At first (and second) glance, 14th Street in Manhattan has no beauty, no charm, no magic, no storied past, no architectural unity, no anything except two quintessential New York traits: energy and diversity. It is a hodgepodge of building styles, a jumble of noise, justifying itself simply as a useful crosstown artery that helps you get around. Forming a boundary between Chelsea on the north and Greenwich Village on the south, it partakes of neither. Its one redeeming quality is its rough-and-tumble character, its abundance of low-cost stores and restaurants, its appeal to the budget-minded. No gentrification here (not yet, at least); the street is down-to-earth, basic, and unashamedly out for a buck. As one store’s sign put it:
KEEP 14TH STREET GREEN
It’s not surprising, then, that the Greenwich Village Historic District stops just south of it, leaving it without landmark status; preservationists must have thought it a hopeless case, too commercial, too ugly, unworthy of protection.
But if one looks more closely, 14th Street reveals pockets of beauty, chunks of history, slivers of charm. Let’s take a walk along the stretch I know best, ranging from Ninth Avenue on the west to Union Square on the east, and see what we can find.
On the northwest corner of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street the Apple store looms, a three-story edifice usually topped by a display of giant computer screens. I have trekked there several times, lugging my desktop on a cart, to consult computer "geniuses" about smoothing out computer kinks and exploring computer possibilities. Smiling young faces in blue T-shirts greet you at the entrance and direct you to the appropriate floor -- in my case, the top one, where the geniuses hold forth. Shunning the ultra-modern glass staircase, I take the elevator. Up there in a spacious area flooded with light from huge windows, I’m always the only customer with a cumbersome desktop; everyone else has a small, mobile laptop, so easy to carry about, but with far too small a screen for my purposes, which often require two full pages side by side on the screen.
The Apple store, the third in the city, opened at this location in 2007, but before that this was the gateway to the Meatpacking District, which stretched from here west to the river. The building itself was an outlet for Western Beef, where a former resident remembers seeing open barrels of pig ears and snouts in brine, jugs of pork bellies, and carpet-sized rolls of tripe. So here, right at the start of our trek, is a lesson about life in New York: for all its landmarking endeavors, the city is in constant flux. From pig ears to Macs – quite a change!
Going east from Ninth Avenue toward Eighth, you find mostly residential buildings on the north or uptown side of 14th Street, some old and some new, their windows sprouting air-conditioners, and, for a sobering touch, a funeral home – all in all, rather dull. But the south side is anything but dull. In quick succession you encounter the following:
· Super Runners Shop
· Keratinbar (a hair salon and not, as I at first thought, a karate school)
· Centro Mexicano de Nueva York
· Gourmet Deli, its doors wide open to the street
· Best Chinese Qi Gong Tui Na, offering body work to heal almost anything
· Perfect Brows Threading Salon
· Chelsea Village Medical Building, where my partner’s doctor holes up, when not making house calls
· Istanbul Grill, featuring Mediterranean cuisine
· Insomnia Cookies
· Rocky’s Brick Oven Pizza and Restaurant
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But the dominant presence on the block is St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, a towering neo-Gothic dark-stone structure at 330 West 14th Street, dating from 1875. Replete with pointed windows and twin towers topped with short, spiky spires, the church now announces itself bilingually as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Bernard’s, the two parishes having merged in 2003. (More of this anon.) Once patronized by the Irish in Chelsea, St. Bernard’s saw its attendance dwindle as the Irish moved out. The Archdiocese explained the merger with candor: St. Bernard’s had space but lacked bodies, while Our Lady had bodies but lacked space (and they both had debts). But access to the church is up a steep short flight of steps, since neo-Gothic had little awareness of the handicapped.
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At Eighth Avenue and 14th Street we find two monumental Greek temples whose classical features say “bank.” The copper-domed structure on the northwest corner has a white-marble façade with Corinthian columns. Built in 1897 as the New York Bank for Savings, over the years it underwent a number of changes; served me in one of my bank’s many incarnations; later housed Balducci’s, a legendary Italian grocery in the Village; and is now a CVS pharmacy. One can question whether majestic neoclassical features are appropriate for the intake and output of moneys, but to my mind a grocery or a pharmacy is definitely pushing it.
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Across 14th Street on the southwest corner of the intersection is another impressive Greek temple that likewise suggests a bank. Built in 1907 for the New York County National Bank, it too has suffered a series of incarnations over the years and recently housed a spa for men. If a grocery and a pharmacy are questionable, what can one say of a spa? Flanked by two soaring Corinthian columns, the façade is topped by a pediment with a spreadwinged eagle, presaging laser hair removal on the grand scale, epic pedicures. But that is in the past; the building is now available for lease, with more flux in the offing.
