Sunday, September 24, 2017

319. 569 Hudson: Buddha, a Speakeasy, Greek Yogurt and Romance


Reading at Jefferson Market Library, 425 Avenue of the Americas (near West 10th Street), on Sunday, October 8, 2-4 p.m.  I will read excerpts from my novels and New York stories, sign books, and take questions.  Books will be available for purchase.  I'll be glad to see a friendly face or two there.

Dark Knowledge: Release date January 5, 2018, but copies now available from the author.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. More excerpts to come.

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.


         Every old building in New York City has its history, whether recorded or not, and 569 Hudson Street, on the northwest corner of Hudson and West 11th Street just one short block from my apartment building, is no exception.  Today at ground-floor level it houses Philip Marie, a restaurant with tables outside in good weather, offering what it terms a fusion of New American cuisine, plus wines from all over the world.  Its name is a combination of the middle names of the owner and head chef, John Philip Greco III, and his wife, Suzanne Marie, who also acts as hostess.  Though I have often lunched there on Sunday, I cannot evaluate the cuisine, since I am quite content with their delicious Greek yogurt with strawberries and granola, perhaps followed by a cappuccino, its double espresso topped with frothy foamed milk lightly sprinkled with cinnamon.

         When I last lunched at Philip Marie, three waiters came in turn to welcome me back.  Seated inside at a small table in front, I noticed a menu offering Brunch Madness at $26.95, with Bloody Marys and Mimosas on the house.  The noise was deafening, but at least the patrons were having a good time.  And taking full advantage of something, as well, for I saw a tall waiter visit many tables repeatedly, filling everyone’s glass from a pitcher of an orange-colored liquid that I now know was Mimosa, a cocktail combining champagne and chilled orange juice. The restaurant asks brunch patrons not to linger more than 75 minutes and entreats them to “enjoy responsibly,” explaining that they reserve the right to refuse service to anyone who has had a glass too many.  Have they ever had to refuse anyone, I asked the hostess as I left, and she thought a moment and said, “No.”  At brunch, then, a joyous, noisy crowd, but no drunks.  And on one wall I noticed a quote from the Buddha defining happiness as existing in one’s mind.  Wisdom as well as good food and, with the brunch, free booze.  I left unboozed, but was told that my cappuccino was on the house.  Needless to say, I’ll be back.

         So much for today, but 569 Hudson has a history going back years, even centuries.  When John Greco bought the building in 1998, he broke down a brick wall in the basement in order to get more space.  Behind the demolished wall he found a small room with a trap door to a sub-basement that he hadn’t even known existed.  Going down the stairs to the sub-basement, he found a makeshift bar and some old broken chairs – the remains, he realized, of a hidden speakeasy of the 1920s, now unused because the room didn’t meet city regulations.

         But that wasn’t all.  He also decided to tear down a sheet rock wall and ended up breaking through four layers of sheet rock to reach a brick-and-limestone wall.  Behind that wall he found the remains of a kitchen of a farmhouse that once stood on the site, probably dating back to the 1700s.  It had two fireplaces and a window, and in the ashes in the fireplaces were oyster shells and clay smoking pipes left by the farmhouse’s original inhabitants.  But wait – a window in an underground structure?  Yes, because in those days the Village was hilly farmland and the home was above ground.

         When I learned of these underground excavations, I became fascinated by the history of 569 Hudson Street.  A farm in the 1700s and now a popular restaurant with delicious yogurt and Mimosas, but how about all those years between?  So I set out on an online voyage of discovery, tracking down every scrap of information that I could find.  Bits and pieces of history – tantalizing, but frustratingly incomplete – emerged.  Here is what I found.

         According to the Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report of 1969, the four-story brick corner building at 569 Hudson Street was originally two buildings, a corner house built by one Abraham Miller in 1836, and a rear house at 303 West 11th Street built in 1857-58, both of them altered in 1874.  The cornice, the projecting ledge that tops the entire building today, dates from that time, though the casement windows are later additions.  The three fire escapes on the West 11th Street side date from when the building was converted to multiple tenancy.  Originally, I assume, the two buildings were private residences.

         Now follows a long gap in my knowledge.  The building was said to have served as a hospital during the Civil War, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.  The Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen of August 6, 1895, lists a Grognen & Co. at 569 Hudson Street.  What this company was up to, I have no idea, but we can assume that by now Hudson Street in this neighborhood was no longer residential, if it ever was, but decidedly commercial.  Confirming this is mention, in the Democratic newspaper The Tammany Times of January 15, 1900, of Gwynne & Richardson at no. 569, a highly regarded dealer in builders’ hardware doing an immense business with New York City contractors.  So now the site is helping to build up the city.

