Everyone complains about The Gentrifiers (even the Gentrifiers). They swan in, raising rents. They call the cops when the “atmosphere” that once made the neighborhood so appealing gets too loud. Eventually, they push the locals out to pastures farther away and much less hip. And Starbucks moves in.
People complain about The Corporations, too. Soulless and bloodletting, they cut corners, screw their staff, extort their suppliers, destroy the environment, all in the name of profit.
And then there’s The Government. Stupid rules devoid of any common sense, insensitive officials, mired in bureaucracy. Corrupt. Disinterested. Stagnant.
Thing is, the argument breaks down when you’re confronted with one of the actual people in these groups. Frustratingly, they’re often really nice. Well-intentioned. Un-evil. Ultimately, difficult to dismiss in such simplistic ways.
And I’m not just saying this because I’m a Gentrifier.
Steve is a Gentrifier, too. The earthy brick wall of his studio apartment on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood once synonymous with destitution and squalor, was hung with contemporary photography; Brian Finke pieces of creepy cheerleaders, Roni Horn’s face-making niece. He had Pandora playing on the laptop, having ordered the Flaming Lips; it plaintively pursed out The Shins. The fridge had word poetry stuck to the front and those round magnetic spice containers (I’ve had them too) hanging off the side. Santa Maria Novella soaps (my favorite) and wind chimes from the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island adorned the bathroom. In the corner was a clothes rack lined with perfectly ironed shirts, the sleeves of various button-downs pre-rolled to mid-forearm. There was a platter of cheese and crackers laid out on the wooden nesting tables in the living room, and a bouquet of chrysanthemums on the side table. The apartment was what the love child borne of a raucous threesome between Crate & Barrel, Ikea and Moss would look like, after a wild night at a wine bar.
Steve was sweating. I had, to his great misfortune, arrived more or less on time, and although preparations for dinner were well underway, there was still a lot left to accomplish. He had carefully planned an elaborate Italian menu that would involve a number of the ingredients with which he’d recently returned from Italy: oil from Volpetti, in the “Brooklyn” of Rome; pasta di semola di grano duro, extruded through bronze dies and dried slowly at a low temperature; six bottles of Chianti; and his prize tub of truffle salt, so aromatic that he had to quarantine it in Tupperware lest its odors contaminate the food beside. He bought so much food on his trip to Italy that he had to pit-stop in the Rome post office and ship things home. The box was so unwieldy it had to be repackaged in Jersey City. Steve knows a good thing when he sees one, and wasn’t about to waste his chances in Italy.
So much the better for me. As I kicked off my flip-flops and sprawled out on the plushy blue couch, Steve, whipped up in a culinary lather, prepared for a feast: a ring of toasted bread seasoned with oil, Parmesan and truffle salt, asparagus with polenta, Taleggio and truffle salt, pasta with porcini, onions, butter, sage, and truffle salt, and Danish Ebelskiver, which will later be explained.
“I’m not very good at multitasking,” he apologized. He was a great cook, but paying attention to the process and carrying on a conversation were slightly beyond his capabilities, and talking to me was really stressing him out. His coping strategy was to ask me questions in order to buy time during which he could baste, taste or season, as I babbled on to an audience of one (myself). He was trying so hard to put a good meal on that this was actually rather endearing. I was so comfortable on his couch anyway, drinking wine and nibbling at the cheese, that I would have been happy enough talking to myself all night.
He anointed the bread with oil, Parmesan and truffle salt, and slid it tenderly into the broiler under the stove. Mere seconds later, a smell of burning suffused the room. “Oh, shit,” Steve said. The far end of the bread had erupted into tiny flames. Most of it was salvageable, and in fact, really delicious; moist and toasty, with the excellent pure flavors of good oil, great cheese and that subtle stink of truffle.
