Archive | March, 2014

Broadway & 45th Avenue

27 Mar

I was looking at the different types of apples at the farmers market the other day and I came across the Newtown Pippin, named, it’s said, for the fact that it originated and was grown along the banks of the Newtown Creek.  The Newtown Creek!  The vilest waterway this side of the Ganges.  Now granted, I’m a sucker for that kind of provenance, but I mean, as long as it tastes like an apple wouldn’t you rather have an apple with a story than just an apple?  (Incidentally the apple didn’t taste so good, ha!) By the way, don’t you love it how “elite” people like to call the farmers market elitist?  As if buying food at a market from (somewhat) local farmers instead of at a giant corporate supermarket stocked with food from industrial farms – in which these “elite” people undoubtedly have some interest – represents the perversion from tradition and not the other way around? What I’m trying to say is: apples once grew along the Newtown Creek!

The first settlement in the Newtown area by the way (and apparently the first European settlement in Queens at all) was called Maspeth (or Maspat, or Mespat) and was actually settled by the English, though with a grant from the director-general of New Amsterdam Willem Kieft.  The grant was issued in 1642 to the English minister Francis Doughty, and at 6,666 (Dutch) acres it included almost all of what today makes up western Queens.  Doughty had recently been removed from his pastorate in Massachusetts for his radically liberal ideas (namely involving baptism – the hippie bastard) and was looking for a place where he could preach in freedom.  Kieft was looking for settlers – any settlers, even English ones – to help open up Long Island, and so a deal was made.  It didn’t last too long though.  In 1643, just as the initial settlement of Maspeth had been established, an attack by Indians leveled the place (the hippie bastards).  Doughty and his crew returned to New Amsterdam, though apparently he re-settled in Queens sometime later with a bit more success, before leaving the region for good in 1655 (as well as leaving a whole boat-load of tangents that we’ll have to return to some day).

By the time Doughty left New Amsterdam another attempt had been made to settle the land he’d been formerly granted, again by a group of English New Englanders.  In 1652 they established “New Town” (as opposed to the “old town” of Maspeth) around the present-day intersection of Queens Boulevard and Broadway – though just to confuse things the Dutch referred to the same settlement as Middleburgh, and the English may have also officially referred to it as Hastings at some point.  No matter; in 1661 Captain Samuel Moore built a house on the 80 acres he’d been granted in the area, supposedly in recognition of his father (Reverend John Moore’s) efforts in arranging the purchase of the entire Newtown land from the local Indians.  Although again, another account says that Newtown was formally purchased by Governor Richard Nicolls in 1666 (after the English had won control over all of the New Netherlands), and that account even mentions the 3 Indians it was purchased from by name, so ya gotta think it might be truer (those names were Rocero, Westcoe and Pomwamken by the way).  It was Samuel Moore’s brother Gershom Moore who was running the estate in the late 1600s or early 1700s when the Newtown Pippin apple was discovered on it (unless he was dead already – whatever, it was a long time ago and no body can really tell).

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I say discovered by the way because the Newtown Pippin is an heirloom apple – a chance seedling, or “pippin” – that grew from an apple seed somewhere in the swampy land near Newtown Creek.  I won’t go in to all the details about apple genetics because I don’t really understand them but suffice to say it’s pretty cool: the Newtown Pippin was a wild apple, not one bred by man.  People ate it and thought it tasted pretty good and so they took cuttings from the tree to propagate the apple elsewhere (and please, if there’s any sciency-type people reading this, tell me what I’m getting wrong).  The original tree died around 1805 at over 100 years of age, suffering from “excessive cutting and exhaustion,” but by then the Newtown’s fame had been assured.  It was especially popular in the Piedmont region of Virginia, where it was also known as the Ablemarle Pippin, and was both praised and grown by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (or you know, probably praised by them and grown by their slaves, but whatever).

Reverend John Moore, the originally founder of the whole Moore Newtown dynasty, was the great-great-great-grandfather of Clement Clarke Moore, the poet and theologian best known for writing “The Night Before Christmas” (originally published as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”).  Though born in New York City, in 1779, Clement spent much of his youth at the family estate in Newtown, and today the approximate site of the Moore family’s manor home is a park known as the Clement Clarke Moore Homestead (at 45th Ave. & Broadway).  Suffice to say the neighborhood looks a little different now than it used to.  Newtown Creek, named as you might imagine after the settlement of Newtown, looked a little different also – shallower and wider (wide enough to hold small islands apparently), with swamplands along its borders.  It still probably wasn’t a body of water you would have wanted to go swimming in, but for different, not quite as toxic, reasons.  Clement Clarke Moore might have witnessed some of the changes in his lifetime, as industry moved into the area and started using the creek as its dumping ground, though his death in 1863 meant that he missed the worst of it.  By the 1890s is was so bad that when real estate magnate Cord Meyer Jr. developed property in Newtown he successfully pushed the U.S. Postmaster General to have its name changed to Elmhurst, to avoid the smelly connotations.  Now that’s what you call an elitist.

