Archive | May, 2012

Liberty Avenue & 80th Street

31 May

This one is way out there. I came across it while taking that long A train ride to Rockaway for a day at the beach. It’s in Ozone Park, right at the point where the subway comes above ground, before skirting the edge of Howard Beach, then crossing the often-magnificent Jamaica Bay. The shock this corner gave me felt particularly appropriate — there’s something about the far outer boroughs, especially here on the southern shore of Long Island, that always feels foreign to me, further away from Manhattan in attitude than it might be in miles. At this distance the designation “New York City” can feel rather arbitrary.

What I was seeing, from above, was the Bayside Acacia Cemetery. But for a second I could have sworn I was looking at New Orleans, or maybe Narnia. The crowded but maintained gravestones I saw initially quickly gave way to a riot of plant life, tall bushes and vines, until by the middle of the cemetery it was a forest: trees at least twenty feet high, canopies spread, with tiny slabs of carved stone lined up beneath them. It all seemed too symbolic. Here was an image made manifest in reality of something that resonates in all of us. Namely, that time is just going to devour you; what we’re up against is eternity. Hell yeah we are! You know, I really get excited by that kind of thing.

The Bayside Acacia Cemetery was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, making it one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in New York. At the time it opened the surrounding area was rural farmland, with the neighborhood of Ozone Park not being developed until 1882. The congregation of Shaare Zedek on the Upper West Side was responsible for maintaining Bayside Acacia, but clearly at some point their funds and desire fell off a bit. It’s been a few decades at least without any grounds-keeping. Although that’s changing now, with a major cleanup underway, sponsored by The Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries. You can see the result of some of their efforts already.

I think there was a whole school of English landscape design that followed the general principle at work in Bayside Acacia. Call it controlled chaos, or actually just chaos, vibrantly living nature as symbolic of death. In laying out the grounds of an estate, for example, you would build a ready-made ruin and let the plant life around it run wild. According to Joseph Campbell it was the ancient jungle mythologies of the world that tended to be the most violent. These people, living as they were surrounded by an explosion of life, came to see death, and more specifically murder, as the primary cause of it all – the seed from which life paradoxically begins. Werner Herzog says something along those lines in Burden of Dreams while speaking about filming in the Amazon.  “The birds do not sing; they shriek in pain.”  Living in that setting you lack any physical horizon, instead the world crowds in around you, you have to fight to keep it back, what Herzog again called “the obscene, explicit malice of the jungle.”  So that’s what we’re up against.  Now being at the beach is the exact physical opposite – it’s all horizon – although the emotion can be just the same: the malice of our certain death, each wave what Arthur Koestler called, “a shrug of eternity.”  We went body-surfing in them.

(Originally posted July 31st, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Tenth Avenue & 20th Street

30 May

The more I write these the more I realize how any given corner is going to hold any number of meanings — as many connotations as there are people. Really, more connotations than there are people, since a single spit of land can mean several things to just one individual. Perhaps endless things? How much do you choose to admit to? I think it was Hemingway who said something along the lines of, “Tell the story as it truly happened, and what you choose to leave out will determine the form and voice.” Isn’t that what all good fiction is: a (somewhat) ordered telling of the truth? And isn’t the voice that tells it determined more or less by what it owns up to, admits, by just how it chooses to order things?

So what’s the truth? Well, whatever you tell me it is. Whatever you make me believe. It seems that my main interest these days is simply to immerse myself in everything creative that anybody ever did. What fun. I just want to read, and watch and listen to and stare at. These are the things that feed us, and a lot of times they get us drunk as well. Delicious. No matter how much you create yourself you have to figure that you’ll spend far more time in your life taking in the creations of others. Well of course, there are billions of us! How much do you want to think about yourself anyway? Keep your eyes open and respond to things, make decisions when you have to — the rest of it all sort of comes together.

A big one for me was always Kerouac, and On the Road specifically. He wrote the first draft near this corner in April of 1951, at 454 West 20th Street, in the apartment he shared with his wife Joan Haverty. Now look, as people go, he was pretty terrible, I know. His was not a life I’d want to replicate. And in truth most of his other books are unreadable, only published because of the success of On the Road. But with that book he got it right. His life itself was far from admirable. The lives of his characters in On the Road were far from admirable. But the book itself is admirable. Because he wrote a story with a voice that told the truth, that admitted to a certain tone and tenor of life. What was it exactly? Well, what he wrote. What’s in the book. It is the book, like all the great ones are, from start to finish, each word read one after the other. That’s the only way to get it.

