Monthly Archives: January 2016

Ch-ch-changes

“We interrupt your irregularly posted blogs to bring you this.” Mrs. Fun Apartment was too much in overdrive for all of December playing elf – cookies, crafts, presents, and travel – to make any recent posts. To cut her a break while she recuperates with a glass of wine and the new season of Downton Abbey, her adoring husband has written up a bit of an interlude. . . .

Mid-November marked twenty years since I had closed on the sale of the Fun Apartment. For my own amusement if not yours, I wanted to take a measure of some of the changes around here since then:

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View through the railroad apartment just before demolition began on Day 3 of ownership. The little yellow stove is among the few things that remained after demolition was complete.

Today, the Fun Apartment is a sort of studio-one bedroom hybrid, opened up for the most part for light and air. In 1995, the railroad apartment was four distinct rooms that ranged from 70 square feet up to 140 square feet. The plastered walls, cracked and poorly patched, were all painted an all-too-chipper shade of yellow. The old wood floors had been covered over with vinyl tile. Everywhere! From kitchen straight through to bedroom. As now, one entered into the kitchen. But instead of having a bathroom walled off, this kitchen had a tub that was boxed in. There was no sink. At all. There was a small stove, also yellow, from about the mid 60s. That I kept and worked into the new design. And I also kept the claw-foot tub, after freeing it from its tiled wallboard enclosure. There was a refrigerator, belted with duct tape, that I had carted away before it might ever be opened.

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Behind the pipes for the missing sink is the claw-foot tub. On its underside, a stamp from the foundry dates it to 1924. After liberating it from this enclosure, I reset it in a new spot in a new bathroom. And it serves the boys (and ourselves) to this day.

Of the fifteen apartments in the building, ours was about the third to be owned by a tenant-shareholder. The rest of the apartments held residents living on old rent-controlled and rent-stabilized leases. A number of those leases were for less than $100 a month at the time! Today, only four remain as such. Among the folks gone now were:

Tom Hudson, apartment 4R. The next-door neighbor who moved in during the early 70s. He was the one who informed me that a woman who lived in our 480-square-foot apartment had raised six boys here, all of whom grew up to become NYC cops. At not that old an age, Tom died in the heatwave of July 1999. Sadly, his remains were found too late to be included in the tally of the victims of the heat.

Clarence and ?, apartment 3E. Below me was an elderly pair of men. One clearly suffered from Alzheimer’s or the like. He would yell viciously at his partner many a night, with the sound carried perfectly clearly through our common air-shaft.

Laura Gonzales, apartment 1E. The somewhat daft but entirely friendly old lady on the first floor was quick to chat and share gossip. Did she herself tell me that it was fetal alcohol poisoning that had made her son not quite right? In any case, her grown son, who would frequently come around, clearly had, um, issues.

Anna Pinto, apartment 5E. Well before my time, Barneys New York relocated a bunch of tenants from their buildings on Seventh Avenue to this building. That included Anna. Her severe osteoporosis, giving her posture nearly a 90 degree bend, made my own chronically slouched shoulders seem ram-rod straight. Getting outside only once per week, Anna had the smoothest skin imaginable right into her seventies. And she would wear her winter coat during almost every season of the year. Living on the fifth floor of an elevator-less building, she regularly accepted help getting her weekly haul of groceries up the stairs. But, if no one were around, she would get them up by herself, slowly but surely.

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Nearly the same view as above (on Day 3), but this might have been Day 70. The bars on the fire-escape window were a holdover from days when the neighborhood was iffier.

If the apartment and the building have undergone thorough transformations, so has the neighborhood – every bit as dramatic or more.

ON THE BLOCK
The block itself doesn’t look all too different – even as the population has shifted toward a more affluent set. Just next door, a somewhat pricey hair salon replaced a small bodega that sold candy and sodas to schoolkids. Across the street, the old local Intermediate School (I.S. 70) was phased out and closed. In its place came The Lab School, now one of Manhattan’s most competitive public middle schools. (Why is there jockeying for seats among fifth graders in public schools? Only in New York!)

Though I have heard of times when our mid-block playground was too much of a drug market for others to use, I never witnessed those days. As I understand it, much of that got shut down around the neighborhood after the Drug Enforcement Agency established a bureau at 17th Street and 10th Avenue. Still, some strains remained in 1995. A few doors down from us (different building but same co-op), there had been a dealer living on a rent-controlled lease. The laws so overwhelmingly favor tenants that it’s not easy to evict even a bad apple like him. But the co-op did succeed in getting him out, circa 1997, after one of his clients overdosed and died just off the public corridor. For real.

