In New York, a street called New York is a hidden gem

The streets of New York city are famous for their spots where it used to be possible to stand in one place for a time, to watch crowds go by and to watch the…

In New York, a street called New York is a hidden gem

The streets of New York city are famous for their spots where it used to be possible to stand in one place for a time, to watch crowds go by and to watch the city’s fabric come and go.

Rows of apartments. Stores, film offices, architects’ offices, recreation facilities. Schools. Rooftop green spaces and popular bars. Street signs pointing off as well as right, left, center, or behind. Then there are the coffee shops, sex shops, and tattoo parlors. Just being on University Avenue, with its enormity and its promise of adventure, was enough to keep me fully occupied and still a teenager.

I lived across the street from the iconic Sunset Park subway station from seventh to twelfth grade. Though school was out, and so was many of the sidewalk exchanges that I’d seen around town, the smell of cigarettes wafted over. From there I’d wander home on endless trips as if my world were floating down on an aerial illusion.

The buildings looked out onto the sewer, and I once walked out into the street while thinking about trying to retrieve a wallet that had been left unattended. The doors were jammed, and there was the distinct air of sound that a sewer on the other side of a closed gate makes.

On my way home I used the footpath, which resembled a business district after a citywide snowstorm, complete with barricades and walkways. Once I crossed into one of these streets, I was certain my life would never be the same. The sidewalk seemed to be at odds with where I lived, a special place that moved with the seasons and helped me try to make sense of the town I lived in. Every morning, even I began to leave notes on the doors. But the notes were mostly scavenged the next day.

As I grew older, I began to realize that these places are not only hidden gems but literally have a unique spell. Despite the circumstances of my upbringing, the art found on University Avenue has been one of the last cities I’ve lived in. Even now, years after that one-block street I’d known all of my life has become a block-long block-long blank slate, the independent businesses remain. They have stayed afloat, maintained independence, and have helped create a sense of culture that makes their presence seem like an anchor.

In 2002, Christine Ralphs moved her advertising firm and her parents’ restaurant into a building just on the side of University Avenue with all of the special qualities I’d observed in my childhood. Her father, Peter, the founder of Roskilde, the world’s largest and most successful Danish ice cream company, also owned the roof of Roskilde Building. For years they put on a huge summer show at Roskilde’s headquarters in Massachusetts that is still one of the city’s most popular and eclectic offerings.

Christine Ralphs started her advertising agency, Grace Studios, in 2011 and it became the first business to break through the wall of University Avenue in its 17-year history, occupying one of three spaces between Bergen Street and Milburn Avenue. Through its mission of promoting creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, Grace now holds events in the basement of Roskilde Building, conducts video shoots, and hosts weekly recitals by professional groups. In a city where rents are soaring, the family business has been able to stay in business at prices closer to below-market than market.

New York has more to offer, but it can feel a bit squeezed. When I lived in the city a decade ago, it had lost some of its flair with the proliferation of ubiquitous chain stores. At the same time, homelessness and lack of affordable housing have returned with a vengeance. All of this is a reminder that New York, once the New York of my youth, has been thrown far out of whack by the huge changes that have been brought on by globalization and the rise of the Internet. The future won’t necessarily be brighter. That’s why I find myself returning to the city again and again. I remain committed to creating my own kind of Madison Avenue, the economy that has turned out to be right for me.

Read the full story at The New York Times.

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