Archive | June, 2012

West 4th Street & Cornelia Street

29 Jun

It’s hard to stay away from Greenwich Village. Well for one thing, I’m paid to be around here at least three days a week, babysitting for some pretty awesome six year olds. I met them for lunch at the new Grand Sichuan on Seventh Avenue South the other day (yeah, they know what’s good – they’re city kids). But that’s besides the point really; I’d come by this neighborhood regardless. I’d come by this neighborhood for free. I can’t think of an area that pays higher dividends for exploration. When Europeans tell me that they like New York, but don’t find it very pretty, I tell them to come here, especially if their hotel’s in Midtown. Now does it compare with Paris? Probably not, though I can’t say, I’ve never been there. London? Maybe. I know it doesn’t look like Rome.

But it’s pretty, that’s for sure. It’s been a residential urban community since the 1820s, and it’s stayed a residential urban community to this day, so you get a melange of styles and developmental trends covering the bases between then and now. The earlier ones tend to set the tone for me (but that’s no surprise). The Village was already heavily built up by the 1850s and so it lacks the uniform brownstone look you’ll find in some other neighborhoods further north, or in Brooklyn. Instead you get a lot of modest Federal and Greek Revival buildings, many under three stories tall. They’re so quiet looking and cozy that it hurts, especially when I consider that fifty years ago the whole area was still known for its cheap rents. You might have heard about it – how the Village was the Bohemian center of the United States for a little while. You can kind of take your pick of famous artistic types that spent some time here.

Myself, I’ll pick Dylan, comma, Bob (of course!). He lived in a studio apartment at 161 West 4th Street, above Bruno’s Spaghetti Shop (long gone), from December of 1961 until some time in ‘64. He shared the place for awhile with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo – the rent was $60 a month, which in 2009 dollars would be about $420. Do you know how much you’d have to work to split a $420 rent? The answer is: not much! The location put him right down the block from the various folk venues lining West 4th and MacDougal Street. He shot the cover for his “Freewheelin’ Album”, with Suze, walking down Jones Street right nearby. Both Jones and Cornelia Streets are the rare exceptions in Manhattan, each running just one block long, between West 4th and Bleecker Street. You wouldn’t guess that the bustle of Sixth and Seventh Avenues were right around the corner.

Although that bustle wasn’t always there. Seventh Avenue used to begin at Greenwich Avenue, a few blocks below 14th Street. It wasn’t extended south until 1917 with the creation of the west side IRT subway line, plowing through and over the existing Village streets. Sixth Avenue followed the same pattern: originally it began right above Bleecker Street. In 1926 it was extended all the way below Canal, in part to aid the construction of the Eighth Avenue IND subway line, in part to alleviate traffic coming out of the newly opened Holland Tunnel. Both avenue extensions displaced a lot of people, and tore up some of the removed, village feeling of the Village.

But hey, you still can find it in bucketfuls today. And I suppose the neighborhood has always been a compromise of sorts between its own desires and the larger city’s. Today West 4th Street crosses West 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th Streets. Any of those intersections can be held up as an example of the separate character of the Village, and its confusing geography – where else in Manhattan do numbered streets intersect each other? But all of those streets existed before the grid (or a semblance of it) was placed on top of them. West 4th Street was originally called Asylum Street after the Orphan Asylum Society, which stood on Asylum and Bank Street. 10th Street was Amos Street, 11th Street was Hammond Street, and 12th Street was Troy. Those all happened to be the streets that lined up with the grid east of Sixth Avenue, and so eventually their names were changed. Should I mention that Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman, in Hibbing Minnesota, before we went on to change his name also? Maybe he got the inspiration from Hibbing’s namesake, Frank Hibbing, who was himself born in Germany as Frans Dietrich Von Ahlen. Or yeah sure, maybe he took it from Dylan Thomas, who ten years earlier had drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern down the street from W. 4th and Cornelia. It does have a nice ring to it; I can see the appeal. I mean, I think if I was gonna change my name I’d go with Christopher Bob Dylan.

