Tag Archives: West Village

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 Takethehandle.com)

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Charlton Street & Varick Street

23 Jul

I was up in the country last weekend and as often happens when driving back into the city, I found myself imagining the process by which that became this.  I’ll pass by a marshy field someplace with a stand of bare-limbed trees in the background and I’ll think: Manhattan had that too once.  It’s a long time gone, though not that long really, in the scheme of things.  I’m reading a book about Ancient Egypt right now and it will say things like, “Then for 400 years it was the Dark Ages, and shit was crazy.”  That’s 400 years.  That’s 400 years that passed over 4,000 years ago.  People were alive back then!  Probably some days they woke up and said, “Man, what a beautiful morning,” even if it was the Dark Ages.

Pretty beautiful morning around these parts too lately.  It puts me in mind of a walk in the country, with not too much to do.  It must have been nice when the country was a lot closer to the city, when Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side were sufficiently far enough out to build a country home.  By the 1760s such estates lined both sides of Manhattan, heading north.  One of the southern-most was called Richmond Hill, created in 1760 by Abraham Mortier, commissary of the British army in America.  He leased the land from Trinity Church (themselves the holders of most of the West Side from Fulton Street to Christopher) and laid out a 26 acre property on a hill over-looking the Hudson, bounded by present day King, Varick, Charlton and MacDougal Street.  Mortier was driven out of the estate with the coming of the Revolution, at which time it briefly served as Washington’s headquarters for the Continental Army – until they too were driven off the island.  After the war it served for a year as the Vice-Presidential home of John Adams.  His wife Abigail wrote, “In natural beauty it might vie with the most delicious spot I ever saw.”

In 1794 Richmond Hill was purchased by Aaron Burr, to serve as his country home.  Once he acquired the lease Burr began borrowing large sums of money, from whoever he could, to refurbish the estate in the elegant fashion he preferred.  That included damming Minetta Creek, which ran near the property, to create an ornamental pool by the entry gates.  Maybe that helped give him the water-experience he needed to co-found the Manhattan Water Company in 1799.  The ostensible purpose of the company was to provide the city with a safe and adequate public water supply, something NYC was severely lacking.  In reality the project was a front – a clause included in the contract allowed the investors the right to form a bank, something Burr had been interested in for awhile but feared would be legislatively difficult to bring about.  With the Manhattan Water Company he found a short-cut, and within the year the bank was up and running.  The water project on the other hand quickly stagnated, with just 6 miles of pipe laid serving only about 400 houses.  New York would go another 40 years without a decent water supply.  The bank would go on to become the Chase Manhattan Bank, now J.P. Morgan Chase.

But even the banks profits couldn’t help Burr from falling deeper into debt.  In 1803 he sold the majority of Richmond Hill’s land lots to John Jacob Astor.  A year later Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, across the Hudson river in Weehawken.  He quickly sold more of his land to Astor before leaving the city in disgrace, wanted for murder in both New York and New Jersey.  Astor went on to develop the property into a residential district.  In 1820 he moved Burr’s mansion downhill and opened it as a genteel roadhouse for travelers.  He leveled the hill itself, laid out streets, and then sold individual lots to speculative builders.  Many of the original row-houses that went up at the time are still standing.  Burr’s mansion, which had become a saloon towards the end of its lifetime, was destroyed in 1849.

Aaron Burr was vice-president of the United States when he shot and killed Hamilton, although his political career was already in shambles by that time.  He had been dropped by Jefferson for his presidential re-election bid in 1804, and he had just lost handily in his run for governor of New York state, in part because of the opposition of Hamilton.  Still, killing one of the Founding Fathers didn’t help his case any.  Burr fled west, hoping to find a new start, and would be tried for treason against the United States in 1807, accused of trying to carve out an independent nation on land that included the Louisiana Purchase.  He was found not guilty and eventually, years later, settled back in New York to practice law and live out the rest of his life.  He would remain the only Vice President to have shot a man while in office, until Dick Cheney nailed his friend in the face with a round of bird-shot.

