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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


St. James Place & Oliver Street

21 Jul

Who knew the fifties were so amazing?  I mean Fahrenheit-wise, not the decade (although also worth some contemplation – get high and think about it).  This past week has been a revelation; it’s already warm enough in the sun to wander aimlessly around outdoors, and the ability to wander aimlessly around outdoors exponentially increases your ability to pass the time with meaning, humor and consideration.  Sorry, I just liked the way those words sounded.  But the fifties rock!

Before winter came along I was getting into the Lower East Side, specifically the area below Canal and Grand Street, where the blocks run diagonal to the east-west grid and public housing tends to dominate the sky-line.  And now it’s warm enough to get back to exploring.  I’m particularly interested in the area known as Two Bridges, between the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, namely because of how close it is to the Civic Center.  I tend to think of the Civic Center and the Lower East Side as two neighborhoods that are further apart – first you have to pass through Chinatown, then Little Italy (what’s left of it), then hook a right for the LES.  This new approach is almost like a back door entrance.  Now sure, today this area is basically an extension of Chinatown, but historically it’s always been considered the Lower East.  That very proximity in fact played a role in the creation of the Civic Center to begin with.  The land north and east of City Hall was chosen as the site for various municipal buildings almost by default – the boggy ground (thanks to the old drained and buried Collect Pond) made the area undesirable for high-rise commercial development, and the slums of the Lower East Side made it an undesirable location for anything else.

But before any of those buildings came along, when the Collect Pond was still a pond and New York City still lay to the south, one small part of this neighborhood was used as a cemetery.  On present day St. James Place, just below Chatham Square, Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – the first Jewish congregation in New York (and the only one until 1825) – purchased land in 1683 and began using it as a cemetery.  It was actually their second burial ground in Manhattan, with an earlier one dating to 1656, though the location of that first one is today unknown.  As such the one on St. James Place is called the First Cemetery of Shearith Israel.  Burials continued there all the way up until 1833.  By that time development had caught up with the area and the city was beginning to nibble at the property; the cemetery shrank in acreage throughout the years, until only the small section we see today remained.

Well before the First Cemetery closed Shearith Israel opened a second one, on 11th Street just east of 6th Avenue.  When burials first began there, in 1805, 11th Street didn’t exist yet.  Six years later the Commissioner’s Plan was adopted, laying out the city’s grid plan for all future development, and the Second Cemetery lay right in the middle of what would become 11th Street.  Burials continued taking place however, as it wasn’t until 1830 that the street was actually cut through.  At that point the majority of bodies were dug up and moved to the congregation’s Third Cemetery, on 21st Street just west of 6th Avenue.  Only a tiny triangle remains of the original Second Cemetery, on the south side of 11th Street.

The Third Cemetery is by far the largest, taking up a whole lot on 21st Street.  It operated until 1851, the year that a law was passed by the City Council banning all burials in Manhattan south of 86th Street and prohibiting the creation of any new cemeteries anywhere on the island.  That law came just a few years after the Rural Cemetery Act of the New York State Legislature, allowing for the construction of large commercial cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens.  A lot of graveyards in Manhattan were dug up at that time and the bodies moved to the outer boroughs.  This was partially in response to the cholera epidemics that would sweep through the city and partially an attempt to clear the land for more profitable development.  As such it’s a rare thing to find a cemetery in Manhattan now a days, and the fact that all three of these still stand (at least in some fashion) is pretty amazing.  And they aren’t the only three graveyards on the island, which is also kind of exciting to think about.  Do I sense the beginning of a new list?

(Originally posted Mar. 12th, 2010 on

Eleventh Avenue & 21st Street

17 Jul

It’s still winter, and for the first time this year it’s starting to drag a bit. Sure I’m still looking for the season-specific beautiful moments, the things you aren’t going to find any other time of year, but I’m also starting to really look forward to all those other times of year as well. But oh no, just yesterday I was thinking of how it would be October again before you know it, and I was thinking: how can anybody really enjoy October knowing that November comes after it and then months and months of winter after that; and it made me feel like: what’s the point of looking forward at all? What?! Did I just ask that? That’s when I know winter’s starting to get to me. Maybe I can flip the approach and say that feeling this way is the whole point of February – so let’s really get down into it. Let’s embrace the moment disliking the moment, and still giving it up begrudgingly. I think that’s the best way to pass the time till spring.

