Sunday, August 21, 2016

250. Forbidden Zones: The Old Brewery, Trump Tower, and the Weeds

     There have always been forbidden zones in New York City – places of danger or places where you aren’t supposed to go.  Today they are ribboned off with yellow tape marked “caution … cuidado … caution …cuidado,” usually to keep us out of construction zones.  Or they are blocked off by wooden barricades to protect the path of a parade, or by signs saying HARD HAT AREA, DANGER, NO TRESPASSING, or by orange cones in front of sidewalk stairs leading down into the dark confines of a basement.  But these are a part of our daily existence as New Yorkers, and therefore not remarkable.  There have been other forbidden zones, more mysterious, more dangerous.

     In the mid-nineteenth century, when the gentile middle class lived in brownstones and Greek Revival homes not far removed from the slums where the “dangerous classes” wallowed in poverty and degradation, the Five Points district, named for the convergence of five streets in Lower Manhattan just a short walk east of Broadway, was considered the worst slum in the city, and in it, the Old Brewery was deemed the worst tenement. The neighborhood had a grog shop on every corner, while from the upstairs windows whores with painted faces called down to drunken sailors in the street.  Pigs ranged, dogs snarled, gangs lurked, children screamed.  Certainly it was no place for respectable citizens.

     The chipped walls of the Old Brewery loomed up like a huge toad splotched with warts across from Paradise Square, a triangle with six stunted trees, bricks and rubble, corncobs and manure, broken glass.  Running beside the building was a dark lane three feet wide known as Murderers’ Alley; another lane led to a large room known as the Den of Thieves, where some 75 men and women lived, crammed in together.  The Brewery was thought to harbor drunks and harlots, real and fake crippled beggars, and thugs for hire.  Into its maze of dark passageways burglars and their loot vanished, while the police feared to follow.  Rumors abounded of nightly killings there, of tunnels and hidden rooms, buried treasures, buried bodies.  If ever, for honest citizens, there was a forbidden zone, it was the Old Brewery.

     Which was why, in the early 1850s, the Ladies Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church decided not just to visit this district, but to establish a sabbath school for its ragged and unruly children, and to hold weekly temperance meetings in a mission room.  But this was not enough; a committee of visitation, composed of two respectable and very determined Methodist ladies, began visiting every house and family in the area, and even penetrated the Old Brewery, negotiating its creaky stairs to explore its dark cellars and passageways and attics, where they found prostitutes and drunks aplenty, and families living in squalor, but no nests of thieves, no murderers, no hints of buried bodies.  This was a gutsy undertaking for respectable ladies of that time, for whom good works through a church were the one adventure allowed, and the Methodist ladies were heeding the Biblical command to "go out into the highways and hedges" (Luke14:23), which for them meant the Old Brewery.

     And this was but a prelude to the ladies' real undertaking.  In 1852 they managed to buy the building and demolish it, so they could replace it with the Five Points Mission, a five-story brick building with a chapel, a schoolroom, and low-rent rooms for deserving families -- an enterprise that would be expanded in time and continue until the 1890s.  The Methodists had come to stay, and the forbidden zone was forbidden no more.

     Or was it?  When the demolition of the Old Brewery was under way in 1852, human bones were found in the cellars and within the walls, and some intruders managed to gain entrance into one cellar and dig up something buried there and make off with it.  So maybe the rumors of dark doings in the Old Brewery were not without foundation.

      And what forbidden zones are there today?  What if one looks upward?  That’s exactly what hundreds of passersby were doing on Wednesday afternoon, August 10, on Fifth Avenue in front of the 68-story Trump Tower at 56th Street, which contains luxury shops and apartments, including the Donald’s very own residence.  And what were they straining their necks to see?  The same thing that millions were watching on TV and in videos posted on Facebook and elsewhere: a young man in shorts and a T-shirt climbing up the façade of the towering edifice, evidently using suction cups and a harness to accomplish this amazing feat in broad daylight.  Which is, of course, a no-no; one isn’t supposed to go climbing up towers in mid-Manhattan.  But the climber was already up five stories before the police got a 911 call alerting them, and only when he had climbed 21 stories in all were two of New York’s Finest able to remove a glass panel and reach out, grab him, and pull him into the building, ending what had become a three-hour social media sensation.  

