|For these tasty globs, some would sell their soul.|
Walking east on West 11th Street, just before we come to Fifth Avenue we see, at 18 West 11th, a handsome townhouse whose jutting bay window seems out of place in this neighborhood of Greek Revival row houses. And no wonder: it's a replacement of a nineteenth-century townhouse demolished in 1970 when a bomb factory of the radical Weather Underground exploded, destroying the entire residence and shattering the genteel calm of the West Village. It took nine days to sift through the rubble to find body parts and determine how many had died there: three, though two others, one the daughter of the house, had been upstairs at the time of the explosion and managed to escape. My thought at the time: little children shouldn't play with bombs. A simplification, perhaps, but I thought the explosion was justified, in a sense, though it was rough on the neighbors, not to mention the absent parents, who had no idea what their little girl was up to in the basement. And where were the bombs to be used? At a dance for noncommissioned officers that evening at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to bring the horrors of the Vietnam War home to the dancers and the public, though maybe also to demolish the main library (where I used to study by the hour) of Columbia University. What they had against the library I can't imagine.
Just across the street is Sheridan Square, once an open space available for community meetings and political rallies, and used as a drilling ground and playground; only since 1982 has it been a garden. Dominating it is a statue of Phil Sheridan, the Northern cavalry hero of the Civil War, first erected in 1936. Now, quite within his gaze, are four life-size statues, a man with a man, and a woman with a woman, each couple showing signs of affection. What the stern-faced general thinks of all this is hard to say.
When I first came to New York in the 1950s, I heard that there were renters who would give anything to have an address on Gay Street. Gay Street is a street just one block long between Christopher and Waverley Place, one of those charming little side streets so common in the Village. I always thought it was named for John Gay, one of the Founding Fathers, but now I learn that it takes its name from an early landowner. Why this address should be so coveted, I can't imagine.
|Beyond My Ken|
Preceding the Greek Revival style was the Federal style row house, with roofs sloping toward the street and adorned with dormer windows, as seen in these King Street residences from the 1820s. They are fewer in the Village, where Greek Revival tends to dominate, but you will see them here and there. And brownstones? They came in in the 1850s and 1860s, and are found mostly farther uptown.
|Beyond My Ken|
|Beyond My Ken|
When strolling through the Village, one should always be on the lookout for little side courts off the main streets that one could easily walk past without even noticing them Here, for example, seen through the grilled gate of the entrance, is Milligan Place, a private court off Sixth Avenue between West 10th and West 11th Streets. Four three-story brick houses built in 1855 open onto it. I've often walked past it, sometimes forget to have a look.
Earlier I mentioned the Greek Revival row houses facing Washington Square Park. That park too has quite a history. Once farmland, it was bought by the city in 1797 for a potter's field. When yellow fever epidemics plagued the city in the early nineteenth century, victims were buried here, well removed from the settled part of Manhattan. When the cemetery was closed in 1825, some twenty thousand bodies had been buried there; though few realize it, most are still there today. In 1826 the area became a parade ground for volunteer militia, and then, in the 1830s, a desirable residential area with handsome Greek Revival houses. Where gentility resides, can parkland fail to follow? In 1849/1850 the first park was laid out, and the first fountain installed in 1852. Even after gentility moved farther uptown, the park remained. Fifth Avenue, lined then with handsome private residences and hailed as the axis of elegance, ran northward from there, spiked at intervals by the spires of fashionable churches.
More struggles have followed, often pitting students, folksingers, drug dealers, and peaceful residents against New York's Finest, whose efforts to preserve the public peace sometimes disrupt it. Yes, drug dealers have at times been active in the park. But in a more innocent earlier era I recall one balmy Saturday evening when a police squad car drove through the sacred spaces of the park, forcing people off the paved path onto the lawn, following which the police yelled at the trespassers, "Get off the grass! Get off the grass!" Nothing had provoked this intervention; all had been peaceful. A wonderful example of how the guardians of order keep the unruly populace in order.
In 2007 the city began redesigning the park, including a realignment of the fountain with the arch. Just why such a realignment was necessary, I couldn't imagine; the lack of it didn't seem to bother anyone. More legal battles followed, but the realignment did take place, to the satisfaction of contractors and geometry freaks, if no one else. In New York City changes never come easy, nor are they always needed. So there you have it: from farmland to potter's field to parade ground to desirable residential area to treasured park defended vigorously by the local residents. Today the magnificent arch rises nobly above the graves of forgotten thousands, and the fountain bubbles joyously.
Finally, to end on a wild, weird note, let's have a glance at the Village Halloween Parade. Initiated in 1974, it used to come down Bleecker Street right under our windows; Bob and I often watched from our fire escape, but to get the full blast of it, you need to watch at ground level. Alas, in time it became too big for narrow Village streets, so in 1985 it was moved over to Sixth Avenue. We haven't watched it since then, because it is no longer "our" parade, but it surely reaches more people now. From the earlier parades I have vivid memories of costumes and masks galore, and more specifically, stilt walkers perilously poised on their stilts, a file of mustached nuns, and a samba band whose blaring rhythms made your blood and brain pulse.
Thought for the day: Energy is eternal delight. (Not my creation, though I don't recall where I encountered it. Still, I've often pondered it.)
(c) 2012 Clifford Browder