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Having lived in New York for the last 30 years, I’m one of those annoying jerks who constantly moons about how great the city was in the bad old days. As a parent, however, I’m considerably more ambivalent about gentrification. On one hand, with every street now lined with Starbucks, Duane Reade and shiny glass luxury condos, I miss the gritty, dirty, weird, vibe of New York in the 70s and 80s. On the other, I’m glad my son now lives in a much safer city.
In 1983, when I was a senior in high school, I began going to college at the New School. The move leapfrogged me from the bucolic bohemia of my suburban New Jersey upbringing into a New York that was quickly descending into the crack epidemic. On my first subway ride to class, a man wielding a large knife chased someone through the train. Another day, I saw someone walk up and hit a complete stranger in the face for no reason. There were shootings, stabbings, street fights, and the constant wail of police sirens. The subway was covered in graffiti, which I loved. You could buy drugs on street corners, and along with the air of whimsy and mystery — there was a powerful vibe of menace.
Two of my best friends were robbed at gunpoint leaving my apartment in 1990, a year when 2,245 were murdered in New York. That’s slightly more than 6 people a day — one murder every 4 hours.
Since then, the mean streets have become clean streets. Hell’s Kitchen is now more like Heck’s Kitchen. As I stroll Lev through Central Park without fear of being mugged, I begrudgingly accept the crass transformation of Manhattan into a playground for the wealthy.
But the recent news that after 45 seasons, Sesame Street is moving from public television to HBO, is a little too fancy for my pants. Not just because Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch once served as surrogate parents for my generation, and we wanted our kids to have the same babysitters. But because part of Sesame Street’s original ethos was to entertain and educate underprivileged kids, and the switch from PBS (which is free) to HBO (which is not) smacks of corporate elitism.
The mean streets have become clean streets. Hell’s Kitchen is now more like Heck’s Kitchen.
Today, if you visit the site of the gritty New York brownstone that was the inspiration for Sesame Street, you can see that the move to HBO isn’t the only way in which Sesame Street has gone upscale. But first, you’d have to figure out the answer to one of life’s most vexing questions:
“Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?”
The original designer of Sesame Street, Charles Rosen, based the set on an amalgam of brownstones in Harlem, the Bronx, and the Upper West Side. But the show’s founder, Joan Ganz Cooney, has said that she originally wanted to call the show 123 Avenue B, which would place Sesame Street in Alphabet City, opposite Tompkins Square Park. In which case the move to HBO is the final nail in the coffin of the gentrification of the lower east side.
I remember visiting a girlfriend on Avenue B in the late 80s and literally stepping over junkies in the stairwell of her apartment building. Tompkins Square Park was an open-air drug bazaar, an encampment of homeless, squatters and crazies. Animal might have fit in, but Miss Piggy and Kermit would have been raped in broad daylight.
G is for Greed and Gentrification, and in our apartment, a Grouch can still afford to play and pretend it’s not all about the Green.
Gentrification has brought dramatic changes to the lower east side: a 71-percent drop in major crimes since 1993, a 91-percent plunge in car thefts, an 81-percent drop in robberies, and 77-percent decline for murders and burglaries.
The moral equation is simple: Would you rather your kid learn to his numbers by counting felony assaults or dollars?
HBO has one of the most affluent demographics in the industry, and made Sesame Street an offer it couldn’t refuse. Amid increasing competition from Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel and with various streaming services investing in content for young viewers, Sesame Street was losing money. But along with a new source of funding, executives at HBO insisted on giving the set a facelift and toning down the urban grit.
With admirable Robin Hood persistence, the Parents Television Council launched a campaign to make new episodes of Sesame Street available for free, and they will be — as long as those who can’t afford premium cable (or a decent broadband connection and HBO GO) don’t mind waiting for 9 months after they appear on HBO.
I long ago gave up on cable TV, so Lev will be a full-term pregnancy behind when it comes to news about the block where Bert and Ernie live . But he’ll have the benefit of Michelle and I doing some home-schooling version of Sesame Street, with our own handmade sock puppets. G is for Greed and Gentrification, and in our apartment, a Grouch can still afford to play and pretend it’s not all about the Green.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.