Seeking New York: The Stories Behind Historic Architecture of Manhattan

    Tom Miller dives into the history of select buildings in Manhattan, starting with Water Street. It’s no surprise that the area was horrible in the 1800’s, because few in the city called waterfront living “upscale” until recently. What is surprising, however, is that the area was once prosperous, and 273 Water Street was once a very upscale home. The brick building was owned by the Rose family – fine lumber importers – but was later bought by a criminal who used the first floor for dog fights, then rat-versus-dog fights, then rat-versus-rat fights, hence the building’s nickname “the rat pit.”

Miller brings forth long-forgotten firsthand accounts of the city, including well-known, yet rarely-read texts from the 19th century. One house on his list, which I often wondered about, is 139 Green Street in Soho. It’s a small brick house, out of place among the Soho lofts, and has been boarded up for as long as I can remember. According to the author’s research, it belonged to a clothing merchant until the 1860’s (when the area got lousy) then became a brothel, and then became home to one of the many textile businesses in the area. It was also home to the French immigrants (never hear much about those) and unlike the other buildings, it was not industrial and didn’t become an artist colony. Thanks to a city preservation order, it can’t be torn down, and thanks to all the gutting done in the 1900’s there’s nothing inside. Fixing it up would be unprofitable.

I don’t want to give too much away, because this is a very entertaining book. The author is a great writer, and he does extensive research. This book would be great material for a walking tour.


My Soul Looks Back

The author, a longtime professor at Queens College, lived in the West Village in the 1970’s. There were dinner parties with Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, restaurants that are now forgotten, and a circle of writers and intellectuals, many of whom I’d never heard of. She often mentions a husband-wife team of restauranteurs, both of whom are dead now and forgotten. Then there’s Maya Angelou, a central character in this book, described as being very tall with a commanding presence, though she was also extremely egocentric and seemed to live in her own world. Trips to Europe were commonplace in the author’s life, but she left the West Village in the 1980’s and remained in Brooklyn afterwards.

She begins with her childhood, which was unusual in that it was somewhat “international.” Her parents were involved with the UN, and they sent her to a school that was geographically diverse, where she felt out of place. Not from color, but because she was American! In a class of kids who spoke multiple languages, ate exotic foods, spent summers in Europe and Asia, all she had to offer was her banal American life. Her family eventually spent a summer in Martha’s Vinyard and took a boat trip to Europe, and though she doesn’t say much about it, I wonder how the locals of the time took to having a Black family in their midst. It would be great material for a book.

Interspersed throughout the book are recipes she picked up along the way, and lots of European ones because she’s an obvious Francophile. She mentions a 1970’s PBS show called Soul (also unknown to me) which was hosted by and featured notable Black Americans. Then there was the Upper West Side, home at the time to a sizeable number of Black intellectuals, plus Harry Belafonte, Morgan Freeman (before he got famous) and Marcia Ann Gillespie, living in luxurious apartments like Park West Village, and they all hung out at the Only Child restaurant at 226 West 79th.  There were other restaurants, like The Cellar, Under the Stairs, and Mikell’s, for Black professionals, and they weren’t soul food joints. On the contrary, these were Black Americans with money, and they wanted fancy European menus.

Most of the people she mentions are the ones I’d never heard of. Restauranteurs Mary Painter and George Garin have been dead for years and the restaurant gone too. By the 1980’s, AIDS was killing off a lot of these people, which may be one of the reasons she moved to Brooklyn. I wonder if she missed it? Was there another great circle of luminaries for her to hang out with? It might make a good sequel to this book. I also learn here that Maya Angelou, aside from her eccentricity and strange taste in men, was allergic to fish.

Lots of discussion about food, but a little too much nostalgia.

Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas

There’s a scene in this book where the teenage Piri, with his lowlife friends, visit an apartment full of transvestites. They smoke pot, engage in oral and anal sex (described with uncompromising and vulgar frankness) and lay down some beatings. Now keep in mind three things about this book; first, it takes place in the 1940’s, secondly, the protagonist is just a kid, and third, it’s on the reading list for some high schools.  I bet that had this book been released at the time it takes place, it would not only have been banned in every library, but also consigned to fuel the building furnace. I wonder if it’s assigned to Black high schoolers today because some educators thing the boys can relate to it? Maybe so, I can imagine they’d relate to it more than The Glass Menagerie.

