Archive | August, 2012

150 Calyer Street

28 Aug

The building is a four-story walk-up with green vinyl siding.  It sways noticeably in the wind.  One time the front window in the living room fell out – it got pretty chilly in there for awhile.  One time the gas line to the stove broke and was too expensive for the landlord to repair.  We used a hot plate for at least six months, but we took money off the rent at least, and there were three of us living in the place at that point so the price was good.  But weren’t there always at least three of us living in the place, if you factor in the long-term guests?  I was sleeping on the living room floor then: we were still in disarray because of the bed bugs.  Someone would place a pink urinal puck by the radiator in the first floor hallway as an air freshener and they would replace it too when it fell apart.  It couldn’t have been the landlord – that was more work than he was capable of.  He would call us begging for rent in advance, in cash. His hands were covered in scabs or scales or some kind of skin disease and even though he was Polish he would say “mamma mia” when he got desperate, which I really enjoyed.  I enjoyed so many things there.

Somehow this ugly building is land marked – it falls within the Greenpoint historic district – and there are 9 open violations on it, which seems surprisingly small.  The earliest city account on record is a 1901 plumbing repair, so the place was probably built before the 20th century.

It’s where I spent a lot of my twenties.  It’s where a lot of my friends spent a lot of their twenties.  It’s okay to celebrate that, right?  I’m turning 30 in a few days, like most people do at some point.  No lesson learned or anything like that, don’t worry.  There was a great little blurb in the paper the other day that said most people feel pretty good about themselves at age 18, then start feeling steadily worse until age 50, when they turn it around.  By age 85 they feel even better than they did at 18.  I hope that hasn’t been your experience.  Although how you relate to the past is up to you.  One nice thing about the present is that you can use it to redeem as much heartbreak as you like; you’re the writer.   The best title for an autobiography I’ve ever heard is Goodbye to All That.  For sure!  But also, see you in my memories.  Forever.  That’s kind of wonderful.

Kenneth Koch has a poem, “To my Twenties,” that yeah, is inherently cheesy, but also fantastic and tough to shy away from.

How lucky that I ran into you

When everything was possible

For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart

And so happy to see any woman–

O woman! O my twentieth year!

Basking in you, you

Oasis from both growing and decay

Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten-year oasis

A palm tree, hey! And then another

And another–and water!

I’m still very impressed by you.

And much more from there.  It seems the entirely correct relation when looking backwards.  I think it will be more and more difficult to get embarrassed.  Some mornings I wake up and I can remember what it felt like to wake up at different points in my life and I feel sad because those points are over with forever.  I miss a lot of things.  We had a boom box in our refrigerator that played reggae music every time you opened it.  I really enjoyed that.  One time I was cooking a hamburger (cheeseburger!) at 11am with the window open and my shirt off and I was smoking a joint.  Man, that was awesome.

I don’t know: thanks to everyone I ever shared my life with there.  We did pretty good I think.  I seem to recall it pretty fondly.  You live not just a life but also a lifestyle, and maybe you don’t even know it and then in subtle ways it changes and is gone.  What were we up to?  Who knows, but thanks again for all of it.  I’d also like to thank my marked lack of ambition – you’ve never let me down old buddy.  What a ride.

(Originally posted June 11th, 2010 on


Sixth Avenue & 16th Street

25 Aug

Weather!  What a time to be alive, eh friends?  Would you really rather be living anywhere else, or any time else?  Here’s the nice thing about the present: the whole of the past is laid out to set the image of your mood too.  Who would actually want to be alive in 1600?  Let’s just think about it instead – the dimly torch-lit palazzo courtyard; Romeo climbing up the balcony – and then take that feeling into the next minute of today.  Go ride a bicycle, or I don’t know, touch an iPad.  They didn’t have that shit back then.  Possibly, most things that exist can be a new way to express our happiness.  Possibly not, it might depend on your internal fortitude.  Well fortitude it up folks!  Aren’t words fun?  Try ’em out.  Stand outside and yell, homina homina homina.

Or else, hosanna hosanna hosanna.  I know about one piece of classical music, and that’s Beethoven’s Sixth.  Yeah, it’s pretty good, you know, for something written in F Major.  Actually it pretty much makes my heart explode.  I want to be flat out running down an open field, all the way to Ancient Greece, where I’ll start speaking in tongues and then jump into the ocean.  What I’m saying is: I’m excited for the summertime.