Everyone used to like to make a big deal about how Jack wrote the book in three weeks straight. Now everyone likes to make a big deal about how it actually took much longer than that, with detailed notebooks preceding the first draft, and six years of revisions following it. Well either way, he wrote the book. He didn’t live at 454 West 20th Street for very long, about six months, before he went back on the road. E.M. Forster, in his amazing series of lectures, Aspects of the Novel, talks about presenting “the life in time,” – plot, character, narrative – alongside “the life by values,” – the deeper resonance that all good novels sound; to break through the narrative, or maybe use the narrative, to touch upon the face of something else. I don’t care about Kerouac’s life in reality, or even his personal values, or his characters lives – what they did in the book. I care about what he wrote, the moments of value, of resonance, inside his story, namely, that no matter what, each moment passes, full of joy and melancholy. “I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk.” Sound familiar? Sometimes. I’m getting drunk, but I have nothing to forgive you for. Why should I? You’re alive, I think, well just like me.

(Originally posted July 24th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Vernon Boulevard & 49th Avenue

29 May

I live less than a mile from the ocean. That’s true for a lot of people that I know. I live on an island, and I work on a different island. But would you ever guess it? New York isn’t exactly what you would call “island living.” Hell, half the population doesn’t even wear shorts. And yet it’s summertime, and every little while you’ll catch that certain lull, that pause in forward momentum, as all the leaves heave up and sigh back down, the shadows shift a few inches to the right, and you’re left standing undeniably inside the present. Nothing seems to be happening — everything is precisely what it is. It’s a similar feeling to looking at old photographs – as if no body ever had to move.

So yeah, you find that thing from time to time, within the summer. I found it on Vernon Boulevard and 49th Avenue the other day, in Hunters Point in Queens. Hunters Point seems particularly conducive to the emotion. Maybe it’s just my own connotation of a neighborhood under a bridge, nestled down as if against some city wall or mountaintop. The houses on 49th Avenue are squat two-story brick. They look like 19th century single family homes that still remain as single family homes, the perfect size for living. They can’t be broken up because they were the right space to begin with. Something has passed them by here, and something else is coming, but these buildings stand. You look at them and are reminded that each moment is the moment, eternal before gone. Which is to say, this is right now, over and then over again.

hunters-point

Hunters Point takes its name from the British sea captain George Hunter, who owned an estate in the area by 1825. Before that the spit of land sticking out into the East River had been known as Dominie’s Hook, after Everardus Bogardus, who purchased it in 1643. Bogardus was the second minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam; dominie is Dutch for minister. The community was rural farmland until a little after 1861. That was the year the Long Island Railroad moved its principal terminal into the neighborhood, after local protests had driven it off of Atlantic  Avenue in Brooklyn. Rail travelers to Manhattan had to disembark at Hunters Point and catch the newly created 34th Street ferry across the East River to arrive at their destination. A number of inns and taverns sprang up to accommodate the crowds, and with easy access to the city now insured, urbanization followed soon after. The opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, and an underground rail tunnel to Penn. Station in 1910, caused industry to grow significantly. Most of that is gone now, with large residential towers moving in behind them, or more aptly, over their remains.

It’s the newest development in Hunters Point in a long while. Due to the neighborhoods proximity to the East River the area was treated much more as the actual road to progress and prosperity than as the destination itself. The Queensboro Bridge above and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel below literally passed over (and under) Hunters Point, bringing populations and change to more inland parts of Queens. It’s what lends the neighborhood its particular feel of stillness. The new towers are up already, but nothing was stirring when I wandered down the empty streets surrounding them. The ocean is only two blocks away. Because I’m walking on an island. The East River is the ocean, it doesn’t matter what it looks like; it doesn’t matter what surrounds it. It’s salt water; it flows out to the Atlantic. There are points along it where tall grasses grows, their roots standing under water that moves back and forth with the tides. This is the ocean. Honestly. It makes you pause a moment. Here comes the breeze.

(Originally posted July 17th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Broadway & Morris Street

28 May

The building I have in mind isn’t here anymore. But that works because this entry is a bit of a bait-and-switch anyway. I just spent the last week in far northern New York state. What’s going on up there? Not much. It’s flat and pretty — they have a lot of trees. We had a book even, that was supposed to help us identify them all. But man, that shit is hard. I don’t know what this bark looks like. Would you call that reddish gray or grayish brown? I can’t tell. Let’s just name them all maples and be done with it.