(Originally posted Nov. 6th, 2009 on


West End Avenue & 77th Street

28 Jun

I was rewatching the beginning of PBS’s documentary on New York the other day (which by the way is pretty awesome – get it from the library), and the point kept getting hammered home that unlike the majority of early U.S. colonies, this city was founded to make money. From the very beginning it was a commercial venture by the Dutch West India Company, not a religious retreat, not an attempt at a new beginning. In fact the Company waited four years before even forming a religious congregation. In 1628 they met as the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, in the loft over a gristmill on South Williams Street. Their first building went up five years later, on Pearl Street, then the eastern shoreline of Manhattan. Today it’s the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in North America.

Though it’s not housed on Pearl Street anymore. The direct descendant of the original congregation is the Marble Collegiate Church, on Fifth Avenue and 29th Street. Up until 1871 the various Dutch Reformed Churches in Manhattan, all having sprung from the Collegiate Reformed, shared ministers and administrative duties in what was called the Collegium. Four churches, including Marble Collegiate, keep the Collegiate name today. The other three are Middle Collegiate, Fort Washington Collegiate, and West End Collegiate, on West End Avenue and 77th Street.

That particular church was finished in 1892, during the fifteen year period that saw the rapid development and urbanization of the Upper West Side. The church was built, appropriately enough, in a Flemish Renaissance style, modeled after the 1604 Vleeshal (or “meat-hall”) in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. The church stands next to the independent Collegiate School, a private K-12 boys school that claims to be the oldest school in the United States (although others claim it wasn’t an official entity until 1638, two years after Harvard University). The school itself traces its beginnings to 1628, when the first minister of the Dutch Reformed Church started teaching the catechism to Indian children. Now I don’t know, I’ve always personally been told that once you start teaching a brief summary of the basic principles of Christianity in question-and-answer form to Native American children – within city limits – well uh, you got yourselves a school there.

The block diagonally opposite the church is beautiful, as are a number of blocks that run between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, in the West 70s. The earliest surviving buildings in the area date from 1885, marking the point when the Upper West Side finally began to catch up with its East Side counterpart in land development and housing construction. The completion of the Ninth Avenue Elevated in 1879 helped a lot, connecting the area to the rest of the city. Even more relevant to the far West Side was the creation, starting in the 1870s, of Riverside Park. Frederick Law Olmstead was the chief landscape architect – it was his decision to build Riverside Drive as an extension of the Park itself, following its contours. By the late 1890s the street, and those surrounding it, were full of large single family houses and was considered amongst the most attractive and fashionable residential districts in the city. Today the whole area marks some of the last row houses to have gone up in Manhattan. By the turn of the 20th century land value had risen so steeply that even wealthy New Yorkers could hardly afford the cost of a single family dwelling. In response, residential hotels and apartment buildings became popular and acceptable alternatives. By the 1920s many row houses on West End Avenue, some less than twenty years old, were being torn down to make way for these much larger apartment buildings.


So the ones that still survive are pretty awesome to look at. With so many houses going up so quickly, architects were left free to design in whatever style they desired. As such, you get a very eclectic mix – they were intentionally going against the uniform row house design of earlier decades.  The original idea, before development began, was that West End Avenue would be a commercial center, housing establishments to serve the residents of Riverside Drive.  That never came to pass, instead people wanted to live here.  Today I’d say it offers one of the best “urban canyon” views in the city, the flat facades of the taller buildings melding into one another as far as the eye can see, cut here and there with row houses.  It feels so permanent.  It also feels, perhaps because of that, like the part of town where grandmas and great uncles live, carving their tiny paths among the monoliths.

(Originally posted Oct. 30th, 2009 on

Fillmore Place & Driggs Avenue

27 Jun

I wonder if in a hundred years or so they’ll landmark any of the buildings going up in Williamsburg right now. Like, “This enclave of giant condos captures the most consistent and succinct example of the developmental style prevalent in Brooklyn at the turn of the 21st century.” I’m not so sure. Aesthetics probably play a role in that kind of designation. But aesthetics change, and future generations look back with the benefit of hindsight. They can say, “these were relevant because of what came after them, and because, unknowingly or not, of the certain way of life that they epitomized—the life they spoke for that’s now gone. And anyway, I think they’re kind of beautiful. I mean, look at the ugly 22nd century shit that we’ve got now.”

