The Freedom Tunnel, between the 70’s-110’s on the upper west side, was an active place twenty years ago. It was filled with the characters who used to be a more visible presence in New Yorkers’ lives - the unshaven, the uncouth, the unclean. In need of space to live and work amid the skyrocketing real estate, the street artists; the apartment-less colonized an abandoned piece of New York City infrastructure: the train tunnel beneath Riverside Drive. At its height of residence and activity, thousands gathered to live and work in the Freedom Tunnel. The tunnel was covered in make-shift dwellings - a village - a subterranean shantytown. It was a community existing in its own set of rules. The people who made houses in the tunnel made a place to call their own. Like Michael Pollan, these men and women left a piece of the City they once called home because they could not work or live there anymore. The street artists built for themselves a creative place of escape and expression. And in setting up camp beneath the City that inspired their work, they were able to regard New York with a new perspective.
Robert Moses built the train tunnel in the 1930’s in the same environment of public access and utility associated with his early work and planning. But public transportation grew to be increasingly irrelevant for a culture in love with the automobile. The tunnel was thus never used and abandoned. It became a perfect place for those experimenting with graffiti art in the 1970’s and 1980’s because it was outside the purview of law enforcement. The community grew and grew in the 1980’s to become a sacred place for those who could not afford a place to live. The people of the street transformed an unused public utility into a creative workshop for artists to spread their subversive art form around the City.
But the Freedom Tunnel could not survive Giuliani’s obsessive campaign to sanitize a city overrun with windshield cleaners and boom boxes. The people who lived there were forced out in 1991 when the Amtrak trains started running through the tunnel. Thousands were evicted throughout the 1990’s and now there are virtually no residents. The people left to find sanctuary in the outer boroughs, and what we are now left with is a cultural museum in disrepair - a rotting emblem of street and youth culture.
As a twenty-two year old living in 2011 New York City, I tend to romanticize the city of the seventies and eighties. I am nostalgic for a city I have never remembered - the city of The Warriors and Style Wars. I long for a city of open spaces for expression and run by a mayor who is an appreciator of street art and culture. As someone who can only visit the ruins of a former New York, I resent the twenty year campaign to rebrand Manhattan and New York City as tame and showered. I wonder where the primordial grime on which the City was once constituted has gone...washed clean or drifting somewhere beyond the metropolis.
The Freedom Tunnel was never planned for the activity that took place there. Moses was probably turning in his grave when the shantytowns were erected within his pristine tunnel. The anarchistic spirit of the place grew from it being unplanned. Abandoned factories, warehouses and tunnels always attract artists in need for space to express themselves. So much of post-war street art was adapting preexisting spaces and forms into works of art. Unplanned expression, working on the fly and sometimes on the run are foundational to the murals now molding in the Freedom Tunnel. While I find it difficult to really define authenticity, I would call the art in the Freedom Tunnel authentic. I deem it such because of its unplanned rawness. Realness for me is a genuine ignorance of significance. By that I mean the moment someone or something realizes importance, some authenticity dissipates from its soul. The Freedom Tunnel is an important place in New York, but its not really open to the public. It is a functional Amtrak tunnel, which again complicates the Freedom Tunnel’s legacy. The community that lived in the tunnel relied on the disuse of infrastructural space - a disuse that was the result of a booming automobile industry. So in some way, the Freedom Tunnel was a product of the Automobile Age - a period in American history that we associate with a myriad of societal and ecological problems. And when the tunnel resumed its original programmed use of public transport, the Freedom Tunnel died.
Visiting the Freedom Tunnel was a conflicting experience. I found myself trying to identify what is more important to a city: public transportation or authentic artistic expression. But instead of figuring out an answer that does not exist, I just found myself becoming angry with the forces and institutions that have pitted public transportation against public art in this given space. As Jacobs and many urban theorists proclaim, the presence of artists is a sign of a healthy city - street art especially because it transforms streets into spectacle. And if uncommissioned art is some of the most authentic expressions of our culture, how do we safeguard its survival? As urban designers, how do we commission the uncommissionable; how do we plan the unplanned?
The art that exploded from the Freedom Tunnel was an aberration in the City’s history - a fleeting moment in New York’s development that was once conducive to grand spectacles of public art. There will never be a subway car enrobed in the electrifying patterns and colors of Dondi or Freedom. There will never entire neighborhoods moving their feet to Kool Herc or Afrika Bambaataa. Again I find myself romanticizing a time and place I have only heard about or seen in movies. But I do not think I am not alone in my wistfulness. My whole generation is nostalgic for this particular moment in New York’s history. As my friends learn how to breakdance while clutching onto their i-Phones, I see my generation with one foot in the past and one in the future, leaving their bodies wobbling somewhere in the present.
I left behind the west coast, California, and my home that was a block from the beach. What was laying ahead was the city and all the excitement it would have, however I would in turn be knowingly sacrificing the beach and whatever lifestyle had gone along with it. And although I could still take the subway to surf a couple times during the year it wasn't the same and the sacrifice proved true until towards the end of last year I found a place tucked away in Soho that would make anyone question whether that was necessarily the case.
We have all heard capture and release (Blair's wording) trick cathedrals, churches, and even Grand Central Station uses where you are forced into a small constricting entranceway with low ceilings before you are released into the vast main hall. The tight entrance is used to enhance the actual interior making the open space that much more breathtaking. The method is still used and glorified today by architects but it can be dwarfing and make the spaces feel godly and impersonal. What if you ran this method in reverse?
It is inevitable, you are already released in New York City, its canyon-like gridded avenues makes it seem like you are in the worlds biggest atrium where every way you look there are concrete and brick buildings but straight up is a patch of sky. You find yourself either dripping sweat from the summer heat and humidity or freezing from the winter winds whipping down the cities wind tunnel avenues, yet either way you're looking for an escape. You need to be captured. That is exactly what happens one block off Broadway on the outer fridge of Soho, the back ally of Soho. The street is Crosby, where the delivery trucks pull up to the backs of the mega department stores on Broadway. Playing the role of Soho's backstage Crosby didn't even have street lights a decade ago. On the cobblestone paved back street the hectic city already seems to quite down though it too is not immune to gentrification. In fact in the past year two new hotels have sprouted up with in blocks of each other, but get between Broome and Grand and you will find something new too, however it is rather a retreat to Soho's roots in creativity. It is called Saturdays Surf NYC (just imagine how this place would never have existed had Robert Moses had his way and carried out his plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway on Broome). It is an unlikely combination of an expresso bar and a surf shop right in the middle of Manhattan. The caffeine is obviously catering more to the city's pace but take a walk through the narrow shop and the you will end up in a secret backyard garden that maintains a subtler vibe. You have been captured.
Soho has often been criticized for its rampant gentrification, and rightfully so. Bringing “surf” into the city seems unnatural. Entering Soho on Broadway you will be greeted by a huge multi-story Hollister Surf Co. flagship store that is supposed to ooze the laid back beach vibe with its cologne pumping through the stores air system and the giant screen displaying a live feed of the Huntington Beach pier in California. A little further down Broadway you will pass a Quiksilver and Billabong. The stores are smaller but still don't have a profound enough effect to summon that nostalgia for the beach. A little deeper into Soho and off Broadway you'll find Saturdays Surf NYC, well actually you probably won't find it wandering and that is the beauty of it.
Saturdays is where I have worked for the past year and it has been open now for almost two years. The space at 31 Crosby Street was a gallery before it was remodeled as a surf shop. The space is incredible in itself though the concept behind the space is what really gives makes it a special place in the city not only physically but culturally as well. The vision came from a couple of surfers who understood you just couldn't bring the beach into the city. Trying to recreate the beach in the city seemed futile as you can't do better than the real thing. Making a New York space “beachy” would be out of place and would likely turn out to be dramatically artificial. So the mainstream surf culture would be left to Broadway as Saturdays adopted a new perspective on surfing that, in a sense, became defined by the lack of beach. It traded VW buses for the A train subway and beach bonfires for coffee in an urban Soho backyard. Of course there was still surfing, hence the company's motto “Surf NYC”. For me it sort of conjures up the lyrics of an old LCD Soundsystem song: “New York I love you, but you're bringing me down”.
View of down Crosby from the basement stairs (below)
When the store first opened the backstock was all kept in the backyard shed but since then the entire downstairs has been acquired in a two part process. The first was the stock room and the second room has become the office and showroom. Each has a set of stairs that descends either from the street in front or the corner of backyard. The showroom used to be a place where a man named Oliver made canvas luggage that is sold in several stores in Soho. He seemed to be the last homage to the area's roots as a district of factories before the block across the street burned down in 1876. At first it seems like a classic case of gentrification and comodification in Soho that Michael Sorkin so adamantly opposes however I would argue it is a positive and natural evolution of the use of space that keeps creativity in Soho instead of exporting it elsewhere only to import it's products into the city. The clothes are designed right at the stores location in the downstairs office. We built the entire showroom ourselves, and like Micheal Pollan in his book A Place of My Own I too became educated as an amateur builder. I learned how to cut ply-wood with out having it splinter and how to move an electric sander across the hard edge of a two by four. And again, like Pollan I too discovered the importance of a place when you have made it yourself. The exposed brick walls and concrete floors were painted white. We made the huge wrap-around corner desk cutting the wood, nailing it into the wall and staining it a deep mahogany color. The clothing racks are all made of old plumbing pipes. There is a small seating area where a vintage leather couch sits on top of an old persian rug facing the one window, a light well with a lighted stone wall beyond it. In the corner opposite the office desk there is an old urinal that has been in the basement along with a huge industrial three faucet porcelain sink for as long as anyone can remember. Above the urinal there is an old sign that reads “No Cigar Butts in the Urinal-MGMT”. It was left there by Oliver. Around the corner in the small hallway is a niche bar recessed into the wall, which is made up of a few bottles of whisky, a corkscrew and some dusty tumblers. There is a door next to the bar that leads into a toilet room with cold concrete floors and vintage wallpaper peeling off the sheetrock walls, the kind of wallpaper with a motif scene that is sort of in that Japanese “less is more” style. It depicts a woman getting water from a river, the figures are etched in a deep red and the paper is an off white.
Photo of inside the shop (below)
Go through the other door and you enter the stock room. Here all the walls are lined with industrial shelving piled high with t-shirts, shoes, or boxes of organized clothes. Floor fans pan back and forth in the summer in an attempt to keep it cool. The space itself isn't anything special but the music we play bounces off the low slung ceilings with the pipes we hit our heads on and sets a good atmosphere.
The best part of it all is, without question, the garden backyard. The floor is a deck made of wood and the benches around its border are wood too along with the giant flower boxes and tables. It sort of gives you the feeling you are on an old pirate ship but the exposed red brick wall to one side gives it away. You are somewhere in New York City. During the winter the backyard is empty and when it snows we usually have to pile the snow up somewhere which usually results in it being sculpted into a half pipe or igloo. In the spring the hundreds of yellow daffodils bloom in the flower boxes and the string of lightbulbs hangs over in a z shape. The corner is filled with our personal surfboards stacked together next to the weber barbeque that can't be used anymore because the charcoal smoke flows into the surrounding apartment buildings. From the backyard you can see one of my favorite buildings in the city. In fact it is one of the only places you can see the building from because it was an old carriage house that is completely cut off from the street front. It's inhabitants or the single family that owns it (I have not yet decided) have to take a tunnel from the street to the building. It has french doors on every floor that open to small european balconies. The buildings in the area, and all of Soho for that matter, have maintained the lower six or so story maximum that helps, along with the narrow streets, to keep the area intimate. The garden is an oasis from the city but without entirly removing oneself from the urban setting. Saturdays effectively juxtaposes surfing and the city and it's spaces resonate this idea.
Backyard after a snowstorm (below)
The Carriage House (Below)
Sorkin is warry of Soho morphing into a destination for tourists. Consumers flock to the district every weekend, “The act of touring devolves less on the particulars of geography than on the consumption of a set of repackaged lifestyles, defined by a fixed array of goods and services” (Sorkin 142). Though Saturdays is not a repackaged lifestyle but rather a lifestyle that is organically growing as it has never been created before. This is what makes it special and the space it holds in the city. The neighborhood has welcomed the new kid on the block. One resident of the apartment building upstairs was born there on the kitchen counter and comes down daily for coffee. Saturdays is keeping the roots of Soho in creativity while balancing whatever commercialization comes of it in todays culture. The space seems to carry with it a local feel, like that that goes so hand in hand with surfing you're local break. The fact that there is a coffee bar that can be apart of a daily routine helps to keep this feeling alive. Saturdays is about a new place in the city's culture and a new space in Soho where the lifestyle and location work together to create something unique yet authentic.
