The Aging Ingenue of Neighborhoods: Long Island City Has Been on the Cusp for 30 Years

New York ObserverJanuary 13, 2014
All neighborhoods are somewhat in thrall to Manhattan, but Long Island City is haunted by it. By day, it’s noisy with the squeal and clatter of elevated trains, the rumble of delivery trucks on the 59th Street Bridge and the hum of subways beneath the sidewalks—a cacophony of people and paraphernalia, all shuttling across the East River. In the evening, the neighborhood is illuminated by the pale glow of Midtown skyscrapers and the streets hue yellow with the tide of returning taxis.

That Long Island City should be the next up-and-coming neighborhood has seemed obvious for decades; New York magazine christened it the next hot neighborhood in 1980, an imprimatur it would not give to Williamsburg for 12 more years. “Plainly, something is happening in Long Island City,” the magazine wrote and plainly, something was. Condos and chic restaurants were in the works, giddy developers were throwing around phrases like “Soho-plus” and “oil field,” and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman were zipping over to play afternoon games at Tennisport. Its vast stretches of sparsely populated land were so obviously ripe for redevelopment that its ascendance seemed all but inevitable—a fait accompli that for reasons no one ever quite seems able to account for has always fallen just short of accompli.

In the decades since, it has been called the next Williamsburg, the next Dumbo, the next Bushwick, Astoria-lite and, most inelegantly, “Fort Greene 10 years ago”—its arrival just as inevitable and just as elusive as it has always been, a thing that must be and yet is not.
To walk Long Island City’s wide sidewalks is to find evidence that the neighborhood has, at long last, arrived. There are haute comfort-food purveyors and classic cocktails cooled by hand-cut ice, a climbing gym and a weekend flea market, coffee shops, gourmet groceries, wine bars, breweries, art galleries, waterfront parks and an ever-multiplying number of luxury towers. Murakami has a studio there; so does David Byrne. M. Wells, the adventurous Quebecois steakhouse, recently reopened in an old garage by Court Square.

There’s even a rooftop farm and a pop-up ramen bar. On a Saturday afternoon this fall, hordes of canvas-bag-toting twenty-somethings emerged from the G train, setting off for either P.S. 1 or 5Pointz.

And yet, while it would be easy to fashion so many pieces into an argument for the place’s vitality, the truth is that they do not cohere. The spaces between the wine bars and art galleries are desolate, darkened expanses of low-lying warehouses, parked waste-oil trucks, taxi lots and auto body repair shops.

It is a neighborhood at odds with itself, a place that can neither shake its potential Manhattanness nor its pervasive otherness, the vague loneliness that comes with being on the edge of a great metropolis, beyond the crowds and the busy cheer and the all-night cafés. It has the kind of unsettled quality that makes some people a little uneasy, like the late-middle-aged couple I passed on the street one night not long ago. They were standing, watching a young man fumble with the front-door lock of a begrimed apartment building on Jackson Avenue. The couple wore the apprehensive expression of parents seeing the grim New York apartment their adult child now calls home.

Sensing their discomfort, the man turned, gesturing Manhattanward with his chin. “Look,” he said. “You can see the Empire State Building.”