Archive | March, 2012

Hudson Street & Grove Street

31 Mar

I’m a big sucker for lists. There’s something very satisfying about seeing a quantity of information stacked up so neatly together. It’s pretty simple for me to understand the appeal. I like to learn things. Everything we take in broadens our appreciation of everything else — each good work points towards its antecedents and its followers. It gets me excited to imagine, trying to run down every tangent of that twisted, often intersecting web. I’m in the habit of planning out the next five books I’ll read, before I’m close to finished with the ones that I’m already on. And just that planning starts me daydreaming, and daydreaming puts me in a great mood. I think that’s where I live a large part of reality.

So obviously, this city makes a lot of sense for me to live in. I can approach it all as one big list – first 15th Street, then 16th Street, etc… I can choose whatever self imposed parameters I like, different ways in which to engage. That’s one of the positives with lists: they’re arbitrary, they’re subjective, they’re just suggestions. You can pick them up and drop them as you like. A list taken too seriously becomes a mantra, and a mantra taken too seriously will often make a scary person. I don’t want to be a member of a church, but I’m glad that churches have been built, because I like to go and look at them. Hmmm. I’m not sure what that means exactly. Am I just cruising on a free ride here, finding all of my enjoyment from things that came before me?

Ah well, it keeps me busy at least. And I would say that finding a new garden to sit in qualifies as keeping busy. Of course it does! The church of Saint Luke in the Fields maintains a lovely one, right next to its chapel on Hudson Street by Grove. Walking around in there gives you some nice views of the back of the church and the surrounding row houses. If you get your line of vision just right you can imagine that you’re standing in the plot of some small country parish. And that’s basically what this church first was, when it was founded in 1821 to serve the village of Greenwich. Named for the patron saint of physicians, it was built on land donated by Trinity Church; before landfill extended out the shoreline of Manhattan this spot stood right on the river’s edge. It’s simple design points towards it origin as a country church, and summer chapel for New Yorkers escaping the frequent diseases the warmer months brought upon the city.

Trinity Church built the brick row houses that surround Saint Luke in 1825, reflecting what was already a growing and changing neighborhood. By the end of the 19th century, with Greenwich Village the home of large groups of immigrants and the working class, the congregation decided to move their location uptown, and in 1891 Saint Luke was taken over by Trinity Church, becoming one of its chapels. In 1956 a large number of houses around it were torn down and a school building, playground, and the current garden were erected. By 1976 Trinty Church had decided to divest itself of all but one of its chapels, and Saint Luke was once again an independent parish, as it remains today. It suffered a huge fire five years later, but enough of the original survived for the church to still be considered the third oldest in NYC. It’s an unassuming distinction that seems to fit its style. I’ve written about the second oldest church in these pages already. Do I detect some type of list developing here? How about the oldest church in NYC? How about the eighteenth oldest? Or should we approach it maybe by denomination — how many Catholic churches, how many Episcopalian? (Saint Luke is the latter, by the way). Do we wanna toss some Jewish synagogues into the mix? It’s not a question of hierarchy; it doesn’t matter what falls first and what falls second. It’s all just a refrain, each entry on the list is saying, “Here’s our world, here’s our world.” They’re all in conversation with each other. We’re in that conversation too — our numbers listed.

(Originally posted April 10th, 2009 on


Fifth Avenue & 82nd Street

28 Mar

I’m back in New York City after a couple of weeks in Italy, marveling at how wide all of our streets feel. The reports are true; there’s nothing called Third Avenue in Europe. Or 14th Street. Compared to Rome, Park Avenue is like the god damn Grand Canyon! The Via del Corso, Rome’s main thoroughfare, is probably slimmer than Bleecker Street. But fair enough. The urban reality was different a couple thousand years ago (even a couple hundred). There was no such thing as city planning, for one thing. And most of the buildings that make up Manhattan today aren’t any older than the turn of the last century. You’re looking at a completely different use of space.

