Sunday, July 21, 2013

73. Secrets of New York (Browder version).

     Like any old city of a certain size, New York has its secrets: hidden or neglected places, often in plain sight but a bit off the common path and ignored by or unknown to many.  The Emmy-winning TV documentary series Secrets of New York, with a host in a black vinyl overcoat and spiked stilettos, has revealed and explained many of these secrets of the present or past, as do various websites as well.  Having no TV, I have never seen the TV series, though I applaud it.  I myself have neither a black vinyl overcoat nor spiked stilettos, but even so I will present my own New York secrets, thus rendering them -- for better or worse -- just a bit less secret, less mysterious.  So here goes.

The little house at 121 Charles Street

     At the northeast corner of Charles and Greenwich streets, only a few blocks from my apartment building, there is a little two-story wooden house, white with blue trim, that seems strangely planted there, dwarfed by the six-floor apartment building next to it that it stands smack against.  That such a free-standing house exists at all in the West Village, a high-rent district crowded with old or not-so-old row houses, is amazing.  The house and its small adjoining yard are surrounded by a high wall covered with thick vines, but one can get a glimpse of the house and yard through the grilled iron gate of the  driveway.  Whenever I pass the house I stop for a quick glimpse, noting in the yard a bird bath, what looks like a sundial but may be something else, and a small gazebo with a bench.  The house is definitely lived in, but I have never seen anyone on the property, though at times a car sits on the short cobblestone driveway just inside the gate.  I have always wondered who lived there, and why they would prefer to inhabit this small house and pay a hefty real estate tax, rather than put up an apartment building that over the years would bring in a handsome income.  Now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I have learned a lot about the mysterious little house.

                                                                                                Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

     The house was originally a farmhouse situated on a rear lot at East 71st Street and York Avenue, some 200 years old but the exact date of its construction unknown.  In 1967 the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the owner of the lot, wanted to demolish it and build a home there for the aged, but the house's owners, a Mr. and Mrs. Sven Bernhard, arranged instead to move the entire house five miles down to a vacant lot that they had purchased in the West Village, its present location.  They planted Concord grapes, a sour cherry tree, a dogwood, a magnolia, two fig trees, and an expanse of lawn.  The current owners bought it in 1988.  They are used to weekend crowds peering in through the gate, but other visitors are less welcome: a young runaway who slept there once, and a woman who asked if she could use the lawn as a dog run.  The visitors make all kinds of comments about the house, say the owners, but none of them are true.  Still a mystery house, in spite of all that can be found on the Internet.

The Christmas wreath house on Grove Street

      Another mystery house in the West Village is a three-story frame house with red shutters at 17 Grove Street, on the corner of Grove and Bedford.   Since the construction of new frame houses, seen as a fire hazard, was banned in the city in 1866, they are rare in the Village, but this one, handsome and well kept up, has survived in near-pristine condition.  At Christmastime all fourteen of its windows facing the street are adorned with wreaths with red sashes, and a peek through the ground floor windows reveals one or more Tiffany lamps, suggesting a sumptuous interior.  Over the years Bob and I have often gone out of our way to see this house with the wreaths, and we have always wondered how old it was and who lived there.  Again, the Internet has given us some answers.

                                                                                                 Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

     The house was built in 1822 with only two stories, but a third was added in 1870, and at the same time, no doubt, its Italianate-style cornice, so typical of Greek Revival and brownstone houses.  It was built for William Hyde, a window sash maker whose shop was located just across a yard in a separate two-story structure at 100 Bedford Street, another old building that I had always been curious about.  Given the city's rapid expansion, Mr. Hyde's business probably did well, since new buildings required double-hung windows with sash weights.  Over time, the building went through many ups and downs; a 1936 photograph shows an unsightly fire escape, and bedding hanging out the top windows to air -- a somewhat shabby appearance.  The little shop building nearby once housed a tea room, but since then, like the house itself, it has been restored as a private residence.  Mr. Hyde would probably be amazed to learn that today his little shop building -- not the house but the shop -- has been appraised at over two million dollars, and that its annual tax bill is $14,503.32.

The old Jewish cemetery on West 11th Street

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                                                               Beyond My Ken
    A site that few people are aware of is an old Jewish cemetery on West 11th Street, just east of Sixth Avenue.  Today it is only a sliver of land with some twenty headstones, wedged in among much taller residential buildings, walled off from the sidewalk but visible from the gate.  Originally it was part of a larger cemetery established in 1805, but threatened by the city's extension of West 11th Street in 1826.  The Jewish residents petitioned the city to spare the land not needed for the street extension, and so this corner of the cemetery was preserved and is still cared for to this day.

