Baubles, Buttons and Beads *

The giant ‘Button Threaded with Needle’ sculpture on West 39th Street and ‘Fashion Avenue,’ aka Seventh Ave.

At some point every New Yorker finds herself in Midtown. Rather than brave the tourist-clogged streets around Herald Square or 42nd Street—shudder!—I take the side streets, where a surprising number of family-owned businesses plug on despite the rapacious grab of developers. 

I’ve always been drawn to the small shops of the Garment District, those fabric, notions and trim shops that “unspooled” around the fashion industry, the latter a powerful economic engine in the city until the early ‘80s, when globalization started to take its toll. ** 

Twenty-two years ago, NYC’s Department of City Planning created the “Special Garment Center District,” in order to preserve “opportunities for apparel production, and wholesale and showroom use” in “selected blocks between 35th and 40th Streets west of Broadway.” *** 

The rezoning was an attempt to save Manhattan’s garment industry by limiting real estate development, specifically the proliferation of hotels and “the conversion of industrial space into office use.” *** Thank you, City Planning!

It’s worth remembering, especially during incendiary times such as these, that the city’s garment industry wouldn’t have been possible without immigrants. According to the Fashion Center Business Improvement District’s A Stitch in Time, “The skills of Eastern European Jews perfectly matched the industrial landscape taking place in New York,” that landscape, of course, being the garment industry. ** 

The Garment Worker, a sculpture on Seventh Avenue by Judith Weller

How were they doing, I wondered? Those old-world emporiums plying mother-of-pearl buttons, grosgrain ribbons, hooks and eyes? Although they seemed cast from a Dickens novel, with their narrow aisles, buckled floors and ancient cash registers, still, they were magical. Fusty warrens of space where, lo and behold, the perfect alabaster button, or ribbon the exact shade of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes, or lace befitting a debutant’s cotillion might possibly be there behind the counter or among the hundreds of boxes or spools teetering above. 

Whether you’re mourning or marrying, the Garment District is the place for lace.

Was West 38th Street still the antidote to a missing button or broken zipper or to that sinking feeling that the familiar squiggles of Manhattan’s fingerprint—Curry Hill, the Diamond District, Korea Town, the Garment District itself—had been rubbed clean, replaced with posh hotels, star-chitect builds and chic eateries?

The answer is yes, and no.

The button sellers still ply their trade, aided in equal parts by that zoning law of ‘87 previously cited—upheld in 1990 when developers sought to rescind it**—and from the publicity of shows like Project Runway, where the camera chases blue-haired FIT students sourcing a neon zipper, gem-like buttons or yards of rhinestone trim. 

Bring on the bling!

The biggest takeaway for me—after visiting about ten trim and button shops in the district—is that ownership has shifted, with Asian-Americans replacing Eastern Europeans as entrepreneurs. Yet again, immigrants put their brains, brawn and bankrolls behind Manhattan’s fashion industry and all the ancillary businesses that support it.

Some shops present a kind of organized chaos, with a mother lode of sparkly treasure stacked from floor to ceiling…

…while others have been transformed into clean and orderly museums of calm, with spools of satin ribbon housed behind glass, and black-clad salesclerks absorbed in the bright screens of their laptops. 

Shindo is a modern take on the ‘notions’ shop of yore, with what must be hundreds of miles worth of gorgeous satin ribbon, much of it behind glass.
A fox made completely of ribbon at Shindo on West 36th Street.

Despite the fact that I visited on a chilly Monday morning, most of the shops had customers: one designer described the masculine vibe he wanted for the buttons on his sports wear line; two women examined bolts of lace for a bridal veil; another woman sparred with the salesclerk on the price per foot of tapestry-woven trim.

Some shops were chaotic, others pristine, but one thing common to all was the extraordinary assortment of product, from buttons to boas, embroidery to escutcheons, fasteners to fabric, ribbons to rivets.

Amen!
A fastening machine in the rear of a notions shop in the Garment District. Riveting!

And the wealth of materials astounds: wood, stone, bamboo and bone; ceramic, elastic and plastic; feather and felt; sequins and satin; metal, tortoise and horn.

If you can’t find the perfect button in the Garment District, abandon all hope.

Color seems a simple concept; but is “blue” or “yellow” or “green” an answer or a question? Which shade of blue, which green hue? The range of colors available behind each storefront presents a Pantone swatch book of possibilities.

So the next time I need to replace a button or match some thread, I won’t scan the Internet or shop one of those corporate “craft” stores, I’ll head straight to the Garment District, where searching is half the fun, where the perfect cornflower blue awaits and where a few enterprising shopkeepers are doing their part to both preserve and rewrite a fascinating chapter in Manhattan’s storied history.

Have to agree with Billy Strayhorn that ‘a flower is a lovesome thing,’ even when conjured from fabric.

# # #

* Sung to the tune of Baubles, Bangles and Beads by George Forrest and Robert Wright. (I like the Sinatra/Jobim version.)

** Some facts gleaned from A Stitch in Time, the Fashion Center Business Improvement District’s 2008 pamphlet written by Gabriel Montero.

*** NYC Department of Planning, Special Purpose Districts

Heavenly Heroes

One of my pet peeves about living in New York City is the noise. So I cursed under my breath when I saw the scaffolding going up on my building. As I’ve mentioned here before, I live in a 14-story prewar, erected in 1914. The Triple Nickel needed a facelift, bricks repointed, that sort of thing.

But scaffolding means months, possibly years, of an ugly grill marring the facade of your homestead; years of a photo-ruinous rig of steel, wood and mesh; years of a view-obliterating maze of steps and rails outside your window; years of curtains drawn against the peering eyes of workmen.

Oh. And the noise. The minute I hear the ring of metal hitting concrete in the a.m., I know that the workmen are here, unloading the giant erector set soon to embrace us in its skeletal hug. But I don’t wanna be hugged!

The scaffolding is just the beginning. Then comes the drilling, hammering, scraping; the whistling, shouting, singing; the shuffling of feet, disembodied yet so close that it feels like it’s INSIDE your head.

Of course, if I were still grinding the nine-to-five, I’d be gone all day, dealing instead with the nonstop office din: the loud talker, the fingernail clipper, the open-mouthed chomper, the mindless hummer, those annoying pings and ring tones. See how much I hate noise? 

But I no longer work in an office, so it’s slammed doors, idling vans, gunned engines, baying dogs, screaming sirens, the angry buzz of minibikes…and workmen right outside my window. How would I cope? How to read and write, muse and dream, listen to music, even hear myself think? First world problem, right?

I admit to being sensitive to noise. I know I’m prickly, what with my distain for vocal yawners, gum snappers, street screamers, subway preachers, the deafening thump thump of a woofer in a passing car.

Yes, I wear earplugs. And noise-cancelling headphones. Ambient background music. Sometimes all at once. It’s almost as if I feel the noise. Sound penetrates, not just the ear canal but the skin itself. If you’re thinking I might need time in a padded cell, well, the thought of that isn’t necessarily abhorrent, as long as I have a laptop, books and QUIET.

But hey, I live in New York City. Dealing with noise is one of the sacrifices one makes in order to live here. So HEAR I am!

It seems every other building I pass is wrapped in scaffolding but now came our turn. Unloading is one thing, securing the materials to form a workspace is another. The scaffolding is bolted to the building, which means drilling into brick and mortar. It took days before the workmen reached the eighth floor but sure enough, there came the top of a hard hat, then a face, a torso, work boots rising steadily in my window as they banged and clanged their way to the summit.