Of course, while the buildings might not be any older than a hundred years, the forms they use most often are. New York is full of examples of architectural revival, playing off of styles developed hundreds of years before. But I like how these second-generation movements become significant in their own right. Just as the actual Greeks can be placed in a specific place and time, so too for something like Greek Revival. Or the neo-classical Beaux-Arts style, which seemingly drew on almost everything that came before it, though I suppose there were some guidelines. Amongst other things, it emphasized the example of Imperial Roman architecture between the rule of Augustus Caesar and the Severan emperors. Oh boy, I love that type of distinction, really, and I don’t even know what the hell they’re talking about!

Beaux-Arts was a big deal in the United States between roughly 1885-1920, which lines up pretty well with the creation of the New York of the present day. A lot of prominent NYC buildings are in this style, including Grand Central Terminal, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The same goes for the mansion across the street from the Met, the Benjamin N. & Sarah Duke House on the corner of 82nd Street. This is some conspicuous wealth on display here, none the less so since you’ve got the Metropolitan as your next door neighbor. Now traveling in Italy was a reminder to me that rich folks have been around a lot longer than America (in size alone the Palazzo Pitti has this place beat for sure). But what strikes me as specifically American about the mansion is the fact that it was originally built on speculation – sold on the market to Benjamin Duke of the American Tobacco Company, only after it had been completed in 1901. It tells you a little bit about those times, in the Upper East Side at least, that a house like that could be built with the confidence someone would buy it. I can’t see a Florentine development firm saying the same thing about the Palazzo Pitti – “Ah, the Medicis will probably will take it. As soon as that shipment of Flemish wool comes in this town is going to be rolling in dough.” But hey, guess what? The Medicis did take it, after the Pitti family went broke and they had to sell it all away.

Benjamin Duke sold this house too, to his brother James in 1907, while James was waiting for the construction of his own mansion to be finished. It was, in 1912, and he moved in there, on Fifth Avenue & 78th Street; it’s now the graduate school of art history for NYU. It was James’ endowment to Duke University in 1924 that gave that school its name. Benjamin himself decided he would rather live at the Plaza Hotel. Then he changed his mind again and had a mansion built to order (no speculation this time) on Fifth Avenue & 89th Street. It was later torn down to make way for the Guggenheim. The Duke Mansion on 82nd Street stayed in the family though, even after being subdivided into apartments in 1985. It was only recently sold out of it, for $40 million, down from the asking price of $50 million, which had made it one of the most expensive townhouses ever on the market.

But what’s all that to me? This morning, my big decision was whether to eat the other half of my apple now, or to save it for later. It was a Fuji, which though developed in Japan, is a cross between two American varieties, the Red Delicious, and the 18th century Virginian Rawls Genet. I had the window open. There was a lovely breeze.

(Originally posted April 2nd, 2009 on

Civita di Bagnoregio

22 Mar

Hurray, I’m still in Italy!

We’re in the tiny town of Bagnoregio, on the border of Lazio, near Umbria. This place is basically the whole reason we came out here. My parents lived in this village for one year about thirty years ago, when my mom was doing field work for her PhD in anthropology. My dad mainly hung around in the central square and played basketball. Not a bad gig. I feel like I should try to get in on that. I mean, why isn’t my wife traveling abroad for research purposes and taking me with her? Huh? Honey?

Ah well, it’s enough to be here for a few days at least. Bagnoregio is a town of about two thousand people, pretty much off the map, and surrounded by villages that are equally unknown. And that’s part of what makes it so amazing. Picture an equivalent size place in the United States and then imagine the area that lies within a forty minute drive around it. And then imagine that whole area full of 13th century churches and castles and Etruscan ruins. It’s like: oh yeah, this is just a little nothing town, and then, oh yeah, and there’s our thousand year old building with a foundation dating back to pre-Roman times. Uh, yes please!

Bagnoregio translates to Bath of the King, from an old story that a king traveling to Rome stopped here to take a bath in the river. It’s a hill-town, as so many towns in this region are, built on the hard tufa rock that lies in the area. Its old section is made up of one narrow street, running the length of the plateau, with a few small streets running off of it at different points. The village looks down on the valley below, where historically everybody’s farmland lay. The Italians are an urban people — for centuries and centuries these villagers grew their crops in the ample land of the valley, and chose to live crowded in upon each other in the tiny town above. Our friends we’re staying with out here own some land, where they grow olives for oil, and they’re building a bed and breakfast on the property. When they showed us the building they’re renovating to make the B&B it turned out to be an ancient church. “Yes,” our friend Dante said, in typically casually fashion, “this is from the 6th century.” And I’m like, holy shit Dante, you’re blowing my mind over here!