Photos by me and friends
Now that I'm writing, the view of the area does not seem grand enough for the title 'promenade.' My image of a promenade is a place to lull about, to walk and be seen, filled with dazzling spectacles and distractions. Historically the label is probably incorrect, as 'promenades' belong to a specific era of baroque city building. The sacrilege of my comparison does not end there. On Columbus Street, the architecture (usually houses or offices with commercial space on the ground floor) is nothing spectacular in size (two, three, four stories) or adornment (brick build, just fire escapes in front). For much of the block, the entrances are all on street level (meaning no impressive stoops), there are no benches or places for people to gather. Many of the buildings do have interesting ground-level businesses, but there are just as many empty storefronts. And on the colder nights, only a number of cats is there to watch you. And there is something I haven't mentioned: on the west side of Columbia street, facing the buildings, is a high chain-linked fence, covered with green tarp, meant to separate pedestrians from large piles of salt on the other side (some company bought the title—they say its only temporary) and further down, from the docks which are still running, though far below capacity. Plans are in the works for the city to take over the docks in the development of a park that will run along the Brooklyn Coast line from Greenpoint to Redhook. I'm not sure when this will happen, and neither, it feels like, does the area. When I traveled there at night, the stillness and desolation of the area made me feel like the community was holding its breath. “When will the highrises come that accompany such growth? What will happen to us?”
I then take a short right, then a left through a wooden door, and I'm in Freebird Books. Of the building's history I know little, because the website for the department of buildings says 123 Columbia Street does not exist. The front that most people know is essentially one room, about 250 square feet, with fine wooden bookshelves and a pleasant area in front with a couch in the front where people can enjoy whatever they're thinking of buying. Below this is the basement where we do the packaging (the owner, Peter, lets us use this space for free). It is dusty with low-hanging lights, but it is cozy enough, and certainly not the worst space BooksThroughBars has ever had. Freebird also hosts weekly poetry and short story readings either in-store or on the stellar backyard patio, which we’re very much starting to enjoy with a change in the weather. I wonder if that’s a Brooklyn staple.
II. The Flanuer
I intended to write more on Freebird Books, but I realized midway through planning this essay that Freebird Books is most important to me as an excuse to be in Brooklyn. I enjoy the little bit of mystery, the time outside my routine to wonder and explore, that my travels provide—enough to make me feel guilty, and to rebuke myself for treating Columbus Street like a 'back' (I don't know what paper to cite for this concept, but it's something I've held onto from your ‘travel fictions’ class). I do not believe in the genus loci (a term that suggests character in and of itself--as Massey said, “places are always-already hybrid”) of what is essentially an imagined geography. Still I permit myself to indulge in these imaginations because they are impossible and perhaps unhealthy to fight, and for the sake of critical reflection later on.
"Imagined Geographies" are the product of the multiple narrators of a place. The Brooklyn I’ve ‘encountered’—the representations, stories, and images that make that space a place, imaginations which facilitate further imaginings—seem to be the product of what some theorists are calling the "era of memory" (Hirsch, 105). They mean several things by this pronouncement, but what the "Era of Memory" comes down to is a self-conscious re-appraisal of western historical practice and perspective, intending to shift historical legitimacy to other narratives, subjects, and methods of knowing. Made possible by the development and dissemination of new media, the change of emphasis is followed by the change in ‘the story’ itself. To return to Brooklyn, the vehicles of memory from that borough (be it oral histories, photographs, festivals and celebrations, memoirs, etc) are creating new subjects of the past, with new narratives--for the neighborhoods, the borough and for the city.
Perhaps the most important set of narrators are Brooklyn writers. I’ve always been under the impression is that Brooklyn has its own literary scene, of which I'm not well acquainted, but one short story sticks out: Thomas Wolfe's "Only the Dead know Brooklyn." It resonates with me because it is about place and memory.
The story goes like this: there's a chance encounter between the narrator, a Brooklyn native given the voice and the time period; another man of similar credentials; and a heavy-set, anonymous, "wild looking," and lost drunkard. All are waiting for the 'El' when the big drunk asks the narrator for directions. A string of incomprehensible directions follow. The other native, listening in, disagrees about the efficacy of the route, giving rise to a quarrel over who knows Brooklyn best which nearly ends in fisticuffs. The narrator eventually shanghais the stranger onto the train. They begin to speak, and our narrator begins to be disquieted by the stranger’s lack of purpose or direction. The narrator has a particularly strong reaction when he asks about the stranger’s destination.
“Oh,’ duh guy says, ‘I’m just goin’ out to see duh place,’ he says. ‘I like duh sound of duh name - Bensonhoist, y’know - so I t’ought I’d go out an’ have a look at it.” (Wolfe)
Day-tripping seems a silly way to try and ‘know’ Brooklyn. In response, the narrators says:
“Listen!’ I says. ‘You get dat idea outa yoeh head right now,’ I says. ‘You ain’t neveh gonna get to know Brooklyn,’ I says. ‘Not in a hunderd yeahs. I been livin’ heah all my life,’ I says, ‘an’ I don’t even know all deh is to know about it, so how do you expect to know duh town,’ I says, ‘when you don’t even live heah?” (Wolfe)
The story is reminiscent of many personal experiences of being lost in Brooklyn where nobody seems to know directions (maybe not coincidence—I used to ask, “where are the natives?, but perhaps there were never any natives in the first place.) It captures the gritty working class character that parts of Brooklyn were known for, that is still preserved in a way (though increasingly contested) in the texture of Williamsburg and other); and perhaps it’s just me, but not too far in the background I can see the ‘city of churches.’ Wolfe’s tale also seems to be a very ‘modern’ reading of the place—that Brooklyn is bigger and more complicated than a simple history could tell, and that even the locals are somehow alienated from it. What makes it most interesting to me is the title: what does it mean to say, ‘only the dead know Brooklyn?’ I have some ideas:
The dead presumably means people, but it could mean the buildings around as well. All must be made to speak in one way or another.
Because “The Dead” are inaccessible, so is the true past of Brooklyn.
Perhaps Wolfe is suggesting a certain way of listening and knowing the past—memory?
There’s something very proletarian about this statement, like ‘the people’ are the real keepers of their history. Eastern too—reminds me of memory cults.
These are just VERY preliminary musings of what might be a larger paper later on, the theme of which would be ‘place and memory,’ and which would be buffered by my experience as a historical researcher in Brooklyn itself.
III. Urban Oyster Tours
I stayed in New York City last summer to take an internship with a local touring company based in Brooklyn called Urban Oyster Tours. I saw it as a great chance to explore the borough through space and time, and I’ve been trying to apply a very critical frame to my experience. The last part of this post is a great opportunity to share what I did. The experience certainly changed my picture of Brooklyn forever.
Urban Oyster Tours was a startup run by two friends, Dave Nancyez and Cindy Vandinbosch, along with a crew of four or five tour guides and a few marketers, and had been in business for a few years. They were looking for a research intern to craft a weekday variant of their very popular, and incredibly good “Brewed in Brooklyn Tour.” The tours typically features visits to historical sites, interlaced with stops for eating and drinking, and always includes a visit to one of Brooklyn's present day breweries. My job was to insert Green Point Beer works into the script. A basic list of my tasks was such: to research the GPBW building itself, and the block surrounding it; to research the brewing and dairy industry; to find holes in their own stories; and, somehow, to research on Prohibition and Brooklyn. The learning gap was intense. I spent long time in the Municipal archives, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Manhattan municipal Archives, and the Brooklyn Public Library (looking at copies of the BDE) in addition to ‘time in the field.’
All of this was great fun, and great experience. But, having a very black and white view of gentrification at the time, I had to ask myself: would my mission compromise my politics and my ethics? Would my work be used to sell the neighborhood, to Disney-fy it? On whose authority could I tell these stories? I asked this question to Dave and Cindy at our first interview. In reply they gave me the parable that summed up the Urban Oyster ethos. Here it is, copied from their tour site (which, incidentally, has a great blog post):
"Amazing as it is to imagine now, New York Harbor may have once contained half the world’s oysters. Over time, however, many oyster beds died off due to pollution and over-consumption. Learning from this history, Urban Oyster was founded on the belief that, like oysters, the neighborhoods of New York are treasured resources that require nurturing and cultivation in order to survive and flourish. Through dynamic hands-on tour experiences, Urban Oyster aims to reveal the hidden treasures of this great city, and in doing so, promote an appreciation for the neighborhoods we inherit. On our tours we explore with you how we can live in neighborhoods today in ways that support and value local production and consumption, cultural diversity, historic preservation, and sustainability for the benefit of generations to come. We hope you'll join us for a tour.” (Vandinbosch)
That sold me. It was a story about protecting a precious resource from value-free growth, hoping to shape inevitable growth in a more sustainable way. History and tourism were a strategy for a multi-dimensional preservation that looked back as well as forward—really forward, in that their support for local neighborhood businesses and institutions is always framed in a green way. Also, although the story does posit a kind of ‘genus loci’ to a place, it doesn’t fetishize it, if that makes sense. I also felt that it was ‘democratic’—local institutions and people contributed to the stories we told. In that sense this memory work was political, bringing disparate groups together for the purpose of negotiating the history of the neighborhood with other groups—making a story that could be used to make claims and a power based to make those claims.
I'll have to leave off here, unfinished, but I shall return.
Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 29:1 (Spring 2008): 103-128.
Massey, Doreen. "Places and Their Pasts." HIstory Workshop Journal 39.Sping (1995): 182-92. Print.
Vandinbosch, Cindy. "Sharing and Nurturing the Treasures of New York City's Neighborhoods One Tour at a Time." New York City Tours by Urban Oyster - Home. Urban Oyster Inc., 2010. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://www.urbanoyster.com/>.
Wolfe, Thomas. “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” Southern Cross Review Nr. 56. Unknown. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://southerncrossreview.org/Ebooks/ebooks.html>
It’s ten thirty on a Thursday night, a black clad mass of downtown sophisticates are crowded around an unmarked door on an otherwise disorienting street corner. Inside, knowledgeable New Yorkers are tucked tightly together, engaging over octopus cabbage tacos and habanero grapefruit margaritas. To them, Barrio Chino is a haven in the edgy and still derelict lower east side of Manhattan.
In the theory of modern environmental psychology, ‘sense of place’ is referred to as a dual concept involving both a person’s interpretive perspective on the environment as well as an affective reaction to the environment (Tuan, 1977). According to sociologist David Hummon, sense of place involves a personal orientationtoward place, in which one’s understanding of place and feelings about place become “fused in the context of environmental meaning” (Hummon 262). Geographer and philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan defines this emotional bond between person and setting as “Topophilia” (Tuan 4, 1974).In the way that Jane Jacobs felt a responsibility and sentimentality for Washington Square Park, and Michael Pollan an assimilation and pride for his writing hut, feelings are vital in the formation of a cognitive connection between individual and place. Psychological attachment to a place is dependent on the physical and social intimacy created by its atmosphere. New York City restaurant Barrio Chino induces attachment to place by creating, through its nondescript physical location, artful use of windows, and design of interior space, a feeling intimacy.
Barrio Chino is located on Broome and Orchard Street near the lower east side neighborhood on the outskirts of New York City’s Chinatown. ‘Desolate’ might be used to describe this area of the city as, at night, metal graffitied gates envelope the street, creating an air of elusiveness. Orchard Street is lined with black trash bags that border stained sidewalks. These sidewalks lead to various sets of five story buildings that appear, at least outwardly, in a state of disrepair. The light tone of the buildings’ brick has been replaced with dripping rust from the exterior mental fire escapes. At night, all indications of liveliness on the street come from the mummer of chatter and the faint sound of Latin music that reverberates from the walls of Barrio Chino. The restaurant’s Spanish name translates to “Chinese hood,” an adequate term to describe this area of gritty area of Chinatown. Unlike Chinatown’s Canal Street, street vendors and bag peddlers are not present here as foot traffic through the space is fairly limited. This area is not a tourist destination; of it no spectacle has been contrived.
A sense of attachment or belonging or in New York City can be fostered by knowledge of the city’s physical and social terrain. Exploration of the city’s streets or communication with residents is required to ‘discover’ a place like Barrio Chino. Having an awareness that others do not garners a certain social power for the knowledgeable that is typically desired as it relates to ‘knowing the city’ well. Due to its discrete location, Barrio Chino is, in this sense, reserved for the locals of New York City. When ‘in the know,’ it seems as if one shares an close secret with the city. An intimate understanding of New York City, as demonstrated through knowledge of a ‘secret great place’ like Barrio Chino, creates a feeling ownership, not only over the city, but of the restaurant itself, allowing for an attachment to be formed between place and patron.
There is not a sign on the exterior of 253 Broome street to label Barrio Chino. In the winter, when windows are closed, the restaurant is as hidden and evasive as the neighborhood in which it resides. The exterior of Barrio Chino is comprised mostly of differently sized and shaped windows. As is stated in Michael Pollan’s novel A Place of My Own in the chapter entitled “Windows,” these panes give the building a face and “set up the whole relationship between inside and outside” (232). From inside of the restaurant, the sheer amount of these various custom widows create a perception that it is only glass that separates one from the exterior; it feels as if one is, both indoors and out on the street at the same time. During the warmer months, this separation between interior and exterior is essentially eliminated when the long paned windows swing completely open into the street, creating “walls that vanish” (231). The exterior of Barrio Chino becomes, like Pollan’s hut, just a frame for an outdoor porch.