For they are a kind of mountaineer, the workmen with their rugged boots and harnesses, their layered work clothes and bandanas, their wind-worn faces and sturdy physiques. Latino, likely, since all the shouts and cries are in Spanish. Are they organized? Paid a union wage? Are they family men? Sons sending life-saving dollars to mothers back home?

And then it happened. That shift in consciousness when I stopped agonizing about the noise and started worrying about… the men!

A spectral figure appears where there was none.

A few days after the workmen rose past my window, steel rigging left in their wake, there was an awful sound as something—somebody?—fell, pin-balling its way to earth, striking blows on metal then wood, wood then metal, a heart-stopping rhythm somehow just off the beat.  

I ran to the window, not wanting to see, but incapable of not looking. There were shouts in Spanish, a name called, then nothing. Please let them be ok. Please let there not be a body splayed on the street.

And that’s when it hit me: these guys are superheroes. Able to scale tall buildings, withstand winter’s bitter breath and shore up our building, all while staring down gravity’s ruthless pull.

I sort of fell in love with them right then and there, these acrobatics of the construction set. Young, strong and fearless; upbeat, tough and tireless; plus they’re probably not getting paid enough. Last week the city faced record cold, with morning temperatures at a frigid 7 degrees. The men showed, wrapped like mummies against the chill, to climb the steep cliff of brick and mortar. I know they’re not getting paid enough.

Although wearing harnesses while the scaffolding is built, the workman aren’t always tethered to the structure while moving between floors.

Their “stairway” passes right by my kitchen window. The crew climb, one man after the other, their helmets splayed with stickers, torsos harnessed like performers in a high wire act. They rise together, as if going off to a high altitude war, and I imagine the camaraderie that forms, in dangerous jobs like this, a bond shared by those who shrug at vertigo’s dizzy spin.  

How do they do it? Convince themselves to scale the heights every day? Cling to the jungle gym rigging before the walking planks are laid, 12, 13, 14 stories up? Stride across an 8” wide panel when a misstep or distracted moment means the street rushing up to meet them should they fall? 

Before planks and stairs are rigged, the men have to scramble up the metal bars of the scaffolding.

When the men leave for the day, I’m fascinated with the space they’ve created where there was none. A suspended work zone almost as miraculous as the men who made it, an aery float on which to walk, sit and work. I find a piece of chewing gum outside on my windowsill, struck by its incongruity, up here on the eighth floor.

A strange new space where there was only air.

That wad of gum was their only “transgression”. Not once have the men stolen glances through my window. I’ve never caught a wayward look as I lounge, reading on the sofa, while they risk life and limb just beyond the glass.

Turned out, everyone was ok. A workman had dropped a wooden plank. On the way down the board ricocheted through the layers of scaffolding, shattering a window along the way, but the men were fine. 

I can hear them, whistling sometimes, calling out to their fellow workmen. Occasional snippets of mariachi float by as they climb the scaffolding on their urban ascent. And guess what? The calls and whistles, the tread of work boots steady on the stairs? I’m glad to hear it, glad for the buzz of the drill that means they’re not only doing what they’re supposed to do, but they’re safe. Safe doing what so few of us have the courage, skill or need to do in order to feed our families. 

And I thank them, silently to myself, and say—a first for me in this lifetime—bring on the noise! Climb heavenwards with your drills and hammers. Cut a dashing figure on your brave balancing act. Mend the aging infrastructure of my beloved building. But come back down.

Make your way back. Be safe and sound as you make your way down. Because noise dissipates then floats away but the ground remains, solid and unforgiving. 

# # #

When They Go Low, New Yorkers Get High

An ad for MedMen, a medical dispensary on Fifth Avenue in Midtown.

And, POOF!, it’s everywhere. (Or should I say PUFF?)

From those California gals in Grace and Frankie to the millennial stoners of Broad City right here in Gotham, characters on film, both young and old(er) are getting roasted.

Of course here in NYC, pot’s been perfuming these streets since the 1960s, probably even before that, knowing our reputation to “live and let live.” The “head shop” might have been born in San Francisco but it was perfected in the Village, with streets chock-a-block with Bob Marley tee shirts, glass bowls and, now, vape shops, where the bongs look like a cross between a lab experiment and a mid-century modern work of art.

Mary Jane’s moved into the main stream and surely New York City played a part, never really ghosting on cannibis, despite the cocaine-fueled eighties, fitness-crazed nineties, the cocktail culture of the early aughts.

Carrie Bradshaw getting buzzed on Sex and the City.

Medical marijuana was legalized in New York in 2014 when Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act into law. And in his recent State of the State address, the governor promised to do the same for recreational use by the end of the year. Since eleven other states beat us to the punch, you have to ask: Hey, New York, what took ya so long? 

The MedMen medical dispensary near Bryant Park will add recreational marijuana to their wares as soon as legally possible, a staffer told me.

Is it because, all along, weed was pretty easy to cop? Just follow your nose or touch up that programmer at work; take a Washington Square stroll or a Craigslist scroll…

A NYC Craigslist ad for pot delivery.

Seriously, I do wonder what will become of all those “420” dealers touting their “professional, high end delivery teams” on Craigslist. High end in deed! One dealer even offers “free gifts” with his referral program. But will the delivery biz dry up when anyone (over 21) can walk into a store for their daily chronic?

Another Craigslist ad. Free gifts!

Even more important, what will happen to “the Guy” on HBO’s High Maintenance? He’s the chill dude cycling ‘round Brooklyn delivering “product” to his regulars—artists, oldsters, shut-ins, party girls—in other words regular ole New Yorkers just trying to score some Gorilla Glue to make it through another stressful day. What’s Guy gonna do when his customers can pick up Cookies and Cream at the corner store? And I don’t mean Oreos.

The Guy delivering product on HBO’s High Maintenance.

New York City has always been able to provide your basic paraphernalia to the average stoner. But gone are the days when your options were limited to bodega Bambu or the same ten bongs from a grumpy hippy in a St Marks smoke shop.

No longer are old timey smoke shops like this the only source for rolling papers and other pot paraphernalia.

Suddenly, it’s chic to be baked! (Even Martha Stewart admits she can roll a J.) And does any place do chic better than New York City?

After that Lobster Roll or grass-fed burger at the Chelsea Market, check out Higher Standards, where you can score a shiny new (and pricey!) accessory for your purple haze.

The bespectacled staff at Higher Standards in the Chelsea Market seem to have taken a page from Apple’s sales manual: There are no dumb questions. They’ll spend an infinite amount of time explaining a $600 vape contraption that looks as though it can double as an espresso machine. There are free samples of fancy shortbread at the counter, although, shucks, they’re not edibles. And every other sentence or so, you’ll be called “love,” as in, “Check out the ergonomic mouthpiece on this rig, love.”

What you won’t hear are the words “pot,” “herb” or “weed.” It’s “material” or possibly “flower” when the sales force explain the finer points of the imbibing arts. Not that they’re fooling anyone. It’s all spelled out, literally, on some of the merch.

A Jonathan Adler cache for your Kush at Higher Standards
Is hash making a comeback? Higher Standards seems to think so.

I suspect the average stoner won’t be shopping at Higher Standards, what with their “Higher Prices.” Maybe those with unlimited incomes, are you listening Bill Maher?, will lay down a cool $2,500 for this crazy duck pipe, handblown of course. But I pity the partier who, inevitably, drops it. Bummer, dude!

Cannabis candles? Did somebody order skunk?
The mainstreaming of pot culture goes full circle. Somehow I think Julia Child would approve… and bake a mean brownie to boot.

