Thursday, March 8, 2007

Gansevoort Street between Washington and Greenwich

Fresh Meat
For trees, go to Central Park
By David Crohn

The outstanding thing about cities is not their ethnic diversity, their liberal politics and dress codes, or the nightlife—although those are the major attractions—but the way the best ones take old things and make them new again while barely changing anything.

Thus, in Berlin, they have bombed-out buildings transformed into cavernous nightclubs and the surviving fragments of a heinous symbol of repression covered in modern art; here in New York we have the Meatpacking District.

Wobbling across the cobblestones in high heels can’t be fun, and the stink of carcasses pervades those parts of the District where meat is still, in fact, packed. And yet, ever since the early 1990s or so, this has been one of Manhattan’s most fashionable neighborhoods. Instead of beef, extortionately priced dresses and flashing disco lights now hang in those capacious former warehouses.

Fourteenth Street west of Ninth Avenue is the area’s main artery, but a few blocks below sits the more modest and representative Gansevoort Street, named after a Revolutionary War hero and the grandfather of Herman Melville. Gansevoort between Washington and Greenwich Streets offers a microscopic glimpse into what this once-sordid neighborhood—famous not just for its meat but for the transsexual hookers who lined the streets at night—has become.

Nowhere else in the city will you see short roofs hanging over the sidewalk, steel garage doors and faded-brick lowrises—but you will find all of this distinctive architecture on this block.

And it’s a quiet one, but not at all rustic or faux pastoral, the way so many other beautiful blocks in the city are: as if the only way a city block can be lovely is by aping, however vaguely, some imaginary country landscape. (The only tree to be found on the block is just around its northeast corner: a winding complex of aboveground roots protecting the entrance to 3 9th Ave.)

Upscale shops and flashy nightclubs may have taken over the block and driven the price of a beer up to six bucks, but no one’s changed its appearance a soupcon. Come here during the day and you will be reminded that even in a city of several millions you can find yourself alone, free to enjoy metal and concrete and stone for their own sake, without a single blade of grass to distract you.

Renting and Buying
Forget actually living on this block, since the converted warehouses and meat lockers are all commercial and office spaces (for hip design firms and the like). But one block away, almost close enough to toss an unfiltered-cigarette butt, stands the Hotel Gansevoort, where you can rent a suite at this time of year for a mere $675 a night. If you can afford that much for one night, why not splurge on one of $5,000-a-night Duplex Penthouse Suites? They have jacuzzis, fireplaces and original Andy Warhol prints on the walls. Clearly, whoever said money was wasted on the rich said it before this place was erected.

What Happened Here
Gansevoort Street marks the southern terminus of the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway that runs all the way up to the Javits Center at 34th Street. Built in 1929 to transport freight, the High Line has stood unused since 1980. The weeds, wild flowers and trees that have since taken gave two enterprising New Yorkers the idea of making strip into a public park. Their non-profit group Friends of the High Line received in 2004 a $50 million grant from the city to do just that. Ground was broken in April of last year, and progress has been slow but steady.

The transformation of the High Line, along with the Whitney Museum’s possible addition of a southern satellite at Gansevoort and Washington Streets, will officially close the chapter of local history in which Chelsea and the Far West Village were the city’s grittiest industrial neighborhoods.

Get out your credit card(s). This upscale block offers at least three different ways to drop ducats: there are five restaurants, three retailers and one nightclub—all high end. Rhone is a lounge-style eatery with some 300 wine options. Florent is a French bistro-style diner with tasty comfort food. And Meet, at the corner of Washington and Gansevoort, may have hearty food and fine wine, but the fashionistas inside prefer the cosmos and air-and-salad sandwiches. PM, on the other side of the block, picks up at 1am, much to the consternation of the baby boomers and the sons and daughters of baby boomers who live on the West Village side of Greenwich Street.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Charlton Street between Varick Street and 6th Avenue

A Shrine of Covet

By David Crohn

The Bible says it’s bad to covet things. I’ve always assumed that’s not because of the harm you can inflict on your object but rather the way envy can handicap your judgment or screw up a perfectly nice stroll downtown.

Well, the Bible never tried sharing a one-bedroom, illegally converted Greenpoint storefront with his coke-snorting former college roommate. Or walked along Charlton Street between Varick Street and 6th Avenue.

With its whistle-clean stoops and breezy elegance, this is a shrine of covet. To the Things You Will Never Have. Hardcore real estate porn.

And I suspect some of the people who live there like it that way. How else to explain the way in which one woman sat, in the middle of her luxuriously appointed living room, laptop splayed open, windows wantonly flung open with curtains pushed aside, the light of early afternoon pouring in? And to think, she flashed me a dirty look when my neck went rubber and I peered in as I ambled by.

This immodest woman lives on the north side of the street, in one of a long row of homes that provide the perfect primer on Federal Architecture. So named because it was born during the late 18th century, Federal Architecture was “the first of our new republic,” says the “AIA Guide to New York City.” “Dignified and restrained, it emphasized geometric form and harmonious proportion and was executed in both wood and masonry.”

Inside, the homes are stately and bright, the epitome of what can only be called high class.

The southern side of the block isn’t as luscious as the northern side—which is a little like saying Veuve Clicquot tastes better than Dom Perignon. The Elisabeth Irwin High School, which boasts Robert De Niro and former “Nation” editor Victor Navasky as alums, sits here, in a large building with an ornate and very collegiate fa├žade. On the southeast side of the block are several old townhouses of the kind that are a common site in the best-preserved parts of Greenwich Village and SoHo.
But no matter how often I pass the townhouses downtown, and the two- and three-story homes on the north side of the street, I still salivate when I see them, and I often have to temper my envy with rhetorical thanks that I do not live in Greenpoint anymore.

Renting and Buying
The only listings to be found on this block right now are at 2 Charlton Street, the large box that is uncharacteristic of the historic beauty of the rest of this block. Charlton House, as it’s known, has studios starting at $1,575. In lieu of regality or style, it has in-house laundry facilities and 24-hour doorman service. There are two one-bedrooms for sale: one for $785,000, and the other for $889,000. If, on the other hand, you have the dough and don’t mind waiting for the opportunity, expect to pay millions for one of those Federal-style homes on the northern half of the block.

What Happened Here
Often when we talk about historical places downtown, we are talking about the history of the city itself. Not here. At the corner of Varick and Charlton Streets once stood Richmond Hill, a colonial mansion built in 1767 that served as the military headquarters for George Washington when he was commander of the Revolutionary Army. Vice President John Adams and Aaron Burr slept there. According to, in 1831 Richmond Hill was converted into a theater that featured Isaac Van Amburgh, an early pioneer of the circus, um, arts. Legend has it he was the first to stick his head in a lion’s mouth. The culmination of his act was to make a lamb lie down with a lion—a riff on the Book of Isaiah, in which the lamb actually gets with a wolf, but same diff. The theater was demolished in 1849.

None, which is not entirely a bad thing. The length, architectural uniformity (on one side) and dearth of commercial establishments on this block give it the feeling of an enclosed mini-district, kind of like housing projects in Utopia. There is a high-end deli at the southeast corner of the block, as well as a bodegaesque mini-grocery nearby on 6th Avenue. Keep heading west on Charlton, through MacDougal Street, and the sudden shrinkage of the buildings and narrowing of the street herald your entrance into SoHo proper, which is Amenity Central.