This was my experience a few different times around these parts. The gem of the whole region is Civita di Bagnoregio — an ancient hill-town dating back to Etruscan times. It lies on the outskirts of Bagnoregio and it’s only accessible by a concrete footbridge, too narrow to accommodate any cars. Depending on who you talk to the town once had a population of anywhere from four to twenty thousand people. But time, erosion, and earthquakes have taken their toll — every decade or so a house is condemn for fear it will fall off the side of a cliff — and now the place has a full-time population of about ten. Some of them are Dante’s wife’s family; they run a tiny restaurant here and after lunch they showed us their basement. It basically never ended, with room after room descending deeper and deeper into the earth. The initial few narrow stairways all had ramps built into them, for rolling down casks of wine. The rooms kept getting smaller and smaller, until we reached the point we had to stop. “We’re not sure when this last one dates from,” they said. They pointed towards another stairway that led down into darkness. “We can’t go down there, because we haven’t put any lights down,” and then again, very casually, “it goes down about 20 more meters.” That’s about 60 feet people. I’m not a brave man, but I wanted very badly to walk down there anyway. Because, obviously, I want very badly to travel back in time. And in a certain sense this seemed to be my closest bet.

It wasn’t right for me entirely to refer to Bagnoregio as off the map. Civita has gotten fairly popular with tour groups, and with the wealthy looking for a second home. The population grows in summer, with people from Rome coming up to stay, and other places too, as far away as Boston, or California. That’s the way it goes now. In the basements we have the past, and up here we have the future. Is it a bad thing, the future? I don’t know. But it makes me think, everything happens in this world because people speak to each other — they communicate, in different mediums, and the life we lead changes because of it. It all comes down to talking. Though maybe I’m just saying that because my family won’t ever shut up. And all these Italian people as well. Mangia, mangia, they all yell at me. Yeah, all right, I’ll mangia. Pass the cinghiale.

(Originally posted Mar. 27th, 2009 on


21 Mar

Holy shit, I’m in Italy!

Or have I just invented a time machine? I’m not so sure. But no, it can’t be that — there are cars here, and they’re seemingly trying to run me and my family over every chance they get. I’m not taking it personally though; by the looks of it they’re after everybody with equal indiscretion. Here comes one now.

Mama mia, they’re tiny ones at least, just like the streets. Absolutely perfect streets. You wouldn’t believe cars could even fit on them, let alone make their way between the crush of people. I love it. But then again, Rome is a city seemingly custom built to blow my mind. No surprises there. We’re talking about a place well over 2000 years old — the foundation of the culture I’m apparently the most obsessed with. There’s not even close to an equivalent in the United States. It makes you redefine your idea of antiquity. And every single thing, both piccolo and grande, puts me more and more inside the state of some ecstatic, frenzied dream. I’m trying to stay cool about it. I’m trying to handle it the way I do on the nicest day of the year, and just let it all come, rather than try to dwell on every moment. Dwelling on every moment here would make my head explode.

We’re staying on the Via Liguria, off of the old fashionable district of the Via Veneto, and by Roman standards this is a pretty modern neighborhood, mainly developed after the unification of Italy in 1861. We’re nearby the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, both built at a time when New York City was mainly farmland. And that’s the thing: the oldest buildings you’ll find in NYC are 17th century farmhouses. The equivalent Late Renaissance and Baroque period buildings and churches here in Rome are already ancient looking enough to my American eyes. And that’s just scratching the surface! Then we take a walk (countless walks) around the Centro Storico, with its narrow cobble-stoned streets and Renaissance plazzos and piazzas, or else medieval Trastevere, the old Jewish quarter with its even narrower alleys and turns that defy any type of mapping. This is around the point where I start losing it.

And that’s all disregarding the actual Roman ruins themselves — principally the Colosseum and the Forum. The Palatine Hill, where the Emperor and the wealthy and powerful used to live was a particular treat — amazing views, ample sunshine on the orange trees, and walks through the foundations of endless rooms of former palaces. As always I’m drawn to the idea of transitions. At what point did each of these buildings fall? When were they each finally, in turn, left uninhabited? Did the people living there know it was all over? I have images of cattle grazing amongst the ruins, tended by peasants gazing vacantly up at the columns, accepting it all unthinkingly as their birthright. I guess it’s our birthright too. I try to basically take it in the same way, or as I said, I think I would go crazy. The same goes for thinking on something like the early Christians martyred in the Colosseum, thrown to the lions, back when Christianity was a tiny sect, a cult with underground worship and catacombs, slowly spreading in appeal to the downtrodden of an Empire where over half the population might have been slaves. Ah well, Christianity got its revenge. Which reminds me, I haven’t even mentioned the Vatican and all the treasures that lie there. After all, it’s Christianity that made Rome the Eternal City: relevent for all these years after the fall of the Empire. Without that as its source of power, Rome might be one giant ruin today, instead of being very much alive, as each passing car you run away from will remind you.

So all right, it’s not all completely different than the States. They’ve got Sam Axelrod out here too, of “Sammy’s Got the Bar Back.” And he’s pretty much the same as in America, good for drinking wine with in front of the Pantheon at least. There’s no shortage of press about the Pantheon, but let me tell you, it’s all deserved. This is the most intact of any of the Roman buildings. It’s a temple to all the gods, completed in its current form sometime around A.D. 120. The mathematical and aesthetic perfection of the dome is amazing, making it basically the most important building in art history. Or so the say.  I think Sammy was digging it at least. He said it reminded him of his song for next week, which I think is something fairly new school, like Puccini.

(Originally posted Mar. 19th, 2009 on

McCarren Park

20 Mar

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I wouldn’t try to claim absolutely everything in this world for beauty. And that’s the truth – especially in this city, where the number of beautiful, arresting sites is probably close to inexhaustible. I don’t have to dig too hard. I’m speaking about physical beauty here, the type of beauty one can see, and though something like that is hardly quantifiable, it tends to lend itself at least towards the chance of broad agreement. For example, the general line would probably go – Central Park: beautiful, McCarren Park: not.

I won’t argue otherwise. McCarren Park is pretty ugly. But I will try to claim it, and anywhere else you care to mention, for the beauty that comes with knowing the background of a place. I ride by here everyday; I hang out here at least once a week eight months or so out of the year. So do a lot of other people. It just seems right that I should know the forces that made up this spot. What do we ultimately gain by that? I don’t know. Is that a question? I guess it’s just one way to pass the time really. And it reminds me that I’m doing that, passing the time, imbuing it with what ever meaning that I choose. And that makes me feel better. When I’m in an art museum (again, inevitably the Met) and I see something like a decorated water pitcher from some ancient Roman household, I feel the same thing. This object served a function in a place and way of life that is now completely gone. These people had their meanings, and their rituals, their daily lives. Sometimes they got thirsty and they took a drink. Now it’s my turn. Let’s see what’s going to happen.

McCarren Park was ultimately built upon the land that made up the lower end of Bushwick Inlet. You can see it on the bottom of this 1766 map. Incidentally, that little spit of land sticking out into the East River, in the middle of the map below Newtown Inlet, was the original spot sailors referred to as Greenpoint, from which the whole neighborhood would take its name. Until about the 1830s this area was all farmland, settled almost entirely by just five families (including the Meseroles and Calyers). Development began in earnest after that and by the time the park was built, between 1903-1905 the neighborhood was close in layout to the one we know today. The site that would make up the park was divided into four blocks by separate trolley lines; the city acquired each block in turn and proceeded to build two playgrounds with gymnasium equipment, one for boys around Bedford Avenue & North 14th Street and one for girls around Manhattan Avenue & Driggs. They named it Greenpoint Park.