Over on the East side, Village Grannies conjures a vibe somewhere between ascetic lab and Eileen Fisher, a cool white sliver of a place where calmness reigns.

A one-of-a-kind piece at Village Grannies that may help you achieve new heights, say, higher than a… genus giraffa?

Village Grannies has something over the competition: you won’t be ignored by the millennial behind the counter, assaulted by Thrash or given a hard sell on expensive doohickies. The two proprietors-of-a-certain-age created a gallery-like space where the hand-blown bongs get curated like a piece by Dale Chihuly.

But there are also reasonably priced pipes strung up like wind chimes…

…And plush, handmade pillows to rest your stoney head.

The scene’s a little more gangsta than granny down the street at i-vape, where the terminology alone, not to mention miles of product, will have any boomer skimming the urban dictionary. Bubble caps, mini rippers, clubbangers, chillums…anyone?

Channeling the Rasta mon at i-vape.
The kind of pipe that begs the question: Am I already fried?
No matter how you roll, be it wide, raw or zig zag, i-vape’s got the goods.

With recreational bud just around the corner, might even more New Yorkers emerge from the so-called “green closet”… unafraid to admit… now that it’s legit… their propensity to get lit?

And remember… don’t bogart that joint!

# # #

In New York City, Filming Never Wraps!

William Friedkin filmed The French Connection in the NYC subway system without getting permission from the MTA.

I blame Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection.

In the seventies, directors like John Schlesinger and William Friedkin wanted to capture the grit and noir-ish intensity of the streets of New York City, so naturally they turned to… the streets of New York City to get the cred they wanted.

And who can blame them? Well, I can, just did in fact, but really, where else but the actual streets of this very real city can you experience the light glancing off brick, brownstone, glass and steel? Where else can the camera lens reveal the layers of a neighborhood, a peeling fire escape, a silhouetted water tank, the worn facades of newsstands and tenements?    

Mean Streets called for real streets, so Martin Scorsese opted to shoot some scenes in Little Italy—at Old St Patrick’s Cathedral—and in Belmont, the Bronx’s version of an Italian enclave. And although Hitchcock hated being on location, he shot parts of North by Northwest at the United Nations, where the crisp edges of mid-century met the dizzying paranoia of mistaken identity against a backdrop of stilted civility.

From Rosemary’s Baby to When Harry Met Sally, from Annie Hall to You’ve Got Mail, directors have channeled Gotham’s aura, not through cardboard stoops or plywood walk-ups, but by taking over city streets with cables, cameras and crews.

Thank you, Woody, for making location shots a must for any NYC-based film…NOT! A scene from Annie Hall.

You could say New York City got its SAG card whether it wanted to or not, becoming one of the most sought after “character” actors in the history of film. Once again, can you blame filmmakers? I mean, after all, New York City is my dream location, a place where every breath is a heady mix of energy, anxiety and hope that both unsettles and revives.

Preparing to film under the viaduct on 12th Avenue near the Fairway in Harlem. Creating a fake graffitied wall and the results below.
None of this is real. In fact it no longer exists except on film.

Filming in New York City today is its own industry, with studios in Brooklyn and Long Island City transforming the Big Apple into Hollywood East. Who needs Warner Bros. or MGM when you have Silvercup Studios, Broadway Stages and Steiner Studios? And why build a set when the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) welcomes you with permits, street closures and NYPD muscle to facilitate your shoots in the West Village, Harlem or the Lower East Side? According to MOME, the film industry employs more than 300,000 New Yorkers and brings in over a hundred billion dollars in revenue. 

West 148th Street in Harlem is turned, poof!, into East 108th Street. Photo: Peter Grosett

But there are costs, as well, to our streets, neighborhoods and well-being.

These days, it seems, everywhere I go is a film set and with that comes street and small business closures, lost parking space, idling vehicles and roving bands of bearded grips, gaffers and best boys. There’s so much filming in Sugar Hill and Washington Heights nowadays that it makes me want to shout: WE’RE NOT READY FOR OUR CLOSE-UP, MR. DE BLASIO!

Shooting on Broadway in Washington Heights.
Conjuring the ’50s on the streets of Harlem.

And it isn’t just famous directors descending on my hood. Cable series and television producers are plugging in their generators all over Harlem and Washington Heights to channel NYC’s indisputable charm. The DeuceBlue Bloods  and God Friended Me  film right outside my doorstep; often enough that I know I’m in for more lights-camera-action every time one of these pops up on the nearest lamp post:

Two different productions filming at the same location. Oy vey!

Ok, I’ll admit it. The first couple of times you come across a film set, you wonder: what’s filming? Who’s in it? Is that Sean Penn? But after a while, the street detours, the idling trailer trucks, the treacly, “Ma’m, do you mind using the subway entrance down the block?” start to get to you; I mean, “I’m walking here!”

Ratso Rizzo’s infamous confrontation with a New York cab in Midnight Cowboy. Supposedly the shot was an ad lib, the driver a real cabbie.

I’d like to throttle whoever came up with the idea that Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights was the perfect stand-in for the formerly seedy Times Square. When producers of HBO’s The Deuce come to film their 70s-inspired saga about the birth of porn, local businesses, most of which are mom & pop stores, hair salons and bodegas, aren’t compensated for streets crowded with film crews, depleted parking and the subsequent loss of business. According to one salon owner I spoke to, it was the landlords who were compensated by the production company, even though the mom & pops lost money, not the building owners.

Erecting scaffolding on Amsterdam Avenue for an ersatz marquee on the ‘set’ of The Deuce

Along with financial loss come the noise and blinding lights of a night shoot, as is so often the case with The Deuce. One resident told me his top floor apartment is flooded with light every night they shoot making sleep next to impossible. And then there’s the wear and tear on both infrastructure and our psyches. Who wants to live in the chaos of a perpetual sound stage while the production crew transforms a quiet working class block into naughty Times Square?

Faux signage on Amsterdam Avenue for The Deuce. The graffiti may be real but this ain’t Times Square!
More signage for The Deuce.
Amsterdam Avenue is dressed for its close-up.
I guess they covered the windows of this faux liquor store with old posters because they didn’t want the ‘modern’ interior to ruin the mood required for a 1970s Times Square.
A dressed ‘Peep Show’ next to a small biz yet to be transformed.

Filming in the city has borne much more tragic results. One of my favorite old Harlem jazz joints, St. Nick’s Pub, was destroyed by fire during a shoot for the film Motherless Brooklyn. Far more devastating was the fact that a firefighter died battling that blaze.

St Nick’s Pub in Harlem, cast as The King Rooster, was left a shell of its former self from a fire on the set of Motherless Brooklyn. Firefighter Michael Davidson died fighting the blaze. Photo: Peter Grosett
The beautiful nineteenth century townhouse and former site of a historic jazz club, ravished by fire, was eventually razed. Legal battles ensued. Photo: Peter Grosett

Look, I get it. I get why New York is the perfect back lot for so many films, I mean, it’s the ideal setting for me and a blog called newyorkitus after all! I spend a great deal of time wandering these streets capturing images, listening for stories: New York’s my jam; I completely get its appeal.

The newsstand is a prop, the Chevy a ‘picture vehicle,’ a vintage car used to add verisimilitude to the scene.
Another faux newsstand, including an outdoor ad for spark plugs. The stand is long gone, the ad, however, remains.
West 162nd Street in Washington Heights, lined with picture vehicles, circa 1970s, for an upcoming shoot.
Motherless Brooklyn used vehicles from the 1950s to summon that era. Photo: Peter Grosett
Photo: Peter Grosett

But I’m not sad to learn that Vancouver and Toronto are quickly becoming go-to cities to film…wait for it…New York City. That’s right, Toronto is standing in for Manhattan! Rumble in the Bronx? Filmed in Vancouver. Which means there’s more space on these mean streets for my camera and me.

