Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Monroe Street between Catherine and Market

The Other Village
A storied history below the two bridges
By David Crohn

The rollers beneath the Manhattan Bridge are a sullen lot. The teenagers don’t talk much; just keep their heads down and roll.

An onlooker, the only girl under the bridge, joined the scattered fray. She stretched a little, leaning on her board with one arm and a leg out-splayed, an iconic crouch. She shot out from one side, tried a kickflip or an ollie, failed but landed safely and with her head up, then raced and halted at the other end.

The girl squatted again, head down, hands across her sneakers.

She was still; this is serious business.

Overhead, the N train passed, and the whole arena rumbled. After it passed, the only sound to be heard again were those of the wheels on the smooth pavement—rolling, clattering in defeat, the occasional triumphant smack—the music of chance.

This was five minutes along Monroe Street, in a neighborhood formerly known as the Lower East Side, probably known today as Chinatown, and by some, “Two Bridges.”

Many of these kids, a few of whom were Asian, could be residents of Knickerbocker Village a block and a half west, where 68% of the residents are Asian, according to a recent census. If so, they are a few among 4,000. More likely than not, they are unaware of the rich history of the sprawling, 130,680-square-foot superblock they inhabit, one side of which is the entirety of Monroe Street between Market and Catherine.

What Happened Here
Completed in 1933 and opened the next year, Knickerbocker Village was the city’s first housing development built with help from the government. Fred French, who also built Tudor City in Midtown, “had to travel to Washington over 50 times, hat in hand, to get an $8 million loan from the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation,” writes the essayist Phillip Lopate.

The Village, now in scale with the rest of the City, was “huge when it opened,” and replaced a much smaller housing community called home by one Annie Moore, the first person to cross the gates at Ellis Island. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived in Building G, apartment 11E. Quoted in an obit for three wiseguys that ran in the New York Sun last year, former mob lawyer David Breitbart spun tall tales about one-time Village resident John “Boobie” Cerasani. Hawklike, a chess lover, “one mean fucker,” Boobie dove from fire escapes into the East River.

The block has a healthy helping of amenities—neighborhood bodegas, two dry cleaners, a church-and-school combo on the corner of Catherine and Monroe Streets. The block is also home to the Downtown Sleep Institute, which dozes quietly in the block’s only modern-style building, several stories of glass and steel that contrast starkly with the rest of the block’s brick and iron. The sign boasts “Luxurious Beds and Rooms,” a “Highly Trained Staff” and “Effective Treatment” for restless legs, daytime drowsiness, narcolepsy and other “Sleep Disorders.”

Next door is a storefront with a large yellow awning with red lettering almost entirely in Chinese. Though my Western eyes had no way of telling what goods or services it offers, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the business. Inside, the room is empty save for a few folding and plastic chairs against the walls, a desk near the door and a cash register. Slumped over on one of those plastic chairs, an older Chinese lady napped, while a garish flaming Buddha continued his unyielding grin at passersby from a poster in the window. Massage? Herbal healing? Matchmaking? Take your pick.

Want to live here? Queue up, or take your chances across the street.

Last year, as Manager Victor Callagy told me, Knickerbocker Village held one of its periodic lotteries to select who gets to sit on a waiting list several years long. Two hundred and thirty people—200 looking for two-bedroom apartments, 15 each for one-bedrooms and studios—won a spot out of some 3,000 to 4,000 applicants responding to an ad in the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Tenants pay $708 to $1,001 a month. If you make more than eight times that amount annually, you are ineligible to apply. It’s all rent-stabilized housing; the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal have raised rents about 3 to 5 percent every year.

The south side of Monroe Street is lined with the low-rise tenements characteristic of the neighborhood before the age of public housing and public renewal—all rounded arches topped with grotesque masks, red and brown brick, and fire escapes. Every one looks in desperate need of renovation, or at least a good scrubbing.

The managing agent at one of these buildings didn’t return phone calls seeking information, and I didn’t have the guts to ask anything of a lady perched at one of the windows. Forgive me; if the Evil Eye exists anywhere, it’s here.