Ghostly Survivals: Michael Kimmelman and Lucy Sante on a Shapeshifting City
In March 2020, as New York and the rest of the world scrambled to make sense of an emerging pandemic, I felt fortunate and grateful that my situation was not, suddenly, as dire as that of so many millions of others. I still had my day job, as architecture critic for the New York Times, although I clearly couldn’t do it as I had before. My work would need to be reimagined.
The “Covid” pause laid bare a city whose layers and nuances were typically obscured by the maelstrom of daily routines. The pandemic opened a window through which to see New York, if only briefly, in a new light. Like all crises, it presented an opportunity. So I composed a series of walks, which have now turned into my new book, The Intimate City: Walking New York (Penguin Press, publication date November 29, 2022).
I was on the lookout for stories that gave some sense of the breadth and history of the city and that I thought seasoned, savvy observers of New York City might find surprising—tidbits of history, law, technology, or gossip I hadn’t heard myself, or that revealed something about the people who were telling the stories. My companions were a generous bunch, reflecting a panorama of backgrounds and expertise: architects, landscape architects, urban planners, an ecologist and naturalist, a lawyer, a community organizer and cartographer, various writers, some New York natives, a relative newcomer.
I had the pleasure of walking the East Village with my friend, the writer and artist Lucy Sante, who for years lived and worked in the neighborhood she still prefers to call the Lower East Side. Like so many of my walks, ours could have gone on much longer. Fortunately, Lucy and I recently had a chance to talk further about forgotten relics, harbingers of the city’s future, and why New York remains a topic of magnetic, infinite fascination.
Lucy Sante: Okay, Michael. Here’s something I’ve long wondered about: the old trade districts. There are a few survivals: the Flower Market, the Garment District, but there were once hundreds (I’ve never seen a list) going back in some cases to the colonial era, and dozens were still active during my time in NYC—even the former horse market around 26th and Lex still had a couple of tack shops into the 1980s. Can you think of any that might be overlooked? Were they actually mandated, or just informal designations? If the former, were those mandates formally repealed?
Michael Kimmelman: Great question. I don’t believe those districts were ever mandated. They emerged from a combo of real estate interests and the desire of business owners in the same industries to achieve a kind of critical mass of stores that would attract more consumers. Andrew Dolkart, the Columbia historian, with whom I walked around Greenwich Village and Museum Mile, tells me there even used to be a philately district near Park Row and Nassau Street. Millinery was 35th to 39th Streets between Fifth and Sixth during the interwar years, after garments moved west. Fur was apparently around where FIT is now, on Seventh Avenue. And cotton textiles were on Worth Street during the 19th century.
The disappearance of these districts was clearly one of those existential shifts in city life, replacing one New York with another. You can go back to the 1960s and 70s when the original Twin Towers replaced the radio district in Lower Manhattan where New Yorkers went to buy parts for their old radios. A newly homogeneous, corporate vision of urban renewal became the supposed antidote for the city’s economic woes at that time, which stemmed in part from the decline of these districted industries.The disappearance of these districts was clearly one of those existential shifts in city life, replacing one New York with another.
At the same time, there are vestigial remnants of the old districts, almost like civic pentimenti. On the walk I took around Carnegie Hall with Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, the two of them pointed out remnants of the old carriage trade that used to occupy 57th and 58th Streets, which evolved into automobile showrooms a century ago and produced the GM building on 5th Avenue after the war.
Now the old horse stables and showrooms for long-gone auto companies are converted into storefronts in office buildings that remain, some of them, very grand. We complain about our disposable culture but New York also has a long history of adaptive reuse. You and I have talked about the remnants of the Yiddish theaters and German and Polish institutions that now haunt the East Village, where you lived during a very different moment—reminders of lost districts and identities.
LS: Yes, many theaters are still there, in much altered form, and the B&H Dairy is a living survivor of the Jewish Rialto. The German population scattered after many of its women and children perished in the General Slocum disaster in 1908, but there remain many façades: the Ottendorfer Library and the Stuyvesant Polyclinic next door, for example. While I was living down there, lower Avenue A was enjoying its last years as the children’s furniture district; many signs have been repurposed by newer businesses.
Also consider, for example, that McSorley’s, the city’s oldest bar, was founded when Seventh Street was a mews for the wealthy residences on Saint Mark’s Place—Irish immigrants curried the horses and drove the coaches. (The streets near Washington Square are filled with mews, which are now very desirable for residences, but just ask any ten random pedestrians to define “mews.”)
Another ghostly trail down there follows the layout of Peter Stuyvesant’s farm. Stuyvesant Street is the leading indicator, but if you look at maps or aerial photos you’ll see other bits—courtyards, inner structures—that are oriented along the same E/W line, off the 1811 grid. And speaking of ghostly survivals (forgive me, I’ve been poking around for a question), what do you think of the fact that flooding after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 followed almost exactly the old shoreline, before landfill, of the East River? Do you think this new wall, for which they had to destroy East River Park and its many trees, will hold up for long?