I’m not sure what the main industries are up here, in Saint Lawrence County especially – rolling down from the Adirondacks to the Saint Lawrence River. There might not be too many of them. It keeps the population count low. That’s been the case since the area was first settled by Americans. The whole of Saint Lawrence County, as well as those surrounding it, were included in the massive real estate deal known as Macomb’s Purchase. Alexander Macomb bought 3.6 million acres from the state of New York in 1791, and set about selling the land in parcels. Every land deed in Saint Lawrence, Lewis, Jefferson, and Franklin County derived from that initial transaction. But the place was never popular, and financially the purchase was a failure for Macomb. It was such a failure it actually landed him in jail. The Panic of 1792 found Macomb $300,000 in debt to the state. He went to debtor’s prison for it, never to fully regain his fortune.

Before he went to jail he built a mansion at 39 Broadway, just above Morris Street, finishing it in 1788. In 1790 he leased it to President George Washington to serve as the presidential mansion. That was back when New York City was the capital of the country, before Washington D.C. was built. The rent on Macomb’s mansion was $2,500 a year, a huge sum at the time. At least one Boston newspaper bemoaned the lavish lifestyle of Washington as being anathema to republican virtues. They probably didn’t like the fact that he was renting his house from a man who’d gone to jail for over-speculation. I’m not sure if I just made up that word. But anyway, by the time the Panic of 1792 came around the national capital had been moved to Philadelphia, where it would remain until 1800. Macomb first made his money in the Revolutionary War, selling supplies to the British out of his base in Detroit. So he had that going against him too.

The site of his mansion in the city was supposedly on the spot of the first European habitation in Manhattan. In 1614, five years after Henry Hudson had explored the region, Captain Adriaen Block spent the winter with his crew, after his ship the Tyger accidentally burned down. He built a new boat, with the help of the Lenape Indians, and was the first European to explore the East River, Long Island Sound, and the Connecticut River. Block Island is named after him, and he may have been responsible for naming Rhode Island, after the red color of its soil.

The biggest landmark you’ll find named after Macomb is the Macomb Dam Bridge connecting Manhattan to the Bronx over the Harlem River. It takes its name from the dam Macomb built there in 1814, after he’d gotten out of jail. That was the same year his son (of the same name) became a national hero for defeating the British at the Battle of Plattsburgh, thereby ending their invasion of the northern U.S. from Canada. Plattsburgh is in Clinton County, bordering on the land that made up Macomb’s Purchase. The War of 1812 was about the last major historical event to come their way. Since then probably the biggest news in the North Country has been the slow return of the forests, as more and more farmlands revert back to nature. I believe it’s the same thing that would happen here, if everybody just gave up what they were doing and left. It might take a while longer, but eventually there would be more trees than you could classify.  But wait a minute, why would you want to classify trees?  It’s the summertime.  Right now! My god, we’ve got to enjoy it.  What’s the opposite of classifying trees?  Yeah, go do that.

(Originally posted July 10th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Park Row & Beekman Street

24 May

I was just around here, I know, but I forgot that this was the corner I actually wanted to write about. It’s one block up from the Park Row Building. And it’s so much prettier! Do you know when you see a building that just sings so loudly of its time period? Simply looking at it makes you feel you understand a little bit of how these people must have lived? And no doubt about it — these people really lived. They had beliefs, in things material. But maybe that’s the red brick talking, which I would call the color of our golden past. Which time period does everybody want to go back to? I’m guessing the 1880s to the 1920s, or somewhere in that range. Good red brick country.

The Potter Building fits that bill nicely. It was finished in 1886, the era just preceding the development of full-on skyscrapers. Before 1870 most big commercial buildings in New York were built along the lines of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, four stories with a mansard or towered roof. As the technology that would lead to skyscrapers developed – steel-frame construction and elevators – the architectural possibilities for office buildings increased. There was more you could do with them. The Potter Building’s facade was a mixture of many different styles, including Queen Anne, Neo-Grecian, and Colonial Revival motifs. Now do I really know the difference between those types of things? What stands out stronger to me is the terra cotta relief, used extensively on the exterior. Now do I know a lot about terra cotta? Well let me ask you something: do you?