When the dreaded ‘sugar wagons’ show up, we’re in for a big production.

Not that all filmmakers will pack up their Craft carts, booms and sugarwagons for parts north. The camera will always love New York City, maybe even as much as I do. So perhaps the best thing about the filming-on-location obsession that rose here in the 1970s and continues unabated is that, aside from the dressing and props, the character of a specific time and neighborhood is forever preserved on film.

So whenever I’m jonesin’ to revisit a mall-less SoHo, a pop-up-free Lower East Side, a Times Square sans Disney, I can queue up After HoursSerpicoDesperately Seeking Susan, Next Stop Greenwich Village, Taxi Driver… the list goes on and on.

“AND… WE’RE ROLLING!”

# # #

Is Graffiti Dead?

Photo: Peter Grosett

Ed Koch, who was mayor at the time, said wolves were the answer. 

The problem was graffiti, with the New York City subway system bearing the brunt of the tags and symbols that “writers” scrawled, inside and out, on resting cars in the train yard. 

An unattributed photo from the bad old days.

To graffiti artists, tags were a kind of rebellious advertisement, all the better when the train bearing them hurtled throughout the city, increasing their visual reach. Truck “bombing”—hitting up commercial trucks and vans with your tags—was one more way to get your “message” across. 

‘Lister’ gets around. He/she tags all over the LES and here on a van in China Town.

In the end, both the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cracked down on subway graffiti through what was called a “run clean” policy. Trains that couldn’t be completely cleansed of tags were removed from service at the terminal. Minors could no longer legally buy spray paint. Collared offenders were charged and punished more rigorously. And guard dogs, not wolves, were enlisted to patrol the train yards. (Koch believed “wild wolves” would scare but not attack graffiti writers, and were thus a safer alternative toward prevention. Go figure.) 

But the city’s efforts worked. The only subway cars you see bombed with graffiti these days are in photos from the 1970s and ‘80s or at the Transit Museum.

Tagged L trains in the Rockaway Parkway Yard. Photo: nycsubway.org

New Yorkers who lived through those decades, for the most part, were happy to see graffiti-free cars, their daily transport wiped clean of the initials, symbols and comically-loopy fonts that collaged every conceivable surface. My partner, Peter, was among them, recalling commutes in the ‘70s and ‘80s as “visually chaotic rides.”

But static canvases were also targets for graffiti writers, the more difficult to access, the better. Subway tunnels, rooftops, viaducts, water tanks: if the surface in question could take paint and got eyeballs, it was prime for tagging, that is, if you were wily enough to get to it. 

An impressive ‘get’ for this tagger, a water tank high above busy Canal Street.
Understandably, owners weren’t happy when their buildings were bombed. Let’s call it what it is when property is overrun like this: vandalism. Still, there’s something…compelling?…about this composition, a layering of black and white tags on a red and white canvas. Photo: Peter Grosett

Graffiti in New York today is a different animal then it was in the late twentieth century. “Broken window” policing, increased fines and sentences and the ubiquity of security cameras make tagging more difficult to engage in and tougher to get away with.

Most of the actual graffiti you see in Manhattan these days is of an older vintage. Have Instagram posts and YouTube replaced tagging as a means to claim your own existence? Or have graffiti artists, at least those with any talent, moved into the galleries a la Keith Haring, or simply grown up and aged out?

‘Love Me’ seems a particularly poignant tag. I also like the Lego-type robot on this series of graffs.

In my travels around Manhattan, it seems that old-time tags have competition, with “street art” gobbling up the available space that real graffiti used to commandeer.

Banksy hammering away at W. 79th Street and Broadway. More street art than graffiti, Banksy’s work is both feted and pricey. His Girl With Balloon recently sold for a cool $1.4 million before being shredded in front of stunned auction attendees. For images like the one above, Banksy goes unremunerated.
Street art of a more musical variety. Sir Shadow knows! Photo: Peter Grosett

Along with street art come sanctioned murals and even paid ads done “graffiti” style. Graffiti, it seems, has gone mainstream, as long as it’s controlled, permitted and possibly even paid for. Wonder how some of NYC’s earliest graff writers and artists—Taki, Zephyr, Lady Pink—feel about that?

This double-vision Mickey in Nolita was most likely permitted and paid for. To me, sanctioned art like this is a symbol of the ‘malling’ of the city, although I do like the artist’s tag: Jerkface.
More sanctioned art, a mural in Little Italy that was funded by community locals. Art by Tristan Eaton.
Hard not to like this Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rendering by Lexi Bella in the First Street Green Art Park, a sanctioned public space on Houston Street. AOC isn’t graffiti but since it’s NYC there’s some old tagging in the frame. Skin Chroma Beatr, anyone?

Far more vexing to me is advertising done under the guise of street art funded through takings of a multi-billion dollar industry, in this case fashion. Gucci has parked their advertising cum “art” in this space on Lafayette Street in Soho for the past few years.

Gucci’s ad in Soho. Advertising impersonating art?

Keith Haring is credited, in part, with ushering in graffiti’s legitimacy as art, at least the way he did it. In 1982, Haring painted, in collaboration with Juan Dubose, a mural on the Houston Bowery Wall, one of his first projects to win acclaim. (The Wall has since become the coveted NYC location for internationally-known artists, a kind of Super Bowl-like ad space for the famous. What would Haring think about that?)

Keith Haring and Juan Dubose’s contribution to the Houston Bowery Wall, 1982, before it was the Houston Bowery Wall. Photo: complex.com from the Korkidus/Schonberger article on the history of the Wall.

Currently the Houston Bowery Wall is a work in progress, the artist in charge unknown to me.

A new, owner-approved installation at the Houston Bowery Wall is under way. Notice the fancy lights on the facade, something that would have made Keith Haring’s illegal tagging much more difficult .

Haring’s “Crack is Wack” mural on Harlem River Drive at West 128th Street, completed in 1986, was unauthorized by the city, but public affection for the art as well as its anti-drug message convinced officials not only to accept but also to protect and periodically restore it. The mural is currently covered due to ongoing construction in the area, but I did manage to get a few shots through holes in the canvas.

Did Haring and company jumpstart the street art craze that vies with plain old-fashioned graffiti for wall space? Whoever did, Lower Manhattan is crawling with cheeky, wannabe artists plastering, spraying and Kinko-ing their way (they hope) to fame.

Two pieces by bOrtUsk. I suspect works like these are produced in studio then plastered to exterior walls at a later date, making them easier and less risky to post. Unlike graffiti writers of old, many such artists hang their work in accessible, street-level spots.

Another artist, who preps his/her work beforehand, is making the scene down in the LES. I call them the “Doll Head Girls.”

Doll head girl artist unknown.

Street art with a message? I’m all aboard especially when it condemns the fur industry and those who purchase their deadly wares.

An anti-fur message stenciled on the base of a traffic light.

And it’s hard to argue with the message below anytime, but especially now during the #Me too era.

More “writing on the wall,” this time with a simple message when it comes to immigration. Bravo!

No Child is Illegal. Artist: LMNOPI.

Queen Elizabeth II looks a bit menacing here. If anyone can explain the watermelon reference, jolly well do.

In the cut throat world of street art and graffiti, your masterpiece will get tagged. Artist unknown.

Is any image more common in art than the human face?

Another work by LMNOPI, above.