This is a good city for disparate architectural styles (with which to then equate our moods).  You can pretend you’re somewhere, or sometime else, for a few minutes at least.  If you’re looking for the neighborhood of the 17th century, you should try the Church of Saint Francis Xavier, on 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue.  I think I turned a corner in Genoa once and came upon this exact same building – a giant/narrow Baroque style granite church.  I know Beethoven came about 50 years late for the Baroque era, but when looking at Saint Francis I can’t get his Sixth Symphony out of my mind.  It’s a striking exterior, unlike any church I can think of in the city, and the interior is ornate enough to match.

The current sanctuary was put up in 1882, replacing a previous church that had stood on the site since sometime after 1847, the year a Jesuit community based out of the (then) village of Fordham in Westchester County decided to establish a church and school in Manhattan.  The church was designed by the Irish-born Patrick Charles Keely, a possibly self-educated architect with hundreds of Roman Catholic churches to his credit.  It seems to fit his prolificacy that a church like this could be hidden away on a side street, a little (or big) surprise to stumble upon.

The historical Saint Francis Xavier was a prolific fellow too, in a certain sense.  He was one of the original founders of the Jesuits and a tireless missionary of Christianity, bringing the religion for the first time to Japan, Borneo and the Moluccas.  He died of a fever on the Chinese island of Shangchuan in 1552, sweltering under the tropical sun,  staring upwards at the gathering rain clouds.  To our sensibilities he was probably an asshole – you know, a missionary during the Inquisition and all that.  Was he a person, the way that you and I are?  It’s tough to say, imagining the world he moved in is completely gone, left only for our summer dreams.  But that’s a good thing.  Well, it’s a thing, at least, something we have no choice about.  We’re freer now than we’ve ever been before though, and that’s the truth.  We have Beethoven, the Baroque style, AND the present moment.  Rain clouds gathering; faces turning towards the breeze.  Feeling your heart swell.

(Originally posted May 28th, 2010 on

Fifth Avenue & 90th Street

20 Aug

In my last post I mentioned the Fifth Avenue mansion of department store impresario A.T. Stewart, erected on the corner of 34th Street & Fifth Avenue.  Completed in 1870, the three-story French Second Empire style home stood just opposite Caroline Astor’s residence – basically ground-zero for New York’s high society.  Thirty years later that social center had moved about twenty blocks north, chased out by encroaching commerce.  In 1896 Caroline Astor, refusing to retire from public life, moved into her new mansion on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street.  The northern limit of fashionable society seemed to hold at about the  East 70s.

So it was quite a leap in 1898 when Andrew Carnegie purchased the two-block lot on Fifth Avenue between 90th and 92nd Street.  The area, which had been known as Prospect Hill, was dubbed “The Highlands,” because of its remote location.  It was exactly the type of space that Carnegie was looking for.  A self-professed hater of “ostentatious living,” he requested that his architects build him, “The most modest, plainest and most roomy house in New York.”  The end result was his Georgian style, 64 room mansion, set within a yard of almost 30,000 square feet (Caroline Astor’s yard by contrast held about 100).  The mansion stood between 91st and 92nd Street, with the lot north of 92nd Street intentionally left undeveloped, so as not to spoil the view.

But Carnegie didn’t purchase the lot just south of his house, and for years, in what must have been one of the more jarring contrasts in the city, it housed a row of billboards and a tiny run-down lemonade stand.  Maybe Carnegie stopped by for a drink from time to time.  Maybe he stared out his window and dreamed about the day that he could tear it down.  His chance came in 1917, when a sign was posted on the property, “For sale – without restrictions.”  The “without restrictions,” was particularly troubling, meaning that the new buyer could erect whatever type of building they liked.  Carnegie purchased the lot for over $1.7 million, ensuring that his property wouldn’t be encroached on by a tall apartment building.  It remained undeveloped for seven years after his death, in 1919.

At that point the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest came looking for a new location.  The church, standing on Fifth Avenue and 45th Street, had been founded by Civil War veterans in 1865 as a memorial to all those killed in that “terrible conflict.”  Carnegie’s widow Louise agreed to sell the lot across the street, at the discounted price of $1 million, with the stipulation that the land would be used (through 1975) exclusively for a Christian church, of a height no greater than 75 feet (okay, I have to admit this story might be apocryphal, but it’s a good one).  The first service was held there in 1929, although the intention was to continue carving the facade to match the church’s Neo-Gothic style.  The stock market crash of that same year forced a change of plans however – without decorative carvings, the streamlined and slab-like  exterior took on a modernistic, Art Deco appearance that was highly admired.