Let’s go into the author’s family life. Born in NYC in 1928, he and his family were part of Harlem’s tiny Spanish-speaking community. Race forms a nasty undercurrent in the story, and not just in terms of segregation, but his family life as well. He’s a dark-skinned boy, and his darkness is something of an embarrassment to his family. Growing up, he fits in with the other Puerto Rican kids, but they can get things he can’t. Then his family moves to Long Island to work in the wartime industries, and things get worse. His father intends to leave their old life behind, but for dark-skinned Piri, racial hostility replaces the roughness of the streets. No more Puerto Rican for him, he’s now a Black kid, and treated like one by his classmates. He retreats back to his old neighborhood, settles in with the lowlifes as his new family, slides further down into vice and crime, and ends up doing time for shooting a cop.

    In contrast to the Langston Hughes Harlem, I consider this a book about the sleazy underbelly of the community. The young Piri Thomas lives in a world of drugs, pimps, hookers, trannies, loose women, poverty, crime, and all the things that Neil Jordan, Larry Clark, and Harmony Korine would put in their movies. Much of the book takes place on the fringes of society, a place where the people never see the best part of the city, and the people in the better parts never see this neighborhood. There’s no “discovery” scene like in Go Tell It On the Mountain, where the narrator visits a museum and sees that there’s more to the city than his own sphere. Both Piri Thomas and James Baldwin put their stories in Harlem, and they were born around the same time, but there is a difference between the two. Baldwin’s characters climb out of their consigned world by working their way out, while in Piri’s case, he stays there because it’s a comfort zone. There’s also a sense of nihilism, in that Piri actively looks for trouble, almost with a suicidal attitude. Lastly, in Go Tell It on the Mountain, the narrator is trying to break from under his parents’ hypocrisy, while Piri Thomas sees no hypocrisy at all; his father’s abusive behavior is obvious, and the boy has no illusions about it.

Throughout the book, I kept wondering if things were really that bad in 1940’s Harlem. Bill Cosby (before he was outed as a creep) once said “in the old days you couldn’t play hooky from school, because behind every drawn curtain, there was an eye.” While reading Down These Mean Streets, I got the feeling that either Piri’s neighborhood had no such eye, or his parents didn’t care. I wonder if the cult of “the good old days” doesn’t apply, because dysfunctional families had no support and no hope?

Detective: The Story of an Unfortunate Cop Who Let the System Wear Her Down

    I’m making a nasty joke here, folks. The actual title of this book is Detective: The Story of a Trail-Blazing Cop Who Wouldn’t Quit. But I have a whole lot of issues with this book, not the least of which is the incredible bias of the author, followed by her self-indulgence. While her story is an interesting one, and covers many important issues of the NYPD, I found that her incredible bitterness ruins it.

Kathy Burke became a New York City cop in the late 1960’s. It was right at the time where the women officers were going from the job of matron, who booked and searched women suspects, to doing real police work. According to Burke, there were a sizeable number of women detectives in the department, and the main reason is that the women were needed as bait. She ends up masquerading as a college student, drug user, high school kid, and other characters in order to catch drug dealers. The problem is that the men who were supposed to be watching her goofed off, and she get stabbed. Several lessons were learned that day; first, the women were disregarded, and second, the worst thing you can do is let your colleagues get in trouble. But that incident had one advantage – it got her a detective’s shield!

Ironically, Burke was facing far more dangerous work than any of the male detectives. She didn’t have any advantage of size, wasn’t a skilled fighter, and was in the type of undercover work that could get her killed. In her 20 years in the NYPD she dealt with dealers, bank robbers (including a six-foot-ten that she collared twice) and others. Unfortunately, she dealt with a lot of sexual harassment from her supervisor, and that led to her suing the NYPD over withheld promotions. She won the lawsuit, and soon afterwards the NYPD stopped using the terms patrolman and policewoman, opting instead to call them all police officers regardless of gender.