The Meadow in Pelham Bay Park

     In summer Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx is crowded with sunbathers and swimmers at Orchard Beach, and picnickers at the picnic tables in the open grassy area just back of the south end of the beach.  But these crowds seem completely oblivious of another attraction there, the Meadow, an open space with bayberry shrubs and grasses indicated in all the maps and park guidebooks, but not easily accessed, since paths leading into it from the picnic area are often overgrown and hard to find.  After many misses I finally found access by noting a path entrance near three trees, two of them sycamores, with a bus station visible through some trees in one direction and a big beach facility visible in another.  Going in by this path I would leave the noise of picnickers and distant beachgoers behind and find myself alone in the Meadow, except for an occasional nude male sunbather stretched out on some flat rock.  In the Meadow I would also find wildflowers: cinquefoils and common St. Johnswort, purple loosestrife, narrow-leaved mountain mint, a towering sunflower, and early goldenrod, but also the red fruit of the sumac and, with luck, the first blackberries.  But what I savored most, sitting on my favorite smooth outcropping of rock, was the silence, the vast, deep silence, while puffy white clouds drifted across a clean blue sky.  It was the only spot in that huge, busy park where I could find such calm.

Staten Island:  The Groin of Summer

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New York ironweed.
SB Johnny
    I have often hiked in the Staten Island Greenbelt, a broad expanse of green in the very center of Staten Island.  Leaving Forest Hill Road on the Yellow Trail, I would take the Red Trail down to a low, wet area that I call the Groin of Summer because, on a hot, muggy day, it seems the very essence of summer, rich, fertile, and secret, a spot that I alone seem to know.  I have never encountered another hiker there, and if I did, I'm sure that hiker would simply tramp on through.  In the Groin's moist soil I have seen thirsty flowers like boneset and Pennsylvania smartweed, and a thick, rich stand of New York ironweed towering to seven feet, its bold purple flowers visited by bumblebees and spotted skippers, cabbage butterflies, and spicebush and tiger swallowtails.  The soil is moist, but there is no standing water and therefore no mosquitoes.  I have always lingered there in the muggy depth of summer, reluctant to leave this magical spot that I might not visit again for a year.  (Yes, here I am penetrating Big Mama yet again and being enveloped by her; see post #59 on earth goddesses.)

Staten Island:  Heyerdahl Hill

     Going on from the Groin on the Red Trail, I would ascend Heyerdahl Hill, whose 241-foot elevation makes it one of the highest points on the eastern seaboard.  There I would encounter entirely different species of wildflowers, ones that prefer a high, dry habitat.  Veering off the trail on an unmarked path downhill, halfway down I would come to a spot known as Buck's Hollow and find the ruins of the Heyerdahl farmhouse, said to have been built about 1860 and burned circa 1910, though some date the construction of the house much earlier.  The Heyerdahl family once had a large farm here with orchards and an extensive vineyard, but Staten Island's rocky soil defeated them and they had to give it up.  Now all is overgrown, with crumbling foundations and some steps where I would sit for a few minutes in the shade.  In the distance, faintly, I might hear a barking dog, a hint of traffic.  Another quiet spot that I usually had to myself.

Staten Island:  Moses' Folly

     Hiking another trail, the Blue Trail, I would go past the three lakes of Clove Lakes Park, the most civilized segment of the trail, traverse a bit of suburbia, and then turn right off Little Clove Road to leave suburbia abruptly behind and follow a dirt path through a tangle of vegetation that by midsummer could be almost impassable.  Following the trail's blue blazes, I would hike up a fifty-foot embankment and come out on an abandoned highway ramp high above the noisy six-lane Staten Island Expressway.

Blue Trail Continuation, off of Little Clove Road near the Staten Island Expressway
Here the Blue Trail leaves Little Clove Road.
Bridge and Tunnel Club

Aborted Richmond Parkway Project, Staten Island
The Blue Trail negotiates Moses' Folly.
Bridge and Tunnel Club

The trail's blazes lead across the glass-strewn, graffiti-ridden ramp, where sumac and mugwort poke up through the cracks, and alfalfa and butter-and-eggs and round-headed bush clover grow in an adjacent field.  The trail then descends a steep wooded hillside past abandoned vehicles overgrown with weeds, crosses a trickle of a brook cluttered with more dead cars, and climbs steeply up again to another abandoned overpass that ends abruptly to the left but is marked with blue blazes leading to the right.

Staten Island Expressway, Looking West
Below the Blue Trail overpass.
Bridge and Tunnel Club

Rushing throughway traffic, deserted vehicles, ramps lunging futilely skyward, mugwort and sumac and alfalfa, broken glass and graffiti all combine to form an absolutely surreal landscape where nature and technology coexist uneasily, the like of which I've never seen elsewhere in the city, or perhaps anywhere.  This is Moses' Folly, the start of a highway planned by master builder Robert Moses that would have slashed right through the Greenbelt, a grandiose project characteristic of its ruthlessly determined planner, but canceled in the 1970s after years of protest and litigation when outraged citizens staged demonstrations and found allies in high places.  Also commemorating the frustrated builder is Moses' Mountain, an artificial rise just off the Yellow Trail near High Rock Park, created from excavations for the canceled project.  I hiked up it once but wasn't overwhelmed by the vegetation or the views; maybe I was there at the wrong time of year.  (More about Robert Moses in a future post.)

Greenwich Village courtyards

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Milligan Place entrance.
Beyond My Ken

     Returning to Manhattan, let's have a look at some secret spots in the Village right near where I live: little private courtyards walled off from the street and accessed by a gate that you could easily walk past, unaware of the tiny community within.  One such is Milligan Place, located off Sixth Avenue between West 10th and West 11th streets, a private courtyard with four three-story brick houses built in 1852, and in the middle of the courtyard, a tree, a birdbath, and flowers.  When walking about in the Village, I try to keep an eye out for these sites and inspect them through the gate at the entrance, though I have never entered one since I respect their privacy.  In this case, one has no choice: the gate is securely locked, creating an oasis of tranquility in the midst of urban hurly-burly.  Who lives here and how they obtain this privilege I don't know, which adds a further touch of mystery.

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Milligan Place inside the gate, a view that I have never had.
Beyond My Ken

     Not far from Milligan Place in the West Village is another courtyard, Patchin Place, a short dead-end  lane off West 10th Street between Greenwich and Sixth Avenues, just across from the Jefferson Market Library.  Lining it are ten three-story brick row houses built in 1848; descendants of the Patchin family, who then owned the land, resided there until 1920.  Early in the twentieth century Patchin Place became popular with artists and writers who wanted a bit of privacy in the midst of bohemia, this being a time when the Village offered low, not high, rents.  In 1917 the addition of indoor plumbing, electricity, and steam heat made the rooms a bit less bohemian but more livable.  The poet e.e. cummings and the reclusive writer Djuna Barnes both lived there until their death, cummings at #4 from 1923 to 1962, and Barnes at #5 from 1941 to 1982.  They knew each other and cummings would check on her by shouting out his window, "Are you still alive, Djuna?"  But in 1963, when a developer wanted to tear down the houses on both Patchin and Milligan Places to put up a high-rise apartment building, Barnes emerged to lead a protest movement, saying she would die if she had to move.  She also said, less helpfully, that destruction of the neighborhood would leave local youths with nowhere to practice their mugging.  The courtyards were saved, and the creation of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969 guaranteed their survival.  Patchin Place lacks the secluded charm of Milligan Place but, given its history, it is a must-see for Greenwich Village tours, though it has now earned the name "therapy row" because many psychotherapists have moved in since the 1990s.  One thing that hasn't changed since the nineteenth century is the gas street lamp, one of only two in the city, though it is now powered by electricity.

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Patchin Place in 2011.
Beyond My Ken

     Not all Village courtyards are so famous or desirable.  On a brief excursion recently I discovered one on the north side of West 12th Street just east of Eighth Avenue.  It too has the requisite grilled gate, opening to a flagstone walk lined with greenery and leading to two entrances well back from the street.  Narrow and dark, it lacks the charm of Milligan and Patchin Places.  And at 305 and 307 West 11th Street, between Hudson and Greenwich Streets, I found a grilled fence thickly screened in front with bushes, rendering almost invisible from the street the steps leading down to a basement apartment, and a small lawn with a towering sycamore, behind which, near the other entrance, is a patio with garden chairs and a tub of flowers.  This one too gets little light, but in the heat of summer maybe that's not so bad.  The Internet informs me that these are Greek revival townhouses built in 1836, with the original plank floors, fireplace mantles, and other details.

The mystery of basements

     In this city I have always been fascinated by sidewalk entrances to basements, those entrances revealing steep stairs descending into darkness, as if into some mysterious underworld, some land of the forbidden or the dead.  Always I have wondered,  What's down there?  What's going on in those dark regions below?  In the case of shops and restaurants, it's obvious: their supplies are stored down there.  But what about residential buildings?  Boilers, no doubt, and meters recording use of electricity and gas.  For the average tenant, those devices themselves are mysterious, but is there anything else?  I have never presumed to venture down those stairs disappearing into darkness, with one exception: my own apartment building.  Whenever we have lost power in our apartment, I have had to access the sidewalk entrance in front of what is now, and for long has been, the famous Magnolia Bakery, so as to flip the switches on our circuit breaker and restore power.  The circuit breakers are against the wall immediately to the left at the foot of the stairs, but usually the bakery has piled cartons or other obstacles in front of them, so getting to our circuit breaker has always been a challenge.  But there is much more down there than circuit breakers and meters, and I still don't know exactly what.  Sometimes, when I undertake one of these descents, a Magnolia employee emerges out of the shadows to help me remove the obstacles, but what he is down there for otherwise I cannot imagine.  Our basement is an unexplored hinterland, a realm of mystery.

     There is another entrance to our basement, in fact two, accessing another part of this hidden underworld that is separated from the realm of meters and circuit breakers.  With a key, you can enter through an outside door under the building's residential entrance, or, if you gain access to the building, you can go down a dark stairway in the ground floor back, near the area where garbage and recyclables are kept.  I have been down there only once, long ago, when our boiler broke down in midwinter and the building lacked heat.  In the boiler room I found a large contraption with all kinds of dials and numbers that supposedly regulated our heat, too complex and baffling a mechanism for me to flick a switch in hopes of restoring heat to the building.  Other tenants might have been tempted to try and in so doing might have made things worse, so I could understand why boiler rooms might be off limits to tenants.  But even with a nonfunctioning boiler, the room was marvelously warm and inhabited -- by flies!  So I learned where flies go in winter.  Not to Miami, but to the nearest boiler room.  We were shivering upstairs, but they were cozy and warm down there.  And once, quite recently, there was another resident, a homeless man whom the previous super had hired to take out the trash.  The homeless man decided to make a nest for himself down there and one night, drunk, he set the place on fire.  Fortunately, the fire was put out quickly.  The super stayed carefully away until the firemen left, but then, thinking the crisis over, returned and, to his surprise, was questioned by the police.  The homeless man was dismissed and his nest eradicated, and soon we had a new super.  Realms of mystery can also be realms of danger.

Flowered bikes

     In my neighborhood I have often seen a bike with its front basket richly adorned with artificial flowers -- so adorned that you can't help but notice it.  I see it locked to a street sign or some other immovable object, but never with its owner, who remains a mystery; he -- or she -- seems to want attention but is never there.  I thought there was only one such flowered bike in the area, but recently, going up Seventh Avenue on errands, I found another similarly parked near West 12th Street.  This was a woman's bike with its front basket festooned with fake flowers, and a plate like a license plate attached to the rear wheel that said  WILD  GIRL.  Wild Girl was nowhere in sight, so she too is a mystery.  Attached to the basket also was a small plastic cup, perhaps to hold a beverage or to receive donations, I don't know which.  I shall keep an eye out for both these flowered bikes and report any further information encountered.  But when I googled "flowered bike," to my surprise I found that this is no rare phenomenon; flowered bikes are in evidence both here and in Europe.  But in the West Village they are still rare enough to attract attention, mine included.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
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The killdeer, a strident spring visitor.

     Grasses bending in the breeze, tang of marsh.  Flaunting its double breast band, the killdeer shrills its name or an insistent dee-dee-dee.  Tree swallows dart and zip and perch, then dart again.  Overhead, black-headed laughing gulls shriek their laugh in a rich cacophony, while ibises with decurved beaks emit a guttural ka-onk, and osprey soar, or drop down to their nest atop a wooden platform to feed the greedy beaks of their young.  From fence posts or the tops of bushes, streaky-breasted song sparrows give forth their musical and sometimes buzzy song, while in the marsh grasses nearby, male red-winged blackbirds flaunt their red epaulets and sing a gurgled konk-la-ree.  Low over the open grasslands a white-rumped marsh hawk glides, while a score of white-feathered egrets perch in trees across the pond.  From every side, songs and calls of birds unseen or seen, trills and clicks and buzzes, bright chants and high-pitched warbles, and high in the sky the croak of a crow buzzed by a trio of redwings.  Sounds and sights, the burst and turbulence of spring.

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Canada geese are seen year round at the Refuge,
where they are welcome.  Not so welcome in 
urban parks and golf courses.

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A snowy egret in flight.  A beautiful bird in the 
air or on the ground.  Has a black beak and
"golden slippers."