The windows in Barrio Chino are a vital element in the atmosphere that creates the ‘sense of place’ within restaurant. The prevalence and differences in window pane sizes creates varied focal points for the viewer. It is interesting to look out onto Broome street through these windows because they frame details of the outside that one would likely gone unnoticed while standing outside the restaurant on the street. In this way, the windows provide varied perspectives for looking (similar to the function of Pollan’s muntin windows). The opportunity for detailed visual observation creates a feeling that one is getting to see something others often do not. Barrio Chino’s granting of this experience, makes one feel mesmerized by or close with the place.
Upon stepping into Barrio Chino, one’s eye is captured by the presence of maple toned wood. An L-shaped bar is accented by wooden selves displaying rows of agave tequilas, a thick wooden communal table is featured in the middle of the restaurant. Private tables for two border the room’s interior perimeter, leaving parties of three or more to be sat on light wooden stools together in the center. The bubbles that typically surround and distinguish differing dining parties burst when strangers are seated within elbow’s reach of each other. Michelle Von Mandel, a weekly visitor of the restaurant, has a “the more the merrier” attitude toward the group tables. She likes that she can engage solely with the people she arrived at the restaurant with, but also has the opportunity to easily start conversations with strangers. She “loves” going to Barrio Chino, in part, because she has formed a friendly rapport with a few staff members and always has interesting interactions with others in the restaurant. The Chinese influenced décor and the familial experience of dining together at a shared table, channels a collectivist mentality. The communal atmosphere encourages people to linger in the space and enjoy the company of new acquaintances. For Michelle, and the many other Barrio Chino regulars I have spoken to, it is ‘topophila,’ or ‘love’ for the place, (created, in this sense, by social intimacy), that keeps them returning.
While the term ‘place attachment’ implies that the emotional bond a person feels toward a place is due greatly in part to environmental settings themselves, the social relations a place creates and harbors are equally as important to the personal attachment process (Altman 7).In Barrio Chino, candle light and Chinese lanterns emanate a palette of yellow, orange and red tones that dimly light the restaurant. This dimness creates an ambience of warmth that seems to foster conversation amongst people. In a city like Manhattan opportunity for serious exchange between strangers in the public realm is not often fostered. The detailed happenings of the public realm are often filtered out as the blazé attitude numbs one to their surroundings in order to avoid overwhelming stimulation within the bustling metropolitan (Sorkin 83). A place in the city like Barrio Chino is special in that it promotes interaction in the public realm.
According to sociologist Erving Goffman, social establishments can be divided into distinct front and back regions. The “front region” is the place where a social performance is given to an audience. This is the area where hosts and guests meet; it is where ‘appearances’ are upheld. The “back region” is a place where the impressions created by the performance are contradicted. This area functions like a backstage in that it is where those who are responsible for putting on the show find solace between ‘performances’ to prepare and relax (MacCannell 92). An example of this physical and social division can be seen between the front and back of restaurants, where the kitchen, a place where waitresses mingle and chef’s chat, is separated from the entryway where a hostesses formally greet customers. In the division of a space comes an “implicit distinction between false fronts and intimate reality” (95). Traditionally, the success of the ‘social performance’ depends on the back region being inaccessible to audiences and outsiders, thereby concealing behaviors that might discredit the performance out front. This distinction mystifies the authentic, creating a weakened sense of reality for the audience (93).
When there is a dissolution of the distinction between front and back regions the authentic elements of the situation are no longer concealed. In Barrio Chino, the front and back regions are transposed into one another as the restaurant is so small, it leaves no physical room for a backstage. Therefore, the kitchen is exposed to the audience. On the right side of the restaurant one can see the chefs assembling ingredients. Hot plates of Mexican dishes steam on a counter in front of them until a waitress delivers them to customers sitting less than five feet away. Of this blurring of distinctions between regions, Goffman states, “We can observe the up-grading of domestic establishments, wherein the kitchen, which once possessed its own back regions, is now coming to be the least presentable region of the house while at the same time becoming more and more presentable” (as quoted by MacCannell, 95).When the kitchen is the open and is observable by everyone within the restaurant, the division that fostered distinctions between mere acts and authentic expressions of true characteristics is no longer present (MacCannell 96). The mingling of front and back regions (public and private space) allows the audience to see behind mere performances. When one has access to both the front and back stages nothing is concealed, making the atmosphere of the place feel far from contrived; it feels incredibly genuine.
Professor of landscape architecture Dean MacCannell asserts that intimacy and closeness are highly valued in our society as they are seen as the core of social solidarity (94). Backstage is the realm of the authentic – where ‘performers’ (employees) stop acting out their roles and people exist as they really are. Backstage access reveals to an audience member the truth about the performance. Seeing that the performers are just acting in a nightly show makes the audience member feel like they have learned the truth and allows them understand what is authentic about the situation. This knowledge of the real in Barrio Chino results in people feeling a connectedness with other audience members (restaurant visitors), and the performers (staff of the restaurant).
People generally express this feeling of connectedness and closeness in their ‘liking’ of a place. People who describe themselves as thinking Barrio Chino is a ‘great place’ typically frequent the restaurant often. When enjoyment of the restaurant results in repeated visits, one has formed an attachment to it as a place.Being in places in which we are psychologically attached is comforting; we like to experience and reinforce this sentiment as often as possible. The prowess with which Barrio Chino fosters place attachment might be the only way to explain and justify its typical table wait time of two hours.
The meanings and values poured into Barrio Chino facilitate the formation of intimate connections between person and place. Because of the restaurant’s physical location, exterior, and interior design, Barrio Chino is a place in which people have emotion evoking experiences that establish attachment. While Barrio Chino is a manifestation of this effect, it is certainly not the only place in New York City that has become popular by cultivating an attractive sense of place. A visit to Barrio Chino an escape from the distancing feeling of the metropolis city and an engagement with the warm and familiar.
Altman, Irwin, and Setha Low. Place Attachment. New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1992. 1-10. Print.
Hummon, David. Community Attachment: Local Sentiment and Sense of Place. New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1992. 253-276. Print.
MacCannell, Dean. The tourist: a new theory of the leisure class. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1999. 91-109. Print.
Pollan, Michael. A Place of My Own. New York, NY: Penguin
Group, 1997. 176-223. Print.
Sorkin, Michael. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2009. Print.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1977.130-148.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1974. 92-126. Print.
Illustrations of Barrio Chino can be found here
Title and first photographs by me on 5.29.11
Once you’ve reached 32nd street, you are greeted with pungent aromas and bright Korean signs. The mix-usage buildings boast neon signage outside of each floor (pictured to the right). The street looks like it was removed from Seoul, Korea, and placed in midtown Manhattan. The sense of place of Koreatown is exhilarating, and it functions as a one-stop shop for a good Korean fix. Within one block you can eat, drink, dance, go to the spa, go to a bookstore, go grocery shopping, visit a doctor and visit a museum. Through commodification, Ktown promotes social interaction, cultural exploration, and community bonding which are all vital to its sense of place. Although it mainly caters to Korean-Americans, increasing amounts of non-Koreans enjoy the space as well. The local character of the space informs and is informed by the people who use it.
My experience with Ktown has always been from my Korean-American perspective. Thus, I measure the “authenticity” of the place differently than Sorkin’s view of Tribeca’s lost authenticity. Sorkin argues that areas such as Tribeca are losing their authenticity and becoming “scenographic recreations” that ignore locality and “evade authentic invention” (Sorkin, 176). He equates this loss with the commercialism and commodification of Tribeca into theme park. He gives examples of the Tribeca SUV and the multiple crafted movie sets.
In Ktown, the visual similarities of a street in Seoul with 32nd street are a part of what makes Ktown authentic for me (street in Seoul pictured below). The scenographic recreations, to use Sorkin’s words, are a part of Ktown’s sense of place. Ktown is one of the only areas in New York that has businesses from the first floor all the way to the top floors. This type of building usage is common in the city of Seoul. The bright signs adorning every level, and the usage of buildings can be considered “scenographic rereations”. When looking at a picture of Manhattan’s Ktown and a street in Seoul, the similarities are apparent. Sorkin sees this sort of recreation as negative giving the example of a suburb in Beverly Hills versus a visually similar one in Kuala Lumpur (Sorkin, 175). In Ktown’s case, this visual recreation is a part of the authentic Korean feel of Ktown. The authenticity is related to the usage of the space as a haven for Korean community, not whether it came before or after a certain more authentic time.
Ktown is an ethnic enclave that can be considered a transnational social space. As Foner explains in “In a New Land”, “In the transnational perspective, the focus is on how contemporary immigrants maintain familial, economic, cultural, as well as political ties across international borders, in effect making the home and host society a single arena of social action” (Foner, 63). These elements of maintaining connections with Korea are crucial to the sense of place of Koreatown. It serves as a space for maintaining cultural connections and forming new social bonds. The space isn’t automatically inauthentic because it mirrors the look and feel of another place. The intent is an important factor. Yes, Ktown can be considered a recreation of Seoul, but it remains a genuine place of community interaction.
The authenticity of Ktown derives from the community’s usage of the space. For Korean-Americans, Ktown functions as a way to maintain connections with their homeland while forming new connections in their current society. Sorkin says, “We’re creating a unitary global culture and we risk abandoning the local invention of strategies of the particular in favor of a set of generic interchangeabilities” (Sorkin, 175). I don’t believe this applies to Ktown because the space is a mediation of both home and host, here and there. Pollan describes “here” to be the local landscape and “there” to be the wider world. When incorporating elements of “here” a community can consider the local culture. These are juxtaposed to the elements of “there”, which are broader cultural influences. Visually, Ktown may look like it was removed from Seoul, but the distinct usage of the space considers the local community. The community that thrives in Ktown uses the space as mediation between here (New York) and there (Korea).
What makes the street interesting is its history and usage by local Korean-Americans. It began with a bookstore (that still remains at the heart of Ktown) and several Korean owned businesses. With the influx of Korean immigrants, the businesses thrived and continued to grow. Now, Ktown provides a variety of services to support the incorporation of Korean-Americans into New York society. It also serves as a space for political and economic progress for the Korean community. Ktown based organizations are effective inroads to larger New York social, cultural and political institutions. The Korean community uses Ktown as a space to inspire and promote a strong network of institutions to develop politically, culturally, and economically in the New York market. Further, Ktown functions as a site of cultural exploration. Non-Koreans are encouraged to experience the culture through various campaigns, museum events and community initiatives. With the media attention and commercialization of Ktown, more funding and cultural exploration is encouraged. In turn, the benefits of commercialism are used to fuel life and capital back into the Korean community of NY. Ktown has maintained a balance between inviting outsiders and remaining an authentic haven for the Korean community.
The enticing aspect of Ktown’s sense of place is its ability to form a community beyond its geographical limitations. The focus on Korean culture and multitude of social venues allows the space to be a site of social interaction. Its unique in that the area isn’t residential. Ktown connects people together to form networks and cultivate the space. The community that uses the space cares about it because it is a reflection of their pride and culture. When I enter Koreatown, I love the fact that I feel as if I’ve been transported to Korea. All the elements of the busy Korean street also apply to Manhattan’s 32nd street. Ktown is more than just a commercialized recreation of Seoul. It serves to support a community of Korean-Americans to connect with American society while maintaining ties with Korea. The space remains authentic due to its commitment to that cause. The true gem of Ktown is its ability to connect and build community across geographical boundaries. Koreans may not live in the actual space, but Koreans all throughout NY come to participate in Koreatown's community. The overwhelming sense of community and culture is vital to Koreatown’s sense of place.
They attempted to talk me out of taking the job because – like parents usually are – they were afraid for my safety. To be fair, at that point the most of New York I had experienced was Times Square and other tourist destinations, so I could understand their concern. Towards the beginning of the semester, before I started trekking to the LES for work, my parents and I took a drive down there to check out the area. When we reached the housing development that contained the daycare center, my parents weren’t very pleased at what they saw.
Huge towers stood spaced apart on a large swath of land filled in with small grassy areas, large trees, and winding sidewalks. The people walking around were of all different colors, like other parts of New York, but the area itself wasn’t very similar to where I was living for the year at Brittany Hall on 10th Street. Across the street from the space at which I would be working stood a Key Food store, a pizza shop, and a drugstore all nestled between worn brick walls splattered with graffiti.
I got an earful from my parents on the way back up to my dorm and the familiar bustle of Broadway, but I ignored what they had to say. I wasn’t willing to give up my job because of a first glance at an area that was completely alien to me. I wanted to get to know the parts of New York City I had never realized existed, and the Lower East Side was where I would start. I found out quickly that the mere appearance of the place and the people walking its streets could never communicate its whole story.
It was easy in the beginning to get intimidated by the large housing towers and the dozens of people milling about the sidewalks outside of them, especially when I felt so out of place. I spent most of my time around these housing towers; at the bottom of one of them sat the daycare center at which I worked. Many of the children I worked with in my years there lived in the surrounding housing developments, which were collectively named the Bernard M. Baruch Houses.
Completed in 1959, the Baruch Houses were named for Bernard M. Baruch, who hit it big on Wall Street and acted as an economic advisor and confidante to several presidents. According to NYC.gov, the housing development is the largest in Manhattan, with 17 buildings – each seven, 13, or 14 stories tall – and 2,194 apartments housing over 5,000 people altogether, many of whom are minorities or immigrants.
