Friday, July 6, 2007

St. Luke’s Place and Leroy Street between Hudson and Seventh Avenue South

Splendid Encampment

By David Crohn

Faced with interrogating the inanimate, teasing the hidden life from buildings and streets—at least half of which happens behind closed doors—is daunting. It takes time, patience and an open mind.

Seldom, as I’m sure anyone can imagine, does anything notable simply step up and present itself. You have to talk to people who know better, peer through windows and doors. Sometimes you have to squint to make the pieces fit.

All of this is a given, every time. I am reminded whenever I explore a new block. When things go well the pain is less acute; by some imprecise magic, I squeeze the stone, and blood comes out.

But this block—so lush, and largely uniform—seems impenetrable. Rowhouse after rowhouse after rowhouse—each three stories high. Why? And why does the name Leroy Street end right where the street bends, only to pick up again west of Hudson?

Andy Warhol and Steve Reich taught us the hypnotic beauty of repetition, but I doubt that’s what the 19th century builder had in mind for the stretch of 15 rowhouses that, for many, defines St. Luke’s Place and Leroy Street between Seventh Ave. South and Hudson Street.

We know that back then it wasn’t uncommon to rename a portion of a block to boost its putative prestige. Which is what Trinity Church, which owned all the land here, did before selling it all off starting in 1851. (The 15 residences along St. Luke’s Place are numbered sequentially.)

Christopher Gray, writing in the New York Times in 1996, calls the swath of homogeny “a mystery of 19th-century real-estate development in New York: who or what was the common agent that produced such a uniform row?” He didn’t know then, and my research turned up nothing better. But whoever it was, they liked brick and brownstone. They wielded a top-notch cookie cutter, aesthetically speaking, using the Renaissance and Greek Revival styles popular with the upper crust at the time.

At Seventh Avenue South and Leroy Street, things aren’t nearly so pretty, or so clean. The end of St. Luke’s Place is marked by apartment buildings that suddenly tower over their neighbors; go further around the corner, north along Seventh Ave. South, and trash litters the sidewalk. There’s graffiti, and across the street, a vacant storefront.

But for the splendidly encamped residents of St. Luke’s Place, the trees and the turn protect their niche. The Greeks had a special name for the revelatory twist—chiasmus—and it is through that convolution that the blood of this block pumps.

Living Here
The quick and easy way to move to this pricey block would be through 9300 Realty or CitiHabitats. The former has a fifth-floor walk-up studio apartment available at 53 Leroy ($2,395 a month), and the latter handles rentals next door at 51. A quick call to CitiHabitats revealed that nothing was available at press time; but they leave their sign up, a nod to frequent vacancies for the young professionals and students who tend to make up the majority of their clientele.

The block is strictly residential, but its neighboring stretch of Hudson Street is home to the Candy Café, a retro-style eatery; Out of the Kitchen, for semi-gourmet takeout; and a mini-grocery store.

What Happened Here
Maybe it’s the location. Maybe it’s the regality of those rowhouses. Either way, St. Luke’s Place has a history replete with prominent former residents: former Mayor James J. Walker (1926-1932), for whom the park across the street, formerly a cemetery, is named. (Note the so-called “mayoral lampposts” at number 6.) Also, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Timothy Leary. TV’s Cosby family may have lived in Brooklyn, but the exterior to their home was shot at 10 St. Luke’s Place.

My favorite though is the playful poet Marianne Moore, who made Modernism charming while living at “14 St. Luke’s Place when she first moved to New York City.” So says the plaque across the street, next door to the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library where she worked. Moore wore a tricorn hat and black cape to boxing matches, wrote to the Ford Motor Company suggesting the name “Utopian Turtletop” for the car that would become the Edsel, and wrote in her poem “To a Snail,” which could have been called “To St. Luke’s Place”: “It is not the acquisition of any one thing/that is able to adorn/or the incidental quality that occurs/as a concomitant of something well said,/that we value in style,/ but the principle that is hid…”

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.