Photo: Peter Grosett

More good advice…

As development continues in nearly every Manhattan neighborhood, taggers and artists are drawn to areas known to be, if not graffiti-friendly, at least graffiti-tolerant. Unofficial “galleries” like Freeman Alley in the Lower East Side provide space where taggers and artists can, for now and with impunity, collage the walls with their art, their angst, their imagery.

The ‘gallery’ walls of Freeman Alley.
A Freeman Alley artist channels the famous Biggie Smalls mural that can be found in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

New York City has long been a place where even the powerless could endeavor to make their mark. Whether you call it graffiti, tagging, vandalism or art… whether it’s a kid from the projects or a student from FIT… the city seemed able to absorb such existential communiques, almost embrace them as one more fascinating layer of the humanity that energizes this urban life.

I prefer this street scape over the Gucci ad mural featured earlier. Gritty and real, it’s unlikely that any money crossed palms. But as low-slung buildings like this are razed for new construction, bye bye graffiti, hello security guards and glass!
Yo Tony, where’d you go?

Is graffiti dead in NYC? With tenements falling, glass towers rising and Big Brother watching, a kid with a can of Krylon can only look longingly at the bare walls on the other side of this increasingly gated community called Manhattan.

And since the almighty dollar reigns in NYC, neighborhoods like this…

…start looking more and more like this…

And taggers will be once again on the run, crossing rivers, barreling through tunnels, giving up on Manhattan’s glass-walled edifice for more accessible canvases anywhere they can find them.

Because in the end, graffiti — just like the human urge to shout “I exist! I’m here!”– will never truly die!

# # #

I’ve made my best effort to provide credits on the above images, although many remain unattributed because of the nature of street art. All photos are my own unless otherwise cited.

Some New Yorkers are Real Animals!

Wild and wooly street art in Spanish Harlem. No artist credit available.

A couple of weeks ago, a 40-pound coyote spent some quality time in Manhattan, strolling the West side before getting “collared” by the NYPD on the Chelsea Piers. It wasn’t the first time “canis latrens” managed to bridge-or-tunnel it into the city and it probably won’t be the last.

Photo: Michael Dalton, New York Post

And who can forget Ming, the Siberian tiger raised in a Harlem housing project? With a 5-foot caiman for a roommate and raw poultry for grub, Ming grew to over 400 pounds, becoming so powerful that his “owner” abandoned the apartment, returning only to fling chicken thighs through a crack in the front door.*

Ming the Siberian tiger confronts a police officer at the window of his Harlem digs.
Photo credit unavailable but likely attribution is the NYPD.

You could say New Yorkers love animals but the truth is, many New Yorkers ARE animals. 

New York’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) claims that about 600,000 dogs live in the five boroughs. What about felis catus, you ask? Five hundred thousand according to NYCEDC, a number that most likely doesn’t take into account NYC’s many feral cats. Now that’s a lot of Meow Mix!

A feral cat on the grounds of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

Whoever thinks “canyons of steel” mean a dearth of wildlife doesn’t know New York City. Animals are all around us, from the commonplace—think pigeons and rats—to the extraordinary: Blue and Gold Macaws on the streets of Washington Heights? Yes, please.

Photo: Peter Grosett

October brings the Feast of St Frances and Blessing of the Animals to St John the Devine on Amsterdam Avenue, where last year, according to the Gothamist’s Scott Lynch, the gathering included an alpaca, a coatimundi, a camel and a fennec fox; a horse, cow, sheep and goats, as well as countless dogs and cats. Holy menagerie!

Down in Nolita, a couple of sheep came to “summer” in the city, enlisted by a different spiritual institution—the Basilica of Old St Patrick’s Cathedral—to keep the churchyard’s grass in check. One hundred percent green energy lawnmowers, thank you very much. And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street!

Photo: Brian Zak, New York Post

Horses are fairly common here in a Manhattan, what with the mounted unit of the NYPD doing crowd control, not to mention the horse-drawn carriages around Central Park that delight tourists and, apparently, helped get the current mayor elected, what with his promise (still unfulfilled) to abolish the practice on the grounds of animal cruelty. Neigh it ain’t so!

Hardly a day passes without a squirrel sighting. Who knows? Maybe our bushy-tailed friends outnumber us as true born and bred New Yorkers. Read about my squirrel counting adventure in Central Park here.

A Red-Eared Turtle basking in the waters at Swindler Cove.

Just like rats, raccoons are hip to the value of living alongside homo sapiens. The “pickin’s” are good here so raccoons are plentiful and robust, with a big city attitude to boot. As our super told me when I reported a “gaze” of raccoons tearing into the trash outside our building, “Don’t mess with ‘em. They’ll slap you back.” Advice taken.

Even the elusive beaver was spotted recently in the Bronx, according to the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), which initiated the cleanup of Sherman Creek Park, where the animal was sighted. Since castor canadensis figures prominently on both the official NYC seal and flag, isn’t it fitting that the creature actually reside here? Let’s grant them rent subsidized riverfront properties, damn it!

Beavers were an important part of the fur trade during New York’s early development, important enough to be included on the seal of the city’s flag.

Everyone’s talking about the rare Mandarin Duck found chilling in Central Park this past fall, although he was a no-show the day I visited. Ducks, geese, cormorants and egrets make their daily commutes via NYC’s waterways and I’m always surprised to hear the cries of a seagull as I emerge from the subway on Broadway. The city’s famed green spaces, like Central Park, are home or temporary rest stops for more than 200 species of birds, and although I don’t claim to be a birder, spotting a Long-eared Owl or Red-Tailed Hawk on the wing is way better than seeing a Real Housewife of New York City, hands down.

A Red-Tailed Hawk scopes out prospects for breakfast in Central Park’s North Woods.
A Cooper’s Hawk enjoying pigeon al fresco right outside my window in Roger Morris Park!
A Double-Crested Cormorant afloat in the East River.
A Tufted Titmouse in Central Park.
Everybody knows his name.
A natty denizen taking the air near Central Park West.
Four geese-a-grazing…
Pigeons galore!

New York City’s been compared to a jungle, a zoo, a place famed for its rat race. But I humbly submit that New Yorkers with feathers or fur aren’t really the ones acting like animals…

I mean, have you ever commuted by subway at rush hour? Talk about “red in tooth and claw.” Let’s face it, people are the ones to be afraid of.

And remember: Friends NOT food!

A live poultry business in Harlem. Grrrr! Me no like.

# # #

*Four hundred-pound Ming was tranquilized and moved to an animal shelter in Ohio. Unsurprisingly, it’s illegal to keep tigers as pets in NYC, according to the NYC Health Code. It probably goes without saying that lions, leopards, jaguars, ocelots, pumas, panthers, mountain lions, cheetahs, cougars, bobcats, lynx, servals, caracals, jaguarundis and margays are also prohibited. Visit the Bronx Zoo, why don’t ya?

Matchless

Sometimes I wish I’d been born in an earlier age. Especially when it comes to experiencing New York City. Of course, you only imagine good things when considering another time and place. Those vignettes you conjure are picture perfect, with tidy sidewalks and cozy cafes, smiling maître-ds and sparkling wine; when modernity meant simple things like “refrigerated air” and a wedge of pie from behind a little door in the automat. 

Nothing spurs such blissful reimagining more than vintage matchbooks, ordinary objects of days gone by that, in a flash, provide a glimpse into a life that *might* have been had you experienced New York City in the 1940s, ‘50s or ‘60s.

Not a boxing fan myself, but this image is a ‘knock-out!’