MK: Those ghostly traces continue running straight through the West Village, where Christopher Street, the oldest street in the neighborhood, tracks the border of what had once been British Admiral Peter Warren’s Colonial-era estate. I was reminded, in the chapter I wrote on Greenwich Village, again walking around with Dolkart and talking about LGBTQ history, that the warren of irregular streets crisscrossing Christopher (also former cowpaths and property lines) helped protesters elude police after the raid on the Stonewall Inn. The tactical group authorities dispatched to subdue the crowd were unfamiliar with the neighborhood and its spaghetti entanglement of streets.
Along these lines, the big rectilinear avenues, Sixth and Seventh, only arrived with the subways a century or so ago, slicing through that labyrinth and leaving all sorts of irregular triangles and other leftover spaces. I grew up in the Village on Sixth, at one of those triangles. After Stonewall, a number of these sites turned into lesbian bars like Crazy Nanny’s, which welcomed trans women and boasted a multiracial staff and also did fundraisers during the AIDS epidemic that helped bring lesbian and gay communities together. Really transformative places. Another kind of adaptive reuse.What an incredible message nature sent by flooding all of the landfill along the shoreline in Lower Manhattan and, briefly, restoring the original, natural order of things.
But about Superstorm Sandy and your question: yes, what an incredible message nature sent by flooding all of the landfill along the shoreline in Lower Manhattan and, briefly, restoring the original, natural order of things. It was a potent reminder that, no matter how arrogant and powerful we may be, Nature gets the last word. It will also get the last word along the East River, I assume, where that new, raised park officials are constructing as a seawall to replace the old, beloved, bedraggled Robert Moses landfill park—which flooded during Sandy—is supposed to mitigate the impacts of future Sandys for a few decades. But not forever.
And of course, it isn’t designed to hold back storms much worse than Sandy. Like all big infrastructure projects these days, it is the compromised result of a long, bitter process, and far from perfect. We’ll have to wait and see whether it’s good enough for the time being. Nothing is permanent, especially in a city like New York. And look, in many cases that turns out to be a virtue. The new park may turn out to be better than the old one, with more resilient trees and more benefits especially for residents of the public housing projects along the river that flooded during Sandy because the park didn’t act as a barrier.
Increasingly I have come to understand the incredible significance of open space in the city, as an escape from our cramped apartments but also as the stage for enacting our fragile democracy, where we have to work out our shared lives and can also gain the benefits of living in a cosmopolis. During the 1950s we gave away nearly a quarter of this real estate to curbside parking of private cars. Overnight parking wasn’t allowed before then because it was considered a private takeover of public land. Then, pretty soon, car owners came to assume parking was a basic and eternal right and that curbside spaces were as essential to city life as sidewalks and subways.
Every attempt by the city to remove even a single parking space, to make way for a bus lane for example, would provoke an uproar from community groups as prolonged and bitter as the Battle of the Somme. I was struck, with Covid, that, from one day to the next, we were able to get rid of thousands of these parking spaces, replacing them with outdoor dining sheds—streeteries—because the hospitality industry was in freefall. This naturally enraged car owners, but it also activated all sorts of streets that Covid had left for dead, and reminded us that the city is, in fact, a malleable, evolving organism—that, for all its stone, bricks and steel, it can morph overnight if its citizens exercise their collective will.
I’m curious what you think of the streeteries and the way streets have changed as a result of them. Obviously they’re a mixed bag, and not the first time New Yorkers have eaten outdoors. I recall that when we did our walk through the East Village, you described eating Beefaroni in the middle of the night outside a bar on St. Marks during the 1970s, when no one else was around and the only street light was at the corner. You said it felt like being at a clandestine bar after curfew.
LS: By the way, in 1999, the Times Op-Ed page invited me to predict what the city would be like in 2100. I naturally took the assignment in a satirical direction. I did predict the sea wall, but the city hasn’t taken me up on my suggestion that it do double duty as Manhattan’s first new cemetery in more than a century and a half.Bring back street peddlers and buskers! A city needs them for roughage and left-field inspiration.
Maybe my all-time favorite NYC movie is The Little Fugitive (1953), by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin. Among its many pleasures is seeing the streets of working-class Brooklyn almost car-free. That’s what made it possible for kids to play stickball and ringolevio. I’ve always felt that private cars should be banned from the city, at least Manhattan and Brooklyn, with exceptions made for the disabled, etc. Mandated pedestrian streets, on the other hand, have a funny way of ossifying into shopping malls–see Europe–in large part because of zoning restrictions. Bring back street peddlers and buskers! A city needs them for roughage and left-field inspiration.
I have mixed feelings about the dining sheds. There’s the rat problem, first of all, and the fact that the sheds have taken up walking space in addition to parking space. But they present such a variety. There are some (Orchard Street, e.g.) that are open and welcoming to the point of inviting a party, while others (Tribeca, passim) are like small, exclusive houses to which you the pedestrian will never be admitted, at least not without a platinum card. The obvious solution is Paris-style café terraces, but most of the city’s sidewalks are too narrow to permit them. Banning cars would solve part of that problem. There should also be a reversal of all those anti-homeless devices that made it nearly impossible to just sit outside in most parts of town.
