Tuesday, January 23, 2007

13th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A

The Silver Box Cometh

(originally appeared in Our Town Downtown 1/23)

We as journalists are encouraged to be skeptical, to nose our way past authorized statements to get the “real” story hidden below whatever new decree appears tailored to please people, placate them, or get them to buy something.
But often the official word is so ridiculous, so detached from common sense and the world as many of us see it, that it has to be treated as a story in itself. Like your typical White House press briefing. Or the Manhattan building developer’s press release.
Let the diggers make the phone calls. I prefer to look at the public face—that is, shits and giggles and the theater of the absurd over “long-term community ramifications.”
Exibit A is the press release for A Building, an ultra-modern (i.e., boxy, LOTS of glass, vaguely fascist) condo now being constructed on 13th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A. It’s ad copy masquerading as “news.” I know that perfectly well. But the way in which the Ascend Group is selling this to the public—the idea of East Village “authenticity” alongside glossy, SoHo-style sophistication—strikes me as preposterous.
To wit: “…the development is offering a sophisticated downtown lifestyle… ‘We are thrilled to finally be able to provide buyers with a building that reflects the East Village, but with a new flair.’” And, my favorite: “A Building will be just as unique and exciting as the people who live in the East Village.” Like who? The yuppies who can actually afford it? Even for ad copy, this is low.
Exhibit B is the block itself: a character-less portion that is nonetheless characteristic of this part of the East Village. The day I visited was gray and gloomy. I suppose the sun does rise on lucky 13th Street; but with the slab of a public school dominating half of the block’s northwest side and the 24-hour truck bay to the northwest side—the A Building’s future home is right between—I couldn’t help but think of Slough, the old industrial town outside London memorialized by poet John Betjeman (“Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough…”).
Rob Kaliner, Ascend Group honcho, told the New York Post that he chose this neighborhood because most in Manhattan had “Gaps and Banana Republics, and the thing I liked about the East Village was that it still had that classic old feeling of typical Manhattan. Not too contrived…”
He’s right. Instead of a Gap this block has a Popeye’s, and a few blocks away is a McDonald’s. Then there’s that noisy, smelly truck bay. And plenty of marker graffiti. Those elements are what comprise a great part of anyone’s urban experience, so I suppose that just because you’re a millionaire and living in a luxe building with a rooftop pool doesn’t mean you can’t have an un-“contrived” downtown “lifestyle.”
Such is the topsy-turvy world of downtown Manhattan real estate, one in which a 400-square-foot room sells for a half million dollars and industrial government buildings next door can be pitched as perks because they smack of “authenticity”—all because some artists lived there 20 years ago. Who are the 35 or so people, according to the release, who have bought in already? Rich people whose shame over having money blinds them to the cognitive dissonance of swimming in a lap pool beside a “manicured lawn” while trucks below belch black fumes into the air?

“A Building will feature the East Village’s first 5,000-square-foot rooftop lounge replete with a 50-foot lap pool, manicured lawn with three cabanas, a wet bar and electric grill… It will also be easier to travel thanks to a taxi call button located in the elevator, which lights up signaling for a taxi outside the building…” Starting at $490,000 for a studio. Coming Summer 2007.
My apologies to Howard Berglas, a gentlemanly agent at Croman Real Estate, for the above screed. Walking along the block I bumped into him, and he said there was a $3,495-a-month one-bedroom for rent on the block. His business card says these and other apartments Croman offers are available for no fee. Sorry, no taxi call button in the non-existent elevators.
What Happened Here
Want authentic? Mob boss Salvatore D. Aquila, briefly the head of what would become the Gambino Family, was shot and killed on the corner of Avenue A and 13th Street in 1928. Back in 1895, at 428 East 13th, Maria Barbella, who almost became the first woman to face the electric chair, committed the crime that made her infamous: she slit the throat of an unrequiting lover.

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