In the flea markets that once proliferated around West 26th Street, I was always on the lookout for old matchbooks, particularly those that promoted the hotels, bars and restaurants of Gotham. Every flea market trek meant another matchbook tossed into the fish bowl on my coffee table, which soon overflowed. Wanting to find a better way to enjoy them, I “shucked” them of their matchsticks, flattened them and covered a paneled screen in a kind of crazy matchbook collage. There were hundreds.

Each matchbook is a little work of art, with fabulous fonts, colorful inks and images both plain and fanciful. And they whisper stories, however brief, of New York’s celebrated nightlife, of the romance and adventure possible beyond a canopied entrance or down the stairs to a dimly lit rathskeller.

That’s what I’m talking ’bout!

People smoked then so matches were ubiquitous. And until the invention of the disposable lighter, which forever damaged the match-making industry, most of the better hotels and restaurants offered matchbooks for free, complete with their own advertising.

Love these different fonts, especially the Deco-inspired.
Who wouldn’t want to ‘dine, dance and romance’ in the Hawaiian Room under the care and service of Chas. E. Rochester?

It made sense. With one cheap give-away, a restaurant or hotel could crow about its service. In other words: advertise. You could put your best face forward on the tiny canvas of a book of matches. From family crests to foreign monarchs to horse-drawn carriages, a restaurant or hotel could convey a sense of exclusivity and refinement through the images on the cover. 

Horse-drawn carriages seem to be a theme. Do they represent opulence? Adventure? Or simply the comfort that awaits the weary traveler?
Love the ‘Lincoln log’ font on these old Cabin Grill matches, a steakhouse long shuttered.
Old Homestead’s still serving up New York Strip in the ‘meat mart,’ as they called the meatpacking district back in the day. Another horse-drawn carriage.

Take me back to the days when a telephone exchange brought a hint of intrigue. Would I have been an ELdorado 5, a CHickering 4, a PLaza 3?

In nearly every noir film from the ‘40s or ‘50s, matchbooks make an appearance. Maybe just to light the ever-present cigarettes; maybe for that burst of light that makes Lauren Bacall’s eyes glitter. Or maybe as a kind of comic relief like in North by Northwest, when Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill throws a matchbook bearing his initials—“ROT”—to Eva Marie Saint with a warning scribbled inside.

People collected matchbooks. Reminders of a “gay” night out, a special occasion, a weekend getaway, they were the perfect souvenir: lightweight, sturdy and free. You could toss them into your purse or pocket. Years later, there it was—like a saved photograph or postcard—ushering back the warmth of a subterranean bar, the sharp swallow of chilled gin, the thrill of Basie on the bandstand.

One of my favorites. Thankfully, the Village Vanguard is still swinging hard on Seventh Avenue.
Duke Ellington? Harry James? The Count? Once more, once!

For someone like me matchbooks inspire a kind of Nano fiction, a one-sentence summing up of urban adventures that might have been…

‘But he’d checked out, the front desk man informed me (and my shattered heart), with no forwarding address.’
‘Of course I couldn’t go back; it was ‘his’ place after all, not mine.’
‘Was it my borrowed mink that got us in or Susan, with her cover girl looks and thousand watt smile?’
‘It was a solitary meal on a cold Thanksgiving night but she’d eventually find a new sort of family.’

Forget fiction. Let’s not pretend that all was well. Even matchbooks hint at our less then savory past:

Good riddance to the Plantation Bar and the Hotel Dixie for that matter. I shudder to think of what images might have been found inside.
I probably wouldn’t have fared well in a joint where women are depicted as nothing more than a bubbly consumption.
Stereotypes abound, unfortunately.
Not sad to see the phony ‘Asian’ font and derogatory images relegated to the past.

Like most art, matchbooks speak volumes about what we yearn for and aspire to, sometimes even our stumbles along the way.

And since vintage matchbooks have something to say, why not let the rest of these beauties speak for themselves?


Striking, aren’t they?

I don’t really want to go back in time. I’ll take the “now” over rosy-hued reminiscences that never were. But isn’t it fun, now and then, to imagine yourself in an old New York where the velvet ropes part, the Champaign cocktails flow and the whole town is yours for the painting?

Right this way, your table’s waiting!

Getting “Tanked” in the Big Apple

What represents New York City best? What captures the energy, chutzpah, ingenuity and pluck? Is it the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge? Could it be Grand Central Terminal or Radio City Music Hall? Is it an elegant brownstone or lovely Lady Liberty?

Is it a charging bull or a fearless girl? A bagel, a hotdog, a knish? Why not a harbor ferry or a yellow taxi?

A metro card or a Broadway ticket stub? How about Coney’s Cyclone or the “ding dong” of a closing train door? Is it a cop on the beat or a Halal street vendor? A Red-tailed hawk or a Norway rat? A Met or a Yankee?

I submit for your consideration: the humble wooden water tank. 

First of all: water! Life-sustaining, uncomplicated, satisfying perfection. New York City wouldn’t be one of the greatest cities in the world without its proximity to sea, harbor and river, or without the clever way New Yorkers accessed potable water upstate.

Three major watersheds, Delaware, Catskill and Croton, provide NYC’s water. Some brainy individuals figured out how to divert this critical source of water to the city via a series of aqueducts. And that would have been fine—residents served their H2O—except for the fact that New York kept growing taller. And that’s where the water tank came in.

Water from the Croton watershed traveled to the city by way of an aqueduct in Washington Heights.

Water piped south from upstate creates its own pressure, enough to send it hurtling from the system up to the sixth floor of a building. But New Yorkers wanted—and needed—to go higher, so they created taller dwellings to house more people and create more workspace.

The existing pressure was insufficient to send water beyond the sixth floor, so in the 1930s more brainy individuals came up with the idea to place giant vessels on the roof. Water pumped by machine to the roof is stored in the large wooden tanks you see from nearly every vantage point of every New York skyline.

Water tanks add interest to New York City’s unique skyline.

When someone on the 10th or the 30th floor of an apartment building turns on the tap, gravity compels the water to drop from rooftop tank to faucet. A mechanism in the tank, much like the ballcock in a toilet, gauges when the water level is low, triggering the pump to refill the tank.

The basic mechanism of the water tank hasn’t changed in a hundred years. So for sheer stick-to-it-tive-ness, the tank deserves consideration as the reigning symbol of Gotham’s overall greatness.

From the pre-war palaces on Sutton Place, to the apartment houses on the Upper West Side, to the refurbished factories in DUMBO, water tanks are all around us: squatting like fat rooks on rooftops; crowned, ringed and propped on stilts, their peaks and curves collage the skyline.

How many water tanks can you spot? (Sorry about the through-a-window shot…)

And that makes them a five-borough wide phenomenon, true NYC icons. Shouldn’t our urban symbol be something we see (and love!) everyday of our lives?

As symbols go, NYC water tanks are sublimely simple. Constructed much like a wine barrel, of cedar planks and metal rings, they might appear to be anachronistic in their downhome rusticity.

But even if they seem old-fashioned, well, that’s ok by me. With the skyline changing daily—those super tall residential towers are popping up like crocuses in the spring—wooden water tanks are a comforting tether to the past.

Soul-less super tall builds throughout the city just make me love the simple water tank even more!

And what a charming past they conjure. Don’t their plump cylindrical selves, cone-topped and weathered-gray, appear decidedly un-urban?

Isn’t the NYC water tank like something between a grain silo and a rain barrel? Or a hobbit house drawn from a child’s imagination? Like darkened turrets, they perch, in ones and twos and threes, standing watch over a changing city.  

Up close, some water tanks show their age. The average tank lasts about 35 years.

