There goes the neighborhood

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Looking south along Park Avenue at 4:30 PM on a Wednesday in early April. Photo: JH.

Thursday, April 9, 2020. A sorta sunny day, yesterday in New York, with temps touching mid-60s, and warm in the Sun. Winter jackets no longer needed. Turned greyer in the afternoon and cooler because of it.

It’s exactly 7 pm as I write this, still light after sundown. I have my terrace door open to the quiet avenue below but in the distance I can hear the random yelling and calling and shouting reverberating through the city’s canyons. They are people expressing their nightly thanks and appreciation to the medical staffs treating and serving the patients afflicted. It is now a nightly and welcome moment in what is a strange quiet in the city.

I went out on the terrace to get a picture. You can see there are very few to produce the voice volume that I could hear. They must be also in the park, as well as on the side streets, in their apartments, windows open to shout and applaud.

7 p.m. shout out.

Then as suddenly as it began, it stopped; and it was all quiet again on the avenue. An occasional car passes, a motorized bike delivery now and then in the late afternoon and early evening, there are the walkers. The runners are all hours. It is a neighborhood where people actually talk to neighbors on the street. The dogs make that possible with their walks. You see someone often enough — maybe a dozen or more times a week — and if perchance you’re on the same spot, conversations often ensue.

In my neighborhood many have been away throughout this ordeal. The No Parking rules have been suspended for the time being. Ordinarily the parking spots move frequently throughout a day. Now I’ve noticed many cars remaining in the same spot for days, even weeks. Meaning these people are not going anywhere. Many are not even going outdoors. 

Straight out of the “social distancing” handbook!

Friends in other states or countries have remarked how “terrible” it is in New York. It’s not a word I’d use to describe what’s going on. Or rather, not going on. The streets and avenues are mainly empty. There are no crowds and much fewer accidents. Most people who are out are running errands for food and supplies. 

On my avenue, because it’s the easternmost roadway on the island, and not a thru street, the people who are out are usually on walks. Which are peaceful. And with Spring now in the process, the daffodils are out hugging the tree trunks, along with the crocuses. Yesterday I noticed the tulips have sprouted their buds a couple of days more color will be added sidewalks and roadways.

In the last week, traffic for walkers and runners (now using the actual roadway to “keep their distance” from each other and whomever) has increased noticeably. If you have the time and nowhere to go and no one you need to talk to, it’s fascinating to watch the “action” of the walkers and the runners.

Depending on age, they walk at different gaits. Couples often walk (and even run), while keeping a “distance” from their partners as well as everyone else. At one point mid-afternoon, there was almost a foot-traffic jam in front of my building: two couples keeping their distance, about to overtake another couple walking at a slower gait (everyone keeping their “distance”) when all of a sudden a young woman runner in a mask whizzed past all of them before anyone could give her “distance!!” This was followed by a brief howling by the irate walkers. New Yorkers will be New Yorkers. I don’t know what it sounds like but it was funny to watch. Cracked me up.

Changing times and changing places. Meanwhile back at these “days” of isolation and all the other stuff, I love going out in the car to cross town to get some groceries. Because the city seems deserted, you get to see New York as an architectural, civilizational specimen, more clearly and without obstruction. For example this view of St. Monica’s Catholic Church one lot in from First Avenue and 79th Street is brand new, although the church was built in 1906.

St. Monica’s Catholic Church on First Avenue and 79th Street.

When I was first living in New York out of college in the 1960s, I lived in and around the UES in the ’70s and ’80s. It was then a mecca for young people just out of college, like myself. There were lots of rent controlled walkups that had been there since the early part of the 20th century when it was a working class neighborhood on the edge of Yorkville or Germantown, as it was often called. 

There were also the newer one and two bedroom apartments along this wide street and on the blocks in between the avenues. Because of their abundance in those days, they were renting with the first three months free (amortized over a year). A one bedroom, living room, kitchen and bath in an elevator building that would normally rent for $215 a month (yes!) went for $161.50 for the first year. Split two ways, sometimes three.

This is what we’ve seen for the last 50 years in New York.

In the general area, there were two very hot bars/clubs: Malkin’s the go-to bar for preppies — legal drinking age was 18 — and college equivalents now out in the professional world.  And Charlie Bates’ Tiana club on First Avenue and 76th Street. Different atmosphere  but same customers — and even more for Charlie Bates. 

Malkin’s was located on the ground floor of what once a small apartment house, on the south side of the 79th Street block where an enormous apartment tower now stands, next door to Agata and Valentina.

The interior was cool and low, dark and sleek with a long bar and tables across the aisle. And a long narrow dining room. An of-the-moment jukebox played the latest rock and roll. Dress was jacket and tie/no jeans or pullovers. The young guys wore what they’d worn to the office, and the girls wore the latest styles of the hip ‘60s. 

More than occasionally you’d see a limousine double parked in front. Mrs. Winthrop Rockefeller (the oldest person in the establishment by far), who lived in Arkansas, would make an appearance now and then with a group of younger people in tow as her guests. The Beatles, then in their hey-day, had been known to stop by. It was usually jammed seven nights a week with lots of regulars.

Mike Malkin himself was almost omnipresent as host/owner/ manager. He was a genial fellow, welcoming but working. I knew nothing about his background or private life, but sometime — I think in the late ‘70s — he was murdered in his East Side apartment. The details are lost although the headlines in the tabloids and memory labels it some kind of Mob-related incident. Mike was in trouble with the wrong people.

Monica Roman Catholic Church, exterior, ca. 1906. Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Diametrically across the corner was a block of four-story tenement apartments, the back of which ran up to the side of St. Monica’s Catholic Church.  On that corner was a bus stop and a newsstand open 24 hours. I would often wait there around 10:30 at night for first edition of the morning papers. The tabloids, the News and the Mirror were delivered between 9 and 10, and the Times and the Herald-Tribune at 10:30/quarter to eleven.

Much of that corner looks the same as it did a half century ago except the tenements that backed up to the side of St. Monicas are gone, opening up air space. All razed within the past year, with the land now fenced in awaiting new construction, for the first time in more than a century, we get a fuller picture of the church with its tall, large and beautiful windows.

From the time of its construction — completed in 1906 — those windows have been blocked from view for more than a century by the tenement buildings now gone. Two or three generations of its worshipers never got to see the beauty of it in the eyes of the world. The grandeur of St. Monica’s façade remains, of course, and is enhanced by the view of entirety.

Every time I pass it now I have to stop and look, again. It’s something new and something old.

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