The most obvious changes on the block all occurred down at the corner of Ninth Avenue. When I came around, there was an outpost of Covenant House, the stopping place for run-aways. They had taken over the funky pair of buildings constructed in the 1960s as a retirement home for old merchant marines. Not long my arrival, Covenant House slapped a funny little façade along 17th Street for the bottom two stories of their twelve-story building. The intent was to make it look more like a row of brownstones. But the scale, accuracy, and craftsmanship all fell short. And the results were absolutely ridiculous. I just wish I had a photograph to show how dreadful it was. The next owner was an arm of the Chinese government, which used it for a few years as a dorm for visiting scholars or such. And then after them came the Maritime Hotel. And the Dream Hotel [Handel Architects]. Those boutique hotels remain there to this day. With everything else going on around here, I guess that their view to the Robert Fulton House projects across the avenue doesn’t much matter for their guests. But the more the neighborhood goes upscale, the more I appreciate how that stretch of public housing keeps the area anchored in reality.

FROM THE RIVER TO TENTH AVENUE
Chelsea Piers Sports Complex had only recently opened in 1995. North and South of there, the Hudson River Park – with its popular playgrounds and biking/jogging paths – was just in the planning stages. Even still, that park was further along than the Highline was. In 1995, the Highline was a hulking mass of unused and unloved infrastructure. This was four years before anyone broached the improbable idea of making it into a raised park that meanders down the lower Westside. I knew one person who had sneaked up in those days to walk along the old railroad tracks, where weeds and even trees had sprouted. I wish I’d done that same at the time when it could have been enjoyed raw and empty.

Among the sprawling brick warehouses and former factories lying west of Tenth Avenue, most were serving as industrial spaces or as nightclub venues in 1995. Now, many of them have been converted into art galleries. Or they’ve been torn down to make way for the high-rises for the uber rich. (See ‘Ins and Outs,’ below.) And Tenth Avenue remained fairly gritty. Industrial bits interspersed with the likes of The Roxy (closed 2007). I was reminded by a friend who lived on our block back at the time that, in 1995, Tenth Avenue was plied at night by transvestites (as opposed to the regular prostitutes who worked Ninth Avenue). These days, both avenues have gotten very well-heeled.

NINTH AVENUE AND THE MEAT PACKING DISTRICT
Over on Ninth Avenue, Nabisco’s old factory complex was yet to be reborn as Chelsea Market. When it first opened in the spring of 1997, Chelsea Market seemed to me like a nice enough place but maybe not that great an idea. Mostly, I just liked the fresh milk I could get there in glass bottles. I had no idea of what a destination it would become. Today, we have to brave the throngs of tourists if we want to get produce from Manhattan Fruit Exchange. Across the street, Google has taken over the mammoth Port Authority Building. In November 1995, Larry Page and Sergey Brin hadn’t yet started their search-engine. Down the avenue at 14th Street, a three-story building had been occupied by a local outpost of Western Beef — not one of New York’s upscale supermarket chains. As of 2008, that same building has housed a spiffy Apple Store, clean and clutter-free.

Below 14th, the Meatpacking District was still a meat-packing district in 1995. Apart from the odd bar or diner, it would shut down and be nearly deserted after dark. I made my way a couple of times to the long-standing restaurant, Florent. Sadly, the French chef closed down his 24-hour diner in 2008. Maybe he didn’t like having Apple around the corner. Or the Standard Hotel [Polshek Partnership, 2008], where Jay Z and Beyoncé come to visit. A block away from Florent was the old biker bar, Hogs & Heifers. Though I had never patronized it, I reveled in seeing it hold out amid all the changes. All the rest of the block and the neighborhood had changed as quickly and as drastically as Cinderella. In stark contrast to the old meat-packing warehouses colonized by the toniest of boutique stores, Hogs & Heifers was the only establishment I knew of down in the Meat-Packing District that remained as was. Was was the key word there. I’m sorry to learn that Hogs & Heifers also closed its doors just this past summer. Oh well. Maybe it didn’t do well by the crowds drawn by the recently opened Whitney Museum [Renzo Piano, 2015] that stands now between the Highline and the river. (From a recent walk though the neighborhood, I realize that there are still a handful of meat wholesalers that have remained, off to one side. Perhaps they are kept around to give an air of authenticity.)

Further up Ninth Avenue, stores had always catered to a more working class clientele. Bodegas. Run-down laundromat. Fish Market. Cheap liquor store. Now, the avenue has tipped toward upscale restaurants, fancy wine stores, and pricey cupcake shops.

