I was of mixed parentage – Bronx on my dad’s side, Brooklyn on my mom’s. My years in the suburbs were forgettable, at least as they related to place, but my adventures in and from Manhattan remain with me and define me still. Some of my oldest memories are of looking down Central Park West at the illuminated names atop the General Motors Building near Columbus Circle. They would flash in succession: “Chevrolet – Pontiac – Buick – Oldsmobile – Cadillac – Body By Fisher.” Other early memories were those endless arch-shaped walls of broken windows along the West Side rail tracks by the Hudson and the life-sized, faux 3-D Yale Truck billboard sign on 12th Avenue and 40th Street.
My two best friends were raised in the West Village, as was Beck, who I later married. When her mom got a studio in the meat market, there were still cow heads in the dumpsters.
My two best friends were raised in the West Village, as was Beck, who I later married. When her mom got a studio in the meat market, there were still cow heads in the dumpsters.
I was a child of the 1960s and came of age in the New York City of the 1970s. It was an interesting and aberrant time in the history of the city. Most of the physical grandeur of earlier days remained, if in a state of neglect, disrepair or utter abandonment. Economic trends had rendered American city centers, if not obsolete, then halfway so. Years of “white flight” and suburban exodus had left these jewels of urban glory sitting around, camouflaged by graffiti but with their history there for the digging, if you were so inclined, and we were, we really were.
I’ve always had the notion that decades are not as simple as people imagine. Just as the 1960s really started with the killing of JFK (the very day I first learned there even were presidents, as it should happen), the 1970s really got going the day Nixon resigned. When half the city was abandoned, that seemed normal to us. As we became young men, the city was handed to us on a plate, ours for the taking, or so it seemed. So we read and we walked and we biked and climbed and we learned all about it, unaware, as only youth can be, of time.
When half the city was abandoned, that seemed normal to us.
I went to a small hippie high school on West 12th Street. It was a quick walk to the river and there was nothing really stopping us from going over there, getting high and poking around. The piers became our number-one playground. It was odd because this was at the same time and nearly the same place as a very intense, even legendary gay sex scene. We’d routinely traverse, circumnavigate or at times come face-to-face with that world to get to ours, but it really seemed like the gay guys stuck to Pier 48 and our co-ed bands of teenagers were alone in Pier 51. There were long connected buildings fronting West Street, and then the wood and steel piers, each as long as a full city block. Sometimes our route had us hugging narrow exterior ledges along the waterline, other times slipping up stairways and down halls, climbing through windows and ending up in the pier itself, maybe 150 or 200 feet wide with two tall open stories inside and a high windowed clerestory at the roof. Some of the piers had 1,000 foot long elevated exterior catwalks above the rooflines that were probably 75 feet above the river.
My first girlfriend walked balance-beam style across a steel truss, 30 or 40 feet above the pier floor below. It was impressive. You could grab a section of steel pipe and run along the roof, along the clerestory windows, which were divided into thousands of panes, smashing them as you went, or dislodging whole large sashes and dropping those down onto the floor inside. We’d spend long periods of time breaking glass until we were bored of it, then tossing toilets 40 feet down onto steel bollards to watch them spark as they exploded in white clouds of vitreous china shrapnel. We’d make long arcing javelin tosses with eight-foot florescent tubes just to watch them collapse vertically in on themselves to a single point of nothingness and dust. I shudder now to think of the mercury. We were destructive, certainly, but I think having the freedom to harmlessly let loose that much aggression probably enabled me to be a calmer person for decades to come. I think many people could use some of that tension release right about now. And I don’t suppose we ever trashed anything that wasn’t wrecked later by the larger powers of civic change, real estate avarice or simple entropic decay.
We’d make long arcing javelin tosses with eight-foot florescent tubes just to watch them collapse vertically in on themselves to a single point of nothingness and dust.
We threw rocks at swimming rats from the New York Trap Rock barges tied alongside the piers. I never knew till then how well those dirty little bastards could swim.
We learned the Hudson was called The North River, but all we saw on the waterfront were the ghosts. There were no stevedores. There were no great liners. There were a few bills of lading. Some old calendars and signs. There were fire hose nozzles, paint chips, old ropes, bits of broken glass, cracked tiles and newspapers. There was sheet metal flapping in the wind and water lapping under or splashing against the pilings.
We witnessed some epic pier fires. Once we spent a long while under the old Miller Highway, the West Side Highway, talking to the men that worked one of the massive super-pumpers. They told us about these powerful fire engines that were akin to rolling fireboats, each with it’s own hose-bearer satellite rigs, and about Scott air packs, and of the high pressure hydrant system that ran south of 34th Street. Those are the big squat hydrants with four outlet nozzles. I learned that fire engines were pumpers and fire trucks were ladder companies. The piers burned for days when they burned and, being constructed the way they were, crumpled and collapsed incrementally, caving in on themselves slowly. There was little or no masonry, so no crashing catastrophic collapses, more of a slow motion caving-in and disfigurement. Some of those melted piers up around 60th Street were left leaning and twisted for decades.
