A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, November 30, 2015

SIGHT: The center(s) of New York City

According to the Department of City Planning, the geographic center of New York City happens to be in the vicinity of 365 Stockholm Street, in Bushwick, Brooklyn: a brick townhouse with a bright red door. As I approach, I notice two men sitting on a stoop. “Excuse me,” I say, “but did you know that you are sitting at the geographic center of New York City?”

“No way! Right here?” says the older of the two, who’s wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and a Bluetooth chip.

“Lance grew up right on this block!” his friend says. Their eyes light up. Kenny also grew up in the area. A pizza delivery car pulls up and they kindly invite me in for a slice; I decline.

Lance’s family owns the adjacent parking lot, which used to be a church where he once attended Boy Scouts; it burned down around 1970 and is now leased to the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, which runs along the entire eastern side of this block, and whose flower beds seem to coordinate with the awning and fire hydrants.

The urologist a few doors down, Dr. Rosenthal, has been there “as long as I can remember,” Lance says.

Lance tells me he’s seen this block change “from Italian and German to gangland—crack, heroin, prostitutes—to yuppies.” 

“But they don’t like to be called yuppies, Lance,” Kenny interjects. “We call ’em bohemians.” And sure enough, this block at the center of the city runs the gamut from lowbrow to highbrow: at one end is a café fitted with Edison bulbs and a chalkboard. A customer with a cello strapped to her back stands at the counter.

At the other end is a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts; two teens with guitars and a cardboard sign panhandle outside. I peer at the center of the city through the center of my doughnut.

Two young children play with a ball beneath the falling leaves. “Are you Puerto Rican?” one asks. “I don’t know. My mom is Puerto Rican and I’m cold as dammit,” his friend replies. Jackhammers pound outside Yo! Orthodontic Braces.

Lance says there have always been murals in this neighborhood. The side of a Rite-Aid is painted with a poetic tribute to the Brooklyn Bridge, and a sort of electronically outfitted whale swims across some aluminum siding.

It's time to move on, as there’s a second center of New York to explore: the population center, which (according to the DCP) lies in Maspeth, Queens, near the employee parking lot for Big Geyser bottling company. The lot abuts the sulfurous shore of Maspeth Creek, at the intersection of Galasso Place and 48th Street. In the distance you can glimpse the spire of the Empire State Building, though it feels miles away from this desolate junction.

Lone men wearing backpacks pedal past on bikes, presumably coming from shifts at the nearby warehouses and factories: a Chinese importer that offers everything from bras to flashlights under one roof; Freihofer’s, whose baked goods claim to be “the pride of the neighborhood.”

As I wander along some railroad tracks that lie alongside the Big Geyser factory, I hear a whistle.

Across the street, a white-haired man, who introduces himself as Carlos, from Argentina, has just finished installing a sign for Maya Foods, an Indian spices company whose logo is “Add Flavor to Your Life,” and whose pumpkin-festooned stoop and café table add the only element of cheer—not to say expectation of human visitors.

“Did you know you’re standing at the population center of New York City?” I ask him. He looks around him at the empty streets, the empty parking lot, the stagnant creek and barbed-wire fences and trailers plugged into loading docks. He urges me to roll up my car windows, warning, “You never know who might come by around here.” Carlos agrees to pose at the population center of his adopted city, where he and I are the only people around.

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