city of ghosts, city of memories

February 19, 2010 |  Category:   life nyc remembering


I walked down a street yesterday afternoon that I haven’t walked down in well over 10 years. Has that ever happened to you? You haven’t given a place any thought at all, but when you happen to encounter it by chance, you realize how permanently etched into your life it is as a link to memories of your past. This happened to me yesterday.

Greenwich Avenue. A relatively short street (in NYC terms) that runs diagonally from 6th Ave and 8th Street to 13th Street and 8th Ave. I walked this street a few times a day, almost every day for over a year. It was my preferred route from art school at Astor Place in the East Village to the apt of a certain boy who lived on 14th and 8th. NYC is like that if you’ve lived here long enough and if you grew up here as I did, you can map out your entire past through streets and landmarks. The city is big enough that it’s possible to not walk down particular streets or neighborhoods for years and years, so when I found myself on Greenwich Avenue yesterday, I just stood there, a bit paralyzed because I was not prepared to be flooded with all this “stuff”.

It was comforting to see that some of the places on this street were still standing 20 years later. The cave-like natural food restaurant with an entrance a few steps down from the sidewalk, the Italian restaurant, the long and narrow Indian restaurant, the store with the fun knick knacks, gifts and cards, Elephant and Castle, Tea & Sympathy, even the paper store that stood on the corner at the bottom of the street looked like it was there until recently. It’s now just a ghost of a boarded up building, but there’s evidence that maybe a fire took out its life not that long ago. Walking along I started looking for other places that I remembered, but was saddened to see that some were not there. The store where I was given a necklace as a gift. A cafe on the second floor that had a wood-paneled back room with elaborately carved mismatched tables and chairs. These held significant memories. These places were gone.

Sometimes timelines get crossed and I realized that some of my memories of this street are actually memories of 2 different people from 2 different decades. And this shook me out of my daydream and I picked up my pace as I headed to a new spot I hadn’t been to before to meet with friends.

But the city can do that to you. You’re constantly walking by places of significance, some etched in the past and some that are in the process of etching itself in. Ghosts are everywhere around you. Some days you can manage to walk by without thinking twice about it, other days you might make a quick reference in your head, and then there are days that it stops you in your tracks and sucks you down memory lane. How can you be nostalgic for a city that you already live in?

Sometimes, it happens.

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  • Michelle Shopped February 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    i so go through this constantly in the places i grew up and places where i’ve been — ghosts, you said it, but oh beautiful bitterweet ghosts they can be…

  • Julia February 19, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    I just happened upon your blog and love this post in particular. I know just what you mean, I live in Boston, and there ghosts around most corners if I let myself stop and think about it. I’ve always referred to it as “layered worlds” in a little urban world, it such an odd but awesome feeling!

    Lovely blog!

  • Jillian February 19, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    you’ve put words to my thoughts.
    Julia, “layered worlds” how eloquent….

  • Allison February 19, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    You have put it so eloquently. I have felt just as you, living in the city (Chicago) for most of my adult life, ending up back in neighborhoods and places that were meaningful in my past. It can take you off guard. I now have moved out of state so it is especially bittersweet sometimes when I return to visit. It can be so disappointing when things change, the nostalgia, as if part of your past is erased. But a time and a place for everything, right? In the end I am just left with a feeling of appreciation for what I had at the time and what I now have.

  • mau February 20, 2010 at 12:07 am

    what a beautiful post! the same thing happened to me (and still happens sometimes) where I live. I left the island where I live for 10 years and came back 5 years ago and even though i used to come back twice a month, I’m still saddened by the fact that some childhood places have closed down.

  • Andrew Thornton February 20, 2010 at 1:07 am

    I know what you mean about being nostalgic for a City you live in. Even though, I don’t live in New York anymore, it lives on in my memories.

    I’m a walker. When I get stressed out or get deep in thought, I start walking. I can’t count how many nights I spent wandering the City. The city streets used to be my haven, a passing landscape that still burns in the embers of my mind. But there are a lot of places that do this, that are possessed with meaning and memory.

  • Nadia February 20, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Julia, I love your “layered worlds” term. Absolutely perfect.

    Jenna, as commenters above me, I completely know what you mean with this post. With moving back to Miami, I am constantly interacting with areas that were part of my childhood, my young adulthood and now my present. It’s incredible how some areas play different roles in your life at different times.

    Wonder where the future lies?…

  • Jenna February 20, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Julia, like many have said, I love “layered worlds”! Perfect, really.

  • paige February 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    My significant other is an urban east coaster and this post made me feel like I was seeing inside his head. He has this way of walking around NY that I sometimes get impatient with. Thank you for putting into words what my silent but beautiful honey never could. He’s encountering ghosts, and that requires a moment, before pushing on to meet friends. Thank you.

  • Janet February 20, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    This is lovely. I’ve been thinking about what you wrote since I read it, so I came back to comment. So true for me too, in both of the cities where I’ve lived. All those different versions of myself…Thanks for this.

  • lauren d February 22, 2010 at 9:41 am

    lovely post. if it is the same place i am thinking of, i would love to know the name of the natural foods place you mentioned. i have tried to retrace my steps to there millions of times on that street and never seem to be able to find it! such a bizarre feeling…..