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Lexington Avenue & 60th Street

13 Mar

Okay, so talk about a juxtaposition!  I first noticed this “house” years ago when I stepped out of the Subway Inn just up the block, a little boozy maybe, and had to rub my eyes a couple times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.  Back then, if my boozy memory serves me correctly, the house wasn’t designed to blend in quite as easily as it does today.  So yeah, if I was excited by the 6 story building surrounded by (what’s now) the Renaissance Hotel on 57th Street, imagine how I felt about this.  It’s an 1865 townhouse that was somehow spared the wrecking ball when the 31 story 750 Lexington Avenue (also known as International Plaza) went up in 1987.  A number of similar townhouses were demolished to make way for the construction – so how the hell did this one survive?

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The answer is one Jean Herman and her 4th-floor walk-up rent controlled apartment she’d lived in for more than 30 years.  By 1981 Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation (CBRC) had purchased all the lots that make up the Lexington Avenue block front between 59th and 60th Street and they put plans in actions to build a large office building.  Part of those plans involved buying out the current tenants of the 3 CBRC-owned brownstones that would need to come down.  Jean Herman said no, everybody else eventually said yes and moved out and by April 1984  Jean Herman was the only tenant left.  The offers for her to move out got larger and larger, topping out at $650,000; she still said no.  CBRC said screw it, we’ll just build the skyscraper around her.   And so they did: the original mansard roof and the entire 5th floor of 134 E. 60th St. were removed, as well as the (now) unoccupied rear portion of the building.  In the process CBRC also decide to restore the brownstones 1865 facade, which was pretty cool of them.  The whole damn thing is pretty cool actually, although today no one seemingly lives in it at all (Jean Herman died in the early 90s), and the whole building is essentially an ad for Levi’s.  That is not so cool.

Now sure, I can see some people being angry that this woman who didn’t even own the building was able to put the kibosh on plans for it to be demolished.  I mean, how dare she!  She can buy her own damn building and then decide not to tear it down if she wants to.  Plus, she was offered a lot of money, you know?  (As a matter of fact, her apartment was apparently only 26 by 20 feet, making the $650,000 offer equivalent to $1,250 per square foot.) But it’s pretty refreshing to see a case where essentially housing was regarded as a right – where by dint of living somewhere for as long as she did Jean Herman was allowed to dictate herself whether she stayed or went.  New York City actually has some very strong tenant protection laws in that regard – with what are considered the strongest rent control laws in the country, as I’m sure any landlord would gladly tell you.  Though to be fair, there are some serious catches: to qualify for rent control a tenant has to have continuously lived in the apartment since July 1, 1971 (I bet people who moved in July 2 are pretty pissed), and that’s generally just for buildings with 6 units or more (and built before 1947).  If you’re talking about single or two-family homes the tenant has to have lived there continuously since March 31, 1953.  As you might imagine that makes rent controlled apartments hard to come by; less 2% of NYC apartments are rent controlled today.

When most people talk about a rent controlled apartment in New York what they actually mean is rent stabilized.  Rent stabilized apartments make up something like 45% of the housing stock in the city, and the protections for them are pretty strong as well.  Generally speaking any building with 6 or more units, built before 1974, with an apartment renting below $2,500 ($2,000 before 2011) should be rent stabilized.  I say should because there’s always the chance a landlord might illegally present a rent stabilized apartment as market rate (ie. he/she (though probably he right?) might jack up the price) though I don’t think that happens too often.  Otherwise rent stabilized apartments can only be raised by a certain percentage each year – a percentage determined by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board – and just like rent control the chance for lease renewal has to be offered to the existing tenant.  Once the rent has legally been brought up to $2,500 the apartment can be deregulated and charged at market rates.  The same holds true if the landlord makes substantial improvements to an apartment once it’s been vacated, or if the tenant’s annual income is $200,000 or more.

As you might imagine, and as I’m sure Jean Herman brought to light, there’s a lot of mixed feelings about rent control and stabilization.  The criticism that strikes me as strongest (since it still essentially agrees with the idea of rent control) is that we should be stabilizing people, not units.  If you live in a rent stabilized place you don’t want to leave it, even if it eventually becomes unsuitable for your needs.  And the fact that you don’t leave it means there’s little turnover in the rental market, making those non-rent stabilized apartments that are available that much more expensive.  I mean, wouldn’t it be great if we just subsidized people’s rents instead according to their needs?  But that would be too close to treating housing like a right, right?  We don’t really go for that kind of thing in this country.  It might lead to too many Jean Hermans.