The transformation of working-class neighborhoods and derelict manufacturing zones into blocks of condos and bistros has become a familiar occurrence in many American cities over the past two decades, but perhaps nowhere has it been more noticeable than in New York City. Throughout Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, gentrification has grown so commonplace that it’s easy to overlook the strange and possibly unprecedented demographic configurations that real estate speculation has wrought in some neighborhoods. On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Richard Price reminds us in his fine new novel, tenements of refurbished, newly expensive apartments and boutique hotels inhabited by professionals are only blocks away from tenements packed with immigrants sleeping six or twelve to a room. From the outside these buildings might look alike, and even on the inside you can see the skeletons of the same railroad apartments, but only in the immigrants’ tenements are the rooms subdivided into tiny cubicles or lined with wooden planks, “like extrawide bookshelves,” for sleeping on.
Like Price’s three most recent books–Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan—Lush Life is part crime novel, part social realism, though perhaps “social realism” doesn’t do justice to the book’s many comic moments. The crime here is the murder of a young man on Eldridge Street, and in the course of the investigation Price takes us to all corners of the neighborhood to meet the locals. When Lush Life opens it’s 11 pm on a typical night on the Lower East Side: a smattering of Chinese immigrants are returning home from work; families–Dominican, Orthodox Jewish, Bangladeshi–are tucked away somewhere indoors; tourists and revelers in their 20s are swarming the neighborhood’s bars and clubs, soon to tumble back out into the streets, staggering drunk.
Observing all this activity is the Quality of Life Task Force of the Eighth Precinct. Quality of Life, as the group is called, is composed of four youngish policemen who drive around in a fake taxi (which doesn’t seem to fool anyone but the drunk college kids who occasionally try to hail it) looking for small-time offenses–attempted muggings, marijuana possessions–that might lead them to bigger criminals. The group’s name doesn’t have the hard-boiled luster of Homicide or Narcotics, but its beat is one of the cornerstone strategies developed by the Giuliani-era NYPD and credited with the huge drop in violent crime that has helped turn formerly shabby neighborhoods like the Lower East Side into coveted real estate. The novel takes place sometime in the mid-2000s, and, crime being down, Quality of Life is having another slow night. The cops kill time ribbing one another and egging on would-be muggers from inside the taxi as they creep around the blocks “for an hour of endless tight right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner.”
The Lower East Side’s new commercial flavor brings out Price’s biting sense of humor. As always he’s a sharp observer of the talk, dress, manners and vanities of his characters, and here he’s also a master at concocting preposterous but somehow plausible situations that capture what’s good and bad and absurd about the neighborhood. In one early scene local Catholics, mostly Latino, line up around the block to see a shape vaguely resembling the Virgin Mary formed in the condensation on a glass refrigerator door in a mini-mart. A second crowd, this one “mostly young, white, and bemused,” forms to watch the first crowd. Meanwhile, the Yemeni brothers who own the mini-mart are charging a dollar a head to see the miracle. “Say hello to Mary,” says the brother collecting money at the door. “She loves you very much.”