(Originally posted Mar. 19th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)

Hudson Street & Grove Street

31 Mar

I’m a big sucker for lists. There’s something very satisfying about seeing a quantity of information stacked up so neatly together. It’s pretty simple for me to understand the appeal. I like to learn things. Everything we take in broadens our appreciation of everything else — each good work points towards its antecedents and its followers. It gets me excited to imagine, trying to run down every tangent of that twisted, often intersecting web. I’m in the habit of planning out the next five books I’ll read, before I’m close to finished with the ones that I’m already on. And just that planning starts me daydreaming, and daydreaming puts me in a great mood. I think that’s where I live a large part of reality.

So obviously, this city makes a lot of sense for me to live in. I can approach it all as one big list – first 15th Street, then 16th Street, etc… I can choose whatever self imposed parameters I like, different ways in which to engage. That’s one of the positives with lists: they’re arbitrary, they’re subjective, they’re just suggestions. You can pick them up and drop them as you like. A list taken too seriously becomes a mantra, and a mantra taken too seriously will often make a scary person. I don’t want to be a member of a church, but I’m glad that churches have been built, because I like to go and look at them. Hmmm. I’m not sure what that means exactly. Am I just cruising on a free ride here, finding all of my enjoyment from things that came before me?

Ah well, it keeps me busy at least. And I would say that finding a new garden to sit in qualifies as keeping busy. Of course it does! The church of Saint Luke in the Fields maintains a lovely one, right next to its chapel on Hudson Street by Grove. Walking around in there gives you some nice views of the back of the church and the surrounding row houses. If you get your line of vision just right you can imagine that you’re standing in the plot of some small country parish. And that’s basically what this church first was, when it was founded in 1821 to serve the village of Greenwich. Named for the patron saint of physicians, it was built on land donated by Trinity Church; before landfill extended out the shoreline of Manhattan this spot stood right on the river’s edge. It’s simple design points towards it origin as a country church, and summer chapel for New Yorkers escaping the frequent diseases the warmer months brought upon the city.

Trinity Church built the brick row houses that surround Saint Luke in 1825, reflecting what was already a growing and changing neighborhood. By the end of the 19th century, with Greenwich Village the home of large groups of immigrants and the working class, the congregation decided to move their location uptown, and in 1891 Saint Luke was taken over by Trinity Church, becoming one of its chapels. In 1956 a large number of houses around it were torn down and a school building, playground, and the current garden were erected. By 1976 Trinty Church had decided to divest itself of all but one of its chapels, and Saint Luke was once again an independent parish, as it remains today. It suffered a huge fire five years later, but enough of the original survived for the church to still be considered the third oldest in NYC. It’s an unassuming distinction that seems to fit its style. I’ve written about the second oldest church in these pages already. Do I detect some type of list developing here? How about the oldest church in NYC? How about the eighteenth oldest? Or should we approach it maybe by denomination — how many Catholic churches, how many Episcopalian? (Saint Luke is the latter, by the way). Do we wanna toss some Jewish synagogues into the mix? It’s not a question of hierarchy; it doesn’t matter what falls first and what falls second. It’s all just a refrain, each entry on the list is saying, “Here’s our world, here’s our world.” They’re all in conversation with each other. We’re in that conversation too — our numbers listed.

(Originally posted April 10th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Greenwich Street & Charles Street

14 Feb

Due to the existence of high pressure systems, low pressure systems, wind, and probably Canada, it’s really fucking cold outside. Oh yeah, and the whole Northern hemisphere tilting away from the sun thing. I guess that plays its part as well. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up hope. Call me an optimist, but I think we’re already at the time of year when we can start looking forward. Each step taken is that much closer to warm weather. Let’s call it warm-er weather at least. So I say bring it on! If I can have fun when it’s fifteen degrees out just imagine what I’ll be doing when it’s ninety. I don’t know. Probably pretty much the same thing — except in a t-shirt. A t-shirt people!

