And then my phone ran out of juice as we walked down the above block, which I happen to live on. (Would that I could've gone up and gotten a fresh phone.) The march continued east on 12th Street, north on 1st Avenue, west on 23rd Street, north on 6th Avenue, west on 33rd Street, and north on 7th one block to 34th Street, where we were stopped. I peeled off at that point but the march continued west on 33rd and then, from what I heard, to Times Square. No justice, no peace.
"You can't preserve everything," Florent Morellet, pioneering meat-market restaurateur, said Thursday night at a Historic Districts Council screening of the 2009 documentary about the rise and fall of his eponymous French diner. The stories of Morellet, his restaurant (which closed in '08), and the meat market have been well told over the years, but the Frenchman's rebirth as a quasi-anti-preservationist could be fresh narrative terrain: Now a member of the community board that serves the neighborhood, Soho, in which he lives, Morellet professed to have lost interest in the meatpacking district, having turned his attention instead to high-rises, urban density, and sustainability.
"It's not about the buildings, it's about the people," he ramblingly opined after the screening at the Tribeca Film Center. "That's what we as preservationists have to think about. High rise is the future, that's what's sustainable. We have to start leveling the suburbs and bringing them to the city, to the core, where there's transit. Apartment buildings of 100 stories! Going against that is immoral, because it's green."
Not exactly the talking points of New York's historic-preservation community, whose latest success is getting a distinctly low-rise section of the East Village landmarked, but that's part of Morellet's charm: he's unpredictable.
He's also, again, ahead of the trend. "There should be high rises on the avenues of the East Village," he said—and along the northern reaches of Third Avenue, there already are.
*Or, Why I Like BLDG BLOK
Last night I participated in the inaugural public event of BLDG BLOK, a start-up housed at the DUMBO NYU-Poly incubator that's using mapping and other digital tools to rediscover urban history. My task was to respond creatively to a history of Tompkins Square by writer Francis Morrone; I had five minutes, or about 1200 words. Following is what I wrote and read.
When I think of Tompkins Square, I think of rats. Two summers ago, the square—or park, or gathering place, or historical site, or whatever you deem the most appropriate description of the space for your needs—was infested with rats, as local parents complained to media; their burrows—the rats’ burrows, that is, not the parents’ burrows, which are a different kind of burrow—ran adjacent to the playground on the square’s west side. At night you could see the rats scrambling over the mulch, or venturing across the Avenue A sidewalk to pick through garbage. Rats are shy animals—they disappear if you get too close. But they need humans to survive.
During the rat infestation—I understand it’s lessened now—I happened to live, just for a short time, on Seventh Street between A and B, which is the south side of Tompkins Square. Accordingly, I had many opportunities to observe the rats. I was interested in photographing them, I guess to capture them, to hold them in time for longer than a moment—that is, permanently. In one photograph I took, there were 22 pairs of rat eyes glinting in the dark. Stopped in the image, they seemed to look at me with the same mix of curiosity and fear with which I gazed at them.
Rats are as much a part of New York City history—of any city’s history—as they are a part of my history in New York. Twelve years ago, shortly after I moved to this metropolis, I hit a rat with my foot as I crossed Broadway on Fourth Street. I didn’t see the rat—I just felt a soft, semi-squishy thud. Immediately a high-pitched screech overcame the corner; I looked down and saw a furry oblong scurry away zig-zag-like. Passersby glared at me as I stood there, stunned, as if I’d been hit by a car—an unexpectedly traumatic collision. But I might as well have collided with history itself.
Rats, as we know, are ancient animals—so ancient that the zoological designation “Old World rats” for the black and brown rodents we live with in cities doesn’t refer to the pre-modern era but to the pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-modern era: specifically, the Pleistocene epoch, which began more than two million years ago and ended eleven-thousand-and-seven-hundred years ago. At some point during this enormous span of time—scientists aren’t sure when—the rats that now commingle with us and our refuse in Tompkins Square originated in the forests and scrublands of Asia. Our rats, of course, aren’t a million years old (obviously)—their average life span is only a year. But their bodies carry within them a history of the world, both spatial and temporal. They’re living documents of human civilization. Don’t believe me? Ask the next rat you see. He’ll tell you if he could.
Like rats, architecture carries within it a spatial-temporal history of the world, only you can’t stop a building—a design—in its tracks with your foot. As eminent architectural writer Francis Morrone reminds us in his chronological history, the area that’s now Tompkins Square was once a swampy mass filled with birds of the snipe variety; Manhatten men of a certain stripe hunted them. The snipe hunt later became synonymous with the wild-goose chase, a madcap search for an ostensibly real but actually fictional object. Indeed, that meaning is so prevalent today that to use “snipe hunting” to refer to a kind of bird hunting would be archaic. And yet this seemingly outmoded definition is embedded in the phrase; it can’t be separated out. Etymologies are not linear but coextensive—meanings are ever present.