Anyway back then it was great to watch the FDNY do their thing. I was always a big fan, one of those kids who followed the sirens’ call. When a big telephone switch building on 13th Street in the East Village went up in smoke I shadowed a press photographer and went to the roof of a neighboring structure with him to get a good look. The building, stuffed thick with plastic insulation, burned for a long time, knocking out phone service for blocks around. The toxins in that plume must have been off the charts, but people talked about that less than you might think… and less than they should have. I remember posters bearing Bell Tel helmets and FDNY helmets, proud of the cooperation between the workers.
Then there was the time a friend’s place on 12th Street in the West Village went up in flames. We knocked frantically on doors getting all the old people out to the sidewalk just as the firemen were pulling up on the block. Soon after we hit the street, the very windows of the apartment we’d been sitting in minutes earlier were fully involved, flames and smoke billowing out in big raging balls. A few more minutes later hoses blasted my friend’s jewelry-making bench and all the rest of his things out onto the pavement in clouds of steam and soot. Silver rings and steaming embers were raining down in front of us.
Soon after we hit the street, the very windows of the apartment we’d been sitting in minutes earlier were fully involved, flames and smoke billowing out in big raging balls.
I had dozens of dreams set in the piers. For years I had them. Canoeing among them with ice floes. Hopping from barge to barge. Walking in high narrow places. Looking for my friends, meeting up in the dark, roaming the roofs, being lost, making discoveries.
We liked to write in wet concrete – our initials and usually something like “Bird Lives!” Our tags on the north side of 12th Street off Waverly lasted for decades. Our BEAT WESTWAY sign, painted on the corner of 30th and 11th, was there for ten years, easily.
People generally considered Central Park off limits at night, but we thought little of going there. When Toby and I still lived with our parents, across town from each other, we’d regularly meet up in the middle of the Great Lawn.
One time, when the Gansevoort Street Sanitation Pier area was still a big open dump, we found giant piles where one of the local media firms, NBC I think it was, had consigned their entire print newspaper archives. They must’ve just gone to microfilm, leaving the breadth of American history to crumble in our hands: “Pearl Harbor Attacked!” “Battle of Midway!” “Roosevelt is Dead!” No sooner would we read the headlines than have them dissolve to clouds of disintegrated paper.
Another time, near the dangling revolver shop sign by the old Lafayette Street police headquarters, where they used to have a rooftop nursery for lost children, we found a dumpster filled with punch cards, each with a few bits of text. They were early 911 calls, each describing some emergency – “possible homicide,” “man with knife,” “bus accident on 12th Avenue,” “assist ambulance crew” and to us, the best and also most enigmatic: “plate in head.”
One cold night we came upon a fire in a can in the middle of Washington Street between Vestry and Desbrosses. We joined a couple of winos staying warm there, huddled around a fifty-five gallon drum, making occasional runs to the surrounding blocks to drag back pallets for fuel. One of the guys told us he was from St. Thomas, which got Toby to whistling the Sonny Rollins tune of that name.
We joined a couple of winos staying warm there, huddled around a fifty-five gallon drum, making occasional runs to the surrounding blocks to drag back pallets for fuel.
I regularly rode the A train from 178th Street down to the West Village. Aside from the obvious and deep Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington resonance, it quite simply had the longest and fastest express run around. When that train did its highballing IND line express thing, going sixty-six blocks without stopping, it went fast. One time I had a flying dream, but I was not up in the sky, I was flying with my arms out, through the subway tunnels. It was like some visionary terrain-hugging jet fighter flight around curves and between I-beams, with that electric carbon brushes ozone motor and burning brake pad smell. Need I mention that in those days you could look out the front or back car windows on every train? I took notice of Taki 183 graffiti tags all over my daily ride. I walked the long transfer passage below 14th Street where they mothballed hundreds of old wood turnstiles, vending machines and coin-op scales. Weigh Your Fate, or Fat, depending on if anyone had defaced away that last e. And on every pay phone in the city it seemed, angular letters scratched into the stainless coin return, reading, “PRAY.”