Like the towers Jane Jacobs visited in East Harlem, the areas within the middle of the Baruch Houses were usually empty save for the people travelling to and from their apartments. The streets further away from the Baruch Houses – lined with different restaurants, markets, and clothing stores – were where many more people could be found hanging around. In fact, when I started feeling comfortable enough to venture around the neighborhood, I would often run into some of the children from the daycare center there, following closely behind their parent or grandparent.
It was in my explorations of the Lower East Side that I discovered that the whole area wasn’t like the space immediately surrounding the Baruch Houses. As I slowly headed away from the housing developments and into the middle of the Lower East Side, I found an odd mix of higher-end restaurants or stores and hole-in-the-wall ethnic food or bargain clothing establishments. The streets are small and lined with shorter buildings fronted with rickety fire escape ladders. They are not as clean as those one might find walking around somewhere like the West Village or Soho, but it’s hard to ignore the slow intermeshing of old and new.
As the area has begun to change more and more, it seems the community is being pushed even further towards the edge of their own neighborhood. The Baruch Houses run all the way to the East River and are bordered on the south by the Williamsburg Bridge. Delancey Street, where I usually ran into families I knew, and Houston Street run parallel through the LES; in between them sits an area where gentrification has already begun to take place, especially along streets such as Orchard and Clinton. Ironically, Orchard Street contains the Tenement Museum where the books and tours describe the long and winding history of the Lower East Side. The contrast between the old and new is even easier to feel at night when the darkened streets become filled with loud club-goers from all over the city and beyond.
But this isn’t the first time the Lower East Side has undergone such changes; in fact, it is almost defined by the cultural shifts it has undergone over the years, most notably in the immigrant communities that have moved in and out of the area. Although mostly populated by Black, Asian, and Latino populations today, in the past, the Lower East Side had been filled with immigrants from Eastern Europe. The movement of people has helped to shape the place into what it is today, a huge melting-pot of cultures.
That is why, despite this new shift, the slow spread of trendy restaurants and stores into the center of the LES, it’s difficult for me to believe that the locals can be completely pushed out, though perhaps they might be marginalized even further. I believe this especially because much of the community occupies such a large amount of concentrated space in the form of the Baruch Houses, essentially an anchor for locals that other gentrified areas, such as Soho and the West Village, did not have as changes began to take place.
But at the same time that the houses help to anchor the community and its culture, the closed-loop circulation of people within the developments themselves and within much of the poorly-funded public infrastructure has an effect on the success of those who grow up there. In fact, that was the very reason why I was working at the daycare center, which was not stocked with the same resources that many other ones throughout the city are able to obtain without a problem. By helping the children keep up with their language, literacy, and social-emotional skills, we hoped to ensure better success in school, which would then in turn help them succeed later on in life.
In the years that I worked in the area, it had always been the local community and resulting culture, rather than the newer food or clothing establishments, that had defined the place for me. By the time my two years of Americorps service were up and my last day at the daycare center had come, I no longer felt out of place walking alongside the Baruch Houses on Columbia Street. The tall towers were not intimidating, but familiar. On my way home, I often preferred to travel down the wide sidewalk nestled between the housing developments and the Williamsburg Bridge and then up the large and bustling Delancey because I liked running into families I knew.
It’s been many months since I returned to the daycare center on the LES and visited the families and children I had become close with over my years working there. The closest trips I have taken down to the area have been to my friend’s apartment on the corner of Essex and Stanton. At night, the streets are loud and filled with people from all over the city and even from other states who come for the bars, the nightclubs, the overall entertainment provided by the neighborhood. Perhaps, like I had been, many of them are unaware of the community that sleeps just a handful of blocks away, thriving in a place they call home.
The building where I live is therefore, depending on perspective, in Little Italy, Chinatown, Nolita, SoHo, and the Lower East Side. It occupies about half of the block defined by Broome Street, Mulberry Street, Kenmare Street, and Cleveland Place. Though its entrance is on Broome St, when I say that I sit outside I mean that I sit around the corner on Cleveland Place. On this side of the building, the street-level windows are set back from the facade such that one can stretch out on the sill created there. It is a perfect spot for writing in a journal, for taking shelter from the rain in order to have a cigarette, and for observing the neighborhood by watching the people who walk through it.
Waldie's Holy Land is undoubtedly a memoir, though it details not only the life of the author but the life of his hometown. The pairing is deliberate. Waldie wove his personal life with the history of the suburb where he has lived that life as a testament to the place. The intrinsic message is a response to authors like Kunstler who define “all mass-produced housing since 1945 as a failure, not just a failure of design but a failure of the spirit” (Waldie 188). Holy Land is a demonstration that the spirit of Lakewood is something beautiful because people like Waldie lived and loved there and were grateful for it. Waldie’s message seems to be that the value of a place is tied up in the meaning that people derive from it, that meaning comes from participation in a community because “when lives are placed side by side… they seem larger” (Waldie 94).
When I sit in the windows of my building and watch pedestrians walk by, I am inclined to agree with him. The things that make this neighborhood special are written in the stitching on the outfits of passing hipsters, the creases of the faces of the aging Chinese women on their way to hang chickens in the windows of the groceries on Grand, and perhaps more than anything the fact that the two walk side by side past my perch. From the well-liquored and well-dressed (if a little scantily clad) patrons of the bar across the street to the “McClaren baby carriages being pushed by a pair of yuppie moms... gabbing on their cells” (Sorkin 142), the lives implied by the appearance of those who pass me is an illustration of diversity that gives my neighborhood its charm. As Flint writes about Jane Jacob’s value system for urban neighborhoods, “density with diversity [is] ideal” (Flint 123). When Jacobs fought the Lomex plan in the 1960s, she did so with “Republicans and Democrats, businessmen and professionals, piano teachers and artists, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, socialists and conservatives alike” (Flint 152). The diversity looks a bit different now, but we are diverse nonetheless. The range of classes and the social make-up of groups moving through make the neighborhood easily accessible, such that a broke college student can just as easily feel at home here as a sophisticatedly dressed businessman or a pair of parents with toddlers in tow.
From my vantage point, I watch so-called “hipsters” in thick-rimmed glasses, vintage tee-shirts, and skin-tight jeans. These are the folks who visit SoHo for the “communal institutions that marked the artist community as distinct” (Sorkin 141) when the term hipster originated in the 1950s as a mark of rebellion and alienation from established society. Sorkin writes as the artist community grew, outsiders saw the money to be made and moved in to “bathe in the hip vibe” (Sorkin 141). Squatters were replaced by condos, shoe and clothing stores moved in, and cheap eateries morphed into upscale bistros and “the streets were jammed on the weekends with people who, with no thought of art, had come simply to shop and brunch and to look at each other shopping and brunching” (Sorkin 141). The SoHo of today, not unlike the hipsters of today, is a watered-down version of its historical identity; the attractiveness of living on the edge of Art has brought in tourism and gentrification that in turn dilute the personality which was attractive to begin with.
Still, music venues like the living room and the galleries that hide between boutiques on Mulberry serve to insist that the broke and avant-garde continue to have a place here. They represent the last vestiges of a community on the cutting edge of artistic expression. And as local price-points soar, retailers with no virtually overhead take to the streets. Galleries are supplemented by street artists, which in reality amounts to less and less original art and more vendors of cheap jewelry and sunglasses. Nonetheless, the presence of these street vendors no matter their wares makes shopping in SoHo accessible not only to those who can afford the upscale mall that is Broadway but to anyone with $6 an a need for new shades, facilitating “bazaar-like quality of the street… [a] nice dialectic of high and low created by the juxtaposition of no-rent vendors and high-rent shops” (Sorkin 145).
The neighborhood may have changed a great deal, but the architectural aspects of its sense of place remain intact. Sorkin writes that the appeal of SoHo can be largely attributed to its scale, asserting that “if there is a place in New York with the dimensions of a nineteenth-century European city, this is it” (Sorkin 141). Flint seems to agree in that he calls the area a “Paris-like reprieve from height” (Flint 153). The scale seems to be tailored to the walker, and it slows down the pedestrian to a snail’s pace by New York standards. It is no surprise that parents regard my neighborhood as a nice place to walk their dogs and push their strollers, given the pace of traffic on the narrower streets and the lessened pedestrian pushiness here. Even in the middle of a weekday, men in suits and ties (and the kind of protuberant shoes that are meant to convey strength and style simultaneously) hail cabs almost casually from the corner of Cleveland and Kenmare. In midtown, where I have also lived, these same men shoot their hands into the air at a severe 90 degree angle, determined to show the cabbies that they mean business.
Further, there is a beauty on the face of these buildings that compels a person to periodically gaze at the streetscape; they wear a uniform of cast-iron jewelry that qualified them as an historic district worthy of preservation, and the elegance of that uniform is striking to me every time that I walk home from campus. That said, “good neighborhoods cannot be reduced to their architecture but architecture has the capacity to aid and abet forms of association and affinity that are at the core of such places” (Sorkin 154). This part of sense of place can only be sensed in transit, by taking in the neighborhood while walking through it. Consequently, it is only a footnote in my understanding of my neighborhood. I prefer to see this place through a cross-section of interaction.
I watch my corner lovingly because it is a meeting point. Across the street from the entrance to my residence is part of the Museum of Chinese in America, the locations of which highlight Chinatown. On the corner of Broome and Mulberry is Caffe Roma Pastry, a bakery and café with a decidedly vintage and, of course, Italian feel. Broadway, the official border of SoHo, is two blocks away and always crowded with tourists, many of whom look like they’ve never been to New York before. On my corner there are always several someones on their way to somewhere else, and more often than not the somewhere else is different for each of them. I relish this diversity, because the specialness of this place is bound to look different to each of us. The fact that, even in the chaos and the inherent subjectivity of finding a place like Broome Street appealing, people banded together to preserve it and people still come to visit it is inspiring.
It warrants sharing that I grew up an hour north of the city in a town also situated on the Hudson River. A mix between a suburban town and what I would now refer to as “the country”, there was very little to do in the area for teenagers and almost nothing that didn’t require driving from one place to another. When I, along with the majority of my friends, got my driver’s license at the end of my junior year, I began frequenting the numerous local parks that stood on the water’s edge. Almost every day after school I would drive there with one friend or another and go for an hour long walk. Though I could not have articulated it at the time, it was the only place in my town where one could engage in what I now call “functional walking”. What I mean by this is that I could walk to get from one place to another. The nearest business to the house I grew up in was roughly five miles.
But it was not just the “functional walking” that brought me there nearly every day – those hour-long walks began my first real interest in and attachment to nature. The beautiful, tall trees that stood and lined the dirt paths served as an antidote to the relentless barrage of suburban construction. This is not to say that nature did not surround the majority of the places that I spent time in while I was growing up. But, for some reason these local parks were the only place where I could focus on it. As I would walk silently on the various dirt paths, I would gaze up at the trees or see the wild flowers growing in the grass and somehow feel centered in a way I never had before. While walking in these parks there is an overwhelming sense of stillness, of peace. Removed from the commercial and industrial worlds, one begins to feel human.
When I saw the Hudson River in the distance on that early fall day in 2007, I had not been on a walk in one of my hometown’s parks in almost two months. Reflecting back on it now, that two-month period had, up to that point, been the longest I’d ever gone without seeing the river. In that moment, I suddenly felt at home. But, while the river that flowed along before me was very much the same body of water that I had known in my hometown, the experience of walking along Christopher Street and the stores and varieties of people that I was exposed to there could not have been any more different than what I was used to. In 2007, Christopher Street was predominantly filled with sex shops advertising dildos and a variety of other sexual paraphernalia, adult video stores with large posters of naked men on their front windows, gay bars, bookstores and spy shops.
Over the course of my four years walking to the Hudson River Park, I have grown attached to this street and observed its transformation into a more gentrified area. The majority of the sex shops are gone now, as are the adult video stores. The Oscar Wilde Book Shop, which had been the oldest LGBT bookstore in the United States, has closed its doors as well. It is now a designer clothing store, as are the majority of the other shops that closed. The Chair and the Maiden, an art gallery that I once played a concert at, has since closed and moved to another part of the city. Its old storefront remains empty, and in its window a decal still remains that says: “fund art now”. A barrage of expensive restaurants have also opened their doors in the past few years. Only one of the many shady delis that I recall from my freshman year still remains open . Even that deli has changed ownership, and now refers to itself as “gourmet”. Both of the spy shops have since closed their doors.
Perhaps it has more to do with the shift in my own perspective of the world, less naïve now than four years ago, but it seems to me that as the storefronts have become more developed on the stretch of Christopher Street that leads to the Hudson River park, the area itself has actually become shadier. All of the activities that once happened behind closed doors have been pushed out into the street. Even though the stretch of Christopher Street has been full of homosexual men and women from more urban, and less accepting, areas of New York City since I started walking there, there seem to be a larger presence now than ever before. In recent months, no trip to Pier 45 has passed without one or two men, often in their mid-40s attempting to pick me up. One notable recent occurrence was a man stopping me in the middle of the crosswalk that extends through the West Side Highway to ask, “Hey, do you know where I could go to get my dick sucked?” When I responded that I did not, he asked: “Hey, you’re not like a cop or anything, right? I mean…this iswhere you go to get your dick sucked, right?”