         A speakeasy in the basement?  A 1922 publication entitled The American Perfumer, vol. 17, p. 508, reports that Sardou, Inc., at 569 Hudson Street, is in involuntary bankruptcy at the instigation of a number of creditors, including George Sardou, who is owed $5,000.  This, of course, was the Roaring Twenties, when Prohibition gripped the nation, and government agents had seized fifty barrels of alcohol in the company’s warehouse at no. 569, alcohol that the company was allegedly diverting to “illicit uses,” which, I suspect, meant the gullets of thirsty New Yorkers.  And sure enough, the New York Times of July 26, 1922, reported the seizure of $20,000 worth of grain alcohol on the premises when the firm’s head – Mr. Sardou himself, I assume -- tried to sell it to the agents.  So the hidden basement room was perhaps not a speakeasy, but storage space for forbidden booze.  Sardou, Inc., the article added, was a manufacturer of toilet articles with branches in London, Paris, and Bombay.  Ah, how the mighty have fallen!

         Fast-forward to circa 1975.  A photograph in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York shows the corner building with two enterprises on the ground floor: La Sangria restaurant on the corner, and next to it on Hudson Street, the Bendix Supermatic Laundry.  And looming next to them at 571 Hudson was a five-story building housing Liberty Moving and Storage.  I had moved into 286 West 11th Street in 1970, so this was what I found on Hudson Street just one short block away.  I don’t recall the restaurant and laundry, but I do recall Liberty Moving and Storage in the five-story building next to them, where it remains to this day.  La Sangria, presumably serving Spanish food, is the first restaurant that I am aware of at no. 569, and the presence of the laundry and Liberty Moving suggests that Hudson Street, still decidedly commercial, was servicing residents of the West Village like myself who lived nearby in old buildings on quiet residential streets.

         An ad on p. 102 of New York Magazine of May 24, 1982, announces  the Hudson River Café, featuring Nouvelle American Cuisine, at 569 Hudson Street.  Next, the New York Times of April 18, 1988, mentions the newly arrived Harlequin Restaurant, a stylish Continental restaurant, at no. 569.  And on p. 124 of New York Magazine of May 22, 1995, an ad appears for the Nine Muses Café at that address, offering Greek Mediterranean Cuisine, which another ad that year mentions as including fresh grilled octopus and fish brochettes, plus quantities of ouzo.  Finally, the May 15, 1998, issue of Eating Out, listing Greek restaurants in the city, mentions Uncle Nick’s, a handsome Greek seafood taverna at no. 569, offering sautéed Greek sausage, and an appetizer named saganaki in which a sheep’s milk cheese is set aflame and served in lemon-butter sauce.  So the site is definitely enticing restaurants, but unlike the legendary White Horse Tavern just across West 11th Street, they don’t seem to last very long.  But their presence implies a sophisticated residential community in the West Village and beyond, with a taste for international cuisines.  But Uncle Nick’s was presumably ousted when, in that same year of 1998, John Greco bought the building, began his excavations, and launched Philip Marie.

         And today?  The studio apartments on the floors above the restaurant at 303 West 11th Street are going for an average monthly rent of $2,550.  And the so-called hidden speakeasy?  The space one flight down has been converted into the Wine Room, a “romantic, private dining room for only two,” voted one of the top places for romance by the New York Times, the superlative arbiter of romantic atmosphere and taste.  Yes, just above where barrels of illicit booze were once stashed, loving couples now dine intimately under a ceiling with thirteen eyebeams that have protected this secret vault for over fifty years.  “Do couples really dine there?” I asked the hostess when I last lunched in the restaurant upstairs, and she answered with an emphatic “Yes!” and assured me that a couple had been there just the day before.

         So what does a couple experience in these intimate nether depths?  I can’t say from first-hand experience, not being in the market for romance and romantic settings, but online sources have given me an inkling.  Descending the narrow staircase, guests find themselves in a small room lined on all sides with wine bottles stored properly on their side.  Behind an iron gate are bottles of champagne and the secret trapdoor leading to the subterranean tunnels, but exploring those tunnels is taboo.  After a glass of champagne and an assortment of hors d’oeuvres, your private server offers suggestions for the three-course meal to follow, plus wine selections perfectly matched to your choices.  A stereo system provides jazz or romantic classics, and if you bring your own musical selections, your server will be glad to play them for you.  Customized flower arrangements, live musicians, and special cakes and pastries can also be arranged in advance.  And all this for only $195.00 per couple, plus sales tax and 20% gratuity.  But if you want special items ordered in advance, as for instance grilled venison with juniper berry sauce for the main course, or deep-fried chocolate truffles for dessert, add $20 for each. 

         So there you have it: venison in juniper berry sauce, chocolate truffles, and romantic music in a room just above where barrels of illicit booze were once stashed, and above the remains as well of a farmhouse kitchen where farmers once gobbled oysters and smoked clay pipes.  But in this age of feminism, who pays?  The guy?  The girl?  Both, equally?  And what if she earns more than he does?  And are gay couples welcome?  Complicated matters that ages before our own could never have anticipated.  So let’s leave the financial arrangements to the guests, and the question of same-sex couples to management, and wish the diners well in their intimate, wine-girt dining.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of 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.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.  

"This is an easy read about a hard life.  Interesting characters, a bustling city, poverty, privilege, crime, injustice combine to create a captivating tale."  Five-star Goodreads review by John Wheeler.

Available from Amazon.

3.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Coming soon:  Interview:  A Male Prostitute and His Clients.  I interview characters in my novel The Pleasuring of Men and add a note on sources.

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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