In the early seventies the Carnegie Corporation donated the Carnegie mansion and property to the Smithsonian; since 1976 it’s housed the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.  Prior to that, Louise – who was over twenty years younger than Andrew – lived in the house until her death in 1946.  You gotta wonder how lonely she got there: just her and 64 rooms.  Although she still spent her summers in Skibo Castle, which by the looks of it is even roomier.  Skibo Castle is in the actual Highlands, in Scotland, a bit more remote than Fifth Avenue and 90th Street.   A summer there might have you longing for the cramped and cozy NYC life, full of lemonade and churches.

(Originally posted May 14th, 2010 on

Commerce Street & Barrow Street

16 Aug

In which we discuss one of the prettiest intersections in New York.

I wanted to step away from skyscrapers (for a minute at least) and look for something just the opposite: small, quiet and about a hundred years older.  Maybe even something that doesn’t involve millions and millions of dollars.  Although I don’t know about that one – this is a tough town to get away from money.

Commerce Street runs parallel to Barrow Street for one block, starting at Seventh Avenue, before it turns 90 degrees to intersect it.  It’s an exemplar of West Village topography, totally divorced in appearance from the majority of Manhattan.  Just look at this place!  What emotions are you going to feel standing here?  What’s the opposite of a bad mood?  What’s a synonym for peaceful?  How do you spell, “meditative certainty of the universe’s correctness”?

There’s a lot of disinformation out there around this corner.  Its secluded character seems to lend itself to urban fables.  Commerce Street was not in fact named because of its prevalence of businesses, falsely claimed to have moved here during the yellow fever epidemic of 1822.  It was never a commercial street.  Instead it was one of four streets to have been named (in the 1790s) after the virtues of the French Revolution, back when the French Revolution was all the rage.  Eighth Street was originally Art Street; Waverly Place was Science Street, and Barrow Street was Reason Street – named specifically for Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason.  Trinity Church, which owned the land the streets ran through, felt that Paine was too radical a figure to commemorate and in 1826 they changed the name to Barrow after Thomas Barrow, a well known artist and member of their congregation.  When the Cherry Lane Theater opened on Commerce Street in 1924 its founder, as a publicity stunt, dreamed up the tale of a cherry-tree lined country lane and claimed that Cherry Lane had been the original name of the street; that story still persists today.

The most striking feature of the intersection are the two identical houses at 39 & 41 Commerce Street.  The legend goes that these houses were built by an old sea captain for his two feuding daughters, who refused to speak to each other.  In reality they were built in 1832 by a milkman from New Jersey, not as a personal residence but as an investment.  The mansard roof was added to both of them about 40 years later.

All right, not quite as exciting as a sea captain with estranged daughters, but still, it’s nice to know a milkman could make a solid living back then.  Just down the block, where the street turns, stands 48 Commerce Street: owned by a man who’d made an even better living.  The building was the property of A.T. Stewart, one of the richest men in New York by the time of his death in 1876.  He owned properties throughout the city, though the bulk of his fortune came from retail, not real estate.  Stewart is considered the founder of the department store.  An Irish immigrant, he built his dry-goods business into a larger and larger enterprise, until in 1846 he opened the “Marble Palace” on Broadway and Chambers Street.  The building itself caused a sensation, with its break from Greek Revival architecture, and Stewart’s system of displayed wares with set prices – no bargaining here – set the template for all the retail stores that followed.  It also made him extremely wealthy.

I’m not sure if Stewart ever lived at 48 Commerce.  In 1870 he completed his mansion on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, across the way from Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor’s residence.  Caroline was considered the gatekeeper of New York high society, instrumental in keeping the nouveau riche at bay.  A.T. Stewart faced some opposition because of his Irish heritage, but at some point he was simply too rich to ignore.  He was perhaps the third richest man in New York by the time he died, after Astor and the Vanderbilts.  Three weeks after his death and burial in St. Mark’s churchyard his body was dug up and taken ransom, for $200,000.  It took his wife five years to get the body back; by then she’d bargained the corpse-nappers down to $20,000 – if it was in fact his real body they returned.  After five years there was no way to really know.  But his wife wasn’t taking any chances: his next tomb was rigged up with an elaborate alarm system.  Well, at least that’s how the story goes.

