March 21, 2011

Gratis

I woke up early this morning and gravitated, as I always do, toward the window.  Clear, crisp, sunny.  The waters of the Hudson incredibly still, a mosaic of blues savoring the calm, waiting for the next ferry or tug to interrupt the stillness.

(Brooklyn Bridge: Gotham Walking Tours)

A windless day; they're few and far between when you live in Tribeca.  So I kiss my love good morning and race to shower and get out of the house before I lose the moment.  A cup of joe in my hand, and before I know it I'm racing down Chambers, trying not to kill myself as I dodge the traffic plummeting down the West Side Highway.

I've got the urge to reach out and touch New York City history.  I get the proverbial itch often.  That's when I head for the Bridge - the Brooklyn Bridge.

The morning - early morning - is best; avoiding the crowds, I always tell the folks who walk Gotham with me, is paramount.  I cross the plaza off the intersection of Chambers and Centre and empty my pocket change into the outstretched hand of an old Russian woman camped out next to the wonderfully disheveled statue of Horace Greeley.  Greeley's opposite the old Tweed Courthouse now, having been moved, years ago, from his spot outside Park Row's old Tribune Building. 

(John Quincy Adams Ward's Horace Greeley: Gotham Walking Tours)

I see the old woman now and then.  "Babushka Lady"; rotund, weather-beaten, a red checkered scarf tied (a bit too tightly I worry) into the folds of her double chin.  She acknowledges the gesture.  I nod silently in response.  And then I make my way on to the pedestrian path of the bridge.

It took a little bit of a public relations effort to convince us (we New Yorkers have always been a skeptical bunch), that Roebling's bridge wouldn't tumble beneath us.  Indeed, in the Spring of 1884, P.T. Barnum paraded a herd of twenty-one of his elephants, including the mighty "Jumbo," over the bridge in an effort to demonstrate that the bridge was safe.  It still is.  As solid as ever one-hundred-and-twenty-five years after the fact.  The same beloved bridge that ushered so many of us to safety as those threatening grey plumes of smoke hovered overhead in September of 2001.

I savor the fact that there are precious few people walking the bridge at this early hour of the morning.  A quick (I hope) detour.  I politely tap a wandering tourist on her arm (the camera is the telltale sign), and suggest that walking on the bicycle path isn't such a good idea; the cyclists have claimed this piece of precious real estate and protect it zealously - very zealously.  She graciously accepts the advice, and asks if I'd be good enough to snap a quick photo.  I oblige.  And, as I always do, chuckle at the fact that I rarely cross the bridge without clicking a photo or two for a visitor.  "What's your favorite angle?" she asks.  That's an easy one.  I set her up in front of the Manhattan anchorage, the cables, suspenders and stays framing the picture, and snap away.  If I had a nickle for every tourist photo I've taken . . . .

The "nickle" part gets me thinking. In 1883, only weeks after the bridge had opened, it cost a mere nickle to ride a cable "bridge train" from one side of the bridge to the other; a penny if you preferred to walk over.

It's free now.  One of the best deals in town. 

I instinctively bury my hands into my coat pockets; the wind always whips a bit over the bridge.  My pockets are now devoid of any loose change (courtesy of Babushka Lady).  Nickles, dimes, quarters. All gone. 

I revel in the solitude as I saunter over the bridge.

Gratis.

March 19, 2011

New York City's "Not So Secret" Enclaves: Grove Court

(Grove Court: Gotham Walking Tours LLC)

Nestled between Numbers 10 and 12 Grove Street, one of the most charming streets of the West Village, is a row of six, brick-faced townhouses, sitting serenely in an ivy-laden patch of land.  Welcome to Grove Court, one of several private courts scattered throughout the City.  The three story structures are approximately 990 square feet in size - small structures when one considers the fact that the average size of townhouses in 19th Century New York City was a respectable 2,000 square feet.

The six shuttered townhouses, completed between 1853 and 1854, were the brainchild of an enterprising businessman named Samuel Cocks; Cocks' eponymous grocery was located at the corner of Grove and Bedford.  What better way, he reasoned, to attract even more customers to his place of business, than by building a row of houses for tradesmen and laborers who, as luck had it, would end up patronizing his store.  

