Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Scoop on the Poop

I am an expert on crap. Not quite a fecal freak, but after living in the West Village for just a few months I feel like I know the stuff well enough to file a few words on it.
It.
In all its forms. Brown. Black. Solid like glue, soft like cheesecake. All of it expelled from the dogs in my own West Village. It’s everywhere, if you haven’t noticed.
It’s not that I like the stuff. It’s just that it’s nearly ubiquitous, and, again, writing about it for a weekly newspaper shouldn’t be too hard. No angry letters demanding more of it on our city streets.
I hope to change the world. By writing this I hope to convince animal lovers to invest in lizards, tarantulas, rats—any animal whose shit is tiny and hard and easy to ignore.
Readers, especially the dog owner/lovers among them, may object to my tone, or my non-discriminating, blanket bomb approach to my attack on them. I will not deploy the civility or euphemism to be found in a sign reading “Please Curb Your Dog.”
What can I say? Extreme times and extreme measures and all the rest of it. New Yorkers walk with their heads down not because they are rude, nervous or navel gazing—they really just don’t want to step in a dog’s rectal issue.
You the dog owner, will read this and think, This isn’t me. I clean up after my dog—whatever that means. I follow after Rufus with a plastic bag, wait, then pick the poo up and congratulate him (Of course you do. If he wasn’t doing it here, at the corner of Washington and Charles, he’d be making waste on your couch!). Then you walk half a block or more with a bag of crap. You may be throwing it out, but I cannot be the only one who sees the absurdity in this, or the only one to feel pity for the sanitation workers who deal with hundreds of these bags day in, day out: crap in, crap out.
I ask the small army of New Yorkers walking around carrying crap: Is it worth it?
If the answer’s no, you’ve read enough. Go sell your dog to a sweet old couple upstate.
If you’re fine carrying crap from corner to corner, I’ll try to tighten the screws.
To do so I e-mailed Monica Collins, a syndicated columnist who writes a kind of Dear Abby column for dog owners (www.askdoglady.com). She was surprisingly sympathetic to my plight. Not only did she acknowledge the sad fact that dogs for some people are “starter kids, substitute kids or empty nest kids,” but she did say that my theory about who to blame for the tons of dog crap in the West Village holds water. As she said, “Responsible dog owners suffer the burden of scorn.” And I am the who will heap that burden upon them all.
I spread the net wide.
My blame goes beyond the city itself for not cleaning it up, beyond delinquent owners who can’t curb their dogs. I have a theory that all dog owners should be blamed for the plethora of poo, because the more dogs people see on the street in general, the more relaxed the doo doo delinquents may feel to just let the crap fall where it may.
The truth is, every person who owns a dog is to blame.
Even the most fastidious of the feces carriers. The ones with the little dogs, the big ones. The ones with the really furry ones, those that sweat in February. The ones that scoop it up like it was flaked with gold. You all form links in the chain of guilt.
I blame that one guy who has to park his dog out in front of the Brewbar—great place if you haven’t been, they sell scones and doggie snacks—just so that everyone will look at it and go “Oh, how cute.” And others like him, I blame them too.
My logic may be comprised of empty syllogism, but here goes: Dog people see the dozens of people walking their dogs and something in them clicks. They think it’s ok, that it is natural, to get a dog to walk around with if they feel any kind of lack in their lives. Delinquents multiply.
As I see it, the doo doo dilemma is an expression of a more serious, widespread problem with New York City: people can’t just have their hobbies. They have to be sure and share that passion with everyone.
I fear for you that there is something is missing in your lives. The dog shit all over and everywhere is some dark excrement of your souls.

Weehawken St.

A Hidden Place:
By David Crohn

(Originally appeared in Our Town Downtown in October 2006--but I can promise you not much has changed since then.)

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 fa├žade.
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.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mercer Street between Spring Street and Broome Street

Safe as Warehouses
By David Crohn

When city officials established the easy-to-navigate grid system of streets in 1811, they stopped at Houston Street. I take that to mean that the fact that the neighborhood South of Houston is composed of even squares and rectangles is a happy accident. But that’s also why Wooster, Greene and Mercer St. begin at E. Houston Street and end at Canal, without lining up with any streets north or south. They exist only here. From a geographical perspective, this is what makes SoHo so self-contained.
That, and the architecture, all Italianate facades, and baby townhouses that are a common sight in the countryside and in postcards but remarkable in any urban locale.
This week, I managed to find perhaps the one block in SoHo that’s comparatively dreary. Greene has its frills and Prince its Apple Store. On Mercer Street between Spring and Broome, however, it’s mostly warehouses. But in a neighborhood loaded with red-brick, well-maintained warehouses, this block has my favorite: the Rosenbluth Bros. building, at 84 through 94 Mercer St. It’s bigger and older than me, it will be there when I die or move away, and important things go on inside. The sign’s typeface is exquisite. (Sporting goods are sold from the ground floor storefront, but it’s easy enough to look past this prosaic detail.)
A young laborer was buffing graffiti off a small segment of my warehouse’s exterior when I strolled by. Watching this was like watching a natty giant lay back and get a manicure.
The Rosenbluth building also quietly hides a conundrum in plain sight. It has 14 columns of windows across but only one set of fire escapes servicing the middle four. So what are you supposed to do, God forbid, in the event of a fire if you are on either end? Do people still use fire escapes, except to grab a quick smoke or drop water balloons on passersby? I asked the warehouse. It stood silent.
What Happened Here
The neighborhood was once known as Hell’s Hundred Acres, because the warehouses were filled with flammable materials, no one payed attention, and the city’s fire men were little more than gangsters with trucks and buckets. The zero hour for modern-day SoHo is 1974, when the city passed the Loft Law, which allowed those huge lofts to be zoned residential, and thus paved the way for artists to move in and have a cheap place to live and work. According to a recent exhibition at a downtown gallery that took stock of the lower Manhattan arts scene in its heyday, this era ended in 1984—the year Ronald Reagan was reelected. Rents skyrocketed, Starbucks paved the sky, the moon turned to blood, blah blah blah.
Renting
The artists sold out and moved to Brooklyn and elsewhere, but no one bothered to subdivide those huge lofts. So there’s still plenty of space to live and work. Like at one apartment we found, at Spring and Mercer and listed by Knickerbocker Village, Inc. It’s a 950-square-foot one-bedroom with a full-sized separate kitchen, a walk-in closet, even a big, human-body-sized tub. $5,500 per month.
Buying
This block seems quieter than most in SoHo, but not for long. The sights—scaffolding everywhere, debris from gutted ground floors spewing into the street—and sounds—hum of drills and clangs of moving steel—of construction are rife. Those new projects may some day look like 72 Mercer, a recently renovated building at Broome with condos available ranging from $3.23 million to $3.45. Since you can still actually score a condo in SoHo for a hair under a million, that seems excessive. Those are one-bedrooms. Double the bedrooms, and it’s triple the price and then some. So goes the funky algebra of downtown real estate.
Residents and Regulars
Claire Danes lives a block away. She’s one of those people who perpetually begs the question, Has she been in anything lately?
Amenities
No grocery stores nearby, but it is charge card heaven. Helen Wang, Ugg, Kate Spade—God knows what those shops sell; all I can do is read the signs and report back. But there is a cocktail lounge, called Bar 89, on this block. I know what they sell: Martinis, lots of martinis, in all the primary colors.
dcrohn@gmail.com

11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues

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.

Buying
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.

Renting
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.

Amenities
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.

dcrohn@gmail.com

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?

Buying
“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.
Renting
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.