Terra cotta served the dual purpose of being a relatively inexpensive building material and an almost fire-proof one. This was especially important to Orlando Potter when he was putting up his building. Potter had initially bought the lot at Park Row and Beekman Street in 1857, and erected the five story Park Building, right next door to the original New York Times Building which had opened in 1851. Park Row at that time, up until the 1920s, was the center of newspaper publishing in the city, and went by the moniker of “Newspaper Row.” The Park Building eventually became the home of the New York World, founded in 1860, and was known as the World Building there after. It burned down in a fire in 1882 in which several people died. An account of the day called it “notorious the country over for burning up in the shortest time on record.” Potter began his new building on the same spot almost immediately after the fire, eager to make sure the same fate didn’t occur.  It’s cast-iron frame, surrounded by brick and terra cotta, made it as fire-proof as the times allowed.

The possibilities for terra cotta were so great, and so underdeveloped in New York, that Potter started his own New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company in 1886, the same year the Potter Building opened. He must have been doing something wrong though because his new factory in Long Island City burned down completely the year it opened, although he rebuilt it again right away. I guess he was the type to take it all in stride. It seems like he was good at diversifying, expanding his options. He first made his money as president of a sewing machine company. Sewing machines! That used to be a hot racket. Shirt collars, vacuum cleaners, ball bearings, newspapers. Things that you could pick up in your hand. The Potter Building today has been converted into a cooperative, with loft apartments, like a lot of the old office buildings in the area. There are larger office buildings now, where people make more money working at more abstract things – a world away in a certain sense from the old red brick days.  They’re still humans though, you know what I mean?  I’ll bet they still take lunch breaks.  They wonder what they’re going to eat.

(Originally posted July 3rd, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Park Row & Ann Street

23 May

Remember how we were going to keep some lists? We had our oldest churches in New York, and we had our skyscrapers. I’m thinking now that the best way to approach the churches will be to go by denomination, or rather to write on a different denomination each week. That seems to be the surest way to learn something (eg: what are Methodists, as opposed to Lutherans?). And learning something is what it’s all about right? Of course it is! It fills the time at least, you know? Just try to pass it in whatever fashion makes you happiest. And be smart enough to recognize the relationship between present happiness and future happiness, that certain balance played.  Like – thinking about the future makes me happy in the present, just like thinking about the past will make me happy in the future. But wait, wait, where am I right now? Hmmm, I think the Calvinists were all about this kind of thing. Or maybe I’m thinking of Pentecostalism. I’ll get back to you on that one.

Cause shit, we’re talking about skyscrapers today anyway. Now, we know about the Woolworth Building already, the tallest in the world from 1913 to 1930. We know that it replaced the Metropolitan Life Tower, on Madison Square Park, which had itself replaced the now demolished Singer Building downtown. Before the Singer Building it was Philadelphia’s City Hall that held that title. But what the hell? We’re not interested in Philadelphia are we? (I mean besides the fact that we’re interested in absolutely everything). We want to know about New York. What came before the Singer Building? What came before it in those early days of skyscrapers, before they had completely changed the landscape of this city?

Well, the answer is: the Park Row Building, and I hope that doesn’t disappoint you. It isn’t too impressive I’ll admit, doesn’t really catch the eye, the way the Woolworth does across the street say. Or maybe it catches the eye for being unattractive. That seemed to be the feeling when it was completed in 1899, standing 29 stories tall, a good fifteen or twenty stories over its neighbors. One reviewer wrote, “New York is the only city in which such a monster would be allowed to rear itself.” Huh, I don’t think this gentleman quite realized what lay ahead. The recent advance of steel-frame construction had just made it possible to build about as high as anyone wanted to. Prior to steel, any structure taller than eight or so stories, except let’s say a church steeple, would have had to have incredibly thick walls at its base to support the weight. Steel-frames would change all that. And not to everybody’s liking. In 1896 the New York Chamber of Commerce officially announced its opposition to skyscrapers, saying that they were unsafe, blocked the light, and defaced the city.

Well that didn’t stop the Park Row Building from going up, backed by its financiers under the leadership of August Belmont. Belmont would go on to found the Interborough Rapid Transit Company in 1902, the group that brought the first subway lines to Manhattan. The Park Row Building would be their initial headquarters during their fledgling years. Belmont bought the pre-existing Manhattan Railway in 1903, operators of the four elevated railway lines in Manhattan (with one extending up into the Bronx). When his IRT subway lines opened in 1904 the company had a monopoly on rapid transit in New York.  They would eventually face some competition from the Brooklyn based, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation as well as the city-owned Independent Subway System.  That would last until 1940, the year the city forced the take-over of both the IRT and BMT.  The IRT’s lines would become the A Division of the subway, and encompass all services designated by a number.  The BMT and the Independent’s lines would become the B division – all services designated by a letter.