But who are these future assholes anyway? Oh yeah, our children! And our grandchildren too. Well that makes sense; I like things from my grandma’s generation. And she probably liked things from her grandma’s. It can all seem more coherent with a little distance. But it’s funny to recognize that in celebrating New York what I’m often celebrating is an old real estate deal. Most of it went up to make somebody money—it just feels nicer when it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and when the buildings they erected were brick, and quaint, and beautiful.

So now I can look at a street like Fillmore Place in Williamsburg and revel in it as our quiet past. But what a change it must have represented when it was first created. When Williamsburgh (note the h) incorporated as a village in 1827, within the Town of Bushwick, it had a population of one thousand and seven people. It was just on its way out from being a collection of farms. That really wasn’t very long ago, when you think about it. By 1840 it had grown large enough to separate from Bushwick entirely and become a town in its own right—in the next five years its population would double. Growth only sped up further with the arrival of large groups of German immigrants after 1845 and by 1852 it would become the City of Williamsburgh, with a population of 35,000. That made it the 20th largest urban area in the United States, which more than anything tells you that America was pretty damn small back then. Three years later it dropped the h and was incorporated into the larger city of Brooklyn, along with Bushwick (and its own neighborhood of Greenpoint). Williamsburg kept growing from there, especially with the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903.

Two New York merchants, Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller, wanted in on the action. In 1846 they started buying contiguous parcels of land in Williamsburgh, in the area bounded by Driggs, Metropolitan Avenue, Grand Street and Roebling Street. In 1850, to help maximize the number of lots they could build, they cut the tiny street of Fillmore Place (perhaps named for then President Millard Fillmore?) through the middle of their development. They sold the north side of the street as undeveloped lots, to be built upon by their various owners. The south side they developed themselves, erecting nine uniform multi-family houses. They were all designed in a simple Italianate style, reflecting the current transition in New York away from the popular Greek Revival. Italianate architecture jumped forward a couple thousand years to take its inspiration from the Renaissance. Although built to house working class families, the exteriors of the buildings had more in common with upper-class row houses than with tenements of the time. That may have led to the street’s tendency towards owner occupied buildings—passed down through generations. The infrequent changes in ownership lend to infrequent changes to the block in general, and today it’s considered perhaps the most intact collection of buildings from Williamsburg’s initial years of urban development.

Henry Miller grew up right around the corner, at 662 Driggs Avenue, and in The Tropic of Capricorn he calls Fillmore Place, “the most enchanting street I have ever seen in all my life.” I haven’t read The Tropic of Capricorn, though I have read The Tropic of Cancer. And I’m not sure how I feel about Henry Miller in general. He reminds me of the E.M. Forster adage that a novel has to tell a story. Henry Miller doesn’t do that, in The Tropic of Cancer at least, and so he starts to lose me. He says as much himself though: “This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God…” All right, cool, that’s one side of life, but what about the other? I think he knows it too, because he must have been at least somewhat excited, to have wanted to write a book at all. What secret fun he must have had! He says, “Whatever there is of value in America [Walt] Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machines, to the robots.” Sorry Henry, but no, it doesn’t. Why? Because we’re all alive. We are ineffably excited. And even better than that, we’re effably excited. We really are.

(Originally posted Oct. 23rd, 2009 on

12th Avenue & 26th Street

26 Jun

I have a few jobs (and yes, they’re all extremely lucrative — it’s important to diversify). Can I romanticize myself, and quote from Augie March here for a minute? “Saying various jobs, you give out the Rosetta Stone, so to speak, of my entire career.” Well, it’s not quite like that, but it’s a good quote. There is something about working a few different gigs within a day that can add up to more than the individual parts. As if within the juxtaposition of the various places and situations I find myself my life is truly being made. Well a part of my life, at least.