I was very into the Museum of Contemporary Crafts when it was on 53rd Street near The Modern. It was around that time that I’d hang on the corner of 54th and be awed and puzzled by Moondog with his robes and horned helmet. One time a guy walked down the street with a Llama. Another time a quadriplegic woman beckoned me from some landing steps in the West 40s and I carried her in my arms down to the spot where she wanted to be. Bearded men in bridal gowns would roller skate by. As Jane Jacobs wrote in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” There was simply nothing that could not happen in New York City, which I realized was the City Of All Possibilities. Somehow the possibilities seem more circumscribed nowadays, more limited, the choices gone in the name of homeland security or made one-size-fits-all by the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook and their ilk. You just can’t click outside the boxes nowadays.
“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.”
~ Jane Jacobs
Our friend Marc was Ali of Soul Artists. His mom worked for the Urban Homesteaders Assistance Board and they lived in a true owner renovated coop on Columbus Avenue and 108th Street, after moving from West 87th, a block that was renowned then for it’s wildness. UHAB had offices in St. John the Divine. That connection at the cathedral got us down into the crypts and later up the stone spiral stairs to a spot high over the pulpit, just as the organ started playing. Marc was famous for getting set on fire as he tagged a train car in the 135th Street yards, and he wore the scars on his face and hands for the rest of his days. Michael and I dubbed him J. Walter Negro, a nod to his street side and also his spin skills that would have made Nixon’s ex Madison Avenue snake oil felons jealous. Marc’s cousin played with Sun Ra and when Marc formed a band, J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz, he was signed by none other than John Hammond, the legendary A&R man. They recorded a 45-rpm demo called “Shoot the Pump.” I still have a copy on vinyl. Marc was the first person I know who used the term “Zoo York,” more than forty years ago. Marc was a talented artist on the page as well as on vinyl. Years later our pal Haym showed me an old drawing of Marc’s called The World B’trayed Center, depicting the Twin Towers and their destruction by jet fighter. I lost touch with Marc but years later word had it that he’d become addicted to crack and died alone in the Arizona desert, a sad and tragic end to a special life.
Our own musical soundtrack was jazz. Maybe we were taking a break from the rock and roll of our childhoods and we were hostile to disco and honestly half oblivious to punk. We called ourselves Beats, and caught Mingus, Monk, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy, Rahsaan, Pharaoh Sanders, Ornette, Jaki Byard, Sun Ra, McCoy Tyner and others. When Charles Mingus played at City College, Toby climbed across the folding chairs to come sit in the second row with us, and somehow I guess he tread on Mingus’s very own saved and empty seat. This got him quite an angry earful from Sue Mingus, the musician’s wife. When the man himself walked up a bit later, he gave Toby a quick silent pantomime that meant, “don’t worry kid, my old lady is being uptight, but it’s cool.” Then the band played “Sue’s Changes.”
We caught free concerts in the parks, or Jazzmobile gigs with Tito Puente on West 105th, or Sun Ra at Teachers College complete with dancers and fire-eaters! We saw Dizzy, too wasted to play after his book party, up by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. We went to Carnegie Hall and snuck in for free, (there were ways) ending up at the stair by the men’s room. One time we ended up in a private box watching Sonny Rollins or maybe that time it was Thelonious Monk. We’d also sneak into the Village Vanguard or get let in the back fire door by Michael’s City College pal who waited tables there to catch Pharaoh Sanders or McCoy Tyner or Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who led the band up the stairs in the middle of a set, and marched around the little triangular block playing his nose flutes and three saxes all the while singing “now now now wait a minute.” Or we’d go to the Ladies Fort on Bond Street where the musicians drank wine from peanut butter jars when they weren’t delaying their set to catch a Superbowl game in the back room.
We saw John and Yoko eating dinner on Broadway, Beck saw Fred Astaire in the Village while she was walking dogs, I rode with George Harrison in an NBC elevator at 30 Rock, and Toby ran into Sun Ra Arkestra singer June Tyson and some others from the band downtown at Housing Court. They were more flabbergasted to be recognized, there of all places, than he was to see them.
Our connection to Marc’s mom and UHAB also helped us adopt Casa Verde, an abandoned building on West 106th Street, a street that was later officially dubbed Duke Ellington Boulevard, since Duke had lived there over by West End Avenue someplace. We demolished the crap out of that little green building with the mansard roof. Spending endless sweat-equity weekends, all on spec, with the idea that the city would hand it over to us to get it back on the tax rolls. Well, despite all the plaster and lathe, we never got shit. Despite a lot of café con leche from La Embajada restaurant in the freezing mornings, we got bubkes. We were foolish know-nothings but we had dreams. We left such huge piles of debris that when it rained into the building one night everything got so heavy it collapsed half a floor. Eventually the city knocked our Casa Verde down and built a residence for unwed teen moms there and that casa was dedicated by Princess Di.
We were foolish know-nothings but we had dreams.
On a school field trip to Battery Park we wandered into the long shuttered but somehow wide-open U.S. Custom House, designed by Cass Gilbert. There was this main rotunda, empty and unsupervised under the great Reginald Marsh murals of liners and tugs. They’d left all the rubber stamps under the counters. We acted like Harpo Marx after he gave up trying to be Maurice Chevalier, stamping everything and everyone in sight. Our teachers were probably outside having a cigarette or something, who knows. In the intervening years, the Custom House become home to the Museum of the American Indian, with many artifacts from the old Heye Foundation collection up in Hamilton Heights.
I went to the top of the clock tower in Pier A, the old FDNY Maritime Division headquarters, down near Battery Park, but that was some years later. Now a busy nightspot, it was still a ruin in the mid-90s and even later.
I really don’t remember when I first discovered that you could get up to the top of the Woolworth Building. You simply took the elevator as high as it went, switched to the tower elevator to the top tower floor and went up the stairs. When you got to a little gate across a wide spiral stair, you clambered over that and then it was just ladders up through unlit round rooms and pigeon shit for another few stories till you hit the reward. A hatch opened from your ladder, and you were in the daylight, looking down at the Brooklyn Bridge from 785’ up, with nothing but a scant few feet of copper above you and the aviation beacon at the tip. I took my wife there for her 18th birthday in April of ‘77 and we watched a floatplane fly under the bridge. I learned that Frank Woolworth was turned down for a loan once by Met Life so he built a tower with his own cash and made sure his was bigger than theirs. I learned about Cass Gilbert and the gargoyles in the lobby, one of Frank W counting his nickels and dimes and another of Gilbert holding a little model of the building. After 9-11 it became harder to walk in off the street to see them, security freak-outs being what they are. But sitting atop Frank Woolworth’s Cathedral of Commerce and looking down at the world enriched my take on the economic and maybe racial subtext of every Woolworth’s I went to and gave a bit more meaning to the term lunch counter. I was recently in Frank Woolworth’s corner office space, stripped to the bones and rivets and beams, ready to become part of a sky palace for some billionaire.
A hatch opened from your ladder, and you were in the daylight, looking down at the Brooklyn Bridge from 785’ up, with nothing but a scant few feet of copper above you and the aviation beacon at the tip.
The Trinity Building catwalk was a good one. There was a delicate steel walkway between two buildings a couple of hundred feet up. We walked across that too, from the Trinity Building to the U.S. Realty Building, looking down through the steel grating under our feet.
Across the street and just downtown from the Trinity Building, the Equitable Building rises 538 feet straight up from the sidewalk to the roof. On the northwest corner of Wall Street and Broadway, it was one of the buildings responsible for the 1916 zoning law that created the setback architecture of the next fifty-some years. People realized that they didn’t want quite such a canyon landscape as they were starting to get.
If you go over to 23 Wall Street you can still see the pockmarked stone facade where a bomb went off in 1920. Sometimes referred to as “the stigmata of Wall Street,” this was an awful preview of things to come. A horse cart was left on the street, filled with explosives and lead window sash weights. They say that some of the weights flew forty stories straight up to land on the roof of the Equitable Building. The target of the blast was J.P. Morgan and his bank but Morgan himself wasn’t even there. Thirty-eight people were killed immediately or died of their wounds and nobody was ever arrested.
The Flatiron Building. What can I say? I took the elevator to the top floor and made my way out onto the very top roof, which is on a one-story triangular penthouse structure that sits slightly indented from the rest of the building. To stand at that apex looking uptown is sublime. You are on the prow of an enormous ship sailing over Madison Square past the New York and Met Life towers, with the Empire State Building ahead. The golden pyramid of the New York Life building off to starboard was another Cass Gilbert Gem. The Met Life North tower, stained back in those days with the most lovely ribbons and streaks of soot and rained-away soot, was meant to rise taller some day, one of several bases for world’s tallest buildings that were never to be. I loved its lines. The original Met Life clock tower is an enlarged copy of the campanile in Venice, Italy. They stripped off most of the stone detailing before my time. The actuaries there let us pose by a model of it and go part way up, high enough to look down on the Flatiron Building but we couldn’t really get to the upper tower. So yeah, the Flatiron was a good one. I was up top again a few years ago with a liquid roofing product sales rep and it is still terrific.
The Hearst building on 57th and 8th was another base supposed to end up part of a world’s tallest tower. In the end the Hearst company used it as a base for the first new skyscraper built in New York after September 11th.
Next time: Running the rapids of midtown as a bike messenger, climbing the Manhattan Bridge, soaking up more of the architecture and digging the space between the Twin Towers…stay tuned.
Copyright 2016 by Rick Weisfeld
All photos by RW