     Late summer: four thousand tree swallows in bushes and weeds or ahead of me on the gravel path, taking flight as I slowly approach, becoming a fine dust of birds in the air, birds over me and on every side of me, flying within eight feet of me and settling back down on the path behind me as if I had never approached them, never routed them from their chosen stretch of ground.

     Or autumn: at my approach, a thousand snow geese, white bodies with black-tipped wings, explode into the air, and then another thousand, rising and soaring, the air vibrant with their loud, piercing bark.

Snow geese in flight.  A sight you won't soon forget. 
Einar Einarsson Kvaran

     Such is the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, which I have visited in every season of the year, a favorite haunt of birdwatchers, but otherwise too remote to attract many nature lovers simply out for a  gentle walk in the wild.  The refuge's salt marshes, fields and woods, fresh-water and brackish ponds, and wide expanse of bay draw hundreds of migrating birds, and are home to snakes and muskrats, butterflies and dragonflies, fierce-looking but harmless horseshoe crabs, and diamondback terrapin, oceangoing turtles that crawl ashore in early summer to lay their eggs in the sand.  And a habitat as well for wood ticks in late spring, and mosquitoes and pesky flies in midsummer, which is why I've avoided the refuge from late June through mid-August, by which time at least the flies have subsided.  I was there on 9/11 watching the fall migration of warblers, and saw the Twin Towers enveloped in smoke that was carried for miles over Brooklyn to the ocean.  With subway service to Manhattan suspended, that night I had to be put up by a friend in Brooklyn, before finally returning to Manhattan the following morning.  In spite of that memory, and the ticks and mosquitoes and flies, I recommend the refuge to anyone with an appetite for nature; it's impressive, it's unique.  But be in touch with it before you go, since it and the subway line approaching it were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

A slave gallery and a boat graveyard

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The hidden rooms were on either side of the tower.
Beyond My Ken

     I'll end with two secret sites that I have never visited but that are too interesting to omit.  In Saint Augustine's Episcopal Church on the Lower East Side, which was consecrated in 1828, cramped staircases lead to two concealed rooms behind the balcony where African-American worshipers could participate in services without being seen.  Edgar Allen Poe sometimes worshiped there, and Boss Tweed, indicted and hiding from the authorities, hid in  one of the rooms to attend his mother's funeral.  Neglected for decades as a part of our shameful past, when freed slaves were victims even here of segregation, the rooms were finally restored and opened to the public in 2009.

   A swampy stretch of the Arthur Kill Road waterway on Staten Island is now a graveyard for dozens of rusting, rotting, and abandoned boats of all sizes, whose sunken hulls emerge strangely from the water, listing to one side or the other.  Not easily accessed by car or bike, the sight is said to be oddly majestic and beautiful.  I know it only from photos, but it does seem to have a haunting cemetery-like atmosphere.  Another forgotten corner of the city, and a perfect one to conclude with.

Kaitlyn Tikkun

     Scam alert:  A few days ago I got an e-mail from my publisher informing me that he was on an impromptu tour in the Philippines, unannounced to anyone in advance, and was in a desperate situation.  He had lost his wallet, and his hotel was holding his passport until he settled his bill.  Please, could I send him $2500, which he would repay as soon as he returned.  This sounded phony, so I answered saying that I needed more confirmation.  Another e-mail soon came asking if I recognized the enclosed e-mail I had sent him recently.  This was the e-mail I send to friends on Sunday morning, announcing a new post in my blog.  Since anyone could access that e-mail, I was now more suspicious than ever.  So I answered by asking how we knew each other, what is our connection?  This time I got no answer.  Leery of e-mails, I phoned the publisher and learned that he was not, of course, in the Philippines and was fully aware of the attempted scam.  Someone had hacked into an account of his, but the compromised account had been closed and he had changed his password.  This is a familiar scam, often attempted by hackers pretending to be a beloved grandchild in desperate need of money from a doting grandparent.  Many of my viewers are probably familiar with the scam, but be on the alert anyway, since some hackers (unlike this one) are very informed and very clever, and can target a potential victim with the most persuasive appeal.  And of course never give any personal information to a stranger on the phone or online, and never hit a link to decline an e-mail offer, since that in itself may get you involved; instead, just delete the e-mail.  Ah, the wonders of the Internet!

     Coming soon:  Next week, Go Ahead: The Mania and Disease of Progress.  In the works: The Hercules of Parks (about the greatest builder since the pharaohs); and How America Goes to War: 1861, New York, with rallies, flags, threats (fly the flag, or else), the rush to uniforms, heroes real or   manufactured, and hanged effigies of traitors.  Plus asides about the Kaiser, Tojo, saving the Evanston waterworks, and Evanston's greatest wartime dissident, my father.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

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