One of my jobs, while the season lasts, is as a tour guide. I lead people on bicycle through Central Park and down the West Side bike-path to the Brooklyn Bridge. I try to spin a narrative, perhaps inherently arbitrary or at least truncated, about New York. And more and more I’m finding as a starting point Manhattan’s history as a port, and the fact that it’s all history now – there’s no port left. We’re living in a unique time in that regard. For most of Manhattan’s lifetime its shoreline has been teeming with ships. Look at an old map or early aerial photograph and you see pier upon pier stretching along the Hudson River up to 72nd Street. Most of the goods coming into New York Harbor would land here, then be shipped by barge across the river to the rail yards of New Jersey – once railroads had been invented, I mean (shipping goes back way further than that). Things only started to change after World War Two, with the coming of containerization and super-tankers, both requiring more space than Manhattan could afford. Today the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey runs four seaports, one in Brooklyn, one in Staten Island, and two in New Jersey. Combined they make up the third busiest port in the United States.

But none of it is in Manhattan anymore. And so you see things changing – the waterfront is actually a place that people want to live by, that people want to visit. It’s not a brand new change, but it is one that remains ongoing. On the West Side you have the bike-path, part of the New York City Greenway, and the Hudson River Park that runs along it, both still being developed. And on the other end of the spectrum you have the wooden supports of all the collapsed old piers, still sticking out of the water, revealing more or less of themselves as the tides change. Somewhere in between are the old industrial buildings, left over from Manhattan’s port heyday.

One of the best one’s I can think of is the Starrett-Lehigh Building, taking up the entire block between 26th & 27th Street and 11th & 12th Avenue. It’s slightly bigger in square footage than the Empire State Building, despite having only 19 floors, compared to the Empire’s 102. Its design and completion in 1932 was intended to rectify the growing cost that traffic delays were causing New York City industry. The financier William A. Starrett leased the block from the Lehigh Valley Railroad and constructed the building over its previous open air rail yard. Trains, connecting via barge to New Jersey, could still pull into the ground floor and then be brought upstairs to any level on giant freight elevators, to load or unload their wares, making “every floor a first floor.” Trucks were able to do likewise.  The building itself was designed in the International Style, then popular in Europe, and was one of the few U.S. buildings included in the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. The general idea was to do away with symmetry and ornamentation and pay more attention to balance and a sense of volume. Does that make any sense? I’ll tell you what, the more I’ve looked at this building the more I’ve grown to like it. The bands of windows on each level together total more than eight miles long, placed end to end.

The Lehigh railroad left in 1966, unable to compete with the new(ish) interstate highway system and the continued growth of trucking. Today no industrial tenants remain, with the building holding the likes of Hugo Boss, and Martha Stewart, and a number of arts-related businesses. It’s about what you’d expect, situated as it is on the edge of Chelsea.  Plus you gotta figure the natural light it gets is pretty amazing.  It’s only a few blocks away from Chelsea Piers, which is where the Titanic would have docked when it reached New York, if it hadn’t sunk instead.  Now it’s a well known sports complex and t.v. studio.  Passenger liners themselves kind of went the way of the Titanic.  Cars and trucks are still doing pretty well though, running up and down the West-Side Highway, along 12th Avenue.  At least until the next thing comes along.

(Originally posted Oct. 16th, 2009 on

Bialystoker Place & Grand Street

25 Jun

Due to the fairly limited size of Manhattan and its relentless pace of development, or gentrification, or cannibalization, or whatever you want to call it, it’s easy to feel like none of its corners are left unturned. By which I mean, any given section of the island can be representative of any other, interchangeable, held up as the Manhattan of RIGHT NOW. None of it is outside the market, the connection, outside the knowledge that every square inch is equal to so much money. No place is set-up to surprise you; everybody walks these streets.

Which is why I think my new obsession is going to become the Lower East Side. I’m not talking about Orchard or Ludlow and their obscene Bourbon Street-esque weekend nights. I’m thinking more of the south-southeast elbow of the place – where the streets run basically true east west, pointed straight towards the Woolworth Building, diagonal to the grid. Whenever I find myself around these parts my first thought is always, “Oh right, New York keeps going here, this isn’t water yet.” Then I imagine what it used to look like, before the whole area was razed and replaced by giant public housing. It basically looked like what the Orchard & Ludlow blocks remain today – old tenements (sans the new large glass condos). You can still get some of that scene the closer you get to the Manhattan Bridge.

