Monday, November 26, 2007

Weehawken St.

A Hidden Place:
By David Crohn

(Originally appeared in Our Town Downtown in October 2006)

The Creator may have a master plan, but He hasn’t been anywhere near Weehawken St. Weehawken, the smallest street in Manhattan, is a hodge podge, proof positive that downtown evolved willy nilly—in defiant contrast to Midtown’s even grids and Squares.
At least one quarter of this block—which, by the way, makes up the entire street, between Christopher to the south, West 10th to the north, and one block over from the West Side Highway, euphemized West Street—is a handsome five-story building in white and green that wouldn’t look out of place near Fifth Ave. below 14th St. It’s probably the only piece of residential real estate on the block that can yield a healthy market rate (see below).
Then there’s the rest of the block. Two doors south of the 3-5 Weehawken St. Condominiums, as they’re known, is the slimy back end of a bar around the corner. One door south is the mysterious 7 Weehawken St., whose ghosts couldn’t be reached for this story.
Across from the Condos is a historic cottage that was just purchased for $2.2 million by the son of sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Jean-Louis Bourgeois, who also owns real estate in Africa and New Mexico, plans to fill the front, commercial end of the building facing West St. with a museum dedicated to water and the waterfront. Once a pickup dive for late-night cruisers fresh off the PATH train, then a porn shop, 392 West Street will, if Bourgeois has his soggy druthers, house a fully functioning waterfall, reaching partially underground.
Like we said, a hodge podge.
A warning to amateur surveyors and TV tour guide planners: The residents of this block frown on visitors. On a recent trip there, your inquisitive correspondent failed to draw little besides a dirty look and a grunt from a super taking out the garbage and a young woman applying a fresh coat of paint to 3 Weehawken’s façade.
Other than snoopers, Weehawken St. residents have a complaint that can be universally justified. Residents, and especially their forefathers, really hate when truckers, cabs, pedestrians or anyone else stop to pee there. So much so that along the west end of the street there are five signs asking people not to urinate, with four different ways of saying it. Our favorite, writ large in ye olde typeface: “Please respect our neighbors and our NEIGHBORHOOD. Do not urinate on this Block.”

Buying
Unless you can make do with a refrigerator box and SOMEWHERE ELSE TO URINATE, the only viable place to live on the block is at the 3-5 Weehawken St. Condominiums. But it’s a nice place. After the apartments were converted in April, most of the renters bought in quickly at a reduced rate, said Carolyn Palmieri, a broker who works for the management company. The two units left—one at number 3, one at 5, both one-bedrooms—are selling for $1,000 per square foot. That’s relatively inexpensive for the Far West Village. But what makes that price a steal, at least for one of those units, is that it provides river views, and as anyone familiar with Manhattan real estate can tell you, river views are precious. And because the city designated the area a Historic District in May, that view is here to stay.

Renting
None available since April.

Residents and Regulars
Handbag designer and former White House page Monica Lewinsky lives and shops for groceries at the Archives, nearby at 666 Greenwich St.

What Happened Here
Perhaps ghosts really do haunt the block. The boundaries of the new Weehawken Street Historic District are partially concurrent with the walls of the Newgate State Prison, which closed in 1797. In 1834 the city gave the area another shot, building a market along the newly cut alley consisting of “a wooden open-shed structure with wide overhanging eaves, a building type that was the most common for markets in the United States in the 19th century,” according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. But nobody shopped there, and the market closed. Shipbuilder George M. Munson built a saloon out of remnants of the market in 1867, one of the first documented liquor businesses in the area. The address—392 West Street.

Amenities
Let’s see, besides the big D’Agostino a short walk over to Greenwich St., there’s the Badlands porn emporium on West St. and the Dugout gay sports bar a few steps away on Christopher. Which is to say, you got it all.

Perfect for
Manhattanites who drive. The history buff. Those who long to see Jersey. Gustave von Aschenbach.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Another great club, gone

Intercessors, Be Damned!
With Tonic’s closure, the museumization of experimental music continues
By David Crohn

from the April 9, 2007 edition of Our Town Downtown, which is now the New York Press.


My first concert was Bon Jovi. I was about 10, and it was at a sports arena in Ft. Myers, Fla. My parents took me; back then they took me everywhere.
It seems funny now, or cute (more on that later), but that concert was the most exciting moment of my short life. I had never seen anything like it. My parents went outside because it was too loud, and a very skinny girl with terrible roots offered me pot. (I declined.) It was the loudest thing I had ever heard, for sure, but above all it was marvelous to see these guys—who I had only heard on tapes purchased by my mom at the mall—as five living, breathing individuals who actually played their instruments. And not only that but the lead singer rode around on a trapeze high above the audience because that’s what he did on the “Slippery When Wet” tour. Just like in the video!
This was my introduction to live music. The fact that there were miles of people between the players and me didn’t matter. Nor did the expense (my parents sponsored the trip, after all) or the days of deafness that followed. Rock, like religion, provided meaning, elevation, and best of all, answers.
More concerts followed: Motley Crüe on the “Girls, Girls, Girls” tour (that one had plump skanks dressed up like nurses, and Tommy Lee soloing in that spinning contraption. Just like in the video!) As I got older, my tastes diverged into what is today affectionately termed Alternative: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction.
But although the lyrics got darker and the hooks were drained of groove, the venues stayed the same. Me and my friend Tim and whichever girlfriend he had at the time trekked to Miami Arena in his Celica again and again. Miami Arena for Lollapalooza (1991). Miami Arena for the Breeders (ca. 1993). I never suspected live music could be experienced any other way—and it was fine, being pureed with lots of other kids, because my parents weren’t around. I moshed. I wore flannel, closer to Havana than Seattle.
In 1994 I started college, and as so often happens when you do that, everything changed. A few weeks into the first semester, I went to the campus “auditorium” to see a band about whom I knew nothing; I went because it was free and it was something to do. There wasn’t a stage per se, just a platform maybe a foot off the ground. The sounds came directly out of the performers’ amplifiers; the drummer, unmic’ed, had to pound like hell to be perceived above the din.
This what-the-fuck!?!? moment swiftly un- and then remade everything. Not only did we stand inches away from the performers, but we could interact with them after the show. In my sophomore year, I bought a seven-inch record by the band Shellac directly from its frontman. When Tortoise came to town, I hooked them up with the campus pot dealer.
I had become a Protestant mystic reared in a land of Catholics. The whole concept of intercession between me and my object of reverence became outdated. A concert, like a Protestant service, could happen anywhere, and anyone would run the show: all you needed was a group of willing participants and a venue. the idea that there needed to be layers of money, crowds, noise—all these Byzantine procedurals—vanished. At best, it was a quaint notion to put one’s rock experience in the hands of a distant central office. At worst, it seemed criminal. That’s one reason why, when we tell people that our first concert was Bon Jovi, or Poison, or whoever, we say it with a touch of that peculiar type of nostalgia that brings with it no need to revisit the old days.
A year after graduation I moved back to New York, my birthplace, where I was pleased to find much of the same direct access to my heroes and heroines. At small venues like the Mercury Lounge, the Cooler (RIP), Brownies (now called Hi-Fi, with red pleather and MP3s instead of live music), and Tonic, the stages were low, the admission cheap, the crowds small but enthusiastic.

That last club, you may have heard, will have its last show this Friday the Thirteenth, after nine years of operation out of a former kosher winery on Norfolk Street. The location was never a great one, even with Katz’s Delicatessen nearby and the rest of the Lower East Side in full bloom with trendy nightspots and luxury condos. Tonic’s little patch was always a bit of a blight; it was never the type of place you would just stumble into or trekked down to at 5:30 on a Thursday. For many years there was an empty lot next door; you had to know that your favorite Japanese noisician was playing there, although buying tickets in advance was rarely a necessity.
Bars and clubs, diners and restaurants close all the time in the City, and it can be a sad thing when it happens to your favorite spot. The city’s nightlife replenishes itself like a hydra, however, so that when one head dies there are two to spring up and take its place. But Tonic’s closure is a bad thing in a different way. And not just because Tonic holds an especially revered spot in my heart because it’s where I discovered other types of music besides rock and roll, music in which the performers, unmediated by song structure itself, expressed themselves purely (if not always coherently). It’s a Romantic notion with a capital R, I know.
Tonic’s owners, Melissa Caruso-Scott and her husband John Scott, have said it was always a struggle breaking even, much less turning a profit, when the rent is $10,000 a month and most of your performers play “difficult” music—even in the City, where almost everything has a market.
Two thousand and five marked the beginning of the end: the club was robbed and had a few budget-draining plumbing emergencies, both of which forced them to pass around the collections cup. A series of fundraisers and small donations raised $100,000 to keep the place alive—but not for long.
But in January, when the city forced the closure of the ))sub((tonic lounge downstairs, a vital revenue stream—liquor—was cut off. According to New York Times reporter Ben Sisario, who I heard talking about the club on NPR the other day, the Scotts were simply “fatigued.” They “didn’t want to hit their fans up for anymore money.” Or, as they put it on their Web site: “We simply can no longer afford the rent and all of the other costs associated with doing business on the Lower East Side.” Quite correctly, I think, they also put their situation in the context of the rest of the Lower East Side’s gentrification: “The neighborhood around us has been increasingly consumed by ‘luxury condominiums,’ boutique hotels and glass towers, all making the value of our salvaged space worth more then our business could ever realistically support.”
If it were any other Lower East Side Club shutting its doors, it wouldn’t much matter. If it were almost any other club, you wouldn’t hear me complain about the inexorable march of luxury condos squeezing out everything that makes downtown Downtown.
The shows will go on—the Tonic folks will continue to host events at the nearby Abron Arts Center, and Tonic guru-in-residence John Zorn recently opened the Stone, in the East Village. But Abron is a community center, and the Stone’s Puritanical take on presenting new music means no booze and so-called third-stream music only.
Tonic was unique because in addition to avant-garde, they had singer-songwriters, punk bands, Berlin techno downstairs. Tonic was the only place that openly acknowledged the blurring of the genres that makes Right Now in Music so special, so different, and, I would say, superior.
I saw a remarkable panoply of bands at Tonic over the years. Khanate, gruelingly slow, like Slayer dipped in cough syrup; Animal Collective, merry pranksters with a sound entirely their own that was entirely lovely; Han Bennink, a Dutch percussionist, clarinetist and free improviser who may the world’s loudest purely acoustic musician; and Zorn, best known now for his radical take on traditional Jewish music, recorded here live and premiered many of the pieces that made him famous (in certain circles).
I could go on and on: At Tonic you knew you were in for something outlandish, but it was almost always sexy, like watching aliens tongue-kiss. There was booze, which gave the place a casual, night-out-on-the-town feeling—the music may have been from outer space, but you were still on earth, blowing off steam with friends or hoping to take home the NYU girl with the severe haircut. And who said it couldn’t be fun and romantic to watch someone, who may or may not be tripping on six hits of acid, stomp on an electric guitar?
The terrible implication of Tonic’s closure—for which, in the end, we have no one but the free market to blame—is that boundary-free live music from independent artists, which comes in an infinite number of species and permutations, is going the way of everything else: joyless specialization and homogenization.
This is what happened to jazz, let’s not forget: it started out as dance music, enjoyed at raucous parties and theatrical events. Now it’s a subject worthy of Ken Burns, apparently, and you can see it played at Lincoln Center instead of opera (that’s stuffy European music, as we all know), and $20-a-head clubs where you usher in, take your seat, and sip wine. The fact that people do this is as ludicrous to me as talking during a screening of “The Seventh Seal.”
Many critics upbraided Burns for contributing to the museumization of what was once our most unfettered, loosest art form, and essentially a social activity. Places like the Stone and Abron sound like museums: no fun allowed, only quiet contemplation of the navel. This stuff is Serious. And different. First and foremost, its difference from everything else is emphasized according to this way of presenting live music. You could get hammered and dance until late in the morning at Tonic. When was the last time anyone did that at a jazz club?

My musical education mirrors that of at least a thousand other kids who spent formative years in suburbia (or anywhere else everyone drives) and then came to the City after college: first the discovery of live music somewhere big, then the realization that the experience can be intimate and direct—and that there is a whole world beyond power chords and preening lead singers. Tonic’s departure is but a small ripple in the world, but it could mean a return to the institutionalization of something that is for many not just a pastime but the fabric of social experience.
When the landscape is compartmentalized, certain codes of behavior (for fans) and performance (for musicians) have to be applied to something that was famously code free, and the logical—but not inevitable—end of a progression that began when I saw my first band a decade and a half ago.
To me it stinks, and, I suspect, for lots of others. Moshing at the Miami Arena is starting to sound pretty good.

dcrohn@gmail.com

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Irving Place between 17th and 18th Streets

The Snail and the Hummingbird
O. Henry slept here. Washington Irving didn’t.
By David Crohn

Time is the most relative of all things.

There’s infinite time, which is less a neverending story than it is a concept separate from time itself.

When we jump from the abstract to the real, we encounter what the puny human brain perceives as the pokiest: cosmic time, in which stars many millions of years old are considered newborns, and anything deemed venerable can recall the dawn of existence itself.

Back on the earth-rock, our slowest mode is geologic time, the speed at which glaciers commute and mountains dissolve.

When living things are considered, we often look to the hummingbird and the snail as the two extremes of moving and not moving—the one that can’t get anywhere fast enough and the other just splendid exactly….where…it…is.

Where the hummingbird lies down with the snail is in the always strange, always mercurial world of Manhattan real estate.

Things here can mutate blindingly fast, sometimes dishearteningly so. Like when you step out of a cab returning home from a three-day weekend jaunt to find your favorite Chinese joint shuttered, the boards over the windows already collecting dust.

Thus, the architectural and visual patchwork of then and now that is downtown Manhattan.

In low-density, mixed-use neighborhoods like Gramercy, if you trust your eyes and your memory, it’s easy to distinguish the old from the new, the handiwork of the hummingbird and the slog of the snail.

Newer buildings are big and boxy; they wear muted colors like white, off-white, light gray. Older structures, built when the City didn’t have to accommodate as many residents, are small and rectangular; they often have rich, earthy hues like reds and browns.

It’s a simple formula, really. Or at least it is on Irving Place, between 17th and 18th Streets, where old and new cohabitate and the seams of the patchwork are conspicuous.

Gramercy Plaza, pallid, imposing, 16 stories high, inhabits a quarter of this block, and looms over its ruddy little neighbor, the townhouse at 56 Irving Place. The former was built in 1963; the latter dates back to the 1840s. That’s a fleck in Geologic Time, and a trifling fleck in Cosmic Time. But for Manhattan real estate, an epoch of formidable proportions.

What Happened Here
One of the great, yet-to-be-written graduate theses is the story of how so many private clubs and intellectual societies ended up on Irving Place and in Gramercy Park overall. The National Arts Club, “The Dial,” a onetime Transcendentalist literary magazine edited by Margaret Fuller and then Emerson, the New York branch of the Rosicrucian Order, Helena Blavsky’s Theosophical Society—all were headquartered, at one time or another, within blocks of each other in this neighborhood.

This block had the Ingersoll Club, at number 54. Dedicated to the life and work of Robert G. Ingersoll, a famous 19th century orator and agnostic, the club met here “for some years,” according to historian Andrew Dolkart. The building was converted into the Cooperative Cafeteria in 1921, “one of several cooperative organizations founded shortly after World War I that sought to provide working people with quality services,” Dolkart wrote in a report published by Gramercy Neighborhood Associates.

In 1904, O. Henry returned home from Pete’s Tavern (at 18th and Irving) to 55 Irving Place. He sat down and, in three hours, wrote his most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi.”

Buying
Gramercy Plaza is just the kind of place—and I don’t mean this pejoratively—where you might want to set up your grandma in her later years. It’s centrally located, there’s an elevator and full-time doorman, and a built-in garage. And chances are Bubbe won’t mind the no-frills, decidedly unhip exterior (just as the co-op board won’t frown on your Bubbe’s). One-bedrooms start at $895,000, and are offered by CityRealty.com.

Renting
Renting on Irving Place isn’t cheap, but it’s not way above what you’d pay anywhere Downtown. Adina Azarian, CEO of Adina Equities, told me her company lists a $2,000, 400-square-foot studio at 53 Irving Place. The entrance is right around the corner, behind an iron gate that is characteristic of Gramercy Park. “People come here because it’s charming,” Azarian said.

Amenities
Few, but all are top notch. In the street-level storefront of the former Ingersoll Clubhouse sits Pure Food and Wine, a critically acclaimed organic-food eatery without a stove. That’s right—everything is raw. And it’s not just sushi and veggies, but lasagna and chocolate cake, which TimeOut New York describes as “confoundingly fudgy.” At the corner of 17th and Irving, Casa Mono (“Monkey House”), Spanish food from the corpulent-but-telegenic restaurateur Mario Batali.

dcrohn@gmail.com

Friday, July 6, 2007

St. Luke’s Place and Leroy Street between Hudson and Seventh Avenue South




Splendid Encampment

By David Crohn

Faced with interrogating the inanimate, teasing the hidden life from buildings and streets—at least half of which happens behind closed doors—is daunting. It takes time, patience and an open mind.

Seldom, as I’m sure anyone can imagine, does anything notable simply step up and present itself. You have to talk to people who know better, peer through windows and doors. Sometimes you have to squint to make the pieces fit.

All of this is a given, every time. I am reminded whenever I explore a new block. When things go well the pain is less acute; by some imprecise magic, I squeeze the stone, and blood comes out.

But this block—so lush, and largely uniform—seems impenetrable. Rowhouse after rowhouse after rowhouse—each three stories high. Why? And why does the name Leroy Street end right where the street bends, only to pick up again west of Hudson?

Andy Warhol and Steve Reich taught us the hypnotic beauty of repetition, but I doubt that’s what the 19th century builder had in mind for the stretch of 15 rowhouses that, for many, defines St. Luke’s Place and Leroy Street between Seventh Ave. South and Hudson Street.

We know that back then it wasn’t uncommon to rename a portion of a block to boost its putative prestige. Which is what Trinity Church, which owned all the land here, did before selling it all off starting in 1851. (The 15 residences along St. Luke’s Place are numbered sequentially.)

Christopher Gray, writing in the New York Times in 1996, calls the swath of homogeny “a mystery of 19th-century real-estate development in New York: who or what was the common agent that produced such a uniform row?” He didn’t know then, and my research turned up nothing better. But whoever it was, they liked brick and brownstone. They wielded a top-notch cookie cutter, aesthetically speaking, using the Renaissance and Greek Revival styles popular with the upper crust at the time.

At Seventh Avenue South and Leroy Street, things aren’t nearly so pretty, or so clean. The end of St. Luke’s Place is marked by apartment buildings that suddenly tower over their neighbors; go further around the corner, north along Seventh Ave. South, and trash litters the sidewalk. There’s graffiti, and across the street, a vacant storefront.

But for the splendidly encamped residents of St. Luke’s Place, the trees and the turn protect their niche. The Greeks had a special name for the revelatory twist—chiasmus—and it is through that convolution that the blood of this block pumps.

Living Here
The quick and easy way to move to this pricey block would be through 9300 Realty or CitiHabitats. The former has a fifth-floor walk-up studio apartment available at 53 Leroy ($2,395 a month), and the latter handles rentals next door at 51. A quick call to CitiHabitats revealed that nothing was available at press time; but they leave their sign up, a nod to frequent vacancies for the young professionals and students who tend to make up the majority of their clientele.

Amenities
The block is strictly residential, but its neighboring stretch of Hudson Street is home to the Candy Café, a retro-style eatery; Out of the Kitchen, for semi-gourmet takeout; and a mini-grocery store.

What Happened Here
Maybe it’s the location. Maybe it’s the regality of those rowhouses. Either way, St. Luke’s Place has a history replete with prominent former residents: former Mayor James J. Walker (1926-1932), for whom the park across the street, formerly a cemetery, is named. (Note the so-called “mayoral lampposts” at number 6.) Also, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Timothy Leary. TV’s Cosby family may have lived in Brooklyn, but the exterior to their home was shot at 10 St. Luke’s Place.

My favorite though is the playful poet Marianne Moore, who made Modernism charming while living at “14 St. Luke’s Place when she first moved to New York City.” So says the plaque across the street, next door to the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library where she worked. Moore wore a tricorn hat and black cape to boxing matches, wrote to the Ford Motor Company suggesting the name “Utopian Turtletop” for the car that would become the Edsel, and wrote in her poem “To a Snail,” which could have been called “To St. Luke’s Place”: “It is not the acquisition of any one thing/that is able to adorn/or the incidental quality that occurs/as a concomitant of something well said,/that we value in style,/ but the principle that is hid…”

dcrohn@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Renwick Street between Spring and Canal




An obscure detour of brick and glass
By David Crohn


There are streets we know, and those we don’t. Streets we know we don’t know, and, still farther from the edge of consciousness, those we don’t know that we don’t know.

Ones I know I don’t know include out-of-the-way gems like Weehawken, glorified alleyways like Jersey, murky paths like Mosco and Gouverneur.

Then there are the ones I don’t know I don’t know.

Until recently, one of those streets was Renwick, a single block stretching from Spring to Canal, an obscure detour on your way to the Holland Tunnel. Sandwiched between Hudson and Greenwich Streets, it’s part of Hudson Square, a freshly branded area that’s attracting the first wave of residents since the courageous trailblazers who, 30 years ago, wanted to live downtown but still couldn’t afford SoHo or TriBeCa.

One of those pioneers was David Reck, President of the Friends of Hudson Square. He said the only place he could afford was a tiny building at 512 Greenwich, back when he used to see wrecked cars brought over from SoHo to be stripped and burned, and Renwick Street was a popular trysting place for hookers and their johns.

Although I’m inclined just to call the neighborhood “over there by the Holland Tunnel,” Reck says that when his group got it rezoned for mixed residential and commercial use five years ago, the name Hudson Square caught on.

“People had always lived here, but zoning never really acknowledged that,” Reck said. He said that rezoning “was a reaction to the fact that there was a lot of building anyway. We wanted to control [overdevelopment]. Now we’re the center of the universe.”

The real estate agency Halstead Properties capitalizes on the in-betweenness of a building they are marketing on the block by saying—and skip this if you hate mixed metaphors or poor comma deployment—it’s “A jewel in the heart of Manhattan’s most desirable neighborhoods, TriBeCa, SoHo and the West Village.” Everywhere at once; and so, nowhere. How many blocks can you say that about?

Renwick Street is also a microcosm of the neighborhood. There’s an empty and deserted lot (where construction froze in its earliest stages because, Reck conjectures, the developer ran out of money); the backsides of two icy glass towers on either side; and even a small cluster of brick tenements near the center.

Taken in its entirety, the block is an ideal spot to ponder the wide-ranging impact of glass on streetscapes that have, until recently, been made almost entirely of brick. As Paul Goldberger observed in Business Week in 2006, “It is a paradox: stone, heavy and opaque, pulls you closer; glass, light and transparent, keeps you at a distance.” In this sense, the push and pull of little Renwick Street is undeniable.


Amenities
By floating the name “Anotherplacewithnomiddleclassville” for Hudson Square the wry Web site Curbed highlights one of the neighborhood’s—and especially one of the block’s—definitive bummers: It’s easier to get your hands on a skateboard or some designer furniture around here than it is to refill a prescription or buy a quart of skim milk. The Emerald Pub, at the corner of Spring and Renwick, offers an oasis of hot dogs and boilermakers. But it caters more to journeymen construction workers than local residents.

What Happened Here
This wasn’t always a sparsely populated industrial district.
It took a few hundred years of slow-but-steady northward expansion, but by the late 1700s Hudson Square and environs had a fair share of row houses—luxury housing for the powdered wig set. (Reck told me Aaron Burr was the first to start subdividing the area, then known as Lower Greenwich Village. When he ran out of money the Astors took over.)

Then the economy became increasingly industrialized, the Hudson River Railroad was built, and there went the neighborhood.

As in SoHo proper and TriBeCa next door, printing companies in search of agreeably zoned and reasonably priced areas to set up shop found a home here. The printing trade took a big hit during the Great Depression and then again in the 1980s, and it’s been mostly manufacturing—and yes, residential—ever since.

The name Hudson Square refers back to when there actually was a square, at what is now the exit to the Holland Tunnel.

Living Here
The block’s super-high-end residential possibilities continue to expand. 304 Spring, at the corner of Renwick, is a so-called boutique residence where a three-bedroom apartment, offering unobstructed river views, sold for about $3 million earlier this year, according to the New York Post.

Also, look for a 12-story Phillip Johnson-designed condominium, soon to come across the street. Artist renderings, which were released last month, call for—you guessed it—glass. Lots of glass. Renwick Street, I knew you all along.
davidcrohn@gmail.com

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Monroe Street between Catherine and Market



The Other Village
A storied history below the two bridges
By David Crohn


The rollers beneath the Manhattan Bridge are a sullen lot. The teenagers don’t talk much; just keep their heads down and roll.

An onlooker, the only girl under the bridge, joined the scattered fray. She stretched a little, leaning on her board with one arm and a leg out-splayed, an iconic crouch. She shot out from one side, tried a kickflip or an ollie, failed but landed safely and with her head up, then raced and halted at the other end.

The girl squatted again, head down, hands across her sneakers.

She was still; this is serious business.

Overhead, the N train passed, and the whole arena rumbled. After it passed, the only sound to be heard again were those of the wheels on the smooth pavement—rolling, clattering in defeat, the occasional triumphant smack—the music of chance.

This was five minutes along Monroe Street, in a neighborhood formerly known as the Lower East Side, probably known today as Chinatown, and by some, “Two Bridges.”

Many of these kids, a few of whom were Asian, could be residents of Knickerbocker Village a block and a half west, where 68% of the residents are Asian, according to a recent census. If so, they are a few among 4,000. More likely than not, they are unaware of the rich history of the sprawling, 130,680-square-foot superblock they inhabit, one side of which is the entirety of Monroe Street between Market and Catherine.

What Happened Here
Completed in 1933 and opened the next year, Knickerbocker Village was the city’s first housing development built with help from the government. Fred French, who also built Tudor City in Midtown, “had to travel to Washington over 50 times, hat in hand, to get an $8 million loan from the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation,” writes the essayist Phillip Lopate.

The Village, now in scale with the rest of the City, was “huge when it opened,” and replaced a much smaller housing community called home by one Annie Moore, the first person to cross the gates at Ellis Island. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived in Building G, apartment 11E. Quoted in an obit for three wiseguys that ran in the New York Sun last year, former mob lawyer David Breitbart spun tall tales about one-time Village resident John “Boobie” Cerasani. Hawklike, a chess lover, “one mean fucker,” Boobie dove from fire escapes into the East River.

Amenities
The block has a healthy helping of amenities—neighborhood bodegas, two dry cleaners, a church-and-school combo on the corner of Catherine and Monroe Streets. The block is also home to the Downtown Sleep Institute, which dozes quietly in the block’s only modern-style building, several stories of glass and steel that contrast starkly with the rest of the block’s brick and iron. The sign boasts “Luxurious Beds and Rooms,” a “Highly Trained Staff” and “Effective Treatment” for restless legs, daytime drowsiness, narcolepsy and other “Sleep Disorders.”

Next door is a storefront with a large yellow awning with red lettering almost entirely in Chinese. Though my Western eyes had no way of telling what goods or services it offers, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the business. Inside, the room is empty save for a few folding and plastic chairs against the walls, a desk near the door and a cash register. Slumped over on one of those plastic chairs, an older Chinese lady napped, while a garish flaming Buddha continued his unyielding grin at passersby from a poster in the window. Massage? Herbal healing? Matchmaking? Take your pick.

Renting
Want to live here? Queue up, or take your chances across the street.

Last year, as Manager Victor Callagy told me, Knickerbocker Village held one of its periodic lotteries to select who gets to sit on a waiting list several years long. Two hundred and thirty people—200 looking for two-bedroom apartments, 15 each for one-bedrooms and studios—won a spot out of some 3,000 to 4,000 applicants responding to an ad in the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Tenants pay $708 to $1,001 a month. If you make more than eight times that amount annually, you are ineligible to apply. It’s all rent-stabilized housing; the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal have raised rents about 3 to 5 percent every year.

The south side of Monroe Street is lined with the low-rise tenements characteristic of the neighborhood before the age of public housing and public renewal—all rounded arches topped with grotesque masks, red and brown brick, and fire escapes. Every one looks in desperate need of renovation, or at least a good scrubbing.

The managing agent at one of these buildings didn’t return phone calls seeking information, and I didn’t have the guts to ask anything of a lady perched at one of the windows. Forgive me; if the Evil Eye exists anywhere, it’s here.

dcrohn@gmail.com

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Keeping It Real

by David Crohn
(from Our Town Downtown)


Landmark preservation comes to the South Village

It’s a familiar story.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the last major influx of immigration into New York City, and especially into Greenwich Village. They were mostly Italians by then, but African-Americans came in great numbers, as did Germans, Irish, Dutch, Polish and Chinese immigrants. Meanwhile, the Village became an enclave for people who didn’t fit in elsewhere. Artists and performers found a home here, during a time when theatrical types were dregs who daylighted as pickpockets and prostitutes.
It’s a familiar story, but one worth retelling, if only because the legacy is vanishing. But as rents and the price of a cup of coffee rise ever higher, the buildings, for the most part, remain. The bohemian soul vacated long ago, but the body lingers and the vultures are circling.
The working-class communities of Greenwich Village left their mark, its citizens living in simple apartments and row houses they built themselves. Tenements are the primary form here, but they also lived in and built shorter row houses, worshipped in churches built by their own hands, and worked in factories and shopped in storefronts that they built themselves.
It’s a familiar theme, but the South Village variation is unique. Today, much of the area is a kind of little Little Italy, with street names like Carmine and Minetta; old-fashioned cheese shops and butchers and gelaterias; simon-pure Italian restaurants like Pesce Pasta, from where I was nearly ejected after requesting an iced coffee.
What makes the South Village favored by apartment-hunters, tourists and browsers also attracts developers. It’s a funny, very New York paradox that the purity of the area draws builders who would infect it.
The irony is not lost on David Gruber, who serves on Community Board 2 (CB2), a group of 50 officials appointed by the Manhattan Borough President. The Board’s purview includes the South Village.
“It’s like [the developers] say, ‘Here’s something nice, let’s destroy it,’” said Gruber, who also heads the Carmine Block Association.

What’s Gone Is Gone
Gruber has a point. Since 2003 alone, the South Village has lost the Tunnel Garage and the Sullivan Street Theater. The Circle in the Square Theater on Bleecker Street was “mutilated” and then demolished in 2004. They may not have been tourist attractions, but they were beacons of cultural significance, according to Andrew Dolkart, a professor at Columbia University who is one of the city’s preeminent authorities on local history and preservation.
The stretch along 6th Avenue running from 4th Street to Bleecker is already referred to by some as Coney Island West, with its flashing lights and pervasive neon glare. As Dave Ethan, co-owner of the Gray Dog on Carmine Street told me, it’s not that business owners necessarily mind sharing streets with sex shops and hot dog joints. “The diversity of the Village is what it’s all about,” Ethan said. “But why shouldn’t their stores conform with the look and feel of the rest of the neighborhood?”
And then there’s the Poe house. At a CB2 public hearing on April 24, people booed and hissed when New York University’s name came up, and the loudest protests came when speaker Andrew Berman mentioned the Poe house, which NYU demolished in 2002. This reflected how many villagers felt about the loss of the 1830s row house where Edgar Allen Poe lived for six months from 1845 to ’46. At 245 Sullivan Street, it’s now Furman Hall, a law school that also displays artifacts from Poe’s life. At regular, scheduled times, public viewing is allowed. Since it was just off Washington Square Park, critics add that the new building changes the character of the Park itself.
At the hearing, Berman, who is the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, presented a report outlining his group’s proposal for a South Village Historic District. The proposal was popularly received and has drawn widespread support. It was also the culmination of four years of work made possible by a grant from the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Council on the Arts.
If approved and designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (NYCLPC), the District will ensure that historic buildings within its 38-block area—a roughly triangular section whose boundaries extend from West Fourth Street to Watts Street and Hudson Street to LaGuardia Place—will be protected from contextually insensitive alterations.
But, Berman said, “You can within a historic district have buildings that are non-contributing. Those can be demolished or altered.”
That makes sense. If every building in an area had to be historic for the area to be designated, preservationists would have a hell of a time getting anything done, and the district boundaries would be unmanageably convoluted. But when non-contributing buildings are demolished, whatever replaces them has to be designed according to proportions that are characteristic of the area. Building materials and other factors are also mandated.
Although landlords and homeowners sometimes resist what they think will create an added level of bureaucracy, opposition, Berman says, is usually based on “fear and misconception.” People think they won’t be able to paint their doors or change their windows. That isn’t the case, Berman said. And, studies have shown that property values tend to improve thanks to landmark designation.

What It Takes
The proposed district’s uneven shape reflects the City’s organic development. In an area between Clarkson and West Houston Streets, for example, the boundary jags south, skipping two square lots immediately to the east and west. On one side sits a future water-tunnel digging site that may one day become a neighborhood park; on the other, there’s a 1930s warehouse that “no one would knock down if you paid them,” Berman said. Neither qualifies—or would even require—landmarking.
Berman notes that keeping the proposed area as tight as possible makes it easier for the GVSHP to show the NYCLPC that no building has been chosen haphazardly, that every one has historical, cultural and architectural merit.
With its staff of five, four part-time consultants and an “army” of interns, the Society is the largest organization of its kind in the city. They hit the pavement and the municipal archives at City Hall four years ago to survey the South Village and determine which buildings the meet the criteria for landmark preservation.
Aesthetics are great, but for an area to qualify, staffers had to must demonstrate that the area has a unified history; a cohesive architectural character; that the boundaries make sense; and that the area is of historic and cultural significance
The South Village, Berman said, “has all of that in spades. A lot of people are very surprised to learn that it’s not already landmarked, especially since no neighborhood has so many intact vestiges of how life was lived.”
The neighborhood has mostly working class and industrial buildings, buildings whose understated beauty has only been recognized over time. When they were built, they were made with cheap materials and designs with very few frills. It’s an area that might not manifest its charm immediately, said Robert Riccobono, who serves on CB2’s own Landmarks and Preservation Commission.
“Most people, when they think of preservation, they think of elaborate townhouses like in Brooklyn Heights, but in fact there are other areas in need of protection,” said Riccobono. “It’s not just all fancy brownstones.”

It’s in the Bricks
Professor Dolkart, of Columbia, wrote an 82-page report summarizing the district proposal. Along with offering an in-depth history of Greenwich Village, and especially the South Village, the commissioned work identifies about eight building types in the area.
Most are Pre-, Old-, or New-Law tenements, referring to the set of regulations passed in 1879 that was meant to improve living conditions in these notoriously shoddy and overstuffed apartment buildings. There are also French Flats, Reform Housing, churches and community and social service buildings. (For those who think that the phenomenon of developers trying to cash in on the artsy image of an area and thus destroying that reputation by raising rents, witness Vincent Pepe, who did just that in 1914, with his “Bohemian-style” spec homes.)
For prose that is meant to serve a primarily bureaucratic function, Dolkart’s report is surprisingly rich. What binds the disparate architectural styles of the South Village—from Neo-Grecian to Neo-Federal—is brick, Dolkart writes: “hand-made and mass produced; headers, stretchers, and Roman bricks; red, yellow, black, glazed
white, and other hues. The brick is ornamented with varied stones, cast iron, terra cotta, and other materials.”

A “Fever Pitch”?
Everyone I interviewed is in favor of landmark designation for the South Village. At the public hearing I went to, villagers lined up to express their support, and cheered Berman after his presentation (he is a minor celebrity for people who love Greenwich Village). Elected officials from New York State Senator Tom Duane to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Senator Chuck Schumer have written enthusiastic letters of support to the NYCLPC. The State and National Register of Historic Places deemed the area eligible for listing.
In the words of Shaan Kaan, a Stringer spokesman, “preservation fever has reached a fever pitch.”
Everyone is “on board,” it seems, except NYU. Which doesn’t really matter, since there’s not much the school can do to obstruct the process, although four years ago, when the Society began publicizing their new project, the University did volunteer its support. It was, Berman conjectures, an attempt to clean up an image that had been tarnished by the destruction of the Poe house and the megadorm the school is pushing for 12th Street.
“They quite willingly said, ‘These boundaries, we can support them, we will be behind this,’” Berman said. “And for the past four years it’s probably the only thing NYU and the community has agreed upon. Their support for this has been widely touted in the community.”
Once the final proposal was drafted and formally submitted to the City on Dec. 29, 2006—all 40 binders of it—the Society sent copies of the report to everyone who supported the plan and “everybody immediately stepped up.” Except NYU.
“They said, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t support this, we need to study it first,’” said Berman, referring to a chilly letter exchange between the Society, along with local block associations and business leaders, and NYU Associate Vice President Alicia Hurley.
But nothing had changed since the proposal’s inception. “And they not only didn’t come through on their promise but they sent letters to the LPC undercutting the proposal.”
Copies of the letters NYU sent to the NYCLPC weren’t available, but I did see the March 9 letter Hurley sent to the GVSHP in which she writes, “…the [report] does not necessarily demonstrate that the entire area weaves together as a single cohesive historic district. The proposed historic district abuts three existing districts and subsumes one existing district.”
No one from NYU returned phone calls seeking their side of the story, but Berman has inferred from the “three existing districts” comment that Hurley and NYU were suggesting that the Society instead focus its efforts on expanding the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District, among others.
They also suggested expanding the MacDougal Sullivan Gardens, which are 24 houses that comprise one of the smallest historic districts in the city. “But the Gardens are within the South Village proposed district anyway,” Berman said.
Were Berman and his colleagues accusing NYU of choosing to talk about the SoHo and MacDougal Districts arbitrarily? Was it an attempt to shift the focus away from the Village and into an area downtown that would never pique NYU’s expansion interests?
Yes, Berman says, it was a fig leaf. “[Increasing the SoHo District] makes no sense, because is exclusively about cast iron architecture and mid-nineteenth century lofts. That building type ends at SoHo’s boundaries. It was a way to cover up the fact that they weren’t following through on their pledge. It was a red herring to say, ‘Oh there’s a different way you could do it.’”

A ‘Bread and Butter’ Issue
When the GVSHP got the Meatpacking District and the Far West Village landmarked, they broke records by getting it done in three and one and a half, years respectively.
The City has the proposal in hand, but that’s how long it usually takes, especially with many other New York City neighborhoods queued up and the NYCLPC’s staffing shortage.
Although he remains cheerfully optimistic about the protection of the South Village and would love to see this one designated in record time, it’s not about breaking records, Berman said. It’s about preserving history.
“I think that for folks in the Village preserving neighborhood character is as bread and butter of an issue as safe streets and good schools in other areas,” Berman said. “The small apartments and the high rents and all the other things that people are up against are balanced by the fact that they live in an area with a palpable character that you love and that’s not like anyplace else.”

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Brick and Cobblestone Oasis: Stone Street between William Street and Coenties Alley

Dining in the olde style

By David Crohn
(from Our Town Downtown)


Near Broadway and Nassau Street many lines converge: the blue A and C, the brown J and M, the red 2 and 3, the green 6.
It’s like the Financial District itself, a busy adventure of winding ways, canyons and alleys. It’s easy to get lost, and if you’re just visiting, wonderful.

And just as those subway lines come in several species, so do the shapes of the buildings in Lower Manhattan. The very old and the very new coexist: reminders of the island’s earliest history next door to the engines of our country’s prosperity.

Nowhere in the District is this more apparent than on Stone Street. Before Goldman, Sachs plopped its post-modern New York headquarters down on 85 Broad Street in 1983, Stone cut straight through to Broad. Today, there is no Stone and Broad Street intersection to speak of, and Stone is a staggered street.

That’s OK, however, because that big office tower helps provide shade to the heaps of tourists and well-to-do financial professionals who come to this restaurant-lined block, between William Street and Coenties Alley, to dine. (It’s still called Coenties Alley, but here at the end of Stone Street it’s more of an office courtyard-style sitting area.)

Narrow streets that enclose neighboring sidewalk cafes may be commonplace Little Italy and real Italy, but not in most of Manhattan. And certainly not in the Financial District.

Of all the well-kept secrets the city hides, this block has to be the one that affords the most pleasure when it is discovered. (I would never have seen it were it not for the help of a local. He was determined to prove that you really can sit outside and sip a Bloody Mary in the Financial District on a Saturday afternoon.)

Neighborhood boosters justifiably consider it a jewel, not just for the restaurant line-up but for the well preserved row of old townhouses, which provide a refreshing dose of classic brown brick and iron in an area dominated by towering office buildings. “It just makes you happy to go on that street,” the then-president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, Carl Weisbrod, told the New York Times in 2003.

What Happened Here
The block’s easy leisure is a testament to a long history and a lot of hard work.

The first step in Stone Street’s renaissance came with the city’s recognition of its special status as one of the city’s first paved streets. It was added to the tip of the island in about 1655, and made into a mini-historic district in 1996. Not only did that close it off from automobile use, but it allowed the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to apply for and receive federal funds to revitalize the area. It had fallen into blighted disuse at around the turn of the 20th Century, when the Hudson had replaced the East River as the all-important maritime industry’s preferred body of water.

$1.8 million was spent to give the block its current 19th Century feel—complete with cobblestones and gaslight-style lampposts—returning it to its splendor from its last refurbishment, after it was trashed in the Great Fire of 1835.

Buying
Living on little Stone Street is, understandably, very expensive. There’s a 2,850-square-foot loft going for $2.49, according to Ruth Bader, an agent with Prudential Douglas Elliman.

Renting
I asked Bader about renting on the block, and she had no information. However, right around the corner at Broad and South William Streets there’s a “luxury flat” being marketed a little like a hotel. You can rent lease free for $4,450 a month, with “high-speed Internet/wireless and unlimited phone calls within the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.” It’s a one-bedroom meant for executives in need of a place to stay while they find permanent quarters.

Amenities
If it were famous at all, Stone Street would be famous for its restaurants. There are, at last count, seven of them, crammed deliciously into one small strip like an overstuffed hero. Financier Patisserie and Ulysses are the two that come most highly recommended. A Subway sandwich shop offers a low-priced, take-out alternative, as does Burger Burger on the corner. The block is also home to the McRoberts Protective Agency, the oldest security firm in the country, formed in 1876.

dcrohn@gmail.com

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Seventh Street Between C and D

Alphaville
Subway no, trees yes

By David Crohn

If there are many blocks like this one in Alphabet City, I might be inclined to choose the neighborhood as Best Manhattan Suburb of the Year. To its residents this might come as a bittersweet, though painfully obvious, observation.

Bitter, because getting to East 7th Street between Avenues C and D is not easy. It takes time, no matter where you are coming from. It’s not as far as Yonkers, but at least Yonkers is included in the network of public transit. OK, that’s not fair: the 14D bus stops at 7th and D. But with the 2nd Avenue Subway little more than an urban legend for now, the block is worlds away from just about everything else—midtown, certainly, and even Union Square, it seems.

Which may, in fact, contribute to the accompanying sweetness—and diversity, its grit the color and shape of pollen. How else to describe a block with trees, two gardens, a house of worship facing a former one from a different religion, and a profanity-laden sign from an angry citizen? All in a neighborhood once known mostly for its crack and smack. (The block also has a public bike rack. When was the last time you saw one of those in the City?)

The question is, when some civic-minded vandal—assuming it was the same one—spray-painted “Dope sucks” and “Crack kills,” was he in the vanguard of expression, heralding the area’s nascent renaissance while trying to school his fellows? Or was he closing the door on the issue, reaffirming what many in the neighborhood had already come to know? Yes, crack is whack and so is smack, and there are beautiful gardens here, the community has rebuilt itself and there is a luxury condo in the way. All thanks to the graffiti, perhaps.

That sign, by the way: “Stop dumping your shit—asshole!” Not clean enough for some, apparently.

What Happened Here
Any tour around the East Village/Lower East Side/Alphabet City wouldn’t be complete without a good look at the old synagogues in the area, relics from when Jewish immigrants made up most of the area. Few are still in use. The former Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Anshe Ungran, artfully emblazoned with Hebrew lettering, has been an apartment building since its conversion in 1986, according to the “AIA Guide to New York City.” Now known as the Stone House, it once served a Hungarian Congregation (the name means Great House of Study of the People of Hungary).

Renting
I called up a few of the major real estate brokers knowing that I probably wouldn’t find any listings. In these kinds of neighborhoods (you know, real “neighborhoody”), when there are apartments to rent you’ll usually see a sign on one of the buildings to that effect, and I saw none. The few brokers I was able to get on the phone first corrected me in saying it was the East Village, then said no, nothing on that block specifically. How about a charming duplex on 2nd and A? One block down, however, CraigsList says there is a $3,700-a-month, two-bedroom apartment available immediately with “Elevator/Dishwasher/Microwave/Air-Conditioning/Fitness Room/Valet Laundry.”

Buying
And now, the bad news: The secret is out. Well, it has been for quite a while, truth be told. Even neighborhoods this far from the subway and just about everything else are not immune to the luxury condominium infestation epidemic. It is my duty to say that the so-called Flowerbox building, an eight-unit condominium, is going up at 259. The sound of drills and smell of dust are anomalous on this otherwise placid block. But if you come to the block and fall in love and your nest egg is flush with cash, consider instead buildings like 254 East 7th Street. This pre-war building has a one-bedroom for sale with a renovated kitchen and bathroom. It’s small but bright and inviting, with an asking price of $459,000.

Amenities
With very little traffic—foot or otherwise—there are few amenities. Or is it vice versa? At any rate, there is a pharmacy on the northeast corner, a bodega on the southeast corner and another a few doors east of that, with a shuttered nail salon in between. That’s about it. Avenue C, aka Loisada Avenue, is a vivacious commercial strip, with the Alphabet Lounge on one side and a laundromat on the other.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Edith O'Hara and the 13th Street Repertory

OK, so this has nothing to do with blocks or real estate or history, but I wrote it and it tells a sad story of how real estate continues to steamroll over the small and wonderful institutions that make New York--and especially Downtown--special.


The Final Curtain for the 13th Street Repertory?
A fixture of downtown fights for its life
By David Crohn

If Edith O’Hara wanted, she could be very, very rich. But even $2 million is an empty and useless sum to the woman who has spent 35 years on the 13th Street Repertory Theater. To her, the theater is irreplaceable.

O’Hara is fighting the battle of her life fighting for her theater. Her building’s co-owners want to evict the company to make millions in the cutthroat world of Manhattan real estate. That would close the curtain for a place that has not only hosted the longest running Off-Off Broadway play in American history, but has cultivated young talent since its inception in 1972. The company’s most famous export has been Israel Horowitz’s “Line” for the past 33 years, but it’s only one of hundreds that have been performed there, from children’s theater to informal workshops to works by giants like Tennessee Williams.

“The place is a fixture,” said Horowitz, 68, from his East Village home just a few blocks from the theater. “When kids come to New York to be actors—and they come by the boxcar—the first shock is ‘What now what do I do?’ Edith has created this place where kids can find a home. I can’t name another place in New York City like that.”

Small-Town Girl
Born in 1917 on a farm in the wilds of northern Idaho, educated in a one-room schoolhouse, O’Hara still displays the plucky spirit of a small-town girl. In an interview with Our Town Downtown, she recalled with fondness the day when, in the seventh grade, the theater bug bit her.

“I didn’t know anything about acting, but the teacher put me in a production where I played George Washington,” she said. “And that was it for me. I just thought, ‘This is the greatest.’”

From then on she acted whenever she could, eventually finding her way to the University of Idaho and a drama degree.

But shortly after graduation, she says, her path changed. Her true calling revealed itself: she would work behind the scenes as an artistic director and teacher, in order to nurture the creativity in others. “Creativity in the world is so important,” O’Hara said; so many people in the world have “creativity in their souls and it’s suppressed and not given attention and they don't even know they have it.”

By 1970, she had formed a summer stock for teenagers in Pennsylvania, the Plowright Players, and was touring with a successful musical called “Touch.” The production brought her to New York City and a now-defunct theater on East Fourth Street. After it closed, in 1971, her three kids had established their own careers in the arts—her daughter Jenny has a recurring role as Doug Heffernan’s mother on “The King of Queens—and her husband John had passed away. She decided to stay in the city and found her own theater company.

A yearlong search brought her to 13th Street, via an ad in The Village Voice. She saw the building, a five-story brownstone between 5th and 6th Avenues, and thought, “This is it.” She’s been living and working there ever since. Every morning she walks down the steps to the ground floor, a cozy office and living room crowded with worn-in chairs and a kitchen with an old-fashioned icebox. She hosts journalists like me, along with interns and actors and aspiring playwrights. She hands every young person she meets a tattered three-ring binder and has them fill out a questionnaire with their contact information, skills and aspirations. They are asked to answer the question, What got you interested in theater?

The book is mostly full, but there is plenty of room left, plenty of blank pages remaining to be filled.

Lines Are Drawn
For 10 years Edith and her budding company leased the space. It was cheap back then, so cheap that although she can’t remember the rent, she knows they never had trouble paying it. In 1982 she and her daughter Jenny decided to buy the place. They began the hunt for a partner to help raise the $100,000 down payment to buy the $400,000 space. A Cleveland investor named Gordon Milde showed up. He came from seemingly out of nowhere, and was so affable, agreeable and enthusiastic, that they named their new partnership White Knight Ltd. “He was like our white knight in shining armor,” O’Hara said.

But things with Milde soured quickly. He revealed not only his true intentions—the burgeoning gold mine of Manhattan real estate—but turned out to be a personally difficult person.

Milde owned half of the building, with Edith and the company owning a quarter each. When attempts to buy O’Hara out so he could sell to developers proved futile, Milde became cantankerous—even while gradually paying off the mortgage on the building. O’Hara says he started by evicting members of the company who lived upstairs, then left threatening phone messages. In the early 90s he was caught stealing from O’Hara’s apartment, and she was forced to slap him with a restraining order.

Milde returned to Cleveland, and two years ago faded from the picture by selling his shares in the building to Steven and Beth Lowenthal, for “a song”: less than a million dollars, nowhere near what they were worth. Jenny and her husband managed to raise enough money to buy them not long ago, but the Lowenthals backed out of the deal at the last minute.

O’Hara and the Lowenthals are at a standoff. They offered her a million dollars to back off, then doubled it. But she refuses to sell her shares, and they can’t make her. An eviction notice is pending, as the Repertory’s litigation—which challenges the validity of Milde’s original sale of his shares to the Lowenthals—continues.
According to O’Hara and Mitchell Zingman, the Repertory’s attorney, the Lowenthals are in talks with the owners of the building next door to the west to sell them the air rights. And the Rep’s home, 50 West 13th Street, is worth $5 million according to a recent appraisal.

The Shows Go On
As the legal battle continues, so does the life of the theater. Though she tears up when telling her story, which could end with the Rep’s final curtain, O’Hara is tireless in her old age. She is a kind of den mother to the people who come here seven days a week—to study acting, to rehearse and perform and to learn the behind-the-scenes, technical end of drama production.

Every Friday and Saturday night at 9:30pm, the theater, with its 50 seats and fantastic acoustics, shows “Line,” whose spare intensity, absurdist premise and painfully funny slapstick make it reminiscent of the Irish Playwright Samuel Beckett, who Horowitz knew personally.

“Line” opens with an unkempt and grimy young man sleeping on stage. He wakes up, breakfasts on potato chips and Budweiser, and stands at attention: he is first on line. Characters are introduced one by one to the stage, and begin to wrangle for first place. It is never revealed what they are waiting for; it’s not even clear if the characters themselves know. As they use their wits, fists and sex to get up front, the play's ambiguous—and ambivalent—take on race, capitalism and the sexual revolution quietly thrill the small audiences who come week after week.

When asked why he thinks “Line” has survived so long in the same place, Horowitz is mystified, although pleased that he has been able to help the Repertory in his own small way. He hasn’t accepted royalties from the performances for years, despite the fact that it’s been popularly received by audiences in 30 languages all over the world.

But still, Horowitz can understand “Line”’s appeal. “It’s a real downtown type of play,” he said, referring to its minimal set—just a piece of adhesive tape on the floor—and brazen take on feminine sexuality. And any New Yorker can relate to the play’s themes of ceaseless competition in an indifferent and chaotic world. I asked Horowitz if this was his intended theme, and he replied only by quoting Beckett: “Having a playwright describe his play would be like a snail describing its shell.”

Ronald Washington is a 27-year-old Virginia native who joined the cast of “Line” a few weeks ago. This is his third appearance Off Off Broadway, but he said he found the atmosphere at the Rep to be uniquely welcoming.

“It’s just nice being here,” he said. “Edith is a lovely woman. She has been a very nice person as far as getting me up to speed with the show and offering me sound advice.”

Like most other people interviewed for this article, Washington was eager to mention that he’d “hate to see the theater get shut down,” and not just because it would end his indefinite run as Dolan, one of the play’s fiercest and richly layered characters. Behind the scenes, he said, “It’s a very inviting environment for an actor. A lot of times [when you join an ongoing production] you’re beholden to however things were going, but here they take your creativity into account.”
Laurie Bell, 24, a student of stage management and design at Lehman College, interns on 13th Street a few hours a week. She said that when it came time to look for an internship, she was immediately drawn to the 13th Street Repertory.

“I chose this one because it seemed like it would be small and intimate,” she said—and it was. “I walked in and immediately felt like I had been here before. I know I’ll get to wear a lot of hats, which is just what I was looking for.”

In addition to stage-managing the Rep’s production of “Five-Story Walkup,” Bell may get to work on a series of recently unearthed plays by Tennessee Williams. Four short one-acts, now showing on Monday and Tuesday nights, are getting their New York premiere—on the same stage where, according to O’Hara, Williams sat and said that small theaters like this one “was where the future of theater lay.”

A prescient statement from someone who died in 1983, at a time when even he was having trouble getting his work performed, even before the age of mass media conglomeration.

A Grim Outlook
O’Hara, along with her right-hand woman Sandra Nordgren, the company’s 11-year technical director, remain hopeful. But they know the outlook is grim. Legal fees continue to mount up; they exceed $100,000, Nordgren said.

Small, local art collectives like Family Tree, a group of artists, musicians, dancers and poets from Fordham, perform occasional fundraisers. And weekly classes, at about 360 dollars for a two-month term, bring in some revenue.

But at only $17 dollars for a ticket to see a show, Nordgren and O’Hara have been forced to sit on the stage and address their small audiences personally after most performances. They ask if there is anything anyone can do to help publicize their plight, any philanthropic organizations people may know of that they can contact directly. Then, a collection basket goes around. “People want to help, they come forward with good intentions, but everyone is so busy,” Nordgren said.

One option the company is just starting to explore is having the building landmarked. According to a handwritten deed dating from 1821 and an old article in The Villager newspaper, the building dates back to 1780. It may have even been a stop on the Underground Railroad, O’Hara said, pointing to a trap door in the basement that would have been used by slaves to escape to the basement.

But Underground Railroad or not, landmarking is a very long process and an unreliable opportunity. It’s the second, flimsier front in a battle that O’Hara seems determined to wage until the end.

“I don’t give up. I’m a fighter,” O’Hara said. I asked her why not just take the $2 million the Lowenthals have offered her and start a new company in a different space? She’s just “too old,” she said. And anyway, this is literally her home.

Life will go on, of course, for the Company and its players if it is evicted, and, as Horowitz says, “it’s been a lovely ride.” But, he adds, “There will be a hole. It’ll be sad to see another apartment building in New York City instead of a unique little theater.”

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Greenwich Street between Carlisle and Rector Streets



‘Sodom South’

(from Our Town Downtown)

By David Crohn

It’s 10:23pm, and here I am. Just south of the former site of the World Trade Center, as far from home as Australia, as the Upper East Side.

It’s almost dead here. No watchers at the Pussycat Lounge, no girls. Just me and the bartender, and a few alcoholics who came because it’s close and open.

Two drinks pass, and I slide off the bar and out the door. As I step out into more quiet, I wonder how I am different from the boozers and the reekers inside the Pussycat. Only a pretense toward intellectual honesty—akin to my low tolerance for alcohol—sets me apart.

It’s also tranquil a door down, at Thunder Lingerie. Just me and a few other shoppers, although I consider myself more of a browser for now. I could trade in a few of my singles for quarters and check out the peep show in the back, but without enough booze in my system the excuses gnaw at my newfound commitment to the Immersionist school of participatory journalism. The DVDs look dusty, the lights are too bright and the clang of a distant cash register all remind me—like the whiff of coffee from a stripper’s mouth—that this is nothing but empty, bloodless commerce. I return to the red glow of the Pussycat Lounge.

It’s 12:37am, and what the fuck an I doing here? Oh, that’s right, I am slumming. I’m probing the veracity of a recent New York Times article, “A Seedy Stretch, Sure, but Worth Saving, Denizens Say.” It said every New Yorker has a taste for the salacious, “what the French in their love of slumming like to call ‘nostalgia for the mud,’” and that this block, Greenwich Street between Carlisle and Rector, was a kind of “Sodom South,” home to the Pussycat, Thunder Lingerie and what was once a brothel fronted by an artist’s loft.

You know things are bad for the agog, would-be lothario when he has to turn to the Paper of Record, a graying beacon of middlebrow, for ideas, but Giuliani be damned: I’m here to find some seediness. How will I know when I find it?

At 1:30am, after several more drinks, I find it, staring up into the pustules on a stripper’s backside. Vaguely nauseated, I knew I had found squalor. My troubles were gone, and everything became beautiful.

Stumbling home, 40 dollars poorer, I am reminded of teetotalers’ wisdom. Whether liquor makes stretch marks and gin blossoms lovely to the eye or just smudges them out of sight is immaterial. The point—of which I was cognizant once, when I was sober and before those brown breasts subsumed the entirety of my experience—is that only one of Satan’s henchmen can act as so deviant and effective an agent.

Buying
Returning to the block the next day, I am welcomed by what I discover is more like the new seedy, or “Seedy Lite,” where one could just as easily procure a panini as a lap dance. Or a luxury condominium, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the way they seem to be springing up everywhere around here.

The condos at 120 Greenwich are sold out, but a quick look at how that happened provides a revealing glimpse into the dynamics of Manhattan real estate way downtown, an area still smarting from 9/11.

As far back as September of last year, there were 30-odd units left, including one-bedrooms for $620,000 to $680,000. So the developer, Senex Greenwich Realty Associates, set up a financing program in which buyers had to provide only 5% of the selling price up front. The remaining units sold like hot cakes, for as little $31,000 down. It’s near one of downtown’s “seediest” stretches, but a solid deal nonetheless.

What Happened Here
Unless the preservationist gods act quick, the Pussycat Lounge—along with three neighboring Federal-era townhouses—may soon be demolished to make way for a luxury hotel on Greenwich or Washington, which is one block west.

To paraphrase the Pussycat’s owner, Robert Kremer, “No!”

Not only has he has filed a lawsuit against the hotel developer, saying a partner sold the property without his knowledge, but he has enlisted the help of Andrew Berman, the tireless director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation. In a proposal to the city, Berman has asked that part of the area be landmarked, including the 200-year-old building his bar calls home. It was once, after all, “the residential thoroughfare of New York,” the “address you wanted to have” during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Godspeed.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Gansevoort Street between Washington and Greenwich

Fresh Meat
For trees, go to Central Park
By David Crohn

The outstanding thing about cities is not their ethnic diversity, their liberal politics and dress codes, or the nightlife—although those are the major attractions—but the way the best ones take old things and make them new again while barely changing anything.

Thus, in Berlin, they have bombed-out buildings transformed into cavernous nightclubs and the surviving fragments of a heinous symbol of repression covered in modern art; here in New York we have the Meatpacking District.

Wobbling across the cobblestones in high heels can’t be fun, and the stink of carcasses pervades those parts of the District where meat is still, in fact, packed. And yet, ever since the early 1990s or so, this has been one of Manhattan’s most fashionable neighborhoods. Instead of beef, extortionately priced dresses and flashing disco lights now hang in those capacious former warehouses.

Fourteenth Street west of Ninth Avenue is the area’s main artery, but a few blocks below sits the more modest and representative Gansevoort Street, named after a Revolutionary War hero and the grandfather of Herman Melville. Gansevoort between Washington and Greenwich Streets offers a microscopic glimpse into what this once-sordid neighborhood—famous not just for its meat but for the transsexual hookers who lined the streets at night—has become.

Nowhere else in the city will you see short roofs hanging over the sidewalk, steel garage doors and faded-brick lowrises—but you will find all of this distinctive architecture on this block.

And it’s a quiet one, but not at all rustic or faux pastoral, the way so many other beautiful blocks in the city are: as if the only way a city block can be lovely is by aping, however vaguely, some imaginary country landscape. (The only tree to be found on the block is just around its northeast corner: a winding complex of aboveground roots protecting the entrance to 3 9th Ave.)

Upscale shops and flashy nightclubs may have taken over the block and driven the price of a beer up to six bucks, but no one’s changed its appearance a soupcon. Come here during the day and you will be reminded that even in a city of several millions you can find yourself alone, free to enjoy metal and concrete and stone for their own sake, without a single blade of grass to distract you.

Renting and Buying
Forget actually living on this block, since the converted warehouses and meat lockers are all commercial and office spaces (for hip design firms and the like). But one block away, almost close enough to toss an unfiltered-cigarette butt, stands the Hotel Gansevoort, where you can rent a suite at this time of year for a mere $675 a night. If you can afford that much for one night, why not splurge on one of $5,000-a-night Duplex Penthouse Suites? They have jacuzzis, fireplaces and original Andy Warhol prints on the walls. Clearly, whoever said money was wasted on the rich said it before this place was erected.

What Happened Here
Gansevoort Street marks the southern terminus of the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway that runs all the way up to the Javits Center at 34th Street. Built in 1929 to transport freight, the High Line has stood unused since 1980. The weeds, wild flowers and trees that have since taken gave two enterprising New Yorkers the idea of making strip into a public park. Their non-profit group Friends of the High Line received in 2004 a $50 million grant from the city to do just that. Ground was broken in April of last year, and progress has been slow but steady.

The transformation of the High Line, along with the Whitney Museum’s possible addition of a southern satellite at Gansevoort and Washington Streets, will officially close the chapter of local history in which Chelsea and the Far West Village were the city’s grittiest industrial neighborhoods.

Amenities
Get out your credit card(s). This upscale block offers at least three different ways to drop ducats: there are five restaurants, three retailers and one nightclub—all high end. Rhone is a lounge-style eatery with some 300 wine options. Florent is a French bistro-style diner with tasty comfort food. And Meet, at the corner of Washington and Gansevoort, may have hearty food and fine wine, but the fashionistas inside prefer the cosmos and air-and-salad sandwiches. PM, on the other side of the block, picks up at 1am, much to the consternation of the baby boomers and the sons and daughters of baby boomers who live on the West Village side of Greenwich Street.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Charlton Street between Varick Street and 6th Avenue

A Shrine of Covet

By David Crohn

The Bible says it’s bad to covet things. I’ve always assumed that’s not because of the harm you can inflict on your object but rather the way envy can handicap your judgment or screw up a perfectly nice stroll downtown.

Well, the Bible never tried sharing a one-bedroom, illegally converted Greenpoint storefront with his coke-snorting former college roommate. Or walked along Charlton Street between Varick Street and 6th Avenue.

With its whistle-clean stoops and breezy elegance, this is a shrine of covet. To the Things You Will Never Have. Hardcore real estate porn.

And I suspect some of the people who live there like it that way. How else to explain the way in which one woman sat, in the middle of her luxuriously appointed living room, laptop splayed open, windows wantonly flung open with curtains pushed aside, the light of early afternoon pouring in? And to think, she flashed me a dirty look when my neck went rubber and I peered in as I ambled by.

This immodest woman lives on the north side of the street, in one of a long row of homes that provide the perfect primer on Federal Architecture. So named because it was born during the late 18th century, Federal Architecture was “the first of our new republic,” says the “AIA Guide to New York City.” “Dignified and restrained, it emphasized geometric form and harmonious proportion and was executed in both wood and masonry.”

Inside, the homes are stately and bright, the epitome of what can only be called high class.

The southern side of the block isn’t as luscious as the northern side—which is a little like saying Veuve Clicquot tastes better than Dom Perignon. The Elisabeth Irwin High School, which boasts Robert De Niro and former “Nation” editor Victor Navasky as alums, sits here, in a large building with an ornate and very collegiate façade. On the southeast side of the block are several old townhouses of the kind that are a common site in the best-preserved parts of Greenwich Village and SoHo.
But no matter how often I pass the townhouses downtown, and the two- and three-story homes on the north side of the street, I still salivate when I see them, and I often have to temper my envy with rhetorical thanks that I do not live in Greenpoint anymore.

Renting and Buying
The only listings to be found on this block right now are at 2 Charlton Street, the large box that is uncharacteristic of the historic beauty of the rest of this block. Charlton House, as it’s known, has studios starting at $1,575. In lieu of regality or style, it has in-house laundry facilities and 24-hour doorman service. There are two one-bedrooms for sale: one for $785,000, and the other for $889,000. If, on the other hand, you have the dough and don’t mind waiting for the opportunity, expect to pay millions for one of those Federal-style homes on the northern half of the block.

What Happened Here
Often when we talk about historical places downtown, we are talking about the history of the city itself. Not here. At the corner of Varick and Charlton Streets once stood Richmond Hill, a colonial mansion built in 1767 that served as the military headquarters for George Washington when he was commander of the Revolutionary Army. Vice President John Adams and Aaron Burr slept there. According to NYSonglines.com, in 1831 Richmond Hill was converted into a theater that featured Isaac Van Amburgh, an early pioneer of the circus, um, arts. Legend has it he was the first to stick his head in a lion’s mouth. The culmination of his act was to make a lamb lie down with a lion—a riff on the Book of Isaiah, in which the lamb actually gets with a wolf, but same diff. The theater was demolished in 1849.

Amenities
None, which is not entirely a bad thing. The length, architectural uniformity (on one side) and dearth of commercial establishments on this block give it the feeling of an enclosed mini-district, kind of like housing projects in Utopia. There is a high-end deli at the southeast corner of the block, as well as a bodegaesque mini-grocery nearby on 6th Avenue. Keep heading west on Charlton, through MacDougal Street, and the sudden shrinkage of the buildings and narrowing of the street herald your entrance into SoHo proper, which is Amenity Central.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

21st between 2nd and 3rd Avenues

Gramercy’s Outskirts

By David Crohn

James Videll, an erudite and charismatic Columbia grad, lives on the East side of 21st St. I asked him if he lives downtown. It can be a perplexing question, especially since the east side has none of the bustle we associate with midtown, but lacks the ragged identity we associate with the city below 14th St.

“Hmmm…Most people say 14th, but when you live on 21st, 23rd is the cut-off,” he said, after scratching his head.

An honest, if vague, reply. But Videll also cites one of the city’s most trusted authorities, who knows Manhattan literally from the ground up: Triumph the Insult Dog.

“[Triumph] says everyone above 23rd is for him to poop on,” Videll said.
Videll, a freelance graphic designer, moved to 21st St. in 2000, after his mother bought the apartment. She had intended to stay there herself during her frequent jaunts to the city, but her plans changed, and James moved in instead. He pays the monthly maintenance fee and has agreed to put his mom up when she does visit.
The block’s most conspicuous tenant is the NYPD’s 13th Precinct, just a few doors down from Videll’s building. Right around the corner is a cop school, which is why it can be hard to get a table at one of the nearby diners during lunch hour. An occasional driver, James finds it’s always a hassle to find parking near his home, but when his girlfriend, a petite blonde, lived with him, he never had to worry for her safety.

In his six years there, he and his only roommate, a rotund cat named Jackson, have discovered a well-kept secret: Gray areas can be great places to live. James is a short walk from the heart of downtown, but just far enough away so that he doesn’t have to drink too close to home.

“I like where I am,” he said. “It’s close enough to the Village but you don’t actually have to live in it.” In the East Village, “you have the noise, the craziness, the puke on the street. I like the peace and quiet.”

Amenities
There are lots of Irish pubs on 3rd Ave. right below 23rd—Plug Ugly’s, Molly’s, just to name two—but, said James, “They all kind of suck. Too much of a frat scene.” Having almost gotten a black eye over a shuffleboard table at one of those bars not too long ago, we would have to concur.

What Happened Here
James moved here in 2000, bringing a dash of louche charm to this otherwise staid block. Gramercy Park, cleared for development around 1845, remains the only large private park in the city. It is, therefore, lovely but lifeless. (Buying an apartment on one of the surrounding lots gets you a key to the gates.) Like so many other Manhattan streets and locales, this neighborhood’s name has a Dutch ancestry. A little river that meandered from the East River to 18th St. was called Crommessie Brook, meaning “Crooked Little Knife.” Over time that word evolved into “Gramercy.”

Residents and Regulars
According to New York magazine (a good source for this type of thing), the area is loaded with A-listers. John Leguizamo, Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder all live within spitting distance of Gramercy Park. And, of course, James Videll.

Buying
James’ mom paid $300,000 for their large one-bedroom apartment—complete with a private courtyard—in 2000. A decent price, although James is saddled with a rather hefty maintenance fee of $1,200 per month. Three hundred thousand nowadays gets you a small but well-equipped studio apartment—and it costs only $450 in maintenance per month. The perfect “starter,” to use the agent argot.

Renting
Fuhgeddaboudit. A one-bedroom costs $1,849 a month, according to listings published by Preston, a real estate agency. If you can afford that, more power to you. But remember, the neighborhood’s titular park that your agent is quick to point out is only one block away is locked and closed to parvenus like yourself. Or, dye your hair and date James. His ex-girlfriend lived with him for about three years and paid only $600 a month. Hope you like cats though.

Perfect for
Freelance graphic designers. Cadets. The middle-upper class.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

McNally Compromises With Residents Over Morandi Sidewalk Cafe

And he didn't even need the permit
By David Crohn

In the end, there were 22.

It wasn’t exactly Congress hashing out the shape of American foreign policy, but watching locals and Community Board 2 members compromise over the future of a single storefront provided a fascinating glimpse into how things get done in the hermetic world of West Village virtual politics.

Famed restaurateur Keith McNally—he of Pastis in the Meatpacking District and Balthazar in SoHo—had planned to have some 50 tables and twice as many chairs at the sidewalk café at Morandi, his new Mecca of posh just off Seventh Avenue South. The entrepreneur ended up with less than half that after locals came out to voice their concerns at two community meetings.

Presumably, the presence of outdoor seating goes a long way toward the success of a restaurant that, as one commenter noted, will not be a local hangout but a destination for fine diners citywide. So McNally wasn’t about to exclude a sidewalk café, especially since, as he said, half the space inside is taken up by the kitchen. Morandi’s entrance faces Waverly Place, but its address is at 15 Charles, a medium-sized residential high rise whose entrance is right around the corner on the eastern end of Charles Street. Hence the concern.

The Sidewalks, Public Facilities and Public Access Committee—a division of Community Board 2—met Feb. 12 to review McNally’s application and consider public input. Along with the number of table rows the sidewalk dining area would have, attendees discussed the restaurant’s hours and how McNally would deal with the increased noise and foot traffic around the block.

Sonny Bohon, a self-proclaimed “world-renowned chef” who wore black leather boots and used a deep drawl to let the Blue Staters in the room know he wasn’t fucking around (“Look, I’m from Texas…I don’t like anyone”), called McNally an “honorable man” and said, “Why shouldn’t we have a nice place where we can have some nice food and wine?”

The very-small-crowd favorite was Jonathon Greenberg, who videotaped the meeting while his 2-month-old baby ga’d in a makeshift harness strapped to his chest.

“It’s not a question of whether Mr. McNally is honorable,” said Greenberg, a 26-year resident of 15 Charles. “I don’t think we as a community have an obligation to give up a public resource—our sidewalks—for his personal, private gain.”

Greenberg was concerned that with three rows of tables reaching toward the curb, life would be very difficult for stroller pushers and elderly folks with canes or walkers. It was a fear he echoed at the full CB2 meeting—again with Gabriel hanging tight to his torso.

Two other 15 Charles residents went to both meetings to say they were concerned about the noise the outdoor dining area would generate. One resident, a petite middle-aged woman who said she was finishing up her PhD dissertation, said construction at the restaurant in recent months made it hard for her to work and sleep. Another resident said she worked in finance and had to wake up very early in the morning.

Through it all, I was surprised to see McNally acting nothing like a Downtown Trump and much more like a nebbish.

15 Charles resident Jeffrey Raven complained that the word “Bar” was on the sign, which would presumably attract drunks in equal numbers with sophisticated foodies. McNally replied, or rather muttered and almost stuttered, “We can change that. Do you want me to change that?”

McNally truly is, as the New York Times described him in a 2004 profile, a “shlump” of a guy, making life hard for critics of his new undertaking and its very conspicuous sidewalk cafe.

New York’s culture of skepticism nurtures a healthy distrust of powerful people, but his unassuming nature—and perhaps the fact that no one wants to appear ignorant to the charm of steak frites at Pastis or Balthazar’s fresh bread—led board members and even some of his opponents to pepper their detractions with praise: “We ought to welcome him to the neighborhood” and “He has a stellar reputation,” they said at the full Community Board 2 meeting three nights later.

By then, McNally’s plans had shrunk. He included about one concession to address each of the 15 Charles Street residents’ primary concerns: there will be an awning covering the whole café, which it was assumed would muffle the noisy chatter wafting up; a doorman/bouncer type to keep revelers in line; and only two rows of tables, leaving space for strollers, walkers and even the occasional wheelchair.

Late in the proceedings, just before the permit was approved, it was revealed that, since the sidewalk café will be within the building’s property line and not actually on public property after all, McNally didn’t even need a permit. But, as a local himself, he went ahead with the process just as a gesture of goodwill. The rumpled Brit’s mensch rating went through the roof.

This $4.5 million restaurant, McNally’s first foray into Italian cuisine, should be open by the time you read this. McNally, credited for creating a New York brand of European atmosphere that has been widely imitated, said Morandi would be “the kind of country place you might stumble upon when unable to find the grander place you were searching for.”

Just how much stumbling there will be, of the drunken, raucous kind that so worries the PhD lady, remains to be seen. His reputation—and perhaps even the fact that homeowners nearby must be cognizant of the fact that this will have a positive effect on their property values—has encouraged residents to give him a chance. Or as West Villager Frank Cropanzano observed, “enough rope to hang himself by.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Double Happiness: Bayard Street Between Mott and Elizabeth

One tourist to-do, done

By David Crohn

Did you go to Chinatown for the Chinese New Year? Neither did I.
I haven’t been to Rockefeller Center for the tree-lighting ceremony either, and I’ve been living here for almost a decade. I did go to the Statue of Liberty though. It was when I was little and all I remember a big green foot.

But of all the standard touristy things, I’ve always felt like Chinatown for the New Year celebration was the one to do. The dancing dragon, the fireworks and confetti—it sounds like a really fun migraine.

But here comes the confession: Before last week, I’d never even been to Chinatown. Sure, I’ve skirted the boundaries, seen signs entirely in pictograms, but I had never walked along Mosco or Pell, streets that are unique to the neighborhood.

So, in honor of the Year of the Pig, which began last week, I trekked down to what was historically the heart of Chinatown. The boundaries have extended past Delancey Street in the north and down to Chambers Street, but it all started here, just below Canal and east of Baxter Street, a few blocks from the famous Five Points. Once I came to Bayard Street between Mott and Elizabeth Street, it was like standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or gazing across the San Francisco Bay at the Golden Gate Bridge—I had wholly arrived at my tourists' destination.

This stretch of Bayard Street is a narrow and frenzied passageway. There’s so much foot traffic that drivers passing through don’t bother honking their horns as they ride their brakes from one end to the other. I went just a few days after the official first day of the New Year, and the neighborhood seemed to be mildly hung over. Shiny, multicolored confetti marinated in mud and slush; no one but me jumped when kids crossing the street scattered little balls of paper that exploded in small bangs when they hit the street. The magnificent building at 62-64 Bayard, with its layers of terraces covered in streamers and red flags, looked like Bourbon Street if it were in Beijing.

I ended the day with the kind of Chinese-American food I’ve never seen on the paper menus piling up on my doorstep back home: A pork bun and a red bean bun at the Golden Fung Wong Bakery around the corner at Mott and Mosco Streets. They passed the wallet taste at $2.55 including a soda. It would take time, but if I lived here I think I could get used to a warm, sweet piece of bread filled with an amber paste of unidentifiable sweet goop and bite-size pieces of pork.

Renting
When people find out that I write this column, the first thing they always ask me is, Where I can I find reasonable rents in Manhattan? I’ve always said Chinatown. There are still dark corners of the Lower East side where you can find a studio for $1,000, but chances are it won’t be anywhere near a subway station. On this block, on the other hand, there’s a two-bedroom apartment going for $1,450 a month. It’s pretty small (280 square feet) and up a four-floor walk-up, but that’s a great deal, especially considering the close proximity to the N and R trains and fresh fish stores. Lots of fresh fish stores.

What Happened Here
During the wane of the Qing dynasty—China’s last—Chinese sailors and traders began trickling into the United States; after arriving in New York during the middle of the 19th Century, most immigrants continued on to the West Coast pursuing the “Gold Mountains” of California. Those that stayed behind formed the seed of modern-day Chinatown, and thousands more came back East to escape violence and discrimination on the West Coast, although what they found here wasn’t much better. By 1882, there were some 2,000 Chinese people, almost entirely men, living near the Five Points slum. They washed or made clothes and slept up to 15 in a single tenement apartment.
Today there are 70,000 to 150,000 Chinatown residents, most of whom are Chinese but with some Latinos, Filipinos, Burmese, Vietnamese and Caucasian hipsters thrown in.

Amenities
Feel like Chinese? Let’s see, there’s the Green Bo Restaurant, New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe (sic), the Moon House, Hsin Wong, Mr. Tang… This is one of the few neighborhoods in Manhattan where a cheese sandwich might be considered exotic. There’s also a Chinese ice cream place on this block, just in case you have a hankering for the red bean or green tea flavors during the summer months.
dcrohn@gmail.com