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.”
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.
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.
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.
Freelance graphic designers. Cadets. The middle-upper class.