But the current paradigm and lay-out of the rest of the area helps give it its removed feel. These large apartment buildings make for swathes of open space, where the sunlight can shine in from more than just a certain angle. The streets are wider, and less busy – there’s the kind of lull you’d find across the river, in another borough. And then scattered throughout these (generally) post-war behemoths, you’ll come across the occasional old building, left over from another time. Of course, being myself, that’s the main thing that I’m looking for. It’s interesting to note which type of structures survived, given that there had to be a conscious decision to spare them from the wrecking ball.

So it’s not surprising that so many of them are houses of worship, some amongst the oldest in the city. Bialystoker Synagogue was founded as a congregation in 1865, by a group of Jews from Bialystok, Poland. They met first on Hester Street, then Orchard, before merging with a second congregation and moving to Willett Street (now Bialystoker Place) in 1905. But the building they moved into was even older. They purchased and converted (hehe) the old Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which had itself been built in 1826, when the Lower East Side was becoming a wealthy residential district. The church was one of four in the LES – all still standing – to have been constructed from Manhattan schist quarried from the nearby Mount Pitt, on what would become Pitt Street. It became a common occurrence in the neighborhood for Jewish congregations to take over churches, as their own congregations moved away with the changing demographics.

Another of the Manhattan schist churches sits around the corner from Bialystoker Synagogue, on 290 Henry Street. Built originally in 1829 as the All Saint’s Free Episcopal Church (”free” because they didn’t charge rent for pews) it is today owned by Trinity Church, and houses their Saint Augustine’s Chapel. All Saint’s grew out of a mission established by the General Theological Seminary, by the site of the old Grand Street Ferry to Brooklyn. It grew under the leadership of Colonel Marinus Willett, the same Willett who would give his name to Willett Street, before Bialystoker Synagogue established itself there, and for which the street was eventually renamed. The synagogue currently refers to itself as the most active congregation in the Lower East Side. I’m not sure how Saint Augustine’s does.

Now there’s something predictably hypocritical about these churches and synagogues being preserved while everything else was torn down around them – in the process known as slum clearance. Sure, the idea may have come from good intentions: to replace cheap housing with a better kind of cheap housing, but I don’t know if you could call the results a success. What makes a neighborhood poor is that poor people live there. By which I mean it’s the people you have to help, not just the neighborhood. Is it enough to say, here’s where all the lower income folks can live? Here, we’ve carved out a proscribed space for you. You can clearly see the boundaries.  Until we move you somewhere else.  But don’t worry, we’re going to keep your churches and temples around, because, you know, what we really care about are your souls.

(Originally posted Oct. 9th, 2009 on

Beverley Road & Marlborough Road

22 Jun

Hey Drinky, I took the train to Beverley Road! Well actually, I biked there, but the idea’s the same. Although I don’t know, maybe the train would have added something to the experience. Biking there allowed me to stay orientated. I knew where I was going, and where I was, relative to the rest of Brooklyn. There’s something about taking a tunnel underground and then coming out somewhere else entirely that can really shock you into the feeling of a place. I guess I missed that. And now that I think about it, it seems that emotion would be entirely fitting with an area like Prospect Park South – a neighborhood intentionally created as a break, a retreat, from the matrix that surrounds it.

But what am I, complaining? This place is awesome. Its motto is “rus in urbe,” or “country in the city.” That’s right, it has a motto. You might also find it called, “the Heart of Victorian Brooklyn.” All right again; I’m down with that kind of thing. Prospect Park South was laid out by developer Dean Alvord a few years before the 20th century, right around the time Brooklyn incorporated with NYC. As its motto implies, the idea was to provide a more stately – and frankly more expensive – alternative to the row house concept prevalent throughout most of the borough. Alvord applied strict restrictions in the development of each lot. Every house built had to be free-standing and exceed 3,500 square feet in dimension. All utilities were underground, trees were planted every 20 feet, and a grass median had to separate the sidewalk from the curb.  What it led to was houses like this.

