“No other city is so spitefully incoherent.”
The walking tours offered here are part of decades-long project whose eventual goal is a soon to be completed book. I worked in the worlds of publishing and education before I became a New York City tour guide about 15 years ago to write the book I wish existed when I first moved to Madison Square in 1993 (aka the Flatiron District, and, now, NoMad).
When I moved into the Breslin Hotel at 29th Street and Broadway, now the swanky Ace Hotel but back then a Single Room Occupancy welfare hotel, I shared a $600/month studio with my best friend. In-line skating was new and all the rage and for three years I skated just about every square inch of Manhattan Island. It wasn’t long before I realized that on my daily excursions after work, any direction I went from where I was living the combination of buildings from history changed in a radical, inexplicable way. Beautiful French Second Empire apartment-hotels with elaborate mansard roofs that spoke to an upper class social scene were just feet away from blocks of much more low-brow, sad looking buildings from the same time. Art deco factories for garment manufacturing were across the street from country churches. Brownstone homes were wedged in alongside jewel-box like loft buildings. I had been reading many New York City history books but none came close to explaining the city I was seeing.
When it comes to New York City history on the Island of Manhattan everyone agrees that “the city” moved uptown, but what, exactly, moved uptown? Did everything move uptown? A wide and wild assortment of buildings of brick, cast iron, steel-frame stone-clad (so-called “loft buildings”), Modern and post-Modern day skyscrapers; built as a home, flat, apartment building, a store, factory, or office building, can make up any given city block. Manhattan is an inscrutable, information-rich cityscape that begs many questions: Which buildings came first, and why? Why did some buildings survive when others didn’t? What new buildings came in and why? How did the ones that stayed, change? There is likely nowhere else on Earth where land use, “the management and modification of the natural environment into built environment,” underwent such seemingly chaotic, intense, radical and rapid change, in so compact an area, and over such a relatively short period of time, as on the land mass comprising the roughly lower third of Manhattan Island. How does one make sense of buildings that have been adapted for re-use over time, at different points in time, sometimes many times over? Is there any way to make sense of how a jumble of neighborhoods, made up of a jumble of buildings, came to be “put together”?
I went on many walking tours of the city in the hopes of understanding the history the way I was seeing it. And while there were many good tours and tour guides, none were explaining what I would eventually come to call the Frankenstein’s Monster of history and architecture that New York City was Central Park down to the Battery.
Many a neighborhood’s architectural reputation precedes it. Soho has cast iron buildings, Tribeca warehouses, the Lower East Side tenements, Times Square theaters, Museum Mile mansions. Each neighborhood has its own particular and distinct architectural make-up and “streetscape sensibility” that is the assortment of buildings retained from history. Soho has a particular look, and it’s a different look from the blocks around Madison Square. And the Lower East Side couldn’t look more different than nearby Tribeca. And while the assortment of buildings from different eras tell the story of any individual neighborhood, it’s the different combinations of different buildings across all of Manhattan’s neighborhoods that tell the story of the whole city.
I ultimately came to realize that telling the story New York City on the island of Manhattan required gathering up the reins of a hundred different histories: architecture, shipping and trade, technology, transportation, manufacturing and industry, finance, real estate, newspapers and communications, theaters; cultural economies and the evolution of housing for the rich and the poor, the history of retailing, the history of theater and entertainment. In fact, I came to see there was the history of an American culture: how we lived, how we worked, how we shopped, how we entertained each other and ourselves, that was captured and recorded, unintentionally preserved, by the slow motion onslaught of manufacturing and industry, business and office buildings, as they made their way up through the middle of Manhattan Island. But what came first were the suburbs; homes churches and schools. I was determined to find a way to tell the story of the interplay of all of these histories, and discover the unifying principles that sort out, and in essence decode, Manhattan’s otherwise inscrutable cityscape.
And so when the author James Baldwin to remarked that New York City was “spitefully incoherent,” he could have been talking about any neighborhood or district between Central Park and The Battery; these were the parts of town that were created by a slow-motion cyclone of brick and mortar, glass, stone and steel, in a pattern of building up, tearing down and building again. What was left behind was the kaleidoscope of neighborhoods we know today as Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue’s shopping district, Times Square, the Garment District, Herald Square, Murray Hill, Madison Square, Union Square, Washington Square, NoHo, SoHo, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Tribeca, the Civic Center, City Hall and the Financial District. These are the parts of the city that contain the history of the city's historic move uptown through the middle of the Manhattan over a roughly a century-long period of phenomenal expansion and growth.
I hope to see you on a Manhattan Unlocked walking tour!
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
The Limelight: an Unholy Evolution
Stokes, I. N. Phelps The iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 New York : Robert H. Dodd, 1915-1928.Electronic reproduction. v. 1-4. New York, N.Y. : Columbia University Libraries, 2008. JPEG use copy available via the World Wide Web. Master copy stored locally on  DVDs#: ldpd_5800727_001 01-13 ; ldpd_5800727_002 01-19 ; ldpd_5800727_003 01-16 ; ldpd_5800727_004 01-16.. Columbia University Libraries Electronic Books. 2006.
I still didn’t believe it, but when I Google Earthed it there was no question it was the same building. The vantage point below is farther to the left of the above image.
It’s not as quaint as it seems though, according to Stoke’s, “In the plate representing the Church of the Holy Communion,…[the] landscape scenery has been substituted for the streets of the city, as more appropriate to the character of the building.” Still, in the 1840s this part of 6th Avenue was a quiet residential part of town. The landmarked Gothic Revival church was designed by Richard Upjohn, the same architect of Trinity Church.
Today it’s in the heart of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, the middle class shopping mecca of the 1870s and 80s when an elevated train ran down 6th Avenue. The parish somehow survived all the retail mayhem only to have its former house of worship become the victim of a much more maniacal sort.
The congregants moved on in the 1970s and the church (deconsecrated) became a drug rehab center, Odyssey House. Peter Gatien bought the property in 1982 and opened it as the Limelight (Andy Warhol hosted the opening night party). Drug dealing and bad publicity saw the place padlocked on-and-off until it was finally shuttered in 2001. What it’s most notorious for though is its connection to the 1996 murder and dismemberment of a denizen drug dealer by the club’s party promoter, Michael Alig (not on the grounds). Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green did the movie Party Monster based on the club and that event.
Today it’s a boutique shopping mall, the Limelight Marketplace, and I went there not too long ago. It’s definitely a different kind of shopping experience; a maze of little “shops” in tiny nooks strung along walkways and narrow stairs that every so often reveal Gothic elements in the walls and ceilings. I also went there once in the 90s when it was the Limelight. Just once.