island Expressway below.
But people who ran the route in the ’70s no doubt do double takes these days. Developers have recently lined Jackson Avenue with angular condos. A complex known as Hunters View was built over an auto-parts store. One Vernon Jackson rose over a razed glue factory. And One Hunters Point, on Borden Avenue, stands in the footprint of a parking lot where children a couple of generations back played touch football.
Adding so much sizzle to a sleepy city corner has charmed some business owners like Sung Park, 52, a deli owner on Vernon since 1988.
In 2009, he decided the neighborhood had changed enough that he could move beyond selling soda and sandwiches. He opened a museum on 50th Avenue, formally known as Underpenny Antiques, where his collection of 19th-century cast-iron pot holders, some 200 of them, are on display. Oh, and you can buy an oil painting there, too.
“Years ago, you couldn’t tell cabdrivers ‘Long Island City,’ so we would tell them to go to the Midtown Tunnel tollgate,” he said. “But now they know where to go.”
Mention First Avenue to club-hoppers of a certain age, and a wave of nostalgia, not to mention a flashback or two, might overtake them.
Starting in the 1960s, and bumping and grinding until the 1980s, the area that radiates north of the Queensboro-Ed Koch Bridge, where marathon runners now enter Manhattan, was a trove of boisterous disco/restaurants that were so memorable that they still inspire Austin Powers-like reactions.
“This place was absolutely swinging, night after night,” said Anthony King, who in 1972 opened Finnegan’s Wake, at East 73rd Street, to join the party. Today, the stucco-sided restaurant and the comedy club Dangerfield’s, circa 1969, are the only surviving traces.
Times have buttoned up. From a staff of two bartenders and a bouncer, and a closing time of 4 a.m., King has just one bartender today and winds things down at 1 a.m., he said.
His more shimmering peers seem to have met rather dull ends, contributing to the contemporary sleepiness of this stretch today.
Adam’s Apple, at No. 1117 (“Come take a bite out of life,” a TV commercial urged), is a mattress store; Magique, which later became a Chippendale’s, at No. 1110, sells bath towels. About the only watering hole to morph into something similar is the original T.G.I. Friday’s, at No. 1152, now Baker Street.
The most marquee-level club was clearly Maxwell’s Plum, at No. 1885. From 1966 to 1988, its burgers-and-caviar menu drew an A-list of actors like Cary Grant, Warren Beatty and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was torn down in the mid-1990s, and the site now has an orange-brick 12-story apartment building with a Duane Reade.
“At some point, the scene headed downtown,” King said, “definitely somewhere below 14th Street.”
Harlem: For a century, it might have been the American address most strongly identified with African-Americans, and as such it was one of the signature locations on the marathon’s map of New York.
Yet for many years, Harlem, the upper Manhattan neighborhood between the East and Hudson Rivers that marathoners traverse along Fifth Avenue, was also considered imperiled: Block after block of brownstones had concrete blocks for windows. And rubble-choked lots could have an apocalyptic look.
Today, both notions of Harlem — as a distinctly black piece of the New York puzzle or as a place afflicted with urban ills — no longer quite apply.
Many of the neighborhood’s black residents, having been priced out of their homes or after having made a surprising killing by selling them, have left in the last decade. Indeed, the population in the standard boundaries of Harlem no longer has a black majority. In 2008, for instance, black residents accounted for just 40 percent of the population from roughly 96th to 155th Streets, census data shows. Even in one of Harlem’s cores — west of Fifth, by Marcus Garvey Park — residents are 10 percent white.
Whether this black-white flip-flop signals an unwanted invasion or just a chance for old-timers to cash out is a question that is fervently hashed out over dinner at Sylvia’s, the Lenox Avenue mainstay, or Red Rooster, a popular upstart nightspot.
Some new white arrivals are just glad to clear up misconceptions.
“I never came up here before because I was told it was dangerous,” laughed Ron Van Lieu, 70, who has lived in lower parts of Manhattan since the 1960s and moved to Harlem two years ago. An acting teacher at Yale’s drama school, Van Lieu was out walking his dog, Ella.
Harlem, it turns out, has also lured one of the marathon’s founders — George Hirsch, 77, who in 2008 traded his home in Murray Hill for a condo on Central Park North.
For all the change, or perhaps because of it, Hirsch thinks the race is no less able to unify the city now than it did when he helped dream it up. In fact, two years ago, when he ran it for the last time, “the guy from my bodega came over to give me a shout,” he said. “That was really nice.”