Wood is still preferred for its lower cost, lighter weight and workmanlike qualities, although steel tanks are available. New water tanks leak at first but as the wood expands, the cracks seal up completely. Your average NYC water tank lasts about 35 years. Doesn’t their constancy make water tanks an apt symbol for New York’s enduring spirit?

Artist Tom Fruin’s ‘Water Tower’ in DUMBO, of salvaged plexiglass and steel, represents one of NYC’s favorite icons.

Even the most modern build, if it’s over six stories, makes use of the water tank’s simple design. So far, nothing beats gravity!

A new build uses old technology to keep the water flowing.
New water tanks on a DUMBO building.
Some go so far as to build fancy covers for the rooftop water tank, like this NYCHA property.

(In another only-in-New York factoid, three family-owned companies are the sole providers of our region’s wooden water tanks, but that, I suppose, is a blog post for another day.)

So once again, I submit the rooftop water tank as the obvious choice as a symbol of all things Gotham. Hardworking, timeless, quirky, essential to the City’s beguiling profile, this quintessential vessel deserves a toast. But only with crystal flutes of genuine city tap water, a real New Yorker’s answer to getting “tanked” in the Big Apple!

A Merry Manhattan Christmas!

‘Let our mercy be the gifts we lay, from Brooklyn to Broadway

Celebrate each and every day of this New York City Christmas.’ 

Rob Thomas, from ‘A New York Christmas’ 

When it gets right down to it, New York City is the place to be come Christmas, at least for me. Because, despite its urbanity, old Gotham magically transforms into the perfect winter wonderland.

It’s hard to be Grinchy when you’re doing circle-eights in time to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, so lace up those skates! Ice rinks abound in the city, from downtown (South Street Sea Port, Brookfield Place) to midtown (Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park) to the Wollman Rink in Central Park. Both smooth ice and the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby await you.

Hitting the ice at Rockefeller Center. Or hopefully, to NOT hitting it.
Tripping the ice fantastic at Bryant Park. Or, to NOT tripping.

Christmas tree shopping—for the real thing, mind you—is a tradition, and whether you have it delivered, carry it yourself, or use your trusty push cart, there’s no need to travel far from your own block to find that perfect tree. My heart gives an involuntary tug come the week after Thanksgiving when firs suddenly sprout on the sidewalks in nearly every neighborhood in the city. Oh, the scent of pine on a New York morning!

From Washington Heights to the Village, the scent of pine fills the air.
The streets are lined with evergreen in a New York-style wonderland.

And no matter how we trim it, New Yorkers embrace O Tannenbaum with all the gusto of the season…

Not a flake in the sky yet the New York Public Library conjures magic on this regal tree at the main branch in Bryant Park.
O Bergdorf! You’ve done it again. But where’s the kitchen sink?

Who can blame us if we want to shout our Big Apple obsession from the treetops with a few NYC-centric ornaments? (I, for one, will be headed back to Bergdorfs after Christmas to snag a few of these hand-decorated beauties…on sale!)

Channeling love for all things New York: more fabulous tree ornaments at Bergdorf Goodman.

For me, Christmas comes enrobed in chocolate. Gold-covered coins and milk chocolate Santa’s…dark chocolate balls wrapped in colorful foil…chocolate-laced cookies and fudge gifted in tins, these are a few of my favorite things! (Apologies, Richard Rodgers.)

Hard to resist the foil-covered chocolate balls at Chelsea Market. So why try?

But before gorging on all that chocolate, you’ll find chestnuts roasting on a…sidewalk vendor’s cart. Whether you choose to munch or not, do take note of that iconic New York City smell. It’s like the scent of good December things rolled up in one: a mug of something cinnamon-y and potent, a wood-warmed hearth, the air thick with impending snow.

Word on the street is: vendors still sell chestnuts.

Those of us that resist shopping may find the pull of the city’s glittering department stores, pop-up shops and outdoor holiday markets too tempting to pass. But holiday revelers can find almost as much joy “window shopping” rather than laying down that credit card, what with Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and the other Fifth Avenue retailers dressing up their windows in full holiday plumage.

Very “Let them eat cake” at Bergdorf…or is that cotton candy?
…or maybe gingerbread?
Is Bergdorf predicting the total automation of service? ‘Danger, danger, Will Robinson!’
Down at Saks, there will be blood. Blood red roses, that is.
Saks by day…
…and Saks by night.

Whether we have snow or not—and I’m always hoping for it—people made out of snow, or their facsimile, will appear.

A most happy fella despite the clear skies.
Snowmen and their handlers skating at Bryant Park.
Even snowmen get obsessed with social media. Good grief!

No matter where you go, from Greenwich Village to the Upper East Side to the heart of midtown, you’ll find whatever floats your decorating boat, from cozy Christmas corners…

Channeling days of yore in the West Village.
Casually chic on the UES.
Humble yet private in Greenwich Village.

…to mindful mid-century ornamentation.

Three enormous candy canes. Simple yet effective to my eye.
The largest Christmas tree balls in the world! What would our mischievous tabby make of them?
O, those darn street lights!

Be on the lookout for someone familiar, perhaps wearing only a wreath…

Patience chilling in holiday regalia at the New York Public Library.
Down in the Meatpacking nabe, this old friend.
Grand Central Terminal doesn’t need much to get in the spirit.

You never know who you’ll run into around the holidays because New York City, with all its heart, does Christmas just about right!

Merry Christmas and all the best in the coming year from newyorkitus!

Who Slept Here? Part II

The Roger Morris Apartments, aka 555 or The Triple Nickel.

Last week I raved about the New York Public Library, and how their significant resources and expert staff helped me research our Manhattan apartment house. Well, I’ve done my homework and here’s what I found.

Lucky for me our building, known as the Roger Morris Apartments, the Triple Nickel or simply “555,” was landmarked by the city in 1993, a designation that requires the Landmarks Preservation Commission to investigate the building’s architectural, historical or cultural importance. 

From the Commission’s report, I learned that property owner Albert Schwarzler hired Simon Schwartz and Arthur Gross—the go-to apartment house architects of the day—to design our building. Construction began in 1914.

Schwartz & Gross planned a 12-story structure with 105 apartments and a facade of “Italian Renaissance character.” Although there were no “servants’ rooms” per se, 21 small rooms on the top floor were provided for “live-in servants.”* Today those rooms are garret-like studios with access to the roof and sweeping views of the city in all directions. 

Although only the façade of the Roger Morris was landmarked, the interior of the building, particularly the lobby, thrills me, with its central court, leaded glass light fixture overhead and cherub-like figures cavorting on the walls. 

Just one corner of the immense stained glass ceiling fixture in the lobby.
Did the great Paul Robeson drop his rent check in 555’s grand old letterbox?

It turned out that what made our building worthy of landmarking in the first place, was the people who once lived here. Architecturally, the Roger Morris Apartment building wasn’t that noteworthy. I love its regal presence on Edgecombe Avenue at West 160thStreet, but the design in and of itself didn’t rate landmark status. 

No, it received landmarking because of its “significance as the home of many of New York’s successful African-Americans.” By 1940, “the tenant population of 555 Edgecombe shifted exclusively to African-American.”* 

How could I discover more?

The US Census would help. And with the aid of librarian Philip Sutton and the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of US History, Local History, and Genealogy at the New York Public Library, I learned how to access census data.

The 15th census of the United States was taken in 1930. By using 555’s enumeration district number (ED#) I could locate the residential data specific to our building. Census records are fun to read, for me anyway, with their elegant handwriting and old-time wordings, like asking residents what was their “marital condition.”