EIGHTH AVENUE
Around the corner from us on Eighth Avenue, there had been a string of eight stores: bar, cigar shop, restaurants, coffee shop, clothing stores. Each one was independent. Now it’s all chains and franchisees: bank, drug store, fast-food joint, wireless phone store, and coffee shop. No moms or pops in sight. One of the lost establishments was a little coffee shop called The Paradise Café. Now we’ve got four Starbucks in the half-mile between 13th and 23rd. This stretch of Eighth Avenue has always had an abundance of restaurants. Still does. But I guess even the best of them close their doors eventually. Not a single one remains from 1995. The one we remember most fondly? Sam Chinita’s, in an old style diner with the look of an Aerostream trailer. After closing, it was reincarnated down the block, if less flashily, as La Chinita Linda. For all the choices among the hybrid Cuban-Chinese menu, we only ever ordered four things. Black beans. White rice. Fried plaintains. And sweet plaintains. Oh, and beer. Five things.

SEVENTH AVENUE
There isn’t much on Seventh Avenue that has ever held my attention. I would skip it entirely except I’d like to give honorable mention to a hold-out dating from 1920! When I started renovating the fun apartment, there had been an assortment of little hardware stores scattered throughout the neighborhood. As handy as those small and cluttered shops were, I made plenty of trips – by subway or bus no less – out to Home Depots in Flushing, Queens, or Secaucus, New Jersey, to haul back all manner of materials and tools. Now, there’s a Home Depot on 23rd Street and, just recently, a new Lowe’s on Sixth Avenue. And all of the little hardware stores have gone. All but one. (Well, the great Prince Hardware is still going strong on Ninth Avenue, but they shifted down by one block in the late nineties.)

SIXTH AVENUE
Speaking of Sixth Avenue, it didn’t yet have Bed Bath & Beyond or The Container Store or Trader Joe’s or any of the other big-ticket tenants. However, it did have Apex Tech

– the trade school that routinely advertised during the afternoon reruns I had watched throughout my childhood. (“Remember: I can’t call you. You have to make the first step.”)

LAST BUT NOT LEAST
Here are a couple of other changes. One – the Empire State Building. Not new, of course. Nor Chelsea for that matter. But the Fun Apartment does have a decent view to it from one window. And, yes, it has changed in the last two decades. For untold years, the upper reaches of the Empire State Building have been bathed in light after dusk. And then it would go dark promptly at midnight. You could set your watch to it. I liked that. If you were up and out late, it reminded you (or reassured you) as much. However, during our Philadelphia interlude, they re-fitted the landmark’s lighting system with LED fixtures. I’m all for saving energy where you can. But this upgrade came with two major drawbacks. For one, they let the too-cheap-to-meter LEDs burn until all hours of the night. I wouldn’t mind it so much if they just picked a time. One AM. Two AM. But there’s no consistency. It can be found lit up at 4 AM or in the dark at 3 AM. So disappointing!

Worse yet are the colors. Then as now, they pick colors to fit the day. Holidays, sport teams, whathaveyou. But the colors used to be simple and staid. It was often just one color. Sometimes they banded a second color around the highest tiers. Today, I am grateful for days when they use just one or two colors. All too often, they take their inspiration from candy-canes and juke-boxes. They pay no heed to the shape of the building as they tart it up in four or five or more colors. Worst of all are the nights when they rotate the colors like some pinball machine. New York City may not amount to much more than one huge amusement park, but they don’t have to make it so obvious. Ugh!

The most significant change in twenty years? Our two boys of course. When I designed the new layout and started work on it, I hoped to make the apartment cozy enough to fit two comfortably. Although it was four-plus years before I met the future Mrs. Fun Apartment, the idea crossed my mind that I might want the place to accommodate a, um, roommate. What had not crossed my mind was accommodating three roommates! Now, if we could only figure a way to start collecting rent from those little guys . . . .

 

INS AND OUTS – for a partial record of what has come and gone around the neighborhood in these last twenty years . . .

Out went a bodega next door to us (Circa 2002). In came a hair salon. (Circa 2002)

Out went the old local Intermediate School (I.S. 70). In came The Lab School, one of Manhattan’s most popular test-based public middle school.

Out went Mr. Pizza, a pizza joint at the corner. In came a hip noodle shop, Nooch, circa 2003. Out went Nooch, circa 2011, and in came a Koffeecake Kafe (which shut its doors last year and has yet to be replaced).