Though I cannot verify the legitimacy of the man’s claims, while talking about the pier with a professor of mine during my freshman year, he spoke of the pier’s longstanding history of these kinds of sexual favors. The current section of the Hudson River Park that extends from Clarkson to Horatio Street has only existed in its current form since 2003. Before then, the majority of the piers – including Pier 45 – consisted of abandoned warehouses and shipping ports. The warehouse that stood on Pier 45 had apparently been the most frequented warehouse for gay men. In view of that specific history, perhaps the population of people that had formerly occupied the space of land are merely attempting to reclaim what is now a public space.
Though there are no plaques indicating it, the stretch of land between Christopher and Tenth Street from which Pier 45 now extends has a storied history. It was on that plot of ground that Alexander Hamilton was brought after being fatally wounded in his duel with Aaron Burr across the river in Weehawken in 1804. Seven year earlier, the first State Prison was built there. In 1907, Robert Fulton launched the first successful steamboat from that location. At that time, the stretch of land along Manhattan’s west side had been one of the most popular points of shipping in the world.
The fact that all of these histories have now faded from the most of the city’s collective memory and that an understanding of them is not integral to one’s appreciation of the park is representative of the way I feel New Yorkers have a sense of place in the city they live. New York is, often frustratingly so, a place where things exists for a specific function. Perhaps spawning from the overwhelmingly rational grid that most of it is made up of, it is very hard to do anything in this city that does not serve a specific function. Unlike in the area I grew up in, it almost impossible to walk anywhere in this city not for a functional purpose. Within my busy life as a student here in New York, I have found very little time to do anything that does not seem immediately functional towards achieving something specific. It is perhaps for this reason, even more so than the experience it affords to reconnect with nature, that I so often find myself walking to the Hudson River Park. Though its beautiful views of the Hudson River and its frequently breathtaking sunsets draw me there, the most affecting aspect of going to the park is the trip itself. Totally opposite from the “functional walking” that my trips to parks in my hometown afford and that most of my days are filled up with here in Manhattan, the walk to the Hudson River Park affords me an opportunity to walk for no other reason than the pleasure I derive from it.
[photo taken by me on my first trip to the hudson river park in 2007]
In a conversation about final exams and class schedules, I mentioned to a friend my plan to bike to Greenpoint, to figure out its sense of place. She paused, then responded “Oh, Cassie lived in Greenpoint.”
“Yeah, but she’s moving now. It's way too expensive over there now.”
Cassie is a 22 year old college graduate, and was recently priced out of an apartment in Greenpoint. Greenpoint (or "Little Poland," as it is sometimes affectionately called) is a traditionally blue collar immigrant neighborhood in Northern Brooklyn. As we discussed the phenomenon of gentrification in class, we agreed that its waves of social and class upheaval may sometimes (at least in the more well-known cases of Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side) function according to this cycle: old immigrant families live in a working-class, industrial neighborhood. “Starving artists” move in to take advantage of low rents and large spaces for their studios. The presence of artists creates a pleasurable environment that attracts university students, who settle in these places in search of fellow young people and a low cost of living. Young professionals follow, seeking to consume Greenpoint's high-rent condominiums and the “hip” environment created by artists, students, and other bohemians. Along the way, rents and costs of living rise, and a former working-class neighborhood becomes increasingly white-collar. These yuppies offer the most pernicious vehicle for this type change; as Michael Sorkin says of the trendy neighborhood Soho in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, "[It] has become part of a tourist archipelago where the definition of place falls into a set of increasingly generic catagories. The act of touring devolves less on the particulars of geography than on a set of prepackaged lifestyles, defined by a fixed array of goods and services." (Sorkin 142)
According to this model, and using Cassie as a singular example for a large, complicated issue, Greenpoint is cycling from its student phase to its yuppie phase. However, place is not static, and the places I passed during my 4-hour bike ride through Greenpoint and Williamsburg included a second-generation Polish hardware-repair shop, a studio apartment priced at $2600/month, and a public park where Dominican piragua vendors vie for sidewalk space with solar-powered smoothie trucks. I’m hoping to put in tension my own experiences with gentrifiers and the gentrified in Greenpoint in order to illustrate something about what I like about Greenpoint and what is changing about it.
According to Google Maps, the bike ride from my building in Chinatown to 113 Franklin Street in Greenpoint takes approximately 26 minutes. In reality, it took me, my Biria cruiser, and my general ineptitude an hour and a half to find the little tattoo shop by the water that I'd been looking for. I was a little late to meet with my friend Sue, who was happily cleaning and chatting with an acquaintaince when I burst into their converted factory garage, huffing and panting about close encounters with ice cream trucks. Sue lives due east in Williamsburg and walks to work every day. She was talking merrily about her idea to promote the store and the artists: a friend of her had given her a tub of sidewalk chalk, and she would set out chalk and candy for her neighbors and their kids to play with and enjoy. Knowing Franklin Street and the people who made their lives around it, this made perfect sense. Franklin has been a major avenue of transport in Greenpoint since the mid-1800s, when it opened as a turnpike. On the sunny spring afternoon, mothers pushed their children on bicycles and in carriages past the store's open window, and more than one dog ran through the wide industrial doors (pulling a bemused human along) in search of a head pat or a treat.
Leaving the shop a few hours later, I walked around the block and detached my bike from the telephone pole on West Street where I’d hastily stashed it. That part of West, removed from the thoroughfare of Franklin, is still largely industrial; cars and trucks kick up big clouds of thick dust as they enter and leave their loading docks. A mural is spray-painted onto the big corrugated steel door of one of these loading docks, the graffiti tags of a resident street gang rising in tall iridescent letters: Rask, Woe, Phil, Bat Man. Rest in peace, Joey Noodles. Looking up, I’m near the Greenpoint water tower, painted with a 30-foot-tall Polish flag. After getting hugely lost after getting off the Williamsburg bridge, the red-and-white tower is my main landmark.
Coasting along, I turned off of Franklin onto Manhattan Avenue, a major hub of commerce in Greenpoint. Like the sidewalk outside of Sue's tattoo parlor, Manhattan Avenue reminds me of Jane Jacob's ballet of quotidien life in the West Village. A man sells books and appliances on the sidewalk in front of Christina’s Polish-American Restaurant, and on Manhattan and Noble, Zayas Appliance is across the street from Sakura 6 Sushi Restaurant, where well-dressed young professionals rock their newborn babies in the shadows of Antoni Moszczynski’s law office. Couples stream out of Apteka Pharmacy, which is next to the little God Bless Deli, a bodega that is perpetually blasting reggaeton and salsa music. At 6:14pm, the sun was low on the horizon and I heard English, Spanish, and Polish. Coasting down a slight hill, I pass Nassau Avenue. My old friend Juliya’s family owns a little repair show further south down Nassau. I celebrated Polish Easter with them on more than one occassion in middle school, eating little besides tea and pierogies. When, in the middle of a conversation, I mentioned that I was writing about Greenpoint, she laughed and said, with more than a little contempt, “So I’m assuming you've learned how it was once a blue collar polish immigrant neighborhood and is now a flourishing yuppieville complete with vegan cafes and pet clothing boutiques?”
Riding through, considering the bodegas and boutiques, I looked to see if I could find McCarren Park, a beautiful if confusing public park where, on a good day, you’ll find vendors hawking everything from cotton candy to slices of fresh mango, a concrete skate park, and the friendly neighborhood falafel and smoothie van. If you were to walk further down, you’d hit the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This elevated expressway (one of Robert Moses's many automobile-shuttling brainchildren) loomed in the distance, casting a shadow on the mid-afternoon sun, and I realized that I’m on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border.
Turning west towards the city, I stopped again--noticing the unfamiliar-in-Brooklyn need to crane my neck--in order to see the tops of the multi-storied glass buildings that flanked me on both sides. My friend's boyfriend Garrett lives in a huge condo on North 10th Street. Referring back to the cycle of gentrification, Garrett is one step ahead of Cassie in that he is a thirty-something doctor, more of a middle-aged professional than a Generation Y yuppie. Thinking of Garrett and condominia, I don’t think I got a grasp of gentrification before I looked at the new Craigslist listings for Greenpoint apartments. Clicking through a see of capslock and exclamation points, I would be hard-pressed to find a listing that is not in a luxury condo building:
$2650/1br - MASSIVE *KING SIZED* 1BR! WASHER/DRYER~MODERN LUXURY___**NO FEE!!** (GREENPOINT STEPS TO G TRAIN)
$2100 / 1br - CONDO QUALITY 1BR IN TOP TIER GRENNPOINT BUILD. ELEV,PARKING,DECK,GYM (GREENPOINT).
$4000 / 2br - Stunning 2 bedroom Duplex , All new, Perfect connection to All!! - (Greenpoint)
In 2005, the New York City Department of Planning proposed its plan to rezone nearly 200 blocks in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. The rezoning, which included height bonuses along the waterfront (ostensibly to build more spacious low-income housing to accommodate the booming Brooklyn populations) converted many parts of the previously low-slung, industrial neighborhoods to high-rise condos. One of these is Garrett's apartment building: a seven-story glass box that boasts an elevator, gym, and doorman. North 10th seems a world apart from the sidewalks of Franklin Street and Manhattan Avenue, but in reality is only a few blocks away. Of the plan, Jane Jacobs wrote a letter to Mayor Bloomberg, saying,
Let’s think first about revitalization successes; they are great and good teachers. They don’t result from gigantic plans and show-off projects, in New York or in other cities either. They build up gradually and authentically from diverse human communities; successful city revitalization builds itself on these community foundations, as the community-devised plan 197a does.
Jacobs goes on to criticize the top-down logic of the rezoning plan (calling it an “ugly and intractable mistake”), favoring the community initiative 197A, which kept most buildings intact, and did not drastically distort the scale or function of the old neighborhoods.
The City's rezoning plan was eventually approved, and in a 2006 article for the New York Times, Jeff Vandam wrote, “Across [McCarren Park], on its southern end, the brown dome of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration is no longer the tallest item on the skyline. No fewer than four luxury condo projects, all on the same block of Bayard Street, are in various stages of completion. Three will be entirely new, while a fourth, called the Ikon, is a hollowed-out commercial building that will be topped by a gym and floor-through penthouses.”
Researching this and seeing Garrett’s prohibitively expensive, glass-walled condo, I felt like Jane Joseph, as though everything I loved about Manhattan Avenue and Franklin Street is changing as rapidly as Soho once did. Michael Sorkin’s problem with this phase of gentrification, as articulated in his chapters on Soho and Tribeca, is that it represents the power of some neighborhoods (or even parts of neighborhoods) to pool all of their wealth, effectively draining the resources of places around it.
Riding back over the bridge, I felt buoyed on the warm wind, my newfound cycling skills, and a day spent in a place so radically different from what I'm used to. I'm also terrifically out of shape, and was heaving like hell when I decided to take a break on the bridge's first steep incline. The J train was crackling along above me, setting sunlight glinting off of its silver skin. I started to walk alongside my bike, and as soon as I hit the stretch of flat top, I got back on my Biria bike and kicked off. And I’m passing by those cardboard boxes again, and I’m wondering, are these ugly stupid fucking projects really any better than Greenpoint for the working-class? Although sometimes it's hard to not feel smug and condescending in my condemnation of them.
At the end of the day, seeing the houses on the Lower East Side reminded me of my own problems with the amorphous blob that is gentrification. When neighborhoods get nicer, poor people need to move to make room for the rich, but they don’t move to nicer places. For example: poor people live on the Lower East Side gets better/safer, rich people move to the Lower East Side, the poor move to the projects that line the East River. On Franklin Avenue and in McCarren Park, a sense of place is found in sidewalk interactions and conversations, not in glass walls or balcony square-footage or high price tags. In the New York Times article "Signs of Transformation in Neighborly Greenpoint," Amy Itrocaso is a 26-year-old casting director who moved to Greenpoint as many have, looking for lower rents and what she calls its “neighborly nature”–families tending their gardens, shopkeepers tending their sidewalks. When asked about her opinions on Greenpoint’s changing population, “I worry about Greenpoint becoming Yuppie-ville. I watch the people like me get off the subway and I think, 'What are they doing here?' I sort of resent it. I want to still see the families sitting on their stoops.” Gentrification and urban renewal are complicated in ways that I never envisioned, ways that a study of Greenpoint only began to open up for me.
From a grassy nook to the expanse of central park, New York City and its inhabitants take grass where and when they can get it. It seems obvious, but after coming to NYU, the first thing I missed about home was seeing grass and trees, hearing birds during the day and crickets in the evening. I remember a particular night last year when my mom called me and told me to look at the moon; I went outside, walked several blocks both east and west along 12th St. and couldn’t find it. It was late and the sky was clear, yet the moon was nowhere to be seen.
The importance of good public space in a city like New York is unmeasurable. On the first good day of the warmer seasons, you will always find the parks and green spaces packed with people, all of them enjoying the stillness and the comfort of that wedge of nature, hemmed in between the overly trodden concrete. Even the animals can pick out these spaces and appreciate them as the closest thing to their natural habitats; it usually takes only one step into a city park to hear the chirping of birds and the scattering of squirrels, sounds we used to take for granted but in which we now find comfort. What larger places like Central Park and Prospect Park have are paths and roads that wind out of sight–immediately my sense of direction is gone and I can wander in the true sense of the word.
