What the hell is Midtown? Can anybody truly answer that question? How did it get to be this way? I can’t think of another area in the United States that’s so hard to get a handle on. I mean to say, who actually belongs here? Isn’t this the antithesis of a neighborhood? Maybe it’s as simple as that. Midtown is the embodiment of the New York that terrifies, the New York so crowded and impersonal that you could fall face downwards on the sidewalk and no one would stop to help you up. Really, I picture true terror on the faces, or at least the hearts, of a lot of the people walking around these blocks — tourists and out of town commuters alike. It almost makes me want to try falling down, just to see what would happen. Or you know, maybe just sitting on a bench for hours on end, hanging out. Trying to reclaim a little of this public space as actually public.
I remember the main character in The Windup Bird Chronicle doing that — visiting the same bench each day for weeks at a time. I enjoyed reading about it, wonderfully repetitive. But that’s part of the beauty of fiction; it can do the work for you, boil down the sentiment in a more time efficient manner. Make me feel something, and I’ve experienced it, that’s more or less how I think it goes. And everything is fiction, right? Because everything is conversation — how we choose to tell things. Except maybe a punch in the face. That usually comes before or after conversation. Or maybe right in the midd – pow!
Sorry, sorry. I couldn’t help it; I’m tough. But what the hell am I even talking about? Oh yeah, wandering around midtown, looking for some signs of life. Looking for the most ornately decorated apartment building in all of New York City. Hey there it is! Alwyn Court Apartments on 58th Street and Seventh Avenue, almost every square inch of it covered in terra cotta stone work. It was modeled after the style of Francois the First, France’s premier Renaissance monarch, hence the various carvings of salamanders wearing crowns or breathing fire. You know, all that Renaissance type shit: reason, humanism, salamanders. When the Alwyn Court was opened in 1910 it was considered one of the finest upscale apartment buildings of its day, billed as “City Homes for Those with Country Houses.” The twelve story building had two apartments per floor, with 14 rooms and 5 baths apiece. The Alwyn was part of the trend amongst the wealthy at the time, moving away from city mansions into equally sumptuous co-ops that required about half the number of servants, and could be closed up easily for travel, as the social season dictated. Seventh Avenue, right around Carnegie Hall, was the epicenter of this new paradigm, including within a few block radius the most important collection of New York City apartment houses of its day.
So all right. Here we go. Some evidence of midtown’s older, beating, residential heart, before the office buildings and hotels came in. There are a few different pockets like this still hanging around. Regardless, even the Alwyn’s prestigious reign didn’t last too long. By the 1930s’s Seventh Avenue was no longer a fashionable neighborhood. In 1936 only six families were still living in the building; by 1937 it was empty. The bank foreclosed on it the year after and following renovations reopened it with 75 smaller apartments for rent, where there had originally been 24. This is the same thing that would happen to a lot of the mansions in the city — sold off and divided up into smaller living quarters, as the size became impractical, as the culture changed. So where did all the rich people go? Skiing? Maybe. I think they’re still around somewhere. They might just be harder to tell apart. They don’t entertain at home anymore, or if they do, they don’t invite me to their parties.
(Originally posted May 22nd, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)