My problem with her story is that she has annoying prejudices against the people she’s dealing with. In the earlier part of her career, she went undercover to bust a lot of teenage drug dealers, usually going into the schools, taking advantage of her youthful appearance. A lot of the teens she found dealing were from well-connected families; one of them was the daughter of a district attorney. But then she starts saying that she despised these teenage dealers, and it’s clear that she still does. I would like to know why she despises the kids, not the parents who let them do it? She also writes about how the patrolmen who arrested her would make lewd remarks about her in the car. Why doesn’t she despise those men more than the teenage pot dealer?

The ending of this book takes the cake. She and her colleague get shot while doing surveillance of a Mafia gambling operation; he dies, she gets blames by everyone for her his death, and the mob gunmen who did it are acquitted. Everyone (including the prosecutor) makes her out to be a pushy woman getting above herself, and she leaves in a big huff. The problem with this is that there are too many unanswered questions. Firstly, a cop doesn’t normally get the blame for another’s death if she too gets shot, so why was everyone so quick to blame her? Secondly, she says that she was harassed by cops who wanted her to drop the charges against the men who shot her, and that doesn’t make sense. Lastly, when I looked up this story online (including the book’s reviews) I found so many cops who disputed her version of the story. They all say she fled in the car and left the other cop to die. If they are in fact wrong, what incentive do they have to say those things? One of them suggested that her husband, a high-ranking NYPD captain, helped cover things up. Someone here is not being truthful, but who?

I don’t know how to categorize this book. Should I call it a woman’s memoir of the NYPD? The change in the NYPD’s attitude to women officers? A book about sexual harassment? I hope things have changed in the department, at least in comparison to what she went through. Other than that, there isn’t really much to learn from this book. There’s another autobiography by a former decoy detective named Mary Glatzle, AKA “Muggable Mary,” with similar stories of working undercover, yet the latter was a lot more enjoyable. Also, Detective Glatzle doesn’t have the huge prejudices that Burke has of her days in the department.

Life At The Dakota

    First published in 1979, this book begins with a caution that New York locations are often expendable. New Yorkers are accustomed to losing their favorite restaurant overnight, yet the Dakota has outlasted all other residences, and businesses (with the exception maybe of Fraunce’s Tavern.) Built by Morris Hunt in the 1880’s, at a time when the patricians built their mansions along 5th Avenue, the Dakota was an apartment house in the guise of a mansion. The management took care of housekeeping for the common areas, and it was fireproofed with stone-block partitions (though in my experience as a construction worker, the stone may actually have been plaster.) The building lasted through changes in styles, from Gilded Age, to Beaux-Arts, Modern, and changes in the neighborhood.

In the 1930’s, William H. Pratt moved in, to the chagrin of many. It wasn’t the fact that he was an Englishman that bothered the residents, nor that he had upper-class English airs. The reason behind the neighbors’ disgust was that Mr. Pratt was an actor. There was no way those old-money snobs would accept a parvenu like William Pratt, who went by the stage name Boris Karloff! Actors had always been seen as low-class, whether they had the money to live in the Dakota or not. Then came John Lennon, the rabble-rousing, attention-seeking, publicly-weird Englishman whose US residency was precarious. Nobody wanted him or Yoko Ono in their building, but they kept to themselves, never making a sound or having any visitors. Frederick Weinstein, the documentary filmmaker, moved in too, and found that plaster dust from a lower-floor renovation was coming up his fireplace.

It’s interesting to read about the dynamic changes to the area and the residents, but after a while it loses relevance. The Dakota is popular with wealthy intellectuals and performing artists, yet it’s still just a place for the wealthy. Nobody lives there unless they have a lot of money, which most New Yorkers do not. I suspect that may be the reason it was out of print for so long.

The Truth About New York

    Amir Said starts with basic info about the five boroughs; how Manhattan is an island with a grid, how Robert Moses plowed through the Bronx, how Staten Island is a mob residence, how Brooklyn is getting more love than ever before, etc. Some things in here I don’t believe, like the part about NYC being the place for jobs. Illegal immigrants take a lot of the jobs in restaurants and construction, and most of the tech jobs are done by unpaid interns. Obesity is not a major problem here, because everyone has to be on their feet.

He does give some humorous pages to renting an apartment in the city, with all the down-and-dirty about rent control and how the landlords try to scare away tenants. He advises the renter to discard the dream of a spacious apartment, and avoid any place with a commute of more than 45 minutes into Manhattan. Stay close to a good public library (decent people in the area) and avoid police stations (they’re placed in high-crime areas.) The subways are how people get around, but they are unreliable, filthy, overcrowded, and prone to delays.

The book goes on to cover dating, food and dining, nightlife, culture, education, and religion. Sometimes the writing goes too far, some parts are too long, each chapter could be its own book. Some parts, like the one on schools, would be better if they included interviews with parents, maybe have a part about schools where the White kids are a minority.

Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family

    In a 2010 article, Dr. Haynes recalls finding the portrait of a long-dead ancestor in his parents’ attic. He was a respected Black leader, and the portrait was part of a series for the White House, somehow lost from the others and consigned to storage. Why was the portrait forgotten, he wondered, and why did his parents leave it in the attic for so long? Throughout the book, the author studies the same issue regarding his parents; why did this respectable family fall into reclusiveness, and why did they stay in Harlem?

Bruce Haynes (born 1960) comes from an unusual social class, the Black Harlem gentry. He, his parents, and his two older brothers lived in a stately Harlem townhouse, which alternated from being subdivided into apartments to returning to its one-family state. Though his parents considered themselves the cream-of-the-crop, they let their home fall into ruin. He describes the house, with beautiful woodwork and period décor, as being a dump that rivals the Collier Brothers. Garbage piles up, they never throw anything away, the roof leaks, and eventually his parents physically separate while living under the same roof. From childhood to age 18, he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed being home. Neither do his two brothers.

In some ways it’s a story about people who straddle two worlds. Haynes mother was a social worker with an office in the World Trade Center, fashionably dressed, held court at downtown restaurants, but she didn’t have these friends over to her home. It’s not clear if it’s because their house was in a state, or if they let the house become a hovel because they couldn’t have visitors. Harlem, by the time Haynes was ten years old, had become unsafe, and he says that when he was growing up no white kid could walk in those streets. His older brothers, born 1950 and 1953, also suffered from street crime. I doubt that any White person visited their Black friends in Harlem by the late 1960’s.

Haynes’ pretty much loses his brother over the years. One of them gets killed at work, and the police make little effort to find the killer. His oldest brother joins the Nation of Islam, suffers when they break up after Elijah Muhammed’s death, and then come the drugs and the mental breakdowns. The saddest thing is that Haynes learns about his brother’s murder while sleeping over at a friend’s house, and says he’d rather stay there than head home. He clearly felt more comfortable with the White kids at the private schools he attended than in his own home and neighborhood.

This book paints a really weird portrait of the Harlem that the author knew as a boy. There is a funny part to this story, in the way that gay men were accepted there. He recounts a transvestite who ran a newsstand, and the hair salons were run by men with effeminate mannerisms. He theorizes that with so few decent men in the community, nobody cared if a guy was a sissy, so long as he pulled his weight. In the 1980’s these men started dying off thanks to a little-understood disease.

I wonder if Down the Up Staircase is a study on downward mobility? This was a family with well-educated parents, refined and elegant, whose world always seems to crumble around them. The author says that his father, a parole officer, could have done a lot more with his career, and hints that the man was a bit of an underachiever. His oldest brother slides down into an abyss of drugs and the wrong crowd, further and further away from his parents’ values, never climbing back up. Then his next oldest brother graduates high school, marries his teacher (?!?) and goes to work in a bicycle store, where he gets killed. By the mid 1990’s, the elegant townhouse is in a terrible state of repair, and it’s a wonder it didn’t get condemned. Thankfully, he took his teachers’ advice, to find a rural college that would give him a full scholarship, and leave the city.

The house was sold in the 1990’s, and at this time it’s probably occupied by a White family and would sell for a million dollars. The old Harlem elite is gone, and Dr. Haynes admits that there’s no way he could afford to live in Harlem today.