If you live in the same city or town for any length of time, you are bound to start racking up an impressive list of “haunted places.” A particularly bad date haunts a café you subsequently avoid, a storefront reminds you of a long dead friend or a park is filled with ghosts of youthful indiscretions best forgotten.
In a city like New York, personal landmarks have a way of disappearing. “Institution” restaurants everyone assumes will last forever — like the Second Avenue Deli — lose leases and move or close. Department stores disappear — my mom and I still talk about Altmans on Fifth Avenue. And neighborhoods are transformed until only outlines of the old shapes remain.
Not all of this is bad. The High Line Park (made from an abandoned above ground train track that was overrun with weeds and home to rats) is certainly a wonderful improvement over its past. Not all of it is good, either. The pre-war buildings of St. Vincent’s Hospital are on their way to becoming yet another bunch of very expensive condos.
The constant whirl of change is in New York’s nature, and yet somehow haunted places persist. The “hauntings” are individual. What I see as the legacy of a particular street corner will bring another ghost to you. Perhaps it will simply remind you of your first trip to New York? I have streets like that in Rome (and Amsterdam and Buenos Aires and…).
But getting back to the haunted places that inspire memories and stories,
I can look up at the window of my first apartment on Houston Street and I will be flooded with memories. I could see the World Trade Towers from those windows. They were like mountains in the distance, an ever-present part of the downtown landscape.
Of course the stories I recall are peculiar to me — the settings are ready fiction-fodder. (Really good fiction fodder!) The building on Houston Street faced St. Anthony’s Church so every June for two solid weeks a Ferris wheel turned and the aroma of Italian sausages and zeppole rose in the warm air, floating into my room. Sounds like a great place to be 21, but by the second week of garbage collection at 3am and fried dough with powdered sugar for dinner, you’re ready to take a suicidal leap from the top of the Ferris wheel.
By then I was a Page at NBC and I can’t walk through Rockefeller Center with a tsunami made up of what-ifs, whys and no mores… I’m simply not that girl any longer. But her time, place, people, tastes linger like ghosts inside me. They come out to play when I turn certain corners and no amount of Starbucks coffee bars and mobile phone stores will ever entirely exorcise those ghosts.
My haunted places have become the playgrounds of my characters. What about your haunted town?