Monday, December 31, 2007

Work in progress

On first impression, it's easy to dismiss dumpsters, dripping scaffolds, and permanent construction sites as blots on the urban landscape. If you want to make that argument, a year on Crosby Street will give you plenty of ammunition.

The scaffolding on my walk from the subway has been there since before I arrived, and it will remain after I leave. It's not a very distinguished edifice - spouting water at irregular intervals, while one corner smells like old urine, regardless of season or weather.

Down the block, a fenced-off lot warns of explosions. In a year, trucks move in and out every day, offering glimpses inside. Bulldozers move earth, but nothing digs, nothing rises, and nothing explodes. No signs promise new development, and the blast warnings are covered over with graffiti.

Above, workmen scale a mountain of debris to pile more on top. The basement needed cleaning, or the street needed repaving. It's enough work to make the dumpster an institution, right next to the Vespas.

As the offenses pile up, they start to offend less. They offer a rebuke to the corporate metropolis. Efficiency surrounds us, with a fifty-story building delivered just as surely as the mail. By simply languishing, permanent scaffolds brush aside the bottom line. Maybe it's just corrupt contracting, but it isn't Citibank. All the king's men will not make these men blast.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

What goes here?

A little snow here, a little smoke over there. At Crosby and Prince, it finally feels like winter. It matches those nice silver lights on the Savoy restaurant. Nice building, too - an unassuming stalwart, as ordinary as any 19th century remnant in the city. And just three stories tall.

I'm still surprised to see such big chunks of sky over a major shopping and dining intersection. Our friend here survived years of civic indifference, but will she survive the condo and bank branch boom?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bound up

I snapped this photo on Monday evening at the intersection of Crosby and Grand Street. Even on a rainy night, when you pull yourself into your umbrella, these blocks feel wide. Long buildings anchor ample sidewalks which slope unevenly to the street, faking spaciousness.

In Greenwich Village, streets of the same size inspire intimacy, with trees and narrow townhouses, and trash cans crowding the sidewalks. Even in the midtown canyons, it can be easy to forget about the giants that tower overhead. Restaurants, delis, and glass lobbies reach out to the pedestrian.

On Crosby Street, nothing reaches out to you. If you want to find the lone bar on this block, you have to look hard. Back entrances shrug, as do the smoke-break employees. There are no skyscrapers, but the standoffish architecture wasn't built for pedestrians. The mottled pavement and absence of landscaping boil the city down to it's basic elements - humans surrounded on all sides by human creations.

Today, a film crew huddled on the same sidewalk seen above. On camera, a shabbily-dressed woman picked around some garbage cans. In the background, a truck idled in the middle of the sidewalk. In the Village, the same scene might come across as ironic; all of these lovely townhouses, and this woman stands out in the cold. Here, though, the street imparts no irony. It's the perfect place for an abandoned person.

Maybe that's what draws so many film crews to Crosby Street - and to SoHo in general. You might go elsewhere in search of human scale, but here it's just an intractable chunk of city.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On the cobblestone trail

Now that we know where the manhole covers come from, I'd better find out about those cobblestones.

Just around the corner!

Things just around the corner:

- prosperity
- tacos
- furniture store
- the front of this building
- subway trains
- fedex
- future
- comfort

Thursday, November 15, 2007

November night

Tonight, zombies invaded from Prince Street (Crosby Street does not breed aggressors). They were invisible and caused minimal despair.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Not-so-late breaking quiet

Crosby Street has a dual identity, with residential and office space side-by-side. Of course, this is nothing new in New York; the same mixture exists all over Manhattan, feeding the city-that-never-sleeps cliché. Nighttime bustle reanimates the sidewalks as the workday dies away.

Crosby runs against that grain. Usually, it is serene after most of the workers go home. The residents flood their lofts and stay there, or they go elsewhere. No stoop sitting here, just the occasional fire escape cigarette. The effect is more peaceful than derelict - perhaps more from the pricey real estate than from the amiable surroundings.

Now, daylight savings stops and the temps drop and everything gets earlier faster. Maybe in summertime the street life will linger until 9 or 10. These days, the sidewalk folds up by 8, and one has to wait five minutes just to see a passing car.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The name

Crosby Street is named for William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865). He never played at Woodstock.

Here's his story:

Crosby's English ancestors belonged to "the best class of land-owning yeomanry," and had substantial property holdings as far back as the 15th century. They lived in York County, where Simon Crosby first heard of the Puritan settlements in New England.

In May, 1635, Simon boarded the Susan and Ellyn and departed England with his wife and infant son. Three months later, they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other relatives soon followed. The Crosby family remained in Massachusetts for several generations, attaining prominence as clergy, judges, and landowners.

