My Neighborhood and Our Times

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A lone tulip on Park Avenue. Photo: JH.

Monday, April 15, 2024. Fair; early Spring weather over the weekend here in New York. With occasional warnings about storms maybe passing through. Maybe not. Otherwise a quiet one and forecasts for “warmer” this week.

I’m referring to my neighborhood and my times. There are other parts of the city, especially downtown — waaay downtown — that is a busy place what with residential, business, restaurants and nightlife for mainly the younger sets. In some ways it’s almost the center of New York.

My nabe is a little — although very little — like living in the country (on the weekends). Our beautiful little park — Carl Schurz — and the glorious East River moving in and out with the ocean tides, right along with life. Along with all the views it includes, giving one the sense of a town by itself; along with ongoing sightings of planes, trains, automobiles, bridges and towers. And the Mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion, built overlooking the river way back when it was all the wild forest, in 1799. A perfect spot with views east, north and south, and by the river.

There’s a great deal of apartment tower building going on all over the Upper East Side. Perhaps as much elsewhere in the city. But it astounds these eyes for these buildings are all replacing old buildings — often residential — constructed a century or so ago.

The old and the new.

The originals were buildings of mainly brick and wood, many with small apartments, walk-ups on the second, third and fourth floors. They replaced even smaller buildings or empty land in the century before as the city was growing. The brand new 21st century apartment towers are all at least 30 stories and very grand in structure. And restructuring the neighborhoods.

Meanwhile my neighborhood was developed a little more than a century ago with the help of, and construction by, Vincent Astor. The Astors owned much of this land beginning with Vincent’s great-great-grandfather, the first JJ Astor who created the fortune. He had a summer house — a country house in the mid-19th century — on what is now 80th Street on a hill overlooking the East River.

During the weekdays when schools are in session, the two  girls’ schools in the nabe are Brearley and Chapin. Every morning and afternoon five days a week, they bring a lot of traffic and double parked cars and buses during the arrivals and the departures. That and the Mayor’s residence draws a lot of auto traffic also.

For this writer, it can be highly amusing watching the little ones beginning to grow up and assert and exhibit their independence. And they love the dogs that are out being walked along the way. And the dogs love them back! Both are fascinated, often in awe, and delighted, as if they’re somehow related.

John Jacob Astor’s mid-19th century Country House at Hell Gate near 87th Street and Avenue A (York Avenue). Emmet Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Yesterday I had been invited to a 90th birthday anniversary of friend and neighbor Joan Hardy Clark. Joan and I have been neighbors since I moved here from LA in 1992. I can’t remember how we met but we are both on-the-street conversationalists, so it could have been in the nabe.

She’s very well known in New York where she’s lived much of her life (she grew up in Canada but married an American) and had a family.

Neighbor and friend, Joan Hardy Clark, who just turned 90. Photo: Patrick McMullan.

I see her only occasionally and that is usually on the street. The last time I ran into her she was going to Spain or India. I’m vague about it except to acknowledge that Joan gets around. She’s curious; that’s the item, and it keeps her moving on.

It’s like her age. She doesn’t move, walk, talk any differently than she did at half that age. This sounds like a phenomenon, but I know other women her age who also are very active quite naturally.

The party was called for six. I had taken my dogs out for their quickie about five thirty and, upon returning, on the sidewalk ahead of me was another neighbor whom I’ve also known for a long time. Although I don’t know her name or much about her life. Our friendship is, in a word, neighborly. She has a dog and a good sense of humor.

I haven’t seen much of her in quite some time, which I’ve never given a thought until I run into her. As I did yesterday afternoon when she took me aside to tell me that she is having a very hard time in life right now. I could see that she is very isolated. This is not uncommon. As we get older, and age, our social environments change radically over time.

Then she told me she was ninety and her health is fine, but she feels like she’s losing her mind. Not from any symptom but simply from being alone. She has a daughter she doesn’t speak to or vice versa; her husband died a number of years ago. She has no friends. She does have a sweet little Shih Tzu. But she is sad. And lonely.

She told me she needed to talk to me. She said she needed an hour. I can’t fix any of it, except to listen; and so it was at six o’clock in the evening on a Sunday, on my way to a birthday party for another neighbor of the same age. And so I missed the party hosted by her daughter. No doubt there were many friends of all ages there to celebrate Joan’s presence.

Life in the big town.

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