Jefferson Market

9 Feb

It’s freezing cold, or else it rains, and so us types are driven all indoors – forced to express a different kind of satisfaction. And you know: there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean there has to be a winter sometimes. It’s good that we have large and external reasons for our moods. It makes a difference. Have you ever been exuberantly happy when it’s 25 degrees out? Sure you have! But it’s not the kind of happiness that makes you want to jump into a river. And that kind of happiness is pretty great.

But wait, there’s this! You go down to the library, where it’s warm and dry and you stick around awhile. You go down, “with the fine quiet of the scholar which is nearest of all things to heavenly peace,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald so nicely put it and you walk around and you look. You walk around real quiet like and you touch a lot of books and you whisper to yourself their names, until it becomes a sort of catechism. I mean we’re talking heavenly peace here! And if you find a library that already sort of looks like some cathedral, well holy shit, that’s even better.

For my tastes you can’t beat the Jefferson Market Branch (except maybe the scaffolding), built on part of the triangle between Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street. It’s housed in the old Jefferson Market Courthouse, completed in 1877 and voted the fifth most beautiful building in the United States by a panel of architects in the 1880s. And it really is! It’s the last building standing out of a number to have graced this spot since Jefferson Market started in 1832. For years it was one of the principal food markets in the city, distinguished by its large wooden fire-lookout tower. The tower actually burned down some years later, replaced by the courthouse’s brick tower that we see today.  A co-ed jail went up around the same time. Mae West spent a night here in 1927 as part of her ten day sentence for corrupting the morals of youth with her Broadway play Sex. Crazy stuff. But that was in those wild roaring twenties – with the Sixth Avenue elevated railway line running nearby this joint was a hopping spot. The market and jail were torn down in 1929; the elevated ten years later, and in 1932 the only Art Deco prison in the world was built here – The New York Women’s House of Detention. Art Deco or not that one was still not much to look at. But hey, it was a prison, so what can you expect? That stuck around until 1973, when it was replaced by the community garden that still stands today.

The courthouse itself was completely abandoned by 1959. Community leaders saved the day in the sixties: preventing in from being demolished and facilitating the opening of a library branch, which was achieved in 1967. So now the old Civil Court houses the Adult Reading Room on the second floor, and the old Police Court the Children’s Reading Room on the first. You walk up the spiral staircase of the tower to get between them. It was in this courthouse that Stephen Crane famously defended a woman accused of prostitution – he had been with her in the Tenderloin neighborhood north of there at the time of her arrest, as he claimed, “studying human nature.” He was already well known at the time for The Red Badge of Courage; his testimonial got her charges dropped and Crane was praised in the nation’s newspapers for his chivalry. At the same time the scandal nearly ruined his reputation. But just over a month later, en route to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War, his ship sank and he spent a day and a half at sea in a ten foot dinghy. And just like that his reputation was restored. He wrote a story about it called “The Open Boat.” And no one can ever know how much of it is really true. That’s not a bad thing. Hemingway wrote years later, “The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers.” Well Hemingway wasn’t so bad himself. Although I bet you he wished he’d spent a few days in a dinghy on the open sea. He seems the type who could have appreciated a thing like that. But then I guess, as with so many things, it all depends on how you tell yourself the story after.

(Originally posted Dec. 12th, 2008 on


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