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.

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.

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