Joanna Powell Colbert recently wrote about becoming native to your place. She pointed out that for many of us, we are still connected to our ancestral lands and need to be born again into this continent. Joanna describes some of the work she has done to honor her Celtic ancestors and connect with this land. That made me think about how and if I’m connected to this land.
I am the fifth generation of my family (on my mother’s side) to live in my neighborhood. I’m the fourth generation born in NYC. My great- great-grandfather fought in the Civil War as part of the Fighting 69th. I have always felt an incredible connection to my neighborhood. I stay there because of this connection. It is my ancestral land. My family’s origins may be in Ireland but I have no real connection to that land. If we have distant relatives there, we’ve never been in touch. I may love Irish mythology and music but I’m American. To be more specific I am a New Yorker of Irish descent born and bred on the Westside of Manhattan. Something about the concrete and grit of my NYC is embedded in my soul. That’s what distresses me so much about how things have changed and how disconnected I now feel.
In many ways I took my neighborhood for granted. I loved it and always felt things would stay the same (or at least roughly the same). I loved wandering along the Hudson River and hang out on the worn, decrepit docks. I spent hours in the local park roaming around in the back where I often stumbled across the detritus of drug use and other illegal activities but I was oblivious to this ugliness because the beauty of the park enthralled me. It was a small oasis of green grass, flowers and trees amidst the tenements, industrial buildings and decaying waterfront. My brother’s blood was shed on the Westside Highway. My family was displace by a fire on 52nd Street and 10th Avenue that left us homeless and possession-less. I grew up moving to different apartments all within a 3 block radius (in fact my current apartment is still within this area). So how can I walk away? How can I break those ties and just move on? I can’t.
I’ve tried moving and although I do love my house in Orange County, it’s not home. When I’ve visited other areas in New York State I can appreciate their beauty, enjoy the feel of the area, but I’ve never felt at home. I’ve never felt the connection I’ve always felt to my own neighborhood. I can still remember how I felt when riding down the helix towards the Lincoln Tunnel and seeing my neighborhood across the river. That’s when I knew I was home. I feel as though there are invisible bonds, cords, chains that connect me to this place. It is woven into my spirit and leaving would be painful. Unfortunately staying is becoming equally painful.
Much of what I remember from my childhood has been bulldozed out of existence and replace by trendy restaurants, expensive high rises and hipster bars. The streets that were once filled with friends and acquaintances are now fill with throngs of young singles looking to party; to see and be seen. It’s become a way station; a stop for twenty-somethings looking to hang out and have fun. There are few families here and no real sense of community anymore. It feels like a tourist destination and that breaks my heart.
Stores and residents that have been part of the fabric of the neighborhood for decades have been priced out and forced to move or go out of a business. We were once a community that was self-sufficient. Residents could make a decent living without needing to leave its boundaries. We could shop for groceries, clothes and household goods all within a few blocks. That’s all gone. You can certainly find a good meal or place to drink but many of the small butchers, green grocers and variety stores are gone. What is left tends to be pricey. Most of the industries that were the lifeblood of the neighborhood have moved away too.
So what can you do when you are so connected to a place but it has changed so much that it doesn’t feel like home anymore? I don’t know. It’s part of the reason I tend to go on rants about transplants and the gentrification of NYC. Both those things have made me obsolete in my home. I’ve been outnumbered to the point that transplants feel they have the right to tell me what a “real New Yorker” is.
It’s interesting – today I asked the Tarot “what do I need to think about right now?” and I drew the Page of Cups. I have a feeling this card directly relates to this issue. I need to take look at my emotional connection to my neighborhood and decide whether I want to hold onto those ties or if I need to find a way to allow myself to be emotionally open to connecting to a new place. Or maybe they are mutually exclusive. I may never feel the same emotional bond to a new place that I do to my birthplace but I can still establish roots and open my heart to loving a new place. It’s almost like having a pet that dies. I will always love the deceased pet but that doesn’t mean I can’t open my heart to a new one too. It’s a lot to think about and I don’t have to make any final decisions but maybe I can start to be more open to the place where I live now and make some room in my heart for it.