So it’s a suburb. But it’s a suburb from a time when suburbs were a radical idea, a new out-line and design for living. Prospect Park South was so successful that it become one of the blueprints for modern suburbs in general. Is that a good thing or is it bad? Do we have to hate suburbs intrinsically, or can we just hate the kind that show no regard for aesthetic and the human spirit? Because here you ride around and just say “whoa,” over and over again. Each house has its own style – imagining which one you’d want to live in actually takes some thought. Your relation to the world would differ, depending on which of these windows you were quietly peeking out from. It makes you wonder: how many ways are there to approach reality, how many moods?

What I guess I’m asking is, could you write a novel about the difference between looking out of different windows? Between looking out that window at 10am on a January day as opposed to this one at 8pm in August? What type of mood is going to bubble up inside you? And are these moods really different moods, or do they all add up to one mood, which is the world? I mean, it’s October again. I’ve been here before. I’m as lost as ever. But it’s not the same. Our emotions too can have an equinox and solstice. It’s only that they happen a lot quicker. I’m sad again, no wait, I’m happy! Or am I just confused? Or is this all very simple? Well here’s one thing I don’t regret: pretty much all of it. Okay?  We’ve got that settled?  Let’s go and do this thing again.

(Originally posted Oct. 2nd, 2009 on

Governors Island

21 Jun

It’s nice sometimes to feel connected to the present day, to the current, to what’s happening right now. Something you can point to and say, this is 2009. This is what we’re doing. And implicit in that statement the assumption that this is what we’re going to be doing, that there’s some type of plan ahead. It can’t be a coincidence that current can mean both, “belonging to the present time,” and, “a steady, smooth onward movement.” Everything we’re connected to is in the process of becoming something else. And so we watch the changes and take part in them. And it feels damn exciting.

Really, I felt it the other day just taking the ferry to Governors Island. As everyone was disembarking there were men with megaphones directing foot traffic and it hit me, this is right now, this is the present, this is the result of planning and organization and the desire of the public for that kind of thing. What was I going to find in this place? What was being done to change it? What would the parameters for its future development be? One can only speculate. Or maybe a better way to say it would be, one can only make an educated guess. About everything. That’s what makes planning so much fun. Something is going to happen. How close will you have called it?

There was a nice irony in finding that connection to the present on what is actually the oldest bit of New York City to have been inhabited by Europeans. A small party from the Dutch West India Company settled on Noten Eylant, as they called it, in May of 1624, one year before Fort Amsterdam was built on the southern tip of Manhattan. Of course Governors Island’s pace of development didn’t exactly keep up with its neighbor from that point on. It took its English name from the fact that it was held for the exclusive use of New York’s royal governors, before the American Revolution. From there it became a U.S. army base, owned by the federal government, with the Coast Guard taking over in 1966. They left for good thirty years later, and in 2003 ownership was returned to New York State and New York City.

Which raised the question of what exactly to do with it. Here’s a 172 acre island, just about five minutes away from Manhattan, that has stood outside the path of major development for almost four hundred years. Besides the two forts on the northern end, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, the whole place reminds me of some abandoned college campus, with its rows of stately former officer’s houses, and its entirely dorm like looking barracks. Our initial reaction upon arriving there was amazement, and surprise, each time Manhattan’s skyline swung back in to view – oh wait, this isn’t bucolic New Hampshire. Then after an hour it wore off, we’d seen it all. The whole place is only a little bigger than the Reservoir in Central Park.

But it’s an island, in the middle of New York Harbor. It’s inherently fantastic. I don’t think there’s a consensus yet on what the city is going to do with it. My girlfriend thought that they should pay us to live here, and you know, take care of the houses and trees and stuff. What giant, wonderful trees! Uh, oak trees I think. The New Island Festival was going on while we were there as well, all a part of the bigger, ongoing celebration of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of this certain pocket of the world. People told me there were some great site-specific theater pieces going on, which got me excited and made me feel connected to the current yet again. I mean just the conversation; we didn’t actually see any of the festival. My girlfriend did buy me ice cream though.  Oreo.

(Originally posted Sept. 25th, 2009 on