I imagine there are those who’d say the city is a particularly pointless place to be in the winter time. Something to the effect of getting all of the negatives with none of the positives — barring those who go ice-skating at Wollman Rink or Rockefeller Center. It might be better to spend winter at some farmhouse, cross country skiing every day. I would want mine to have huge windows facing the sunshine. My grandma could live there. She’d make me hot chocolate. Not real hot chocolate mind you – this isn’t the old country I’m talking about. Just that shit out of the bag. It doesn’t matter; it’s still delicious. But what about a farmhouse in the city? Can we agree that might be some kind of perfect compromise? Some insane fantasy?

Guess what? It’s real. There is a free standing farmhouse in the city, in the West Village nonetheless, at 121 Charles, by Greenwich Street. It’s surrounded by a high brick wall, with a driveway and a front lawn. The house is about 200 years old and actually originally stood in the rear lot at 71st St. and York Ave. It was moved here in its entirety in 1967. I guess its biggest claim to fame is that Margaret Wyse Brown lived in it in the 1940s. She’s the woman who wrote Goodnight Moon, and you know, thinking back to that book, the aesthetic of a farmhouse in Manhattan seems to fit just right. It supposedly even has its own name: Cobble Court. How many people these days live in a house that has a name? Especially in this city?

Although you know what, nix that. A lot of apartment buildings in New York have names. Just across Greenwich Street from Cobble Court in fact, at 135 Charles, is Le Gendarme apartments. Those are housed in what used to be this precinct’s police station, erected in 1897. You can still see signs of it all over the facade. It might just be the name, but Le Gendarme puts me in a European mood. Forget the farmhouse; maybe I’d rather spend my winters over there. I’m picturing a window that opens up onto a courtyard. I don’t care if it’s gray and rainy. In fact I think that’s perfect. I could live in a garret — like all the poor young writers used to. Are you kidding, a guy like me? I’d love a garret! My grandma could live downstairs and rent out some of the other rooms. She’d make me hot chocolate. What kind do I mean? I don’t know, whatever kind she wants — she’s an old lady. She’s my grandma. But wait a minute, grandma, hey grandma, can you at least just throw some marshmallows in there?

(Originally posted Jan. 16th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

17 Grove Street

7 Feb

If I’d fought in the Revolutionary War I reckon that I would have been a drummer boy. Or maybe one of those fife players; I don’t know, even the kid who carried the flag around. Of course if they’d had war-time newsies back then I would have preferred to be one of those. I have a feeling that they didn’t. But I mean, someone must have sold Tom Paine’s Common Sense. That was a pamphlet, not a newspaper. So maybe they had pamphlet-sies back then instead. Something like that. You get the general idea here — I have trouble seeing myself exactly as a fully grown adult.

Except I am one! Honest. I can do pretty much whatever I want, the same as you. I can pretend anything, and I’m only getting better at it. Though come to think of it, if I was gonna be a drummer boy I’d have preferred to be one in the War of 1812. That would have put me around the right age to buy the lot at 17 Grove Street in 1820 and build a wood frame, two story house there in 1822. I would have called myself William Hyde, and by trade I’d be a window-sash maker. Now I know what you’re thinking: a War of 1812 drummer boy veteran seems a bit young to become a successful window-sash maker by 1822. But trust me — those were heady times back then, and anything seemed possible. A drummer boy cum window-sash maker could go and build a house.

Alright I’ve done that, and let me tell you something: this is a hell of an establishment. It was built the same year as the last major yellow fever epidemic in New York and many city residents came up to what was then the rural village of Greenwich in order to get away from it. And a lot of them ended up staying. So what an investment! Buying just ahead of the curve. The lot was bought for $100 in 1820. Just thirteen years later it was already valued at $700. William Hyde added a small workshop out back in 1833 that’s still standing. A third floor was added to the main building in 1870. By that time a law had been passed banning the construction of wooden frame buildings in Manhattan. In the ensuing century and a half since then most of them have been torn down. But man, this one’s still standing. And it’s a house! A god damn wooden house. In Manhattan people!

Apparently James Baldwin had a good friend who lived here in the 1960s and so he stayed at the place quite often. This was after Baldwin had returned to the States following ten years abroad, primarily in Paris and Istanbul. It was while abroad that he wrote his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, recovering from a nervous breakdown with his lover in a Swiss chateau. Baldwin says that all he brought with him to Switzerland was his typewriter and a stack of Bessie Smith records. Three months later he finished his book. The Modern Library ranks it as number 39 on their list of 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. Can you guess whether I intend to read all the titles that they have on there?

If I lived at 17 Grove Street today I’ll tell you what I’d do: I’d make that small house in back — William Hyde’s old workshop — I’d make that place my office and I’d fill it with all the books I could. And then I’d make lists of everything I wanted to read and see and think about. And trying to fulfill those lists would constitute my life. Actually I wouldn’t even need to live at 17 Grove Street. I could start that right now. I could start that right where I live. I could be in the middle of it as we speak. We could all be in the middle of it. In fact we are in the middle of it. We’re doing it right now. Don’t even blink. Are you ready? Are you ready? Here we go.

(Originally posted Dec. 5th, 2008 on Takethehandle.com)

Saint Luke’s Place

30 Jan

I came to a realization the other day: I have no money; I have no prospects; and I am incredibly excited. It’s a funny moment when you realize the romantic, slightly comic notion you carry around of yourself is maybe not so far off from reality. I’ll often think, with a laugh, that I am a bum. It’s kind of a joke. But wait a minute, let’s look at the facts here. I possess negative money at the moment – I owe more than I have. I am on absolutely no type of career track. I have no assets. I never buy anything. I have holes in most of my clothes. Holy shit, I am a bum!

But what a place to be one in. I try to live a life of constant engagement with the city of New York. Now do I count drinking on random street corners as constant engagement? You bet I do! The same goes for spending hours in various public libraries, pecking and skimming from a plethora of books. My favorite one of late has been the Hudson Park branch, not so much for its decor as for the fact that it’s on Saint Luke’s Place.

Saint Luke’s Place is what Leroy Street changes its name to, only between 7th Ave. and Hudson St. It’s a street I wouldn’t have known existed if I hadn’t stumbled upon it. In fact when I watched the Audrey Hepburn movie Wait Until Dark, set on that block, I thought it was fictional. But it isn’t and that one block alone has housed some serious writers – Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser to name a few. Sherwood Anderson’s best known work is Winesburg, Ohio, a short story cycle that comes together like a novel. Dreiser’s is probably An American Tragedy, I don’t know, I haven’t read that one yet, but it’s on my list. (Can you see how that excites the hell out of me: the notion of even having a list?) Oh, Saint Luke’s Place also served as the exterior shot for the Huxtable’s house on The Cosby Show.

Who cares? I don’t know. I do. I like to think that every little bit of knowledge ties me that much closer to the full subtleties of enjoyment.  It’s what I’m after mostly.  Just pour them on me – name me every name of everyone and every work they’ve ever made. These people really existed, and they’re all saying the same thing: this is the world. And I like this world. It’s also mine.

One time recently I was in a cheese shop looking at all the wonderful cheeses. And I started thinking, this is one reason I’d like to be rich – so that I could buy any of the different cheeses I wanted. And then I thought, wait a minute, I don’t even have to be rich – I mean we’re talking about cheese here. My personal favorite is Parmesan, which some might call “The King of Cheeses.” Which one’s yours?

(originally posted Nov. 14th, 2008 on Takethehandle.com)