The problem of open space has been aggravated in recent decades by the conversion of many of the formerly industrial or office-building neighborhoods to residential use. (I used to take my constitutionals not in parks but in places like the Financial District at night, when there wasn’t a human to be seen anywhere.) And although the city’s population hasn’t risen quite that much, statistically, there are just so many more people around at all times than there used to be. I remember friends coming back from their first visit to Tokyo in the mid-80s, amazed that there were crowds on the street even at night—now this is normal here. And those crowds make a lot of noise, whatever the hour. Maybe the city needs a party district—on Governors Island, say, where they could do all their yahooing for the benefit of the seagulls. (Free ferry rides! Recovery rooms! Vomitoria that feed straight into the compost churn!)
MK: For starters, let’s celebrate that the city after Covid is returning to normal. As for your grouchy suggestion, I’m sorry, I like Governors Island way too much to turn it into a party district with vomitorium. I might suggest, alternatively, such a party district at a golf course in the Bronx that is public property but now managed by a former president, who is under investigation for various business practices, among other things. The city desperately needs large plots of land on which to build more affordable and supportive housing. The golf course is 198 acres. Manhattan has an average density of 640 residents per acre, so by my count 640 x 198 means that 126,720 people could be housed on those 18 holes. It’s a suggestion I floated at a housing conference earlier this year, only half-jokingly, and I’m still hoping someone with some clout is listening.
But I digress. For me, Lucy, the more I explore farflung, diverse neighborhoods in New York, the more wondrous and infinite the city seems, especially when I am on foot and make the effort to look and watch and listen—where time slows. I haven’t lost the original love for the city that my parents instilled in me as a boy. I try to resist the current narrative of cultural decline and homogeneity, which I fear is a sign of my own aging. And I don’t give the slightest credence to Fox News and others screaming about crime on the subways and how the city is going to hell, because I remember the 1970s, which were both dangerous and magnificent, and the fact is that riding the subway is now statistically safer than driving a car. I do, however, worry about the lack of urban planning, about the influence of billionaire developers, about how hard it is to get big and meaningful things done, and I despair of a potential future when only the rich will be able to afford to live here—at which point who would want to.
Forgive this squishy question, but do you love New York as you did when you first moved to the city or has it broken your heart?
LS: Pardon my trespass regarding Governors Island, Michael. I confess I’ve never been there—a blot on my copybook, but it didn’t open to the public until I’d moved away. I was just casting about for open space and coming up short. But a public golf course in the Bronx! That would be perfection–two pigeons with one beer can.We’re quickly losing human scale, a sense of neighborhoods, the feeling that we’re all in the same boat and on the same subway car. It’s class war by other means.
I’ve been living in the Hudson River Valley since 2000, with just 2012-13 in the city on a fellowship. I hated moving out; it wasn’t my idea. But then I first started feeling alarmed by the changes around 1982. Let me specify: I wasn’t objecting to change, but to the direction of the change. We who had lived through the ‘70s and before had found a precious object in the trash, and now it had simply been snatched from us by the big people, who wanted it as their toy. They wanted a seat of wealth, surrounded exclusively by enterprises to serve that wealth. And New York gets that way more every year.
It would be hard to beat my first impression of the city: Halloween 1959, when the holiday was unknown in Europe, so that I couldn’t account for the delirium of hundreds of children in improvised costumes running unchaperoned through Herald Square. Could you imagine such a scene today? I started commuting daily to high school from New Jersey in September 1968, when the city still had some of the sparkle of the ‘60s left: a vigorous, exciting place, with ideas popping every day and visible on the street, and a remarkably open city, where almost everybody was listed in the phone book under their real names.
The city has become in many ways almost the opposite of what I cherished the city for. Yes, I can recapture some of that feeling here and there, in Chinatown or Harlem, for example–places where a majority of the population doesn’t have a “lifestyle” as defined by current advertising. But almost all the new stuff is chilly and alienating. The Moynihan Train Hall, through which I pass a lot, isn’t the worst by any means, but it falls between two stools: it fails to be inviting—although the food court isn’t awful—while coming nowhere near the grandeur of the original Penn Station. It looks like the lobby of a very large office building, which in a sense it is. Don’t get me started on the super-talls or the new WTC or the stunt architecture along the waterfront. We’re quickly losing human scale, a sense of neighborhoods, the feeling that we’re all in the same boat and on the same subway car. It’s class war by other means.
MK: I miss the old phone books! They were democratic, endless sources of wonder about the city’s multitudes, and there was something about the sheer size and weight of them that represented New York’s openness.
An “open city” is both the goal and the thing most under threat when New York becomes more exclusively wealthy, I agree—but I think I may spend more time than you these days in parts of the city that don’t look like Hudson Yards or the World Trade Center and that aren’t exclusively in Manhattan below 96th Street or in gentrified Brooklyn. In the book I walk with Monxo Lopez through Mott Haven in the South Bronx and with Suketu Mehta through Jackson Heights in Queens, as well as through Chinatown with Nancy Yao Maasbach and Harlem with David Adjaye. These remain open, vibrant, diverse, resilient, human-scale neighborhoods. If anything, they’re the real story of New York now.
The Intimate City: Walking New York by Michael Kimmelman is available from Penguin Press