Steve barely ate any bread; he was busy preparing the next course, adding Taleggio and truffle salt to the polenta. He poured in some Ronnybrook milk to finish the dish. “Oh, shit,” he said again. “I think it’s gone sour. Smell this.” It had, but only mildly. That, too, was delicious. He served it, beautifully plated, alongside grilled asparagus and pasta with porcini in a butter-sage sauce.
Wiping his brow, Steve finally sat down. In an apartment in which such attention had been paid to detail, we were eating on the couch with our plates on our knees, drinking Pellegrino out of coffee mugs. This in no way affected the ambiance, which was totally refined. Our stance defused tension; the couch was comfortable and we luxuriated in our plates. The food really was terrific.
Seated, Steve finally relaxed. He asked me a lot of questions, some of which I’d already answered while he was furiously cooking. But I know Steve is a good listener. When I asked him where in the neighborhood he liked to eat, he named a few places and then mentioned the Dumpling House on Eldridge Street. “Remember when we met for, like, three minutes, in 2007?” he said. “You told me about that place.” He was considerate and interested, thoughtful and well-read. He had a finger on the pulse, too, and I’m not just saying that because he’d just attended a Michael Jackson-themed wine tasting at Astor Wines.
Steve came to New York in 2001, after a childhood spent in the ‘burbs of Philly and college (a fiction major) outside Chicago (his parents now live in an over-55 community next to Jon Stewart’s parents). Upon graduating, he bagged an internship at Frommer’s, the guidebook company, and has since worked his way up to an editorship; today, he works on the Napa and San Francisco Day-By-Day guides, as well as Frommer’s Tokyo, India and Florida. “A good guidebook contains the stuff you tell your friends,” he says. “A good guidebook offers a point of view.” He loves what he does and the perks his job offers, mainly travel beyond Hoboken, where Frommer’s is located. He speaks intelligently and forthrightly, his serious black glasses a counterpoint to rosy cheeks and a baby face.
“For dessert, I’m making Edelskivers,” said Steve. Edelskivers are round Danish pancakes, kind of like puffy baked dumplings, and Steve had recently gotten an Edelskiver-maker as a present from Williams-Sonoma. It looks like a frying pan crossbred with an escargot dish; in other words, a round nonstick surface pocked with eight divots that serve as batter molds. “I’m inspired by Shopsin’s postmodern pancakes, made with bits of old pancake, and the desserts at the Momofuku Milk Bar. So I’m going to make a couple with Nutella, some with a ricotta-lemon-vanilla filling, and some stuffed with bits of frozen red velvet Magnolia cupcakes.”
I ran downstairs to the corner store and bought more milk to replace the soured Ronnybrook. There was a movie being shot on Ludlow St., and clusters of the self-important crowded the streets. When I got back upstairs, Steve had blended powdered Ebelskiver mix (also from Williams-Sonoma) with butter, egg yolks and wasted no time in adding the milk I’d brought. He handed me a few egg whites in a bowl and one of those wandlike handheld latte milk frothers that you suspect is used more often as a sex toy than a milk frother. Still, it was surprisingly effective at foaming the egg whites, which Steve added to the mix. He poured a tablespoon of batter into each of the divots in the hot Ebelskiver pan, where they set almost immediately. He then placed the various toppings he’d prepared on top, and covered them in more batter. To flip the pancakes, Steve used a pair of curvy wooden Ebelskiver tongs, like anemic but elegant salad servers. “I don’t really need these, it turns out,” he said. “On the instructional video, they just used chopsticks and it worked fine.” The Ebelskiver were wonderful, hot and airy, like a stuffed cake donut hole. I was so full I could barely finish.
When I left Steve’s apartment, the movie shoot downstairs was still rolling and brilliant artificial lights flooded Ludlow Street. The Jews, the Poles, the Italians, the Chinese, the ghosts of inhabitants past; they were nowhere to be seen. I unlocked my bike and rode over to Clinton, across Houston Street. Made a right on 4th, crossed Avenue C, and unlocked the door to my own gentrification.