Its name was changed to McCarren upon the death of Patrick Henry McCarren in 1909. He was a state senator of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and a central figure in pushing for the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge. He was also supposedly a pretty corrupt ally of big business monopolies like Standard Oil, and a heavy gambler at the racetracks (hey, these were still the Tammany Days). Soon after the park changed its name a whole series of athletic facilities were built upon it, and in 1914, Brooklyn’s first children’s farm garden, where kids were taught to grow crops on small plots of land. The biggest development of all was the pool, the 8th out of 11 swimming pools opened throughout New York City in the summer of 1936, all built by the Works Progress Administration. Based on this picture I’d say that the New Deal in general was pretty fucking awesome. Here’s to government spending! But I won’t get all political on you. Some of the kids in this photo are probably still living in the neighborhood, walking these same streets. And some of their great-grandparents might have been related to the original five families, again walking these same streets when they were country lanes connecting farmhouses to each other. Probably none of them are related to the Keskachague Indians who lived here before it all, but you never know. You need to go pretty far around here to find someplace that hasn’t been stepped on already, and even then you’re only guessing. That’s true of almost anywhere really, except maybe some sub-Antarctic Island. Anybody want to go to some sub-Antarctic Island? Most of them are uninhabited, and always have been. My first pick would probably be Campbell Island. Here’s a photograph.  It gives a good idea of what we’re dealing with – more like the opposite of footprints. Still, isn’t it beautiful?

(Originally posted Mar. 12th, 2009 on

Stuyvesant Street & 10th Street

19 Mar

It snowed a lot on Monday; you might have noticed. I suppose that’s March’s modus operandi, hitting you with a nice dose of winter just as you’re getting ready to put it to bed. So why not roll with it? Enough of this endlessly looking forward – let’s turn the tables on this month and embrace the here and now. If it’s snow we’re gonna get, then that’s what we’re gonna work with. Should we maybe make a snowman, or go sledding? Are you kidding, it’s fucking cold outside! All I’m talking about is taking a little walk along a snow-lined block, somewhere with a nice winter wonderland aesthetic. We have a lot of those to choose from. The first one that popped into my mind was Stuyvesant Street, where it runs into Tenth.

I love this city. I love its patterns and the many ways it works. But I realize that so much of what I seek out are the exceptions – the areas where something else sneaks through. The cliche might be to say the places where we feel humanity, the individual, reigns a little stronger. But I don’t go for that: I find New York to be incredibly human, and humane, in all its forms. The only steady rule here is that you’re going to have to deal with people. I’m okay with that. Still, it is a tribute to New York’s mythic force – what you could almost call its hegemony – the certain things we even call out as exceptions. Like Stuyvesant Street, which runs diagonally through the street grid between 2nd and 3rd Avenue. A diagonal street! In the East Village! How many people in other towns are going crazy over something as simple as that? How many people are in this town? I know I’m not the only one.

Stuyvesant Street, as you might guess, gets its name from the Stuyvesant family, who owned a large farm and estate here until early into the 19th century. The Bowery, from the Dutch word “bouwerij” for farm, was the main access road from New York. Stuyvesant Street was the road that ran off from the Bowery to their manor house, which was situated around where Saint Mark’s Church stands today, on 2nd Avenue and Tenth Street. When the manor house burned down in 1778 the land was donated to the Episcopal Church with the stipulation that they build a chapel. Saint Mark’s was finished in 1799, making it the second oldest extant church building in Manhattan. The tiny Bowery Village, which had sprung up around this area, began to grow in number around that time, aided by Petrus Stuyvesant III laying out a street grid on his property. Farmers would meet here to sell their wares, since it lay outside the city of New York and its taxes. It’s worth mentioning that one reason population growth was slow before that was for fear of the highwaymen lurking in the Bayard woods to the south. Now can we all just take a moment and freak out over a statement like that? Woods and highwaymen hanging around in what is roughly modern day SoHo? All right? I’m freaking out, how’s it going for you?