(Originally posted Apr. 30th, 2010 on

Lexington Avenue & 53rd Street

1 Aug

On October 17, 1975 Abe Beame, the mayor of New York, was prepared to declare the city bankrupt.  He had a statement drafted and ready for release, claiming, “I have been advised by the comptroller that the City of New York has insufficient cash on hand to meet debt obligations due today. This constitutes the default that we have struggled to avoid.”  It was a serious low point for the city (to say the least).  Beame didn’t have to release it though: the president of the teacher’s union, Albert Shankar, provided $150 million that morning, from the union’s pension fund, to buy municipal bonds and ensure the government would stay afloat, at least for one more day.  It was a move the mayor had been hoping for; and he had his sights set on a federal bailout as well.  President Ford had other ideas, declaring two weeks later that he would refuse any outright grant to the city, and prompting the pretty awesome and famous New York Daily News headline seen here.

Things got arguably worse from there, before they got better (eg: the 1977 blackout), but there were a few signs that could be pointed towards as at least symbolic of an approaching recovery.  One of them was the opening of the massive Citigroup Center in 1977, taking up the entire block on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue.  Aside from symbolizing a return to economic strength for the city the building also represented a break from the International Style, ubiquitous in skyscraper design for at least the past quarter century.  The Citigroup Center’s intentionally asymmetrical angles paved the way for the postmodernist high-rises that would follow in the coming decade.

The most notable features of its design were its elevated base and its slanted, 160 foot roof (the entire building, at 915 feet, is one of the tallest in the city).  The base of the Citigroup Center rises on four gigantic pillars, and one central shaft, about 10 stories high, before the actual bulk of the building begins.  It’s a disorienting effect, making the structure appear to float above the street, made more disorienting by the fact that the four pillars are placed in the center of each side, not at the corners.  The elevated base was planned in response to one of the preconditions of the project.  Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church owned part of the site, having stood on the corner of 54th Street and Lexington Avenue since 1905, and before Citigroup could build they had to agree to rebuild the church in the exact same spot and ensure that it still had an unobstructed view of the sky (where god lives).  They also paid them $9 million dollars for the sale of their air rights alone.  Air rights!  What a city!

Elevating the base solved the problems raised by the church – allowing the corner of the skyscraper to cantilever over Saint Peter’s without blocking its view.  It also had the nice effect of freeing up space beneath the building, creating a sunken public plaza and giving me something to get excited about.  Public space in Midtown, right below a skyscraper!  You can actually leisurely hang out in a corner of the world who’s general design is entirely based around an equation that equals money.  I don’t know if you could get away with drinking here, but you should probably try it, and you know, think about things.

The slanted roof was designed for more aesthetic reasons than functional – a desire to break from the right angles demanded by the International Style.  The original plan envisioned mounting solar panels on the roof’s surface, providing an alternative energy source for the building, although it was never actually realized.  The same went for a plan to house residential apartments there.  A year after the building opened the debate over how to use the roof was solved when a troubling problem was discovered.  An engineering student studying the skyscraper for a graduate class called up the building’s engineer, William LeMessurier, with an observation.  Based on the student’s calculations LeMessurier discovered that the Citigroup Center wasn’t reinforced enough against strong winds – in theory a hurricane strength gust (something that hits New York on average every 16 years) could have caused the building to collapse.  The hasty, and secret solution, was to reweld large parts of the frame (at night when nobody would notice) and to install in the roof a tuned mass damper: basically a giant weight that could move to offset the swaying of the building.  The Citigroup’s tuned mass damper – the first to be installed in a skyscraper – is a 400 ton, 30 foot square concrete block that runs on a oiled track, guided by sensors.  Wild stuff.

Citigroup was actually named Citicorp at the time of their building’s construction, or maybe Citibank; I don’t know, I didn’t feel like getting too deep into corporate history this week.  Regardless, they got a federal bailout themselves, not too long ago, which was more than New York could manage – the first time around at least.  They were deemed “too big to fail,” but I mean, come on, what’s bigger than New York?  We’ve got floating skyscrapers, with giant concrete blocks in their roofs; what has Citigroup got?  Oh…never mind.

(Originally posted Apr. 16th, 2010 on