#1: Alphabet City

Meet our winner-quick, before it changes.

street scene, best NYC neighborhoods

Photo: Beth Levendis

Alphabet City is movie-set New York. The blocks east of Avenue A squat low and look gritty—almost perfectly low and gritty. Archetypal characters people the streets: blue-collar lifers, old-school bohemians, Rent-worshipping students, project-bound families and, yes, hipsters. In this neighborhood within a neighborhood—which has an identity separate from the East Village (see #7)—the cast has changed over the past 20 years, as increasingly affluent residents have poured in. But for now at least, Alphabet City—the blocks between Houston and 14th and between Avenue A and the East River—has managed to retain a soul, and even clean itself up a bit. No wonder it’s landed our starring role.

A number of indie shops and expensive, enjoyable brunch spots have emerged, but they haven’t wiped Alphabet City clean of its iconoclast legacy. Here, instead of Starbucks, you have the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; instead of Dunkin’ Donuts, you have Ciao for Now; and instead of Scoop, you have Suzette Sundae. We counted 72 indie businesses total, and not a single Gap. Dozens of small restaurants like Mercadito and I Coppi provide varied culinary options, and random New York finds are around every corner: the monthly Fetish Retinue at the semisecret Uncle Ming’s; surprise performances by Norah Jones at the unmarked Nublu; and the East Yoga Center that offers classes for dogs.

Tompkins Square Park, once known for dirty deeds and drugs, now hosts a weekly farmers’ market, free performances and a dog run. Throughout the rest of the neighborhood, a handful of enchanting community gardens, such as El Jardín del Paraíso, bloom with multicolored perennials.

Nevertheless, a different, pricier future looms. There might not be a Starbucks, but there’s no shortage of $5 lattes; a dual sentry of Whole Foods keeps watch from Union Square and Houston Street and One Avenue B, a new condo tower, is going up right now.

This year, however, the ’hood’s golden, thanks to its location. Without a subway line for easy access, the far-east enclave has remained safe from invasion by the corporate world, the pearl- and polo-clad uptown set, and the stroller-pushing yuppie class. As a result, for better or worse, many of the apartments are still old, many of the streets are still dark (there’s a reason you don’t know tons of folks who live on Avenue D), and the residents still represent many skin colors and economic levels. This has its own complications: Class differences perpetuated by rising rents and rising prices create an undercurrent of tension. But despite the challenges, Alphabet City maintains both its edgy grittiness and its hopeful artsiness; it’s a neighborhood with soul, and a heart.

street scene, best NYC neighborhoods

Photo: Jodie Love

Word on the street

Chris Vallianatos, 35, Dynasty Diner (600 E 14th St at Ave B, 212-529-5449)
“We straddle class lines: There are blue-collar guys, people from the projects, and all these rich kids, doctors and lawyers. To cater to all those different people, we’ve got to have a bacon and egg sandwich for $2.35, because to some people, one dollar makes a difference.”









Although Avenues C and D are somewhat deserted, most streets are short, quaint and populated (at less than 300 feet, they should be). The buildings are primarily mixed-use, but oversuccess is apparent: Some lifers are being priced out of the neighborhood. Those who can stay are lucky: On one block you can get five different kinds of food, including anything vegan you could possibly imagine. On the next, a fetish party. Jane Jacobs would be all over it.

Next: #2: Chinatown