The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 laid out the grid system that we all know so well today. It showed some definite foresight as to Manhattan’s exponentially growing population, laying out a street plan up to 155th Street at a time when New York itself lay mainly below present day Houston. In a further presentiment of the city we know today, no geographical features were taken into account in laying out the grid. These streets were going up be it over hill, stream, swamp or meadow. So how do you sneak a diagonal street into that pattern? Basically you have a lot of money. Stuyvesant Street was a busy thoroughfare at the time and that was the reason given for it being allowed to stay, but it couldn’t have hurt that one of the most powerful families in the city lived on the block. Well sure, it was powerful men making the rules, so why not powerful men making exceptions for them. Maybe that’s where a lot of New York’s anomalies line up with the general story of this city: they were made in large parts possible because of money. I don’t know, I came too late for that debate. I just walk around here. Stuyvesant Street is one of the few streets in Manhattan that actual runs true east-west. And that’s nice, because the sun is shining. It’s supposed to break 60 degrees this weekend. So forget anything I said about snow, or cold, or embracing the moment. Or yeah, embrace the moment, just not the moment yesterday. Or you know, what the hell, embrace everything. Go on, do it.

(Originally posted Mar. 6th, 2009 on

Flushing Avenue & Onderdonk Avenue

5 Mar

February is almost over. I’ve been measuring its passage by the changing angles of afternoon sunlight in my apartment. As the sun creeps every day a little higher in the sky, its rays reach new corners of the kitchen, the living room. The other evening I had a perfect streak right across the bottom of my bed. I think it was Pip in Great Expectations who talks about those March days when it is “summer in the sun, and winter in the shade.” So all right, we’re not there quite yet. But we’re damn close. And it still puts me in the mood to go exploring — my route dictated by whatever street the sun happens to be shining on. You keep inside that glow and you’ll stay warm enough.

I’ve always equated industrial landscapes with the summertime. But maybe it would be better to say that I equate them with strong sunlight, anything that brings their solid forms cut out in sharp relief. I took a ride the other day around the southern end of Newtown Creek, crossing over into Queens. These streets are public, but I can never shake the feeling that I’m trespassing when I’m on them. It doesn’t help that every other road dead-ends, or is suddenly and irrevocably stopped short by railroad tracks. While I ride I like to keep an eye out for the first sign of residential buildings. Borders between neighborhoods are always fascinating. One block on a map might not look like much, but on the ground it’s a different story. And which direction you approach something does a lot to help make up your first impression. You can’t help but think of streets as linear, as chronological almost, point A and then point B, when actually they’re all existing everywhere around each other all at once.

That point is hammered home by the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, on the corner of Flushing Avenue and Onderdonk, in Ridgewood, Queens. This is perhaps the oldest Dutch Colonial stone house in NYC. It was built in 1709 on the site of what was once a large farm. Now it’s surrounded by cinder-block warehouses and sheet metal. Flushing Avenue is not a pretty street; it doesn’t put you in the frame of mind to expect a farm house, and at first glance you could almost mistake this one for a utility shed. It was only the few acres of green lawn and picnic benches around it that made me stop. But once I did my mind could start to construct a different picture. Ridgewood extends up the hill from Flushing Avenue, with some fine views of Manhattan, and for a moment I could picture it all swathed in grass, sown fields, and chopped down tree stumps. I can only think on something like that for a short time before I start muttering to myself with some combination of excitement and frustration. I want to know what this world looked like, when it was still this world, the planet Earth, and also something else entirely. And you can’t ever really do that. Oh well, alack the day, as some old dude once said. Here’s a picture of the house, from 1910.

The Onderdonk house and farm played a big role in the early border disputes between Brooklyn and Queens, when in 1769 a giant boulder on the property – there after known as Arbitration Rock – was established as the boundary marker between them. On one side was Kings County, and the old Dutch town of Bushwick, and on the other was Queens, and the newer English settlement of Newtown (what would become the current neighborhood of Elmhurst). The rock grew less important after both counties consolidated with the city of New York, and in 1925 the border was redrawn entirely, in a more scientific fashion. By the 1930s the rock had been completely buried under the newly graded Onderdonk Avenue. It stayed there until 2001, when it was excavated and moved next to the farmhouse. I guess even then the dispute wasn’t over, as Brooklyn officials claimed the rock was part of both counties shared heritage and should be placed somewhere they both agreed on. Queens wasn’t having it.

Because borders aside, this rock has been here about 10,000 years. And maps are just representations of reality; they change as knowledge and perception changes. But that’s also why I like them so much: maps are maps of what they’re maps of (huh?) but they’re also maps of knowledge, of the way we tell ourselves we see the world. You put it together, brick by brick, inside your mind.

(Originally posted Feb. 27th, 2009 on