Moving east from Eighth Avenue, at no. 229 on the north side of the street, one sees a churchlike façade and, next to it, stairs rising to a parlor-floor entrance. Passing it many times on a bus, I got the impression that this was a nunnery, a religious house sealed off from the bustle of 14th Street and immersed in appropriate devotions. And of course I was wrong. This was, until 2003, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an 1850 brownstone converted to a Catholic church in 1921 to serve the Spanish-speaking residents of the neighborhood (which had once been known as Little Spain). Its Spanish Baroque façade is rare, probably unique, in the city, and the church’s name commemorates the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared to a Mexican peasant in 1531 and has since been much venerated in Mexico.
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By the early 2000s the little church could no longer accommodate the growing population of Mexican immigrants, so in 2003 the parish merged with St. Bernard’s, a short block to the west. But that short block seemed long to many. While the Caribbean Hispanics who worshiped at the little church welcomed having a seat at Mass at St. Bernard’s, many knew they would miss Our Lady’s warmth and intimacy, its unique Latino “feel.” Just as, at St. Bernard’s, some of the elderly non-Hispanic parishioners were likewise grumbling about the necessary change, as the church was refurbished and “Hispanicized” to make the newcomers feel more at home. Bright colors were added, and a painting of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe was installed in front of a mosaic portrait of St. Bernard above and behind the main altar. Flux again, pleasing to some and disturbing to others. The abandoned little church is locked up tight now, with a bilingual sign, WE MOVED.
At no. 225, on the north side of West 14th Street, one finds the 14th Street Framing Gallery, a custom framing shop that shows the works of artists in its window and thus doubles as a gallery. My friend John once took me there to see the paintings of an artist friend of his, Scott Rigelman, who is often displayed there. Though Rigelman also does bucolic scenes and still lifes, what I saw in the window were urban industrial scenes often devoid of people and with a hint of Edward Hopper’s haunting loneliness. Rigelman calls these works “industrial,” but don’t look for workers or machinery in action, just looming buildings, static scenes. John describes his friend’s work as “cool” and “analytic,” as opposed to “emotional” and “romantic,” an appraisal that strikes me as accurate.
Rigelman’s work finds its audience, for in the last several years he has sold some 45 paintings on 14th Street, many of them impulse purchases by patrons who just happened by, though many of them have then become repeat customers who seek his work out at the Framing Gallery. And when the set decorator for the film Learning to Drive walked past and by chance saw Rigelman’s work, he was so taken with it that he acquired two paintings to use in the film. Two of Rigelman’s paintings are currently displayed, both industrial, studies in brown and gray with a touch of dull red, their subdued quality contrasting sharply with paintings by other artists in the window who strive for warmth and color – something for every taste. But who would have thought? Art on West 14th Street!
Just beyond the Framing Gallery, at no. 219, we leave religion and art behind as we encounter We the People, a self-styled debt-relief agency that proclaims in bold letters
Bargains indeed. To which their card adds in fancy lettering, “Rest in Peace.”
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On the southeast corner of 14th and Seventh Avenue, at no. 154-160, is a 12-story loft building dating from 1912. I have been past that building hundreds of times, and into the second-floor J.P. Morgan Chase branch a dozen times, without ever noticing the lavish polychrome terra-cotta decoration by architect Herman Lee Meader adorning it on many levels, though masked now by scaffolding. Meader had visited Mayan sites in Yucatan (I know those sites), and some see a trace of Mayan influence in the scrolls and wiggles and curlicues of the decoration here. Only recently have I discovered terra cotta in New York and (better late than never) fallen in love with it. Again, who would have thought? Mayan art embellishing J.P. Morgan Chase on brash and bustling West 14th Street! Yet another 14th Street surprise.
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The imposing seven-story building at 138-146 West 14th Street, now housing the Manhattan campus of Pratt Institute, is a Renaissance Revival loft building dating from 1895-96. Eight monumental arches frame the windows of the lower floors, while the seventh floor features sixteen smaller arches under a crowning stone cornice. There is rich stone and terra-cotta ornamentation throughout, including palmettes, lion’s heads, and rosettes. This structure introduces a note of grandeur into our walk and definitely redeems 14th Street from the drab commercial hodgepodge it seemed at first to be.
|Beyond My Ken|
|Beyond My Ken|
Guarding the entrance are great gilt metal gates that seem always to be locked tight shut, sometimes with several homeless people sprawled or huddled in front of them. Peering through the gates, one gets only a glimpse of monumental stairs mounting to the left and right, leading to a spacious interior. Clearly visible on the wall in back of the grotto are the words of the Army’s English founder, William Booth:
While women weep, as they do now,
While men go to prison, in and out,
In and out, as they do now,
While there is a drunkard left,
While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets,
While there remains one dark soul without the light of God,
I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end.