In 1777, Ebenezer Crosby graduated from Harvard College and served as a surgeon to George Washington's guards in the Revolutionary War. After the war, he married Catherine Bedlow of New York City, a descendant of Dutch settlers, and they lived in Manhattan. Ebenezer and Catherine had three children together, but Ebenezer fell ill in 1787 and died the next year at age thirty-four. Catherine died seven months after her husband, at thirty.

Orphaned at age two, William Bedlow Crosby went to live with Colonel Henry Rutgers, his mother's uncle and a prominent New York landowner. When Rutgers died in 1830, William inherited the entire Seventh Ward of Lower Manhattan - all the land from Division Street (now East Broadway) to the East River, between Catherine Street and Grand Street.

Crosby married Harriet Clarkson of Philadelphia in 1807, and they had twelve children together. Their eleventh son, Howard, was a noted clergyman and president of New York University.

More has been written about Ebenezer and Howard than about William, but contemporary biographies indicate that he devoted much time to charity - notably the Bible Society, the Seaman's Friend Society, and the Reformed Dutch church. Additionally, though the Seventh Ward was a notorious slum, William performed good deeds around the neighborhood.

Crosby Street lies about a mile northwest of the old Seventh Ward, and William Crosby never owned the land which bears his name. In 1882, seventeen years after Crosby's death, his former pastor remembered him this way...

In the middle aisle, every Sabbath (storm or shine), sat William B. Crosby, lord of the manor, and heir of his uncle, Col. Rutgers. He had the stately figure and the air of an English duke; but those of us that knew him best knew well that a more genial, humble, devout, and benevolent heart could not be found in a Sabbath day's journey... [He] kept unspotted from the world.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Faded things are usually authentic things. You have your faded jeans, muted sweatshirts, desaturated films set before 1950, scratches on an old record, or a cracked old photograph - washed with dust and blurred at the edges. When the color goes, it's easy to know that it's old.

But look up there at that brilliant red. Actually, look down the block and see the succession of brilliant colors, all rich reds, occasionally a deep black. Underneath, these are former sweatshops, little apartments that housed hundreds of lives, factories packed with people whose grim photographic poses formed our impression of the past.

In the bustling days before million dollar apartments in Soho, the colors must have been just as bright. Maybe they faded when the shops closed and the money dried up, but the new cash flow keeps things bright and brilliant. It's a little precious right here, but no more vivid than those photos before they faded.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Consider the cobblestone

These are just guys digging up the street. They didn't have to ask permission, they probably would rather do something else, but it's their job. It's harder on Crosby Street, for the reason depicted above. This is a Historic District, so you can't just fix the water main and pave the street. They have to take out those cobblestones, one by one, fix the water main, and then put them back, one by one. More a puzzle than a street.

A week goes by, and they're still at it. A week is a lot of time to think, and I got to thinking:

I want to know the origin of those stones. Also, the age. Do they just date back to the 70's when SoHo became Historic? How old are these stones? Does the city care if the stones are old or new?

If I find out, maybe I'll learn something about the character of the neighborhood, or the character grafted onto it by committees and commissions. Functional or pretty? Well, okay, probably both.

I'm looking for an expert to tell me some facts.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Not any sidewalk

Stand next to the old chair factory. Take a look around and then look down. It's all solid matter, but this matter doesn't have matter underneath it. The matter is a sidewalk, and it's metal, and it's hollow. You're standing there, but there's an abyss below.

What is down there? Utility basement? Vice President? Real estate agents?

Don't be too heavy, and don't jump too hard, and don't be a truck and drive here. Don't do it, it's a hollow sidewalk.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


"Hey yeah! Get this on film! Look at New York's finest!"

That's what the guy shouted at me. But hey! That guy's right! Never mind that my camera doesn't pack film, and there wasn't much the cops could do. There's a bus stuck in that intersection, right there at Crosby Street and Grand! C'mon coppers, fix it!

You know what's coming. Grand will back up all the way down the west side. Then no one can move downtown on Broadway. No one can move uptown on Sixth, either. But that isn't all, man. Everything's gonna stop dead in midtown. That lady's gonna have her baby in the taxicab! My kid gets nervous in traffic, he throws up.

Hey, you, with the pencil. You look like an accountant. How much is this gonna cost the Economy? What, like $4 million for every minute this sunnuvabitch doesn't move this bus?

Spiraling up, with horns honking. The motion of commerce suddenly threatened. All this because they had to block off Grand Street and send the traffic up Crosby. But Crosby couldn't handle that big bus, not with a row of cars parked on both sides. So it lodged there, and city's having a heart attack.