A page from the 1930 census for 555 Edgecombe Avenue.

“Color or Race” is also requested, so by comparing the 1930 and 1940 results, I could clearly see the “shift” around 1940 in residents from white to black.

Building owner Albert Schwarzler “saw that his economic future lay with renting to black tenants.”* Around 1939, Schwarzler began refusing to renew leases held by white residents.*

I can only speculate about Schwarzler’s reasoning, but couldn’t the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance have informed it? Schwarzler’s main concern would have been the financial preservation of his holdings. More and more African-Americans were migrating to big cities like New York, seeking jobs and other opportunities. Harlem became a focal point, a place where artists, writers and musicians could find affordable housing and like-minded communities. Could census records back me up?

Indeed, the 1930 census, at least as far as my building is concerned, seems to represent the “before:” before the Great Migration, before the Harlem Renaissance. And before Schwarzler began preferring black tenants to white.

In 1930, all but two households at 555 were white. Of those white residents, 90 listed “New York” as their place of birth. Twelve residents claimed birth in England, three each from Ireland, Germany and Russia, two from Austria and one from Scotland. The others hailed from other states in the union.

The only nonwhite households in 1930 included one Elizabeth Dickerson, who was black, (listed as Negro) and the Yamawaki family of four, listed as Japanese. Elizabeth Dickerson’s occupation was “servant,” which makes me wonder if she lived in one of the small rooms reserved for “live-in servants” on the top floor. Masahura Yamawaki, born in 1886, was head of household and listed “clerk” as his occupation. I must admit to being surprised that a Japanese family lived here in the ‘30s. (So far I’ve yet to find additional information about the Yamawakis but wouldn’t that make for a fascinating search?)

The rest of the tenants were white.

What did they do? They were teachers, lawyers and nurses, physicians, janitors, salesmen and real estate “speculators.” Interesting or outdated titles like timekeeper, fur dyer, paymaster and spring water dispenser (?) stand out in the listing. Few, if any, artists, musicians or actors were listed.

By 1940, the total numbers of white and black residents at 555 had virtually flipped. Only four white residents make the list in 1940: James Howe, originally from Scotland, Catherine Howe, originally from Hungary, and their two children. 

Our building was like a microcosm of the Great Migration itself. Although 55 of the building’s 1940 residents cite New York as their place of birth, an even larger number claim birth in the South. Thirty residents were born in Virginia; 23 cited North Carolina, and another 23 claimed South Carolina as their birthplace. Significant numbers of migrants came from Alabama, Maryland and Georgia. To this day, many of my neighbors talk about having ties to the South. 

Store signs in Harlem, above and below, that to my eye reflect the influence of the Great Migration.

In 1940, what did my predecessors in the building do? Much like the 1930 occupants before them, they were teachers, physicians, nurses, lawyers, clerks, salesmen, engineers, domestics and as laborers. There were tailors, a minister and a bellman. The railroad was well-represented, with 13 residents in all working as porters, cooks and waiters.

There were unusual occupations, two of which made sense given the person’s birthplace. Cigar maker Jasper Lindo hailed from the West Indies; former Kentuckian James Robinson worked as a groom at a riding academy. Dorothy Wethington was a fit model for a dress factory and William Barnett listed racetrack “clocker” as his occupation. Serena Vance was assistant superintendent at a “children’s orphan home,” and I wondered if she worked at the Colored Orphan Asylum, a Quaker-run institution on Amsterdam Avenue and West 143rd Street known for hiring women.

And by 1940—perhaps kickstarted by the Harlem Renaissance—a thriving community of artists was calling “555” home. Five singers, a composer, a photographer, three dressmakers, a journalist, an interior decorator and seven musicians appear on the census. 

Renowned vocalist, actor, scholar and activist Paul Robeson was the first person listed in the 1940 census. Forty-one years old at the time, he lived with his wife Eslanda, son Paul, Jr., and, I’m guessing, his mother-in-law, Eslanda Goode. Robeson was a giant in his field and a true American icon whose cultural and social impact can’t be overstated.

Paul Robeson is the first name listed on 555’s 1940 census.

There were Broadway performers like Fredye Marshall, who sang and danced on the Great White Way in hits like Carmen JonesCabin in the Sky and Set My People Free, and Adelaide Marshall, a member of the ensemble in Bamboola, a “Unique Afro-American Musical Comedy in Three Acts.

Jazz saxophonist Carroll Ridley made swing era recordings on the Decca label with Floyd Ray and His Orchestra.

Did James “Jimmy” Sherman, who performed with the likes of Mildred Bailey and Stuff Smith, compose “Lover Man”—the tune made famous by Billie Holiday—while living here at 555? He later arranged scores for “The Charioteers,” a gospel and pop vocals group.

I might never have heard that old workhorse“Did Moses Ever Eat a Po’k Chop?” but now I want to! Composer Wendell “Wen” Talbert was a pianist, cellist and accompanist who recorded “I’m Broke Fooling With You” with singer Rosa Henderson in 1923. 

When I mentioned that valve trombonist, composer and arranger Juan Tizol lived in our building back in the 40s, my jazz-loving partner was impressed, big time. Duke Ellington called Tizol “one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known,”** which is pretty much praise from Caesar. Along with his stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Tizol recorded with Harry James, Nat King Cole, Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra. He brought a Latin sensibility to the Ellington bandstand, and also penned “Perdido” and “Caravan,” huge hits for Duke and de rigeur for any jazz musician’s play-list. Tizol lived at 555 with his beloved wife, Rosebud. 

Artists continue to live in our building today. Like any urban apartment house, you don’t always know your neighbors or what they do. Information comes in dribs and drabs through casual conversation on the elevator or impromptu invitations to recitals and art exhibits; or simply by osmosis. Walk through the building these days and you’ll hear the strains of a violin, the chords of a piano, a singer practicing scales. I can only imagine what rang through these halls back in the 1940s…the sounds of arias, etudes and practice jam sessions? ‘Lover man, oh where can you be?’

Have I proved that our building’s artistic pedigree began more or less in the 1940s? One thing for sure is I’ve come to cherish our building even more and developed an unrequited love for the people (both famous and un-) who lived here before me. 

More than anything, I’ve learned that research can surprise at every turn. You never know what you’ll find. And the information I’ve uncovered so far makes me even more curious. 

What was life like for the Yamawakis, the Japanese family who lived in an all-white building in 1930’s America? Suppose Serena Vance did work at the Colored Orphan Asylum; how were children treated there? And what led to those children being segregated by race? Twenty-six residents listed their birthplace as the West Indies in the 1940 census: how big a part do Caribbean nationals play in the Great Migration? Were there factories in the immediate neighborhood, and if so, when did they close?

But I’m also curious about the present. Is someone at “555” composing the next American standard? Is a young actor practicing her lines for her next Off Off Broadway play? Looking through the window of our building’s past makes me want to pay more attention to the “right now.” Perhaps start a conversation on that elevator ride, attend that recital posted in the mailroom, ask about the violin case my neighbor’s kid carries.

Who knows what’s next for me, maybe researching the history of a song or the secrets of cigar making or the impact of the Great Migration on mom and pop businesses. Or maybe it’s as simple as finding the time to talk and listen to my neighbors more, to discover the dreams and talents of the person living right next door. 

Isn’t it amazing what a trip to the New York Public Library can start?

*Some facts and quotes gleaned from the 1993 Landmarks Preservation Commission analysis on 555 Edgecombe Avenue Apartments, written by Joan R. Olshansky.

** Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress, Da Capo Press, 1976.