     And who was this intrepid climber?  Stephen Rogata, age 19, of Great Falls, Virginia, who had driven all the way from Virginia, checked into a cheap hotel on the Bowery the night before, then walked into the tower’s atrium, sneaked into a fenced-off area, and began his climb.  And why had he undertaken this stunt?  To get a personal meeting with Mr. Trump.  On Tuesday, August 9, he had explained his motives in a YouTube video in which he said he was an “independent researcher” willing to risk his life for a significant purpose; later he told police he wanted to give the Donald “secret information” relating to how he will govern, if elected.  Once secured, he was charged with felony reckless endangerment and misdemeanor trespassing, and taken to Bellevue Hospital Center for psychological evaluation.  He endangered not only himself but others, an assistant D.A. insisted at the time of his arraignment on August 17, since during his climb several items fell out of his backpack, including a laptop computer, which might have injured bystanders on the sidewalk below and emergency responders.  At the arraignment Mr. Rogata appeared through a video link to Bellevue, where he is still under psychiatric care, and where his parents have visited him.  The judge set his bail at $10,000 cash or $5,000 bond.

      This stunt recalls the 25-year-old Frenchman Philippe Petit’s amazing high-wire walk with a balancing pole between the Twin Towers in 1974, when he did eight passes on the wire to the astonishment of the onlookers on the street a quarter of a mile below.  This feat led to his immediate arrest and then his release in exchange for doing a free performance for children in Central Park, where he did a high-wire walk over the Turtle Pond.  An overnight celebrity, M. Petit stuck around over the years to do other less astonishing performances; I saw him several times performing as a mime at Sheridan Square, where he competed for attention with a mixed-race tap-dancing couple, and a woman who sang opera to recorded music.  Whether Mr. Rogata will likewise become a celebrity remains to be seen.  My first impression is less of a death-defying performer than a young man harboring delusions, but time will tell.

     As for the Donald, he was away campaigning to save the nation.  Hearing of the incident, he tweeted, “Great job today by the NYPD in protecting the people and saving the climber.”  But he is no stranger to lawsuits.  Will he sue?  One hopes not.  Mr. Rogata seems like a rather trivial target, and harmless; he should be let alone.

     A forbidden zone of a very different kind has emerged in the reed-choked interior of Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach, Queens, where Karina Vetrano, an attractive 30-year-old woman, went for an evening jog along a three-mile fire trail on Tuesday, August 2, and never came out.  Her parents reported her missing, and her father and the police began searching the area.  That evening her father found her body face down near the trail.  She had been sexually assaulted, and strangled with such ferocity that the killer’s hand prints were visible on her neck.

     The region is known to local residents as the Weeds, an isolated area where homeless people camp, and teen-agers ride illegal all-terrain vehicles and party.  It has long been said in Howard Beach, “You don’t go in the Weeds by yourself.”  The police have offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the killer, and the victim’s family have made a novel offer to the killer himself: if he surrenders and confesses, the more than $250,000 they have raised through donations to a reward fund will go to anyone he chooses.  Meanwhile the police have asked men frequenting the area to voluntarily provide oral DNA swabs, so they can compare them with DNA evidence left by the killer and eliminate suspects.  They have received many tips and are following up on several, but so far no arrest has been made.

     The fire trail is lined by tall invasive reeds known as phragmites, which I know well from the nearby Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where it grows thick like a jungle and can attain a height of 16 feet.  It is almost impenetrable; to clear it so as to create or maintain a fire trail, requires machetes.  Until now, I thought phragmites posed a danger only if, in a dry season, it caught fire; at Jamaica Bay I have seen acres of blackened stubble, and once, in the distance, smoke from a spreading fire.  I have seen phragmites also in a damp area at Van Cortland Park, where there are narrow paths leading deep into it – paths I would just as soon not follow.

     Even before the recent murder, the Weeds at Howard Beach seemed dangerous, for last summer a local resident was found there hanging from a tree, a suicide.   Dog walkers now avoid the area, not to mention runners.  Truly, a forbidden zone, and for good reason.

     My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

     My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

     Coming soon:  Maybe Rose, the quintessential Brooklynite.  Maybe Sailors' Snug Harbor, Staten Island.  Maybe both, but separately, in time.

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder