Alphabet City

AlphabetCity

In a recent blog post about taking a dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) on Sutton Place, I mentioned that, because of the geography of Manhattan, there are occasionally Avenues east of First. I was recently in one of these areas; a subdivision of the East Village informally called “Alphabet City.” Avenues A, B, C, and D stretch between Houston Street to the south and 14th Street to the north, between First Avenue and the East River. Avenue A later reemerges as Beekman Place, Sutton Place, York Avenue, and Pleasant Avenue at various points to the north, while Avenue B reappears briefly as East End Avenue between 79th Street and 92nd Street – Avenues C and D are the easternmost parts of the island of Manhattan and only exist in Alphabet City.

Interestingly enough, the area was originally a saltwater marsh, but was drained and developed in the early 1800’s. In the mid-19th century, it became a hub for German immigrants, but after they decamped for Yorkville in the 1880’s, the neighborhood grew into one of the most densely populated areas of Manhattan. By the 1980’s Alphabet City was home to many struggling artists (immortalized in Jonathan Larson’s Rent), but since then, has been increasingly gentrified (with the increased housing prices to prove it).

For this dérive, I began by walking from Second Avenue and 3rd Street in the East Village, until hitting Avenue A. Just on the east side of Avenue A is the entrance to Upright Citizen’s Brigade East. One of three theaters run by UCB (the other two are in Chelsea and in Los Angeles); UCBEast showcases improv and sketch comedy seven days a week – at very affordable prices. The streets in Alphabet City are surprisingly quiet and tree-lined, although many garage doors and brick walls have become the canvas for expressionistic and colorful murals. This street art is such a part of the character of this neighborhood that there is even a children’s book called Alphabet City –Out on the Streets (by Michael de Feo) that illustrates the alphabet with the backdrop of street scenes in the neighborhood.

Continuing past Avenue B, turn north on Avenue C to experience the most bustling ambiance of the avenues in Alphabet City, every