I went ice skating at Chelsea Piers the other day (which is kind of the approach I’m talking about) and it did afford me some great wintertime views: the Hudson with light snow falling. It also made me appreciate anew the ongoing construction of Hudson River Park. From the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers I could look down onto the park at Pier 62, scheduled to be opened later this year alongside Pier 63. Pier 64, the third pier of the Chelsea section of the project, opened last spring and like the rest of Hudson River Park, I think it’s awesome. It feels really of the moment – beautiful open public spaces where people can be outdoors and remind themselves they live on an island.

Hudson River Park is pretty new, (especially as my tastes go) having been created by an act of the New York State Legislature in 1998. It stretches along the Hudson from Battery Park north to 59th Street, and at 550 acres it’s the second largest park in Manhattan after good ole’ Central (although 400 acres of that is tidal estuary – aka, underwater, so kind of a pointless stat). As I said, it’s not fully finished yet, but plenty of it exists to enjoy, including five miles of the Hudson River Greenway, a bike path that runs through the park and makes up a section of the much larger Manhattan Waterfront Greenway – 32 miles of (not quite connected) bike paths that circumnavigate the island. The Hudson River Greenway, which runs in its entirety from Battery Park all the way to Dyckman Street in Inwood, is the most heavily used bikeway in the United States.

The whole idea of the park of course is that it reclaims the waterfront, and its surviving piers, after decades of stagnation and disuse. For most of New York’s history, and especially the latter part of its history, the West Side had been teeming with shipping and industry, all the way up to about 72nd Street. No one of means desired to live around here, and unless you worked the docks or the various plants, factories, warehouses, and railyards that sat along them, it wasn’t a place you wanted to visit. With the coming of supertankers and containerization all of that shipping eventually moved away, but until recently nothing had come to replace it and the piers were simply left to rot in the water.

It was changing technology that had brought shipping to the Hudson to begin with. Prior to about 1880 New York shipping was still centered on the East River, around South Street Seaport, which was better protected than the Hudson from ice, flooding, and the prevailing westerly winds. The arrival of steam ships brought about the need for a deeper anchorage for these much larger boats, something that the West Side shoreline could provide. The Chelsea Piers, opened in 1910, were built specifically to accommodate these giant steam ships, in particular the new luxury liners that were coming to define trans-Atlantic travel. Designed by the firm of Warren and Wetmore (who also designed Grand Central Terminal) the piers originally ran from around 12th Street up to 23rd Street and served as the docking point for both the Cunard and the White Star Line. The Titantic was due to land here on its maiden voyage in 1912 and the Lusitania embarked from here on its equally fatal voyage in 1915.

The construction of Chelsea Piers marked one of the few times in New York’s history that developed land was actually removed to make way for shipping. In 1837 the New York State Legislature had allowed for landfill to extend Manhattan out to a 13th Avenue. The city began to sell underwater, shoreline lots with the stipulation that the owners would fill them in and develop them. The Avenue began at 11th Street in the West Village (where it was east of 12th Avenue) and followed the shoreline north to meet 12th Avenue around 23rd Street; from there it would have continued on to the west, eventually running parallel to 12th Avenue like the city’s other north-south blocks. By the time development had reached that point however the Legislature had changed its mind about expanding Manhattan any further westward, afraid of encroaching on the shipping lanes of the Hudson. As it was the existing 13th Avenue already limited the space that piers had to work with, effectively making them too short to house the new luxury liners. To fix the problem the city had 13th Avenue removed, giving itself the extra space to construct Chelsea Piers. The only segment of 13th Avenue that survives today is the unmarked parking lot of the Bloomfield Street Sanitation Depot, across the West Side Highway from Gansevoort Street.

It seems fitting that a 13th Avenue would have such an unlucky history. And on a slightly tangential note, thinking about 13th Avenue has made me forget all about the fact that it’s winter still – which is one nice thing about knowledge, or else I mean to say, the time you spend in books.

(Originally posted Feb. 19th, 2010 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

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