Thursday, February 1, 2007

Chambers Street between Hudson and Greenwich Streets

Oh, to be part of the crowd

(from Our Town Downtown 2/6/07)

By David Crohn
One way to find an apartment in the city is to pick your favorite neighborhood, then try and locate a fringe, that one shady part where some dismal government building or chronic system of potholes drives prices down and no self-respecting agent can describe as “prime.” Like anything else in New York, it takes determination and heaps of luck.
It worked for me, and as I write this I am tucked away in a one-bedroom a block away from the West Side Highway. (When I first moved in, pigeon poop blanketed the building’s front door.) My home is thoroughly nestled. And so am I, usually for better, but some times for worse—talk radio stays on all the time, and I go for walks along Hudson Street twice daily.
One day I had a friend over, and in between staccato bursts of encomium to my new apartment, she let slip a critique that has been stuck in my gums ever since.
Said my friend, “This place is great, but you have no street life.” She was right: on one side the windows face a courtyard, which is lovely but desolate; on the other is a silent street that barely registers a decibel, even on Saturday nights when stiletto-heeled revelers crowd the Meatpacking District a few blocks away.
The quiet is good for my profession, but in my next life I want to live on Chambers Street between Greenwich Street and Hudson Street (or, West Broadway, since this is where Hudson becomes West Broadway). There may be parts of Tribeca that seem older or groovier, but the impulse to be part of the crowd is embedded in even the most agoraphobic New Yorker.
Between the subway stop on one side and the Borough of Manhattan Community College campus across the street on the other, a steady stream of pedestrians fills the walkway between.
Sure, it’s loud. But so is the ocean.
As much as some folks like to bemoan the luxury-condo cottage industry that is gradually converting SoHo, the Bowery and Tribeca into a small world of “ultra-modern amenities,” people must be coming, cause they keep building them. Two new developments in this vein are in the works on this block, but compared to the anomalous monstrosities appearing in some neighborhoods, these fit just swell. One, the Artisan Lofts, is a retooling of a 1930s, 18-story office building for residential use. East of that and on the south end of the street is 146 Chambers, “where timeless elegance meets state-of-the-art design.” I have no idea what that means. But according to an artist’s rendering online, the new building, which is only starting to be built, looks like it will be, if not congruent with the Renaissance revival architecture nearby, then harmonious and accommodating. Both condos will sell for millions later this year.
There was nothing listed on this block at press time; expect to pay upwards of $3,000 to live here, in what is a little like Tribeca’s Midtown.
What Happened Here
Just last week, the New York Post reported that two employees at the McDonald’s near Greenwich Street are suing their manager for sexual harassment. In addition to ogling the teenagers and making lascivious comments, Jose Irizzary, along with his assistant manager, Joffrey Rodriguez, allegedly asked them to appear in the buff on a pal’s gay porn Web site. The boys’ lawyer called the burger joint “a feeding ground for these guys [the manager].” The suit claims the modeling gig would have paid $200. One block west, the BMCC campus was completed in 1980; stretching over five blocks, the campus is described by the “AIA Guide to New York City” as a “curiosity from that brief era when architects told us that megastructures would cure all urban ills.” That’s a rather haughty judgment which, thanks to the apologias lately being rained down on Bob Moses—a major force, if not the guiding spirit for making things big, and quickly—may some day be looked at as a curiosity from a brief era.
A quick look at this block’s commercial facilities will tell you there’s a college campus nearby, even if you’re blind to the kids with books walking by. There’s a bookstore—Manhattan Books—with a proud return policy advertised out front. And a Taco Bell, and a McDonald’s and a Subway. A mom-and-pop diner, hardware store and pizza place happily coexist along with the chain stores on this block. My favorite amenity though, if you can call it that, is one that’s definitely geared toward college students: an Army/Navy/Marines recruitment center. Inside, a single uniformed officer sipped coffee while a television set in the display window was awash with white noise.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Washington Mews

(Originally published in Our Town Downtown 1/29/07)

Discussed: Belgian bricking, Romanesque arches, boule availability
By David Crohn
Before I set foot there, it was the name that turned me on. Mews. Or, to locals, just The Mews.
I wanted to go, if only to find out what a Mew was (and whether or not they can exist as a singular entity, or if, like “commons,” they are always plural).
Then I went, and discovered a place so special that, as it turns out, deserves a word as strange as Mews to name it.
Strange, because specific. Mews: noun, “a row or street of houses or apartments that have been converted from stables or built to look like former stables.” We didn’t invent this one—it comes from Britain, where one can assume there are lots of rows of houses that used to be stables. In New York City, private homes that used to be stables can be found nowhere else but here, according to the Luther Harris, a historian who lives next door to the Mews. No other alley in the city is called the Mews, because the city has no other mews of which to speak.
“Quaint” does not even begin to describe the essence of this alley, and thanks are due to New York University, which owns the Mews, for keeping it as an open source of delight and musings for the rest of us. At night the gates are closed. And although this is a private alley, during the day Washington Mews remains open to the public, allowing the masses to take the short stroll from one end to the other. There are few, if any, other public spaces kept quite as pristine as the Mews; if there were more blocklets like this in Manhattan, the Vespa people would have taken over ages ago.
Tourists and sentimental New Yorkers like me are drawn to the Mews because unlike, say, the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center, its aesthetics are distinctively old-fashioned and highbrow—wisteria vines, Romanesque arches, Belgian-style bricks-in-concrete streets. (They aren’t cobblestones, according to The stones have just eroded over time to look like them.)
While NYU has been a favored bogeyman for preservationists over the years, the school has done a hell of a job at preserving the Mews. Along with faculty housing, it’s lined with the headquarters for the university’s German, Irish and French Studies Departments, respectively: the Deutsches Haus, Glucksman Ireland House, Maison Francais. The Haus, House and Maison host lectures and events, and are home to research libraries and professors’ offices.
Don’t even think about it. As you’ll find below, even those lucky enough to live on the Mews don’t own their apartments.
Want to live in New York’s Little Paris? Hit the books. The Mews alley is home to NYU professors and their families only. They rent their homes from the school. Although an NYU spokeswoman couldn’t get more information to me before deadline, I was able to confirm that not all the profs there year round. Get straight As, and maybe you can earn a sublet opportunity.
What Happened Here
The Mews were (was?) born in the early part of the 19th century, when residents who were leasing the property from Sailor’s Snug Harbor—a kind of old folks’ home for retired sailors—built homes along the north side of Washington Square Park and 8th Street’s south side. They needed a place for their horses, so they plopped down stables in a back alley that divided the developments on either side. That’s how it was used, for the most part, until 1916, when the automobile had replaced the horse and carriage. The stables were remodeled and offered up as airy and light studios for artists attracted to the bohemian atmosphere burgeoning in Greenwich Village even then. See how the buildings along the south side all look the same? That’s because they were built all at once, in 1939. The artists’ era ended in about 1950, when NYU acquired the entire property from Sailor’s Snug Harbor. The painter Edward Hopper was one of the last artists to live there; he died at home in 1967.
If I lived here, I’d want Continental amenities to match the Parisian character of my block. You know—baguettes, a different store for each meat, wine sold out of vats on the street. The closest you can come to all that is a Le Pain Qoutidien franchise, at the corner of 8th Street and Fifth Avenue, which sells fresh baguettes, boules and ciabattas. No vats or fish stores though. Just the rest of 8th Street, which is famous for its shoe stores, cheap-jewelry stores and combination tattoo parlor/head shops.