A recent discovery mine is the garden at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, a place which is at once unexpected and welcoming. Tucked away in the West Village, it offers respite from the agitation of city life, like any good garden would, but what’s more is its connection to the church and the spiritual overtones that result:
Enter through the gate on Hudson Street. Follow the garden path toward the red brick annex beside the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the neighborhood young Thomas Merton left to join the Trappists. Come any Tuesday evening and you will see a group of men and women sitting quietly, their faces still and serene.
Nobody moves. Nobody speaks. There is only silence. They are practicing Centering Prayer, the meditation practice Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Whenever you pray, go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father, who is in secret. (Matthew 6:6)
Its landscaping is diverse for its size, but in maintaining a sense of simplicity, it does not overwhelm me. In fact, there seems to be a perfect balance of complexity and simplicity, as the garden appears much bigger than the space it is in. One of its sides is marked by a fence which runs along Barrow St. until intersecting with a brick wall at Hudson St. Looking toward the fence I see row houses and cars drive by; the garden seems small and at its perimeter, the city dominates. Looking toward the brick wall, the garden opens up again; it seems expansive despite the wall’s sense of enclosure.
The center of the garden is marked by a tree–the most impressive of the garden–from which small white flowers grow. Its roots are contained within a circular patch of greenery which gives way to the convergence of four stone pathways. The four pathways designate the four quadrants of the garden, each of which is embellished with a slightly different array of flowers and bushes. Two of the pathways lead under simple, metal archways through which green vines grow. The first things to catch my eye are the roses, which are both red and purple. The brown soil is covered by the white petals falling from the tree in the center.
Bird songs provide a counterpoint to the passing cars, and the longer I listen, the more organized it seems to be. To make a connection to my midterm, this garden would undoubtedly make for a perfect location in Max Neuhaus’ LISTEN “Field Trips Thru Found Sound Environments,” along which he advises the audience to pay special attention to the unique sounds of discrete locations, meeting them with a certain awareness that perhaps had not before been activated (Nyman 104).
The garden seems very English in its classical style. As I turn for a 360º perspective, I notice that there is no real influence of modernism within the garden or beyond its walls–a quality that cannot be attributed to many other 360º views in the city that I can think of. Furthermore, every surrounding building and every wall of the garden is made of brick. The two prominent colors–the green of the plant life and the red of the brick, in both cases, earth tones–play a major role in shaping the peaceful, calm character of the place. A pile of chopped wood against the brick wall seems to quietly combat modern technology.
The birds often outnumber the people, and seeing them run about the path and soil makes me feel like an intruder of some sort–an intruder who has been welcomed so long as to not give up the privacy of the place. Again, I look to my right, through the fence, and I return to the life of the city as a truck drives down Barrow St. The two worlds seems symbiotic, as each is so completely wrapped up in what it is, neither attempting to imitate the other in any way.
In New York City, the garden at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields offers repose to keep a person sane among the perpetual motion beyond its walls. Just like the abundance of skyscrapers and concrete makes us more appreciative of the valuable green space, these parks provide us with a necessary lull and enable our return to the hectic city day after day. This garden in particular stands out as being catered to this notion and shows that a cathartic retreat is possible within the confines of just one square city block.
As a supplement, I’ve made a short piece of music whose material comes from St. Luke’s garden. The music is comprised of a field recording I made in the garden and a synthesizer’s modulations of that recording. It begins with the unaffected sounds of the garden; what is heard is a combination of birds chirping, cars driving by, planes overhead, and a mother and child walking nearby. The recording, as it has been modulated by the synthesizer, enters from silence and slowly gains volume. Through a combination of an envelope follower, an oscillator, and a filter, I have taken the field recording and turned it into what sounds like a further collection of chirping birds. As that approaches full volume, the original field recording begins to fade out until what is left is only the sound of the synthesizer, and with it, the allusion of birds. It can be found here.
Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.
"Prayer Groups." The Church of St. Luke in the Fields. Web. 2 May 2011. <http:// www.stlukeinthefields.org>.
Within my first year of living in New York, I quickly learned that if you are a New Yorker, you hate Times Square. I wanted to go since I had never been there, but my roommates refused to take me. “Crowded streets, too slow, ugly advertisements, obnoxious tourists, screaming children, annoying salesmen, overpriced merchandise, etc," they described. Sound familiar? Once I actually visited Times Square, I too realized how easy it is to loath the few blocks. I worked as an intern in the Rockefeller Plaza during my first semester, only a few blocks away from Times Square. Unfortunately, I had to run many errands for my boss, which led to me weaving through the fanny packs and the "I heart NY" t-shirts in search of a precise ball point pen, or the nonexistent 8.5 by 5 inch notepad. By the end of the first month of my internship, I had an even worse impression of Times Square, if that were possible. All of the positive aspects of New York that I had witnessed by attending NYU simply did not exist in Times Square.
What gives Times Square this negative sense of place? Of course, I mostly blamed the tourists, which is I am sure where Sorkin gets most of his hype from whenever there are tourists in the West Village. The idea of making such a cultured area into a public space must upset most of the West Villagers, and provide them the fear of the area becoming similar to the horrid Times Square. So is this why Times Square is the New Yorker's hell, because it attracts 250,000 tourists a day? Sorkin discusses how Times Square was designed to uphold a "yin and yang" space. In other words, the area was designed for leisure and traffic, but is also expected to uphold large rallies or masses, like New Years Eve in Times Square. “Its most celebrated occasion, the mass gathering at New Year’s Eve requires the area to assume a state of exception from its normal purpose, the movement of people and vehicles (Sorkin 103). This statement by Sorkin finally explains what gives Time Square its sense of place. The area tries to transport people and vehicles to their destinations, but at the same time is expected to be a place of gathering and entertainment. Here in lies the conflict because we are shoving people with completely opposite missions into the same area: those who don’t want to be acknowledged and just want to get their job done, and those who want to stop and see all of the lights and take pictures with the naked cowboy. According to the Times Square Alliance, 500,000 people go through Times Square every day - 250,000 employees and residents and 250,000 additional in tourists and passersby.With this many people in one area, it is hard to find peace and relaxation around 42nd and Broadway. Readings like Tuan and Pollan have made me realize that favorite places usually involve quiet spaces with nature or even nurture, both of which Times Square clearly lacks. Pollan was able to create a place like this by building his house in the middle of the woods. How can we add a little bit of the peace and serenity, the atmosphere that Pollan was in search for, to a place like Times Square?
My very recent experiences in Times Square have showed me an unexpected new light to Times Square. This new understanding was due to two interesting variables, time and climate. The ironic part about my discovery is that the times I truly enjoyed 42nd and broadway were when the weather was unappealing and the time was inconvenient. I discovered this when my friend visited me a while ago and he had never been to NYC before. His visit quickly led to the predictable yet depressing question: Can we go see times square? I held a grudge at first and went through a list of some of the places we could see instead: the east village park or seaport. Possibly walk around in west village and get magnolias or get mamoun’s falafel on St. Marks. But he wanted to have the true NYC experience, which apparently meant Times Square. We decided to go for an hour on a Thursday morning to avoid the tourists, but just as we got on the subway it started to rain. As much as I tried to dissuade him, he still wanted to go. Once we arrived by taxi, we started to hop around to all the usual merchandise stores: the Hershey Store, Toy’s R Us, and the M & M store. I was taken aback by how much fun I ended up having. Because of the rain and the timing, Times Square felt like an empty amusement park. There was barely anyone in any of the stores and the streets were empty. We had rain gear on so we just ran threw the puddles and never had to deal with crowds. We had the excitement of the lights, shops and musicals all to ourselves, and it felt like we were the only people in the world. If I were to ever tour Times Square again, I would go during this time again. By going at a dead time, the place seemed much more appealing and the sense of place was much more apparent.
In this trip with my friend to Times Square, I started to realize the good that the area possessed. I ask myself the question that Waldie asked about his hometown: What is beautiful here? “The calling of a mourning dove, and the others answering from yard to yard ( Waldie 13). Although there are very rarely even pigeons in Times Square, it does possess some beauty if you take the time to notice it. I work in Times Square for my internship this spring. During lunch on Wednesdays, a coworker and I sometimes escape outside and walk to a little hole in the wall cuban restaurant that I love, Margon’s. The streets are filled with the business travelers and other locals on Wednesdays, as most tourists come starting on Thursdays. So around noon on Wednesdays most of the people on the street are on lunch break as well, and everyone seems to be happy to de-stress. There is a sense of community for an hour or two and the lights and commotion of the area seems less threatening, even enjoyable.
Earlier this semester, I had an even greater experience of Times Square, one that clearly showed me this newfound sense of place. It occurred during our biggest snowstorm of the spring semester. It was a Thursday, and although my classes were canceled due to the two feet of snow, my work at Disney was not. I remember being a little bit grumpy as I put on my snow boots, and trudged up to 42nd street. But as soon as I stepped into Times Square, my mouth dropped, and I was speechless. For the first time ever, the entire two blocks were silenced. Big fat snowflakes fell from the sky and all of the advertisements and billboards seemed even more colorful when compared to the white streets. A blanket of snow covered the streets so there were no cars, and a few people walked quietly in bundles of clothing with their heads bowed. There was certainly an aura about the place, one that I had never felt before in all of NYC. Actually the only place that that I had felt the same way was in Walt Disney World. Walt Disney World gives off a magical feeling, that all dreams are possible and that the world really is a happy place. This aura, as tacky as it may be, exists in Walt Disney World because that was Walt Disney’s intention when he created the park. This was never the intention of Times Square, yet when everything was silenced and all of the lights were unthreatening in the snow, I could feel the magic of the place. I remember smiling to myself as I walked to work, and I felt like anything was possible, and all of my stresses lifted away. I never would have guessed that Times Square could have made me feel like this, but I actually felt comfortable and content.
Even though I have all of these newfound discoveries, I do not think I will become a Times Square fanatic. After all I am a New Yorker, so I still have to hate Times Square. I have to despise the place that attracts both traffic and rallies; that brings together the annoyed business man and the screaming teenage girl on her choir trip. But even as I huff and grumble about the next time that I will have to go to Times Square, I will admit that on occasion I have been touched by the few blocks once or twice. There is a sense that the place possesses, a sense of magic that is usually overridden by the negative. And maybe someday, you will get stuck in the rain or snow in Times Square, and you will notice it too.
(Here I have posted links to two commercials. Together they express the yin and yang of Times Square that I have mentioned earlier. The first commercial is a Verizon Wireless droid commercial that shows Times Square as a transportation center. The second commercial is a car advertisement that is clearly depicting Times Square as a social gathering.)
I am sitting on a wooden bench in the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and I am listening to a man with a guitar sing a Johnny Cash song. He’s pretty good, and he’s only a student—the student of the man playing guitar next to him, who is Michael Daves, a bluegrass musician who can be found on any given Tuesday night at the Rockwood Music Hall in the Lower East Side. Rumor has it that Daves is currently teaching Peter Sarsgaard how to become bluegrass legend Bill Monroe for a movie that may or may not be coming out soon. But none of this really matters in the Jalopy Theatre, which is sitting on this particular day with its doors open and its cappuccino machine buzzing happily. The Jalopy Theatre does not much care about fame, or appearance, or even convenient locations (it’s fairly difficult to get here without driving in a car). In a time when plenty of world-class music venues are located in bustling Manhattan, mere steps from a popular train station, the Jalopy Theatre almost seems not to care very much about New York City—it simply does its own thing.
Jalopy arrived in 2006, the brainchild of Geoff and Lynette Wiley of Chicago, Illinois, who got married beneath its ornate ceilings. They live upstairs and run Jalopy as a “community arts space,” according to this New York Post article--a gathering spot for artists, musicians, listeners, and teachers who want to come together for the pure joy of creating something interesting, old-fashioned, and unique. The walls are covered with art, guitars, mandolins, and all other manner of folk memorabilia. CDs of bands that frequent Jalopy lie around on the counters amongst fliers and brochures for folk concerts and events. A bar on the right-hand side serves tea and coffee in mugs that look like something a grandmother might own—brightly colored, hand-painted, full of flowers and cats. The floor is wooden and a little ragged; lived in and appreciated, it has its fair share of creaks and moans. For all the space’s lack of pretention, the most pretentious thing about Jalopy may be the very place it rests—on 315 Columbia Street, eight blocks from the nearest subway stop, in a cozy corner of the BQE and Gowanus Expressway, directly across from the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. The Jalopy Theatre Facebook page even has an instructional video posted about how to get to the theatre. In a trailer for a documentary about Jalopy posted on its website, the bearded co-founder Geoff Wiley says, “You have to be interested to get to Jalopy, because it’s not exactly in the way. You can’t just stumble over it. I meant that very purposely to be a little outside of things—so you have to try to get here.”
In a city where thousands of struggling artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs are constantly trying to “make it”—to create some profitable business or artistic community without being eaten up by the overwhelming expense and gentrification of artsy lower Manhattan, or even Williamsburg and Park Slope, a statement like that seems to have a lot of gall. The first time I learned that Jalopy’s location was purposeful and not some cruel joke New York City played on unwitting out-of-towners looking to buy a building to buy, I thought, Who do these people think they are? Since when can you set up a music venue in the middle of nowhere South Brooklyn and expect it to flourish? But the truth is that the Jalopy owners had a plan all along, I believe.
