City Guides

An Ode to New York’s Lost Neighborhoods

Inspired by my annual viewing of You’ve Got Mail and this essay by Muffy Aldrich.

One of the most poignant parts of You’ve Got Mail is one of the opening scenes, when Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox walk from their homes to their stores and cross paths. For me, it’s not just the moments when they nearly meet–it’s the love letter to New York, to the neighborhood feel the city used to have, to the specialty shops that no longer seem to exist.

Looking around Manhattan today, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was always like this–a city of glass skyscrapers, chain stores, and expensive restaurants. But it wasn’t always like that. Growing up in the East Village, you could go to one store for pastries, one for cheese, one for eggs–and you’d know the owners, the customers, you’d feel yourself as part of the fabric of the city. And you were! Nowadays, people (myself included, when we lived in the city) do their shopping at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Do you know your cashier? Do you know the people standing in line with you?

Nowadays, New York has changed–and I wouldn’t say for the better. It’s nearly impossible to survive as an individual or as a small business. One of my favorite specialty shops in the world, Tender Buttons, closed in recent years, and for me, that seemed to be the final death knell of New York’s unique character.

There are, of course, still unique places in the city. I try to share some here. But it’s hard to see a city that I love–a city that has been home to me and countless generations of my family–change into an unrecognizable metropolis. I miss being able to walk down the street and inadvertently bump into friends. To walk down an unfamiliar block and stumble across a store that has just what you’re looking for. To have memories on each corner. The internet has changed a lot of that, and I can’t help but mourn for the city where I was born.

What are your New York memories?

8 thoughts on “An Ode to New York’s Lost Neighborhoods

  1. Bravo! Movies about the great days of NYC are the best, and YGM is a prime example, minus the emphasis on Starbucks. I used to live in a very small neighborhood in Norfolk, Va., called Ghent, which was pattered after NYC, although perhaps not on purpose. Single family dwellings beside apartment houses; street cafes, merchants whom you knew personally, etc. I miss it more than imaginable, although, my life in total is incomparably better now.

    I grew up watching TV and movies about NYC of course but had not traveled there until around 2007 or so. It remains my favorite place to visit stateside. Although, I have not been there since Brooks Brothers closed at 346 Madison, and the Covid era crime and homelessness increases in midtown.

    Once was there for work and had a morning off. Chose to walk up the upper west side, have lunch at a cafe, etc. The afternoon prior I also had downtime and went down to Washington Sq. Park, the Village, Chelsey, SoHo, etc., walking back to the midtown Hilton.

    My best day. Only better if the wife had been along.

    1. I completely agree–especially about the Starbucks bit.

      I would encourage you to visit New York again! I work in midtown and routinely walk or take the subway from the train station. I’ve noticed no uptick in crime and have never felt unsafe. I also have not noticed an increase in homelessness in midtown or the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a wonderful city and the crime has truly been exaggerated.

  2. When I was younger, my parents and I lived in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, which at the time still had its predominantly Italian flavor, and it definitely had those distinctive elements: the local deli (Caputo’s, fortunately still in business), the red-sauce restaurant in the half-basement that hadn’t been renovated since 1954, the local barbershop with a very analog cash register…all those elements that made Brooklyn’s neighborhoods feel like villages in the city and gave New York a very human feel – not trendy per se, but in many ways extremely rewarding. (I sadly no longer live in New York owing to a family job change to D.C., but I go back often, pandemic notwithstanding.) Now, although Carroll Gardens still has some of that flavor, it feels partially overrun by people who want to wholesale copy other trendier neighborhoods into CG (see: Williamsburg) without apparently bothering to look around and enjoy what’s there. I agree that a lot of Manhattan – though not all – has given way to something oddly sterile and a bit alien. Of course New York will always change in some ways – that’s sits at the very heart of the city’s core – but the move away from the villages-in-a-city identity is still one with which I’m trying to come to terms (I don’t know if I ever will).

    1. I love Carroll Gardens, and agree with you re: its shifting character. There are definitely still neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan with their own flavor, but they’ve been diluted. I do miss the village aspect of the city! I will say, though, that I find moments where the city still feels the same. I took my little one for an early dinner at my great-aunt’s favorite restaurant shortly after she passed away and I was chatting with the maitre d’–not only did he remember me (I hadn’t been for a while), he shared that my great-aunt was recently speaking of us! And I also was on the way to an appointment downtown when I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen for several years. There are still ways to be surprised by the city, and I’m glad of that, even if there is a larger shift.

  3. We have this also, in Chicago. I miss the bookshops and delis and flower stands, it’s all street after street of same’ness. I shop, as much as I can, at the one small grocer nearby who has been there for more than 50 years. Other than that, it’s the same stores you might find anywhere, which is so sad.

    1. Good for you!! I really miss it. I’m glad that the town where we live now has kept its unique charm, and my old neighborhood in the city has too, to a certain extent. When my husband and I were engaged, we used to have dinner at the same Italian place my parents used to take me to every Sunday night–which is still there 🙂 So I’m glad there’s still something!

  4. Since you ask, visits to Brentano’s (sp?) and dinners at Tavern on the Green, when we were kids and young teenagers in the 1970s and very early 80s, stand out. My parents and maternal grandfather all commuted routinely to Manhattan from SE Pennsylvania for work, so we were either taken along for the day (well-dressed of course), or our grandmother and we would drive in later to meet mother/father/grandfather for dinner and a show before returning home. Long days, but loads of fun as a kid.

    Kind Regards,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *