Oh, the stories it could tell…
(Originally appeared in Our Town Downtown, 1/8/07)
By David Crohn
History, it has been said, is written by the winners. Near the water was where all the nastiness was during the formidable years of our island’s maturation. So if you had the means, you went toward the center. Thus, Fifth Avenue became ritzy, and clean. Substitute “winners” for the rich—a not entirely counterintuitive proposition—and you can see why this block is replete with notable things that happened long ago to people who could afford to build things.
As any seasoned urban explorer with a grumbling stomach knows, you won’t find a hot dog on 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues; the curbs are low to allow easy access to your taxicab, trolley or carriage. The late Jane Jacobs, the celebrated, self-taught urban theorist, cited this block as “both dignified and interesting to walk on.” It is both those things, although nowadays you won’t find the mixed uses she praised in her seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” It’s almost entirely residential; townhouses mostly, along with a grand apartment building at the southeast end whose splendor makes it easy to forget that it’s little more than a glorified filing cabinet.
Musical iconoclast Charles Ives, playwright Oscar Wilde and famed New Yorker editor Harold Ross liked the block so much they once called it home, but my favorite residence is still occupied by some of its original inhabitants. The Second Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, near Sixth Avenue, is small and leafy, with ancient tombstones that are so weathered they are mostly illegible—at least from behind the locked gates. It’s a place to stop and peer in, a place that to me that is as evocative and rich with association as a long novel or a great portrait. The lettering has been blasted away by wind and rain. How very long does it take to make a stone melt like a watch in a Dali painting, I wonder. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; not just for men, but for their monuments as well.
What Happened Here
This block has its dark side; it’s not all literary luminaries. The poet James Merrill was born at number 18 in 1926, but by 1970 it was the headquarters for the Weathermen, those creepy left-wing extremists named for a Bob Dylan lyric (“You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.”) They made bombs here—or rather, they tried to. On March 6, 1970, while they were mucking about with 60 sticks of dynamite, hoping to retaliate for the death of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the explosives went off. Three members died, and the building was virtually destroyed. Number 18 was rebuilt 8 years later.
To buy on this block, you might have to go through a so-called “boutique” agency like M. Woods and Associates. They specialize in very old, very special properties. Like the one at 24 W. 11th Street. It’s a 19th century, four-story townhouse going for $6.95 million. It’s actually a co-listing, being offered simultaneously by M. Woods and Corcoran, broker to the stars. But Corcoran doesn’t even have the townhouse on its Web site, and the contact info on the for-sale sign lists the company’s Senior Vice President, Sharon Baum. Neither she nor anyone at M. Woods returned phone calls for this article.
That might be a challenge. It’s not just the price—a fair amount of would-be renters can afford $1,500 to $2,000 a month, plus broker’s fee—but the background check. As a recent New York Times article stated, this seller’s market means the owner can often afford to turn down prospectives for any number of reasons. Some of which can be arbitrary. Take one listing we found for a $1,500-a-month “two-room” studio (not sure what that means) on 11th Street at 5th Avenue. The “owner is a private landlady who maintains her buildings to a ‘t.’” That sounds to me like an ornery crone suspicious of roustabouts—even if you do make 80 times (or whatever it is nowadays) the annual rent.
This block has your Sunday mornings covered. On the east end is the famous First Presbyterian Church, built in 1846 and still going strong. At the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street sits the famous (some would say infamous, for the atrocious service) French Roast, a 24-hour bistro where the French Toast is made from baguettes and the omelets come with fresh grapes on the side.