The Park Row Building sits across from City Hall Park, the downtown hub for the first subway opened, an event that caused real estate prices to jump at the time.  The back of the Park Row Building runs along Theatre Alley, between Ann and Beekman Street.  Theatre Alley takes its name from the Park Theatre, which opened in 1798, on roughly the spot where the Park Row Building stands today.  The alley served as a road for carriages bringing patrons to the theatre.  But all the congestion caused by carriages pulling up from either end caused New York to take the radical step of making Theatre Alley a one way street, the first ever in the city.  So here we go, both back and front touching upon some type of transportation history, from one way streets to subways.  But what the hell?  Do I sound like some sort of Park Row enthusiast?  All dressed up like the building.  Like I should work at the museum?  I mean, I would work at the museum.  I mean I basically work at it already, for free.  Because it makes me happy.

(Originally posted June 26th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Greenpoint Avenue & Gale Avenue

22 May

Where? Gale Avenue? Who’s ever heard of Gale Avenue?

Oh, it’s in Blissville. Well who’s ever heard of Blissville? I don’t know; it’s a pretty easy one to miss. We’re talking about a neighborhood that defines its boundaries by a cemetery, the Long Island Expressway, and one of the most polluted waterways in the entire world. Blissville.

Although it takes its name from its developer Neziah Bliss, not from any purported peace and happiness that might come from living there. Bliss owned most of the land that would make up this neighborhood, starting from the 1830s on. It lies in Queens, across the Newtown Creek from Greenpoint, where Bliss ran his own ship-building business along the East River.

Blissville

Bliss was actually instrumental in the initial development of Greenpoint as well. After marrying into the Meserole family, he had the area surveyed and in 1839 opened the hood’s first public turnpike along what is now Franklin Avenue. Industrial business soon followed, and grew even faster after Bliss helped establish regular ferry service to Manhattan by 1850. He built the Blissville Bridge in 1855, around the same time he started developing the Blissville neighborhood, to carry Greenpoint Avenue over Newton Creek to Queens. The John J. Byrne Memorial Bridge which stands there today, is the fifth such to cross that spot. Greenpoint Avenue itself was created in 1852, as a means of getting New Yorkers out to Calvary Cemetery.

Because you know what, a lot of people were dying back then, cholera epidemics being one of the leading causes. By 1852 there were an average of 50 burials a day in Calvary. The cemetery was opened in 1848, on land purchased and run by Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It was among the first cemeteries to open after passage of the Rural Cemetery Act by the New York State Legislature. The Rural Cemetery Act authorized the construction of commercial burial grounds in rural parts of New York (which back then still meant Queens). For the first time the burial of human remains would become a money making business. Churches and land speculators moved quickly to buy large tracts of rural land in Queens, with a number of cemeteries opening by 1852. Today Queens has 29 of them in all, with a combined buried population of 5 million people outnumbering the population of the living.

Once the burial grounds were established Manhattan started the process of closing down some of its old cemeteries, disinterring the bodies, and moving them out to Queens. This was partly from fear that improper burials had led to the cholera outbreaks, but even more importantly it was to remove what would be idle land out of the path of development. These people were dead already, why should they stand in the way of tomorrow?

And speaking of tomorrow, it would find its way to Blissville soon enough. In 1870 the tiny village would be incorporated into Long Island City, along with Astoria, Sunnyside, and a number of other towns. Massive industry moved in soon after, and still dominates the area today. The residential blocks of Blissville have shrunk down smaller over the years, as both warehouses and Calvary Cemetery expanded to push them out. It seems appropriate though, to see these gravestones standing side by side with industry, chain link fences and giant rectangular metal boxes. And then scattered amongst them these artifacts of the living, these houses that continue to exist. Both industry and cemeteries need space and so they’re pushed out here to the liminal edges of our city. Liminal as in “of or relating to a sensory threshold.” I feel that when I’m out here: that I’m on the edge of something, something sensory or almost extra-sensory. There’s something that I’m not quite getting past or picking up on. Did humans know what they were doing when they made these symbols, these gravestones and these factories, and actually just made them in the real world? Just built them like they were castles, like giants who just went and died and we’re sort of slowly using the things they left behind and making up stories about them, trying to get inside before it rains. I’m standing here right now people! What is this pocket of space we’ve created? But you know, we must have understood somewhat because we made a word for it, we made a word for “liminal,” and we made it thousands of years ago, when we were children still, just picking chalk up off the earth and drawing things. We knew it, we really did. It’s just going to swallow you back up. We knew it then. When did you first show up in this place?

(Originally posted June 19th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)