(Grove Court: Gotham Walking Tours LLC)
To understand the origins of Grove Court, however, requires a brief (I promise) history of Grove Street.

It didn't start out as "Grove," as those of us who are students of the necrology of New York City streets are no doubt aware.  It was originally named "Columbia" Street, and then renamed "Cozine" Street, after a prominent family who lived in the area.  From there, it became "Burrows" Street.  William Burrows, an officer in the reconstituted United States Navy, saw service during the First Barbary War and the War of 1812.  He died while in command of his ship, The Enterprise, during a skirmish with the British brig, The Boxer.  Alas for the poor Lieutenant, Burrows Street was then renamed to "Grove" Street, so as to avoid any confusion with the nearby "Barrow" Street.

Grove Street was so named because of the lush greenery and cascading trees that once occupied the area. (It's still a wonderfully "green" block by New York City standards).  The charming row of Federal style houses to the right of Grove Court (note the Flemish bond brickwork, the six over six window panes and their clean lintels, the charming little dormers, and the wrought iron railings), were built by James N. Wells between 1825 and 1834.  This row of houses (as well as Grove Court), evokes images of Bloomsbury, a district in Central London between Euston Road and Holborn, that is famous for its garden squares.  Note the small buildings to the very far right of the following 1787 print of Queens Square, with the wonderful 1936 photograph by Berenice Abbott, also below, to get an idea of the similarities between the row houses:

(Bloomsbury: Wikipedia)

(Grove Street: Berenice Abbott, Changing New York, 1936, NYPL Digital Collection)

Difficult to believe, but Grove Court was the last place one would want to live in mid-19th Century New York City.  It lacked all the vestiges of  respectability - the houses were small, lacked the stoops so common among the brownstones of the day, and, most glaringly, were devoid of any prestigious street frontage.  They were, in short, "backhouses" designed to house the poor of the City.  So poor, in fact, that its inhabitants couldn't even afford a proper pint of ale and had to resort to drinking a foul concoction - the nasty dregs that remained in their local barkeeps' beer barrel.  Literally the "bottom of the barrel."  Hence Grove Court's old moniker - "Mixed Ale Alley."  (It was also referred to as "Pig Alley.")

In the 1920's, the Grove Court parcel was sold by Trinity Church and the Trinity Corporation to Alentaur Realty Company, a real estate concern that intended to transform the houses into a haven for the artists and writers who were flooding into the Village. (Unfortunately, the further development of the parcel meant that families that had resided in Grove Court for a generation were displaced). 

Trinity's sale of the Grove Street parcel barely made a dent in its holdings: a 1705 land grant from Queen Anne to Trinity Church deeded all of the land west of Broadway, and between Fulton and Christopher Streets, to the Church.  That huge swath of land, previously known as the "Queen's Farm," was subsequently referred to as the "Church Farm." 

(Trinity was also entitled to all unclaimed shipwrecks and beached whales in the Hudson. Now, I've lived in Tribeca, right on the Hudson, for a number of years, and have yet to see a whale, let alone a beached whale.  (Does anyone know whether whales ever frequented the river?)  As for unclaimed shipwrecks, I used to joke about that fact as well, until the construction crews at the World Trade Center site uncovered the skeletal remains of an 18th Century shipwreck in the foundation of the site. I've since taken the "shipwreck joke" out of the repertoire of stories I recount to my clients when telling them about the development of Lower Manhattan).

Times have changed . . . Grove Court is now one of the most coveted row of townhouses in the West Village; a private enclave that, somewhat like Gramercy Park, is inaccessible unless you have access to one of the coveted keys that unlock its solitary, narrow gateway.  Thankfully, Grove Court survived a 1950's plan to raze the townhouses and to replace them with a playground for P.S. 3, the elementary school located directly opposite its gateway.

So . . . the next time you're in the neighborhood . . . look for this little oasis of greenery nestled between the houses on Grove.  Close your eyes, block out the street noise (and the gaggle of natives and visitors alike who are busily taking photos of the television series' "Friends" house located at the junction of Grove and Bedford), and imagine yourself living in this wonderful little Court. 

We can dream . . . can't we?

(This is one of several articles that will focus on the City's hidden enclaves.  Please stay tuned . . . . )

Lina Viviano
Gotham Walking Tours

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