Now the driver isn't even in the bus. What the fuck!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

One by one

I like to walk on this street (a fact which, by now, is probably obvious). It's not like Crosby doesn't have competition - one of the most mythic promenades in the world is just a block away. But then again, walkers on Crosby Street contend with neither the rumble of the subway train nor the rattle of the taxis.

Here it's a different assault on the senses. Vehicles double park, a three-legged dog eyes me, that skirt is short, fresh strawberries are $1, this one guy would like to kill that other guy - believe him. You can smell pot sometimes, or read a hundred ad-bills for Spring Awakening all the time. Occasionally, it's safer to walk in the street than on the sidewalk.

Today it rained, and I didn't do much walking on Crosby Street. I missed it, because it's nice to hear the noises of the city outside of the usual din. On Crosby, the Gotham cacophony relaxes into individual events, and the walker can appreciate the city in sequence.

It isn't peaceful, it's New York peaceful.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


There are plenty of garages on Crosby Street. Plenty of gray metal doors, utilitarian facades, and back entrances. In New York, this means graffiti, and there's an abundance of it here. The bubble letters pop out of the corrugated metal gates, and blast color into the street.

It makes me think about 1983. I was just getting born in 1983, but I hear that was when the city got tired of candy-colored subway cars. Mayor Koch told the riff-raff to "Make your mark in society, not on society," and a man died after police caught him making his mark in a subway station. Now, there's no contest. Tags don't survive in the subway, and they stand less of a chance on the street, where there's too much valuable property. You have to look for it: along the elevated train routes in the boroughs, or in places like Crosby Street.

As my friend and I made our way down Crosby, we were struck by the concentration and variety of tags. Some plump and simple, others sparse and sardonic. All were suspiciously unscrubbed. We found the same arty and witty graffiti on surrounding streets. Here it's cool, and the city knows that it's a profitable image. A white, moneyed audience consumes that image and makes SoHo their shopping destination. Anywhere else in the city, the law doesn't budge.

Eventually, we came to a large white-board map of the world, where hundreds of passers-by have scrawled some hasty tags. It's inviting, and we stopped to add our initials - the ultimate safe scrawl for permission-seeking scrawlers like ourselves. In between stores, take a minute for some recreational transgression.

'Oh, wouldn't it be too much if we really sprayed some paint?' Of course, we won't.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Friday morning

Looking north.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Blogging a street

I work on Crosby Street in Manhattan. It borders several neighborhoods, but belongs to none. It is neither Chinatown, nor SoHo, nor a no-man's-land in between. The more I travel around the city, the more Crosby Street sticks out, but it has no single definition. As gentrification tempers much of Manhattan, Crosby remains eclectic.

It starts at a dead-end, untouched by the raucous commerce of Canal Street, just one block south. Then it marches straight north for five blocks before crossing Houston Street. Here, eight lanes of traffic pause every few moments to let Crosby Street go on it's way. If you're waiting in Houston traffic, you can turn north onto Crosby, but you won't find much. One block later, Crosby Street meets Bleecker Street and expires.

To the west, there's Broadway and the boutiques and galleries of SoHo. To the east of Crosby, Lafayette Street forms the border of Chinatown and Little Italy, which lie just beyond.

I'm not the only one who can't figure out where Crosby Street belongs. The Historical Commission was going along just fine until they got here. They knew that the west side of the street was definitely SoHo - a Cast Iron Historic District if they ever saw one. But the eastern half of Crosby Street must have failed the test. It received no designation.

While SoHo swells with shoppers and strollers, Crosby Street works for a living: There's a wholesale produce market, hardware stores, warehouses, delis, and loading docks for the big box stores on Broadway. At noon, white-uniformed chefs huddle for a smoke break at the back entrance to the French Culinary Institute, and delivery trucks idle on the sidewalks.

Oh, but Crosby has luxury too. You can enter Bloomingdales on Crosby Street, as well as the MOMA Design Store and Starbucks (though both use a Spring Street address). At other stores, you can outfit your home with fine lighting, excellent rugs, and incredible faucets. If you happen to be a millionaire, you can even afford to buy an apartment here.

It's easy to identify physical attributes, but the street relies on people for it's lifeblood. If each individual perceives the street in their own way, the plurality of viewpoints would seem to rule out absolute definitions. But this almost never happens. In Manhattan, Avenue A is the East Village, Columbus Avenue is the Upper West Side, Hester Street is the Lower East Side. These streets are badges for their neighborhoods, and in a city obsessed with real estate, every neighborhood is a commodity. Does this one come with artists or investment bankers? Hipsters or yuppies? Peanut butter or chocolate chips?

Crosby Street seems unaffected by that game. The street holds on to it's own character, and that's good enough for me. Here, you'll find some history, some observations, and some photos of Crosby Street as it appeared for a few months in late 2007. Welcome and enjoy.