“Are You a Tourist?”

I stopped in my tracks at her question. Me? Me, a tourist??

I had just asked permission to take a photo of a woman in a dress, after trailing her for several blocks. (Was it because I asked permission? Wouldn’t a real New Yorker just snap away?)

Desiree in her NYC dress

Desiree

It was a summer day in New York—the kind of day I can walk forever, popping into shade pools, sitting in a park watching kids play in the fountain, planning my next culinary treat (egg cream or Italian ice?) It wasn’t just the dress, it was her—walking down Houston Street, enjoying the day, just as I was. As if we were steeping in the city’s shimmering heat itself, with not a care about the ongoing incendiary news headlines. Immune, in our moments in the sun.

I’d just left the Bowery and was heading toward my old stomping grounds, circa 1972: the Lower East Side. It’s only been in the last year or so that I have reclaimed some of the street joy that I lost after 9/11. I am thrilled that it is still there, a reserve I am tapping into again.

I go on walkabouts to neighborhoods I remember from forty-five years ago, to see what, if anything, remains. Dismayed at razed blocks of tenements once propped up by sturdy mom and pop shops and bodegas, I now stand on a prominent corner almost anywhere and don’t know where I am without a struggle. There is no distinctive storefront, no defining character at all. Just four huge bank branches (and sometimes more) anchoring the intersection, along with chain mega-drugstores. A global corporate Mexican stand-off.

To me, these businesses have no right to be here taking up valuable real estate. Paying astronomical commercial rent fees, they are a blight—a direct sow from exponentially grown greed begun in a starter kit—all for $24 worth of wampum.

A lot of small businesses—especially those I remember from the 1950s thru 1980s—had the aura of commerce as being personal, accessible, and even creative. Over the decades, Chase, Citibank, Duane Reade and their ilk have spread as noxiously as crabgrass in July.

So, in answer to Desiree’s question. Yes. And no.

Here are some things that caught my eye recently, on the sidewalks of New York.

On the Bowery, wholesale restaurant supply stores are still tucked in-between facets of millennial glitz. A frustrated *creative*, maybe stuck in his family business, exercising a little black humor to save his sanity (and mine):

meatgrinder store veteran

slicer with dog head

dog in grinder

Barbie in slicer

Some vintage Bowery signage, taken with my 35 mm Olympus, sometime in the ’80s:

72 - Bowery sign

photos copyright Sharon Watts

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6 thoughts on ““Are You a Tourist?”

  1. This post resonated with me. The older I get the more I sometimes feel like a tourist in my old stomping grounds – and other times, the more others see me as a tourist when I feel like I’m on familiar terrain. I’m often surprised by which businesses and buildings have survived (and sometimes thrived) across the years and which have vanished with no trace.

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