Bittersweet Memories of the Lower East Side

Looking back at a childhood in Stuyvesant Town

27 Dec 2019 | 02:27

I went to Wo Hop, a Chinatown hole in the wall, for the first time in 1987. I was still in my mother’s womb, and she and my father took the 6 train from their studio apartment on 85th St. between First and York.

Eventually they moved to the Lower East Side, and as I got older we would make the short trek to Chinatown every New Year's Eve from our apartment.

My parents and I would order Wo Hop staples: boiled dumplings and beef with black bean sauce on noodles, which cost around $6.95 and $7.95 for both. It was a convenient and cheap option, since my mother was exhausted from all the cooking during the holidays.

We moved to Stuyvesant Town in 1991. The two-bedroom apartment was off-putting at first because it was located across from a Con Edison plant, at the bustling intersection of 14th St, and Avenue C, full of cars and pedestrians. But that’s what made our StuyTown apartment so special. After a while we got used to all the noise, and my parents appreciated the $700 rent. It was affordable and convenient.

Family Traditions

The holidays were special, with my mother cooking pernil, arroz con gandules and pasteles. My mother, an admissions secretary for a medical college, came to New York from Puerto Rico when she was a few months old. She grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Marcy Projects. My father, a retired magazine art director, was raised in the South Bronx. He’s also Puerto Rican, and they both speak Spanish – something I didn’t pick up.

I understand some Spanish, but it is still something I want to strive to learn and speak. My parents felt bad that they didn’t do more to teach my sister and I, but I’ve never held it against them.

My father’s mother – my Grandma Saro – moved in with us when I was six. She always talked to us in English, though Spanish was her first language. She was like a second mother, but she passed away at the age of 96 in 2013.

She took care of my sister and me and cooked the best bistec encebollado (steak and onions). The three of us shared a room together, and she would pray the rosary every night, lighting one of her saint candles.

My sister and I shared bunk beds, and at first I was on the top bunk until she got old enough to make the switch. My grandmother slept diagonal to our beds and had her table stand next to her with a lamp, candle, bible and figure of Mary. Although it was slightly crowded, sharing that room was wonderful because I never felt alone.

A Changing City

I have so many fond memories of that apartment throughout the years, but Stuyvesant Town & Peter Cooper Village were owned by MetLife and then sold in 2006 to Tishman Speyer Properties. They are currently owned by Blackstone Group LP and rebranded as a luxury apartment complex, currently offering one-bedroom apartments for upwards of $3000, which is unfair to natives like me.

The complex was originally developed for WWII Veterans and middle-income tenants, but that has changed with the gentrification of a neighborhood that was once more multicultural and affordable.

The only reason I got to live there for so long was because I lived with my parents and sister until I got married in 2017. Now I occasionally get to sleep over if I have a late night event because it is so darn convenient.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live in that neighborhood again. My husband Matthew, a dispatcher for college engineering and maintenance, and I, a higher-education public relations coordinator, can’t afford it.

We are moving from Flushing, Queens, where we pay $1391 a month for a rent-stabilized apartment, to Richmond Hill, Queens, where we will live with his grandmother in a two-family home. It’s affordable, at half the price of our current apartment, though not as convenient as Manhattan. But it’s home.

One More New Year's Eve

I am LES for life. But now, in my Queens apartment I leave up my tree in a box until Jan. 6 for Día de los Reyes (Three Kings Day). And I travel for over an hour to get to my parents’ hoping the trains aren’t running too bad.

Last New Year’s Eve, after we returned from Chinatown, my sister, Matthew and I sat in my parents’ StuyTown living room watching “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” waiting to see the ball drop. We sipped on coquito and drank wine while enjoying arroz con dulce (rice pudding), or an assortment of pastries my mother would put out.

It was all so bittersweet.

That’s why Matthew and I decided to bring in 2020 at my second favorite place after the Lower East Side – Disney World.