In the same documentary trailer, Wiley proclaims, “There’s a purity—a true humanness to folk music that music that is produced in the modern world does not have. It’s a lot of why I’m doing this, is to try to keep a sweet place that’s sort of formal, and hold on to how people had done things in the past.” I think what Wiley is describing here is the same essence of “authenticity” that people like Jane Jacobs or Michael Sorkin have spent quite a bit of time trying to find and preserve in New York City. In a city so sought-after, so pursued by tourists and ambitious college grads, artists and businessmen, it’s no surprise that sometimes the authenticity of it can seem to fade—evaporate in the crowds of shoppers clogging West Broadway or the close-knit flocks of movie crews parading around the West Village with their floodlights and buffet tables. When everyone wants a piece of some pre-imagined authentic New York, where does the real New York—that lives up to its own expectations, and not tourists’—go to hide?
More and more it seems like Brooklyn is the answer to that question. It boasts an impressive burgeoning arts community, and the patterns of gentrification seen in Soho and the East Village are already creeping into the real estate and retail development of Williamsburg and Bushwick, which appears to be one of the most important indications that this is the next big thing. When Wiley defines the “purity” of folk music he hopes to preserve in the arts scene by creating Jalopy, I think he is also defining the purity of space he wants to keep for his theater. Sitting on an old wooden schoolhouse chair or rocky wooden pew in the main part of Jalopy’s performance area, I notice the yellow-white string of bulbs that line the deep magenta curtains of the stage. My notebook and camera are lit mostly by the filtering of warm and simple natural light that falls from a skylight in the middle of the room. A tiny metal fan sits in the corner of the stage, ready for the warmer months to come, when it will probably contribute very little to actually cooling the room. A classical-looking bust surveys the audience with a glaring expression, and in the corner of the stage instruments are literally piled on top of each other, a cello adorning a dusty upright piano.
This is a very accurate picture of a certain kind of authentic New York. It is both pure and human, somewhat dirty, a little grimy, but very loveable. There are hints of the carnivalesque in the bright stage curtains, marquee-like lights, wooden seating, and garish decorative statues. These hints trace back to the theatre’s early days, when circus freak shows were held in between the roots music and folk nights. Jalopy now hosts mainly folk musicians and old-timey Americana bands, but this music scene is still a big part of an authentic New York that has recently been revived. All manner of publications—from the Village Voice to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post—have mentioned Jalopy in conjunction with a bluegrass/folk craze that has swept the city in recent years. In 2008, the New York Times published an article titled “The Sound is Rural, the Setting Urban” which claimed, “New York has lately become remarkably hospitable to musicians upholding more rustic ideals. Of course there’s a precedent for this sort of thing, stretching back at least as far as the Greenwich Village folk revival of some 50 years ago.”
The folk movement is something associated with New York at its most authentic time—the age of Jacobs herself, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, beatniks and poets. Now it is being rediscovered across the Lower East Side, in venues like the National Underground, Banjo Jim’s, and Rockwood Music Hall. Red Hook boasts another favorite bluegrass hang in Sunny’s, the place that New York Magazine’s Nightlife guide calls “‘the bar’ in Red Hook,” a place that used to be a “longshoremen’s hangout.” Besides its folk affiliations, the South Brooklyn neighborhood has a distinctly New York legacy of its own—it’s the birthplace of the famous New York gangster Crazy Joe Gallo, and was the setting of an H. P. Lovecraft short story called “The Horror at Red Hook,” a scary tale of hellish adventures in Brooklyn.
Amongst all this history and artistry sits Jalopy, far away from anything else but still very close to the heart of New York City. The unique purpose of the theatre—to allow artists to both perform and learn from each other—speaks to an essential New York, the core of what makes it one of the most thriving artistic communities in the world. The theatre’s gentle shabbiness, welcoming crowds, and wholly American feel make it even more accessible and local. But the true secret of Jalopy and its magical quality may just be its incredibly inconvenient location. The Wiley’s choice in placing their theatre far away from anything else appeals to an image of New York we all love, and love to hate—the brash, headstrong quality that gives the city its gruff, arrogant, and ultimately loveable persona. By keeping Jalopy tucked away from the rest of the city, it achieves a sense of place that gives it the authenticity that so many venues in New York strive to find with no luck. And even as threats of gentrification creep into neighborhoods as far south as Red Hook, I’m confident that the Jalopy philosophy of place will help it maintain its authentic New York identity.
All pictures were taken by me.
I was first introduced to Sutton Place when I was 13 years old. My father’s best friend, who later became a second mother to me, has a Sutton Place apartment in a classic Candela building that seems to encompass everything wonderful about this small neighborhood in one much smaller place. As I began to visit her more and more frequently, I was introduced to all the various elements and ways to experience this exclusive enclave.
Sutton Place itself encompasses a small area of luxury apartment buildings and townhouses from just east of First Avenue over to the East River, between 53rd and 59th Street. None of the East-to-West streets go through the neighborhood, due to the River boundary, and Sutton Place itself is not a true North-to-South avenue as there is a building, 450 East 53rd Street, which forces Sutton Place South traffic to turn West onto East 53rd street, forming an “L” and forcing traffic immediately out of the neighborhood. The “proper” area includes Sutton Place (the avenue from 59th Street, south of the Queensboro Bridge, to 57th Street), Sutton Place South (the same avenue as you pass south of 57th street down to 53rd street), Sutton Square (a cul-de-sac of private townhouses that open onto a tiny public park space), and Riverview Terrace (a gated side street off of which several other private townhouses lie, including one owned by the former owner of New York Magazine). At the north end, 59th street serves as the peek of a steep hill that runs almost directly under the Queensboro Bridge so it almost shields the small area from view on York Avenue.
As no cars or pedestrians would ever need to pass through Sutton Place, very little traffic ever really enters the neighborhood unless it is intending to stay. Furthermore, Sutton Place itself is entirely residential, precluding any sense of commercial interest or attraction. Because of its almost “dead-end” location, the area is afforded a sense of anonymity within the city, protected from the congestion and noise so prevalent in the rest of the city and hidden from the general public. The cars and pedestrians of First Avenue to the West and York Avenue to the North neglect the area for its sense of unimportance to the rest of the city. Unless you live there or are visiting someone who does, there is really no reason to go there. This is why, until I became close with one resident, I had never been there or even heard of it.
Sutton Place was originally part of a series of disconnected strips of Avenue A until Effingham B. Sutton decided to construct a series of brownstone buildings in the small strip between 57th and 58th street in 1875. Once the City Board of Aldermen approved the petition to change the name from "Avenue A" to "Sutton Place", covering the blocks between 57th and 60th Streets it became its own segregated neighborhood. In the 1920’s, the neighborhood began to gain prominence when certain wealthy New Yorkers moved into the neighborhood. Wealthy socialites, such Anne Harriman Vanderbilt and Anne Morgan, built townhouses on the eastern side of the street, overlooking the East River and called the neighborhood home. Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, C. Z. Guest, Peter Lawford & Partricia Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Freddy Mercury, Michael Jackson, Bill Blass, Bobby Short, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe & Arthur Miller, and other prominent figures moved into the enclave over the next century and today’s residents include The Heinz Family, I.M. Pei, Mario Cuomo, Kenneth Cole, Sigourney Weaver, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The storied past of fabled residents is essential to the sense of place created here.
Personally, I love the feeling of being secluded. My favorite places, not only in New York but also in the world, are places that have a sense of cozy, segregated isolation; the feeling of being alone in a place surrounded by emptiness. I know this sounds strange and almost morbid, but in a city where there is always so much going on and so many people around, those places where one can feel calm, seclusion and peace with one’s thoughts are places that should be cherished. Perhaps growing up in New York I developed this sense of natural desire for places of isolation due to the frequent inability find any. My favorite representation of this can be seen in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, where he and Diane Keaton walk to the still extant public space on the edge of Sutton Place and sit on a bench, looking over the East River and out at the Queensboro Bridge. While I had always somehow known of that black-and-white image, it wasn’t until four or five years after having spent many days and nights in Sutton Place that I actually saw this scene in the film and confirmed that it was a perfect way to show the sense of comfort and importance I had come to feel for the enclave.
Waldie talks about the sense of planning that went into the design and development of Lakewood and the positive and negative responses this evokes in him. Like Lakewood, Sutton Place was in a sense designed. It was not laid out over sprawling acres of perfectly plotted streets and zones, yet it went through a similar, if not drastically smaller process. The Plots were Effingham Sutton started to build his brownstones was only the beginning. After the series of townhouses were constructed on the Eastern part of the avenue, planning took on more purpose, and then when Candela got to work, the purpose and function of the tiny enclave began to solidify. Most importantly and similarly to Waldie’s Lakewood, there is a sense of storied past. Talking to a resident of the street, you get the sense of being part of a legacy that reaches back over a century. Even though my particular friend has only lived on Sutton Place for around twenty years, the knowledge of the heritage and the connection to the people seems to indicate a much longer history. You get the sense that even though you are hearing about famous film stars, American aristocrats, and corporate heiresses, that you are also hearing about everyday, quirky people and that even though one would expect tales of their lives to be hush-hush and generally unknown to public, that most people who live in the neighborhood are “in the know”. Like Lakewood, even though the world of the wealthy and elite has opened up in the city and there are increasingly more and more places for them to gather and lay down roots, most of the people who are from this tiny area, choose to stay. The sense of interlocking heritages and shared qualities of living are prevalent in the area and speak to the “subdivisional” quality that Sutton Place encompasses.
Thinking about the architecture in Sutton Place makes me wonder if those landowners of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in the area we now know as Sutton Place encountered similar internal dilemmas regarding the importance of architects in building structures to those of Pollin in building his writer’s hut, if the buildings we see today would even exist, if Candela would even have had a chance to contribute to the landscape, and if the sense of place that we know now could ever have been achieved.
Pollin and Charlie’s relationship as any owner and an architect was riddled with periods of both blind trust and blatant disagreement and it begs the question of the importance of architects in the creation of place. If you look at One Sutton Place South, perhaps the most famous piece of architecture on Sutton Place and one of Rosario Candela’s most well known designs, the importance of architecture cannot be questioned. Commissioned by Henry Phipps in 1925 and completed in 1926, the building was initially a family residence for Henry Phipps and his four children, whose families grew with their newfound mates within the building at One Sutton Place South. Candela created several multi-level homes within the building, each encompassing East and West views and often intertwining. For example the top floor of one apartment would be at the same level of the bottom floor for another apartment, and vice versa. The penthouse originally occupied by Amy Phipps and her husband Frederick Guest, was unusually designed and featured rap-around terraces, parlors, libraries, maids’ quarters, service elevators, passenger elevators, service vestibules, pantries, wash closets, utility halls and every molding, window-pane, brass fixture and iron balustrade needed to outfit a true luxury apartment. Phipps had a vision of what he wanted in a building, but only through the genius of an architect who lives, breathes, and most importantly dreams in fanciful and superfluous details and designs can create it. As Pollin often criticized Charlie for, many details are inconsequential and sometimes confusingly unnecessary, yet to create a true masterpiece of place, perfectly suited and complementary to specific location, an architect is absolutely needed.
Sorkin talks a lot about wasted public space in his novel and when reflecting upon it I feel he would probably not care too much for certain elements of Sutton Place. On the eastern side of One Sutton Place South, there sits a plot of green park that has recently become contested as public space, even though it has long been privately obliged to the residents of the fabled building. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has since 1939 apparently leased the park space (that is constructed over the FDR Drive) to the building after taking possession of the land it sits on top of for public roads, and the validity of the current lease has come into question. Apparently the lease has been expired since 1990 and was never renewed properly. While the tiny plot of land just to north of the building, at the end of 57th street, is technically a public area, the park has been private and its sense of exclusivity has become a serious threat to the sense of place felt by residents. Sorkin maligns the privacy of much of New York’s green spaces and champions the idea of increasing the amount of space available for public use. Where I see the value in this argument, when looking at Sutton Place, it is important to understand the impacts that many private public spaces (I know it seems like an oxymoron) have on the smaller communities that often exist around them. No different that Gramercy Park, this space serves as a meeting and socializing place for members of a small community. Opening it up to the public would make it a much more widely used space and have a chain reaction on the sense of place for the entire area.
As discussed before, Sutton Place enjoys much of its identity as a result of the fact that there is no important or sensible reason for anyone to travel to the area unless they are visiting someone who lives there or live there themselves. Creating a massive (in comparison to many public parks in New York) public space that overlooks a body of water, is mostly green, and is set amongst well-manicured curbs and beautiful architecture, will only invite hoards of people to the place. With increased traffic and a change in the utility of the space, the whole sense of placidity and exclusiveness will change in the place and the preserved sense of historical provenance will slowly dissipate. What Sorkin often does, and what Sutton Place reveals, is that even though he looks to the preservation of local areas he is often putting the betterment of the city as whole ahead of the benefit to the individual, smaller community within the bigger community. It is not worth forsaking Sutton Place to better Manhattan or event the Upper East Side as a larger community.
In reflecting on Flint’s writings, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened to Sutton Place if Robert Moses had achieved something similar to what he attempted to do with Washington Square Park and the subsequent impact on the neighborhood. What sticks out for me most is Moses’ idea to run Fifth Avenue through the park, creating an uninterrupted pathway from North to South through the center of the public space. The effects that Jacobs and others feared (and ultimately hindered the fruition of the plans), would be very similar to Sutton Place. As explained earlier, Sutton Place itself is the six-block stretch south of York Avenue at 59th Street to 53rd Street. The road itself ends at 53rd street and thus precludes any through traffic or sense of utility. Even the FDR ramp at 53rd Street, lets cars off the drive and immediately thrusts them onto 53rd Street and immediately out of Sutton Place. 440 E 53rd Street blocks all traffic that could conceivably travel south, parallel to the FDR, to 49th street near the Beckman Tower. Giving it a sense of enclosure, it gives it a sense of community. What Moses wanted to do with many of his projects, but especially as related to Washington Square Park, was to subdue the area change the sense of unique identity in favor for a sense of greater purpose to the overall city and its overarching goals. While the buildings themselves were in a sense “planned”, the natural structure of the road and the “dead-end” nature was not planned. It was discovered and nurtured, but not terribly altered. Much like Washington Square Park as told by Flint, if it were to be conformed and molded to a specific plan and vision, it would completely change the essence of the neighborhood and its impact on the residents.
Overall Sutton Place is a tiny, somewhat unknown enclave steeped in heritage and still relatively hidden from the gentrification and sense of chaos that seems to have engulfed most of the rest of Manhattan. Due largely to its strictly residential zoning and the fact that it is a dead-end neighborhood, Sutton Place has been able to remain relatively the same as it was not only founded but also intended. Its sense of place comes from a mixture of the people who have and who currently live there, the architecture that paints the picture of the neighborhood and houses and facilitates the lifestyles of the residents, the unique physical positioning within the greater city, and the feelings of calm, exclusive isolation that rarely present themselves in a place so fraught with activity and people who “never sleep”.
Alpern, Andrew - The New York Apartment Houses of Rosario Candela and James Carpenter
Though we may often hear complaints that there is not enough green space in New York City, the metropolis still has its fair share of parks. Most share the similar features of dog parks, playgrounds, and transient crowds, but each has a distinct crowd of regulars and unique primary usage. One other characteristic found in many New York parks is the fountain, arch, or other mix of monuments that work to create a feeling of grandeur in the space. However, there is on park downtown that is not home to a fountain or statue, does not have any boulders or expansive grass lawns, and is somehow made better for its lack of monumental anything. To me Tompkins Square Park is a small haven that many would describe as anything but. This small park is not made of the stuff of icons like Central Park or Washington Square, and it is maybe for these reasons I found in Tompkins Square my first slice of, with all the complications this word brings, real New York.
The story goes that in New York’s grunge age Tompkins Square was home to none but the most withdrawn and dangerous of cocaine and heroin addicts, and some of New York’s most derelict homeless. People who lived in the area anywhere from the 1970s through the 1990s say they did their best to stay away from the park and it certainly did not house the same excitement as Washington Square or Union Square. Walking through the park today, the blatant drug use and violence have largely disappeared, but the grunge attitude still remains and manages to stand its ground against young mothers and their children on the playgrounds, and sometimes the two even manage to mingle with pleasure. The anatomy of the park is conducive to these strange yet positive interactions, surrounded on all sides by low apartment buildings, with a sprinkling of coffee shops, restaurants and delis, and small retail stores. The park runs between 7th and10th Streets, from Avenue A to Avenue B. It interrupts St. Mark’s Place at the street’s eastern end, wrangling in the range of eclectic people idling down the street from its western side. But Tompkins Square is home to a largely local population. Neighborhood residents play basketball, baseball, and other makeshift games at the northern end, walk their dogs around the winding paths before and after work, and bring their children to the playgrounds dispersed along the walkways.
My experience with the park up until a few weeks ago was largely narrow, fragmented, and closed off. I have been to Tompkins Square Park countless times, but its use to me was mostly as a place to walk through on my way home from campus or a place to sit and read when I could not concentrate in my apartment. Walking up to the park from its southeast entrance at 7th Street and Avenue B, I usually hurry to the benches just to the left of the initial greeting walkway. This way I am far enough in to the Square to glean the feeling of being in a park, but I do not have to go far enough in as to explore the space or field any human interaction. I sit at the same section of the same bench every time. I know where to go not by counting, but by a paint mark on one arm rest that separates my section from the others. As I mentioned and this example proves, my view of the park has been narrow, fragmented, and closed. I open my book, and close my eyes to the world around me. Of course, to write firsthand about the look, function, and experience of a place, this would not do.
To push myself to explore Tompkins Square and what makes it unique, or not so, I turned to my comfort zones. My initial delve into the purpose and genius loci of Tompkins Square started right at my usual bench. I decided to look up from my books and really get to know the view from my well worn seat. I took some time to draw the view provided me if I just looked around from where I had been sitting. From this I noticed two things.
First, there was a beautifully framed shot across the park and through some row homes and trees to this stunning building of what looks like white limestone to the northwest. The trees in Tompkins Square create many of these framed vignettes as they reach from one side of a path to another, stretching their long limbs and overlapping with branches from other trees. These trees make the people under them feel comfortable in the sense of enclosure they provide, while still affording these people with the option of peeking out and seeing what is around them. Drawing the landscape from my frequented spot opened my eyes to the unique landscape of the rest of the park. Tompkins Square Park feels less open than most other parks, partly because of its abundance of trees, but also in part because of the layout on the ground. Pavement far outnumbers grass in terms of square footage in Tompkins Square. Fenced in garden areas break up the true concrete jungle, but most public spaces and the interactions that take place in them are on paved surfaces. This leads to another thing I learned about the uniqueness of Tompkins Square Park: its human interactions and sense of community.
The second I began to interact with Tompkins Square through some outward artistic activity, people were interested in interacting with me. As I sat sketching, the man playing his clarinet a few bench sections down looked over and nodded at me, and suddenly there formed this type of community. Moments later a group of small children hopped the fence from the playground and stood watching me, then congratulated me on what they thought was a job well done before moving on to interrogate the man with the clarinet. So our little eclectic community grew. Weeks later when I went back to the park to take some photographs, two men actually asked me if I would take their photo. Delighted, I finished my walk through the park with a new sense of community that the reassuring toddlers had given me weeks before.
Tompkins Square Park is an unassuming space conducive to genuine and visceral, if ephemeral, human bonding. The fact that there are no large attractions in or around the park, as well as its less than clean reputation from years past leave it a space that can really be shaped by the everyday lives of the population of the surrounding area. People are willing to interact with one another and interested in the activities going on around them because the park provides an unintimidating and informal environment for interaction. All of these things create a sense of community ownership of the place that remains honest and unable to be exploited: at least as of yet.
When I think back to my freshman year at NYU, I immediately remember the many nights I spent at Lit, and I’ve come to realize that this place encapsulates that time in my life perfectly. My memories of this other time—one that now seems so far away—inhabit Lit and transform it from just-another-bar to something of a relic of past time in my life. I understand the incongruity in declaring that Lit is place where I had many great times and had many great memories, yet acknowledging that nothing inherent about Lit is the cause for my affection.
Here, the people shape the place. I always went to Lit with a group of great friends late at night during freshman and (first semester) sophomore years. Whenever there was doubt about what we should do or where we should go, the quandary was always resolved with someone exclaiming “Lit!” and the issue was settled. We never needed an excuse to venture to Lit the way those other bars or clubs did, and we were just as comfortable there on Tuesday as we were on Saturday. As is the case with most nightlife spots, patrons moved on to other locations and the spark that made Lit great seemed to die as my friends and regulars moved on to other spots and DJs changed—two crucial aspects in creating Lit’s sense of place.
Lit was opened in 2002 by a four of artists as a means of financing the Fuse Gallery that sits in a back room of the space. The space earned its namesake from the fire that destroyed the building and forced the previous owners to vacate. When asked about how Lit was founded, owner Erik Foss said in The New York Times, "A few years ago our art wasn't being accepted by mainstream galleries in Chelsea and our music wasn't being supported by record labels, so the idea was to open a place where we could all hang out and do our thing and really build a community" (http://www.litloungenyc.com/nytimesjune9.html).
For a while, social life seemed to revolve around Lit. It’s a two floor space: one enters on street level and is met with a seating area, a long bar, banquets, bathrooms, and a back room. A set of precariously steep stairs led to the downstairs space, which features a stage, alcove, another bar, a backroom, and more bathrooms. The stairs divide the space and create a transition between upstairs and downstairs, and they both defy and uphold Sorkin’s observations about stairs. This steep single-run of metal steps are not a social space—they’re hidden behind a wall—to a first time visitor, it would be easy to miss them. But they serve a critical function in dividing the space and creating distinct feelings. The 2,000 square foot upstairs is slightly more sedate than the 1,500 square foot downstairs. While by no means boring, patrons upstairs are generally more sober than those downstairs, look more composed dancing, and have a better understanding of what’s going on. Once a partier descends the stairs he/she enters a smoky subterranean lair (for a while, management overlooked people smoking in the back room), that was packed full of uninhibited partiers every night of the week. Nothing seemed off limits downstairs. And I think management knew this, as they served drinks in plastic cups downstairs as opposed to the glass ones upstairs.
Sounds of electronic, house, new wave, and the frequent 80s or 90s guilty-pleasure rise above the din of excited voices. This place is dirty, grungy, hot, smoky, and populated by a varied crowd. New York Magazine embarrassingly writes that Lit is the clubhouse of the “‘skankoisie’ and is populated by ‘scenesters’ and ‘scruffy Strokes lookalikes’ who swap gravy with low-banged vagrant-chic girls dolled up in the jolie-laide look of heroine Karen O” (http://nymag.com/listings/bar/lit_lounge/). While the description is laughable and oddly self-aware, I do agree that it accurately describes the partiers at Lit. In spite of this description, Lit never felt image conscious. It excelled as a place because it felt “authentic” as Sorkin describes. There was no pretense, image didn’t seem to matter, and it never felt as if I were participating in “drama that someone else created” for me (Sorkin 176). The Village Voice writes, “There's something about the place that makes it seem like it's always been there, like a neighborhood bar that just grew out of the cement” (http://www.villagevoice.com/locations/lit-lounge-153025/). It was authentic; I think Sorkin would approve.
It was not the place to see and be seen. I liked it because it was unpretentious and I never felt anyone looking at me, and I think that’s what attracted a lot of people to it. Patrons were able to be as rowdy and debauched as they pleased till the early hours of the morning. People simply didn’t care about anything except for the fun they were having. There is an unspoken camaraderie at these spots—they’re popular because, as Tuan writes, people enjoy “the sheer pleasure of swimming in a sea of their own kind” (Tuan 63). Lit’s sense of place was found in the attitudes, actions, and hopes for the night of the hundreds of plaid-wearing revelers.
Jackson’s observations about the landscape during wartime can be extrapolated to explain what gives Lit its sense of place. The environment/space becomes a setting or a stage for what is taking place (Jackson 133). The terrain organizes and directs action, but it is what men do that matters in wartime, writes Jackson (Jackson 135). And the space at Lit works in a similar way; it encourages people to act in a certain way and lets them know just how far they can let loose, but the space itself doesn’t confer the sense of place—it is what people do there that does: how far they’re willing to go, how sweaty they’re willing to get, what music the DJ plays, and more. The space at Lit works in the same way as the landscape in wartime, because, frankly, a night at Lit was akin to a war with your own body. I realize that this sense of place can be found elsewhere in the city and it’s not specific to Lit. The point is that this feeling could have happened at any other similar spots, but it happened at Lit because of the people I was with and the chance alignment of many factors during my freshman year. In many ways the scene at Lit was like that of a battlefield in that what people did there mattered more than the organization and realities of the space.
Little distinguishes Lit from similar dives like Home Sweet Home or Don Hills, but my repeated visits led me to develop a connection to the place. As Tuan writes, “what begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (Tuan 6). Tuan explains, “Place can acquire deep meaning for the adult through the steady accretion of sentiment over the years” (Tuan 33). This is exactly the case with Lit. As Sorkin writes, personal history imbues certain places with deep, personal meaning. I doubt most would feel the same way that I do about Lit, but for me, I hold a strong personal connection.
This past weekend I returned to Lit for the first time in over a semester to attend an event held there. As I descended the familiar two small steps into the main bar area, I was overcome by familiar emotions and memories of a time that now seems long gone. I know I’m only 21 and have my entire life in front of me, but the carefree attitude that reigned during my nights at Lit throughout freshman year seems like a distant memory. I was struck by the way in which this place perfectly encapsulates a distinct period in my life. I now have the LSAT to worry about, I must find a job, and the real world beckons. Of course I can have fun, but the hedonism that found refuge in Lit is on an indefinite vacation. Lit possessed an abstract, almost-indescribable, sense of place found not in the realities of the space but in the things that happened in that space and who inhabited that space that begged my friends and me to return.