And on the wall high above those words is the Army’s crest, a circular rising-sun motif topped with a crown and containing the Army’s motto BLOOD AND FIRE, signifying the blood of Jesus and the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Just across West 14th Street from the Salvation Army complex, at no. 125, looms another massive building of unlovely brick and glass, housing the McBurney YMCA, which moved here from 23rd Street in 2002. Sharing the site above the Y is a residential complex known as Armory Place, its name commemorating the National Guard armory that formerly occupied the site. The McBurney Y prides itself on its famous members. The world of finance was changed forever when Merrill met Lynch in its swimming pool at another site in 1913, and author William Saroyan stayed in a guest room in 1928. Other members have included playwright Edward Albee, artist Andy Warhol, and actor Al Pacino, and the very thought of them all in the pool simultaneously – which probably never happened – thrills me to the quick. A virtual tour of today’s facility shows both sexes running or cycling in place, lying flat on mats lifting heavy weights, playing basketball, and executing slow-motion movements worthy of ballet; one feels sweaty and tired just from watching. Membership includes free towels and WiFi, and free supervised child watch. If the Salvation Army is a quaint and charming – and most necessary – throwback to another age, the McBurney is as tech-savvy and with-it as they come.
On the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street is a new building I love to hate: the New School University Center, a 16-story boxy monstrosity with a skin of horizontal brass bands artificially aged to acquire a “dark golden-brown hue” (they look gray to me), and an “innovative stair system” providing a “grand avenue,” glass-encased, that creeps up the sides of the building, its space meant to provide students with “informal interaction.” I don’t know which I hate more – those horizontal strips or the exposed staircases, the brass or the glass – but I’m sure that the students, without architectural stimulus, will manage plenty of informal interaction on their own. Granted, the building is innovative and eye-catching, and far from dull. But I still detest it, and it’s good to have something to detest; it keeps you from getting bland.
Finally we come to Union Square, whose name, by the way, has nothing to do with the massive pro-Union rallies held there at the outbreak of the Civil War, or the countless labor-union rallies held there subsequently; it simply reflects the convergence there of the old Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) and the Bowery Road (now Fourth Avenue). By the mid-nineteenth century the Square, once a potter’s field, had become an exclusive upper-middle-class residential neighborhood whose homes faced a nicely laid-out park with tree-lined walks and a fountain. By the 1870s, as was always the case in a fast-growing city, the neighborhood was being invaded by commercial enterprises – hotels and pharmacies and pianoforte showrooms – and gentility fled elsewhere.
|George Washington in Union Square Park.|
Then and now, Union Square has been the scene of labor-union rallies, and protests and demonstrations of every stripe and hue, including a May Day rally and several Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that I have chronicled in this blog. Also chronicled is the Union Square Greenmarket, the granddaddy of all greenmarkets, which I visit regularly on Wednesdays throughout the year. Frequenting the Square are artists displaying their works (some amusing, some garish); folk singers, some of them more screechy than harmonious; chess players looking for an opponent; a turbaned African-American woman displaying assorted wares on a sumptuous cloth by a fountain; and, newly arrived, a young Hare Krishna devotee with the requisite shaven head and orange robe. Witnessing all the to-do are four bronze statues dedicated to advocates of freedom: a mounted Washington, one arm outstretched, heroically surveying his surroundings since 1856; a nobly posed Abraham Lincoln, dedicated in 1870; a bigger-than-life Lafayette, installed for the 1876 Centennial; and a spectacled and skinny Mahatma Gandhi, who since 1986 has been seen walking with a staff in an enclosed little garden near the southwest corner of the park.
Coming soon: New York Hustlers: Elmos and Minny Mice, topless cuties, CD hustlers, fake Buddhist monks, the Naked Cowboy and Cowgirls, and how a wiseguy teenager from the West Side made hundreds of dollars on weekends as an action bowler.
Available now: For a preview of my new book, a collection of posts from this blog, just google the title; the table of contents will give you an idea of what’s in it. Available online from the usual suspects: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. The e-book, now in preparation, will also be available soon. If you go to Amazon and type in the title, you may not find the book, but typing my name will get you to it; Barnes & Noble poses no problem. If you have the preview on your screen, you'll see them both listed on the left; click on either and you'll also find the book. And if the book doesn't interest you, no problem; it will find its readers in time.
© 2015 Clifford Browder