Out went Alley’s End – a cozy, windowless restaurant on our block where I had taken the future Mrs. Fun Apartment on a ‘blind date.’ In came Sueños (which we never tried). Out went Sueños. Now it still sits empty.

Out went Camouflage, circa 2014 (a stand-alone clothing store that featured stylish men’s clothing). In came a Caffe Bene (2015).

For the two brownstones on our block and countless others in the neighborhood, out went the divisions of one or two apartments per floor. Renovations have taken them back to being single-family residences. For several years, Kevin Costner lived in a Chelsea brownstown on 21st Street. Other sources tell me that Kate Winslet lived a block over from us for some time. I am certain that no A-list actors lived in these parts in 1995.

Out went Covenant House, the stopping ground for run-away teens. In came a dormitory of sorts for the Chinese government (maybe 1997). Out went the Chinese dormitory, and in came the Maritime Hotel (maybe 1999).

Out went Eigen’s, a big old plumbing supply store on West 17th between 7th and 8th (circa 2007). Decorated with years of filth and disheveled boxes, Eigen’s was geared for the trade. But they had everything plumbing, and served well for the random apartment renovator. After the old paint and grime was stripped down and an addition doubled the height of the building, in came a set of high-end residences.

Out went Barnes & Noble.com as the main tenant at the hulking Port Authority Building a block south of us. In came Google (buying the whole building in 2010 for $1.9 billion with a ‘B’). Out went a decent-sized post office along Ninth Avenue, relocating immediately next door in space that’s a fraction of the original size. The old post office space remains empty. At the other side of the building over on Eighth Avenue, out went a bank of Citibank ATMs (Nov 2015). Not sure what’s to come. Out-going is Banana Republic as the anchor retail tenant in this huge complex. I don’t think they were there in 1995, but they’ve been there for the vast majority of those years. They’ll be closed for good after Tuesday. Not sure what’s coming next. Maybe Google needs some retail space to showcase their glasses and cars and god-knows-what.

Out went a manufacturer that produced ductwork on 18th Street (circa 1999). In came the event space The Metropolitan Pavilion. On that same block, Midtown Electric has somehow held on through all these years.

Out went the switches & offices in the 1930s telephone building (circa 2012). After something like two years of renovations, in came – you guessed it – high-end residences. (‘High-end’ like how? Like penthouses were offered for $30 million or more. Or for rent at a mere $75,000 per month.)

Out went – not sure – low-end offices that had replaced old sweat-shops, in came Publishers Weekly offices (late 90s). Out went PW, in came the New York offices for Twitter (2015).

Out went Sam Chinita’s cuban-chinese diner in a vintage stainless steel diner exterior and non-descript interior at 19th and 8th. In came a Greek fish restaurant, reclad in an entirely blah façade. Out went the fish restaurant. After many years has been shut down and boarded up, something is finally coming back around. Not sure what.

Down around the Meat Packing District. .  .
Out went the restaurant Florent down on Gansevort Street. In came . . . not sure.
Out went Hogs & Heifers biker bar (August, 2015). In came . . . nothing as of yet.
Out went I don’t even remember what — a mix of nothing stores and maybe some industrial shops and boarded up storefronts with perhaps a hidden nightclub in the mix. In has come fancy boutique and splashy store for seemingly everyone: Apple, Hugo Boss, Pategonia, Diane Von Furstenburg.

Out went any number of low-slung warehouse and garages stretching long and wide between 10th and 11th Avenues. In came a series of new buildings that ring the river or the Highline. Many of the new buildings that have sprouted up are by star architects: Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvelle, Shigeru Ban, Neil Denari, a handful by Annabelle Selldorf, and another handful by Morris Adjmi.

Out went a medium security state penitentiary for woman over on West Street (2012, after Hurricane Sandy). Nothing new in yet, but plans are afoot.

Out went Sam Chinita’s cuban-chinese diner in a vintage stainless steel diner exterior and non-descript interior at 19th and 8th. In came a Greek fish restaurant, reclad in an entirely blah façade. Out went the fish restaurant. After many years has been shut down and boarded up, something is finally coming back around. Not sure what.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There are some 90 establishments fronting Eighth Avenue among the seven blocks between 14th and 21st street. By my count, only nine or ten are the same businesses that were there in ‘95. A Western Union below 15th. A neighborhood dive bar and a poster shop near 17th, a laundromat and a dry-cleaners near 18th, the Joyce Theater at 19th, a Salvation Army store, a pizza joint, and a bodega at 21st, and maybe a Korean deli or a second laundromat that I’m forgetting. Of the whole set of 90 shops, about 26 are restaurants and an additional 15 other types of food establishments. As a make-up of the neighborhood, that proportion has held steady. And that neighborhood bar (that makes claim to also being a restaurant) has been a constant. But all the other 40 have changed over at least once in the intervening years.