When I think about architecture, I often find myself thinking of Orhan Pamuk’s incredible novel Snow, in which the provenance and style of buildings are as important as any other theme. After years of living in exile in Germany, the novel’s protagonist, a poet, returns to Turkey for his mother’s funeral. Subsequently, he’s offered a reporting assignment that takes him to the eastern city of Kars, a remote outpost of have’s and have-not’s—mostly have-not’s. His first stop in town is the Snow Palace Hotel, an “elegant Baltic building…two stories high, with long narrow windows that looked out onto a courtyard and an arch that led out to the street. The arch was 110 years old and high enough for horse-drawn carriages to pass through with ease.” When the poet-reporter walks under the arch, he feels “a shiver of excitement.”
The novel takes place in the 1990s. A hundred-and-ten years before then—in the 1880s—Kars belonged to the Russian empire, and Turkey, as a nation, didn’t yet exist. At the beginning of that same decade, Tompkins Square had become a public park—“one of the most attractive spots in the city,” as the New-York Tribune hailed it. Within 60 years, however, the park was no longer attractive: as the New York Times noted—and these references are Morrone’s, by the way—neglect was visible everywhere, the playground vandalized.
Kars—you may have sensed I was going here—suffered a similar degradation: “elegant Baltic buildings” turn out to be a rarity in the city as rendered by Pamuk in Snow. Instead, as the novel’s poet-reporter walks through the snow, he finds “decrepit Russian buildings with stovepipes sticking out of every window,” a “thousand-year-old Armenian church towering over the wood depots and the electric generators,” and “a five-hundred-year-old stone bridge,” where a “pack of dogs bark[ed] at every passerby.” The forlorn scenes force our man to wonder if Kars is “a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.”
I read this moment, fictional or not, as the end of history—the end of a progressive chronology of the world that relegates the past to the past—forgotten. In contrast to a chronological view of history, I propose a kairological perspective, in which the past is never forgotten but always insistently here. In this regard, I follow the great Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben, who declares: “Against the empty, continuous, quantified, infinite time of vulgar historicism must be set the full, broken, indivisible and perfect time of concrete human experience; instead of the chronological time of pseudo-history, the [k]airological time of authentic history; in place of the total social process of a dialectic lost in time, the interruption and immediacy of dialectic at a standstill.”
Architecture can interrupt this dialectic of putative progress, as can rats. So can, perhaps ironically, the digital—or digitality, or technology, or invention, or whatever you want to call it—which makes visible simultaneous—kairological—historical experiences. This is what BLDG BLOK does, and this is why I like it.
Moving west to east, the second building of the East 10th Street Historic District, number 295 (above), is part of the same set of houses that includes 293 and ends with 299. All built in a Greek Revival/Italianate style, they're attributed to the architect Joseph Trench. As before, this building incorporates Queen-Anne-style alterations, such as the cornice; the main entrance was also moved to the basement.
Previously: The East 10th Historic District—Photos
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously this past January to elevate the north side of East 10th Street between Avenues A and B to the status of historic district. The district contains 26 buildings, most of which were built in the 1840s, '50s, and '60s, following the opening of Tompkins Square Park, which the buildings face, in 1834. A few of the buildings went up around the turn of the twentieth century, including the McKim, Mead, & White-designed public library at 331 East 10th.
These buildings, though not the library, have been altered greatly since their construction, and as such they're fascinating historical assemblages. I live near the block, and since I'm addicted to Instagram, I thought I'd photograph and post each of the 26 structures. Above is building one, on the northwest corner of the block: 293 East 10th. Originally built (circa 1846) in a Greek Revival/Italianate style, it was later updated with a Queen Anne-style cornice. (This information, and all subsequent information about these buildings, comes from the East 10th Street Historic District "designation report," prepared for the preservation commission.) Other alterations—they are numerous, as you can glean from the image—include moving the main entrance to the basement and removing the window lintels. The current occupant of the storefront is the Horus Cafe and hookah lounge, which has a sidewalk cafe.
Among the people living in my building in 1940: stenographers, investigators (one for "N.Y.C. Social"), lawyers, waitresses, a hatmaker and a dressmaker, a hospital dietitian, and a "photographers" salesman. Though they mostly hailed from New York, quite a few were born in Russia, Austria, Poland, Germany, and Denmark, as well as New Jersey and Maine. Just a snapshot of what you can find on the 1940 Census site, which has been bombarded with more than 37 million "hits"—so cute, the Archives!—since nine a.m. Monday.
Yesterday the New York Post ran my article on what may be the country's first bar inside a full-time motorcycle garage. Called The Shop Brooklyn, the innovative Williamsburg outfit is located three blocks from me; I watched the space transform into what it is today over the last three years. Keep your eyes peeled, as they say.
(Photograph by Zandy Mangold.)