For any others who knew the neighborhood from back when, what am I forgetting?

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Workshoppy

Now that the holiday craziness is over, I have time to write everything I have been thinking about holiday craziness. So, guess what happened here at the Fun Apartment in Decmber? It was projects! A. Lot. of Projects! We were very busy in Santa’s Sweatshop.

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I have no idea why your hammer smells minty. I think you are imagining things.

For instance, there are the Christmas cookies. The fourteen kinds I made this December, and then forbade my household to eat. And now I have lots of leftover, slightly stale cookies. That was bad planning on my part, especially for my new January theme: “cleanliness is next to Momliness.”

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White chocolate. Peanut butter. Marshmallows. Grandma was right.

But Midwesterners often express their love through butter. And one thing I love about the holidays, among the bajazillion other things I love about the holidays, is that it is one thousand percent acceptable to invite people over and ply them with cookies and drinks and call it dinner! Cheers!


There is also this job I invented for myself: making embroidered felt ornaments for everyone. I love making them, but I have to make rather a lot, and I am running out of holiday themed items that can be reproduced in felt. Somehow I have a sad feeling that next year’s ornaments will be a mini felt Christmas potholder and roll of scotch tape. (Suggestions gleefully accepted!)

And let’s not forget these dudes. Apparently all the dinosaurs at the Fun Apartment never heard about that whole K/T barrier business. Or I am running some sort of dinosaur safe house in the Mesozoic extinction level event witness protection program.

Also, if I ever hear the words “shutter” and “fly” together, I will start to throw knives around.

But, really, I love all the doing. Because, for us, or well me at any rate, Christmas is just a lot of projects! In fact, the lads and I spent most of Christmas Eve engaged in one sort of holiday craft or another, largely because I needed them to be occupied while I was madly embroidering, and because the YMCA insisted that I spend the day with the boys, rather than dumping them in childcare while I went to kickboxing. But it was fun, because, well, they’re my kids after all, so they love complicated projects.

Because of this tremendous project list, however, I have very little energy to disguise my handwriting to fake correspondence from Elf on the Shelf. I wish he were back in Africa. One wise woman told me recently, “Don’t you know? All magical creatures type!” She’s right. They do (now).

However, we encountered one major holiday problem here at the Fun Apartment: the deplorable lack of good hiding places for presents. In a normal household, people just hide their presents in some secret, out-of-the-way spot. But at the Fun Apartment, those secret out-of-the-way spots were colonized long ago by summer clothes or sea monkeys and therefore cannot possibly accommodate a large Lego set. Mommy had to get creative. Sometimes, I had to rely on the fact that they are not overly curious about the piles of random crap err detritus that seem to form all over the place without any encouragement from me and at a rate that would alarm the CDC. So, I just arranged these piles more artfully around holiday gifts shrouded in many layers of plastic shopping bags. I’m a little discouraged to say that this approach worked pretty well. Perhaps they are a little too accustomed to living cheek by jowl with those random piles. But I spent the whole week leading up to Christmas cringing inside whenever the boys gasped or said “Mommy! Look!” Luckily, though, none  of my stash houses were raided.

But this was also a problem when, at 11:30 on Christmas morning, my older son looked at his payload curiously. “Hey!” he said, poking through his Legos and whiskey for a gift he had already glimpsed bringing it home from school (Damn you Scholastic and your ridiculous packaging, too !) “Where’s my weather station?”

I stopped mid-coffee swig. I had hidden the weather station, and its co-presents, the oft-requested remote control monster trucks, somewhere so secret that I had forgotten its location entirely. But, of course, I couldn’t exactly go on a room to- um, well, a room search anyway, because then I would be revealing all my hiding places and expressly destroying my children’s belief in Santa.

Happily, the lad seemed to accept my snorting coffee out of my nose as an answer to this query, and I was able at last to locate these stray items by surreptitiously searching the one cupboard that I can reach without a ladder. And Santa trotted them at the next Christmas celebration we attended (We had five. Check the Shutterfly calendar: It’s a big family.)

Actually, one of my favorite holiday moments was sitting at Fika with a cup of coffee and a candy cane while I wrote out my holiday cards. Never mind that this cozy “holiday” moment happened on January 6. It still had that feel.

And, your holiday card is (finally) in the mail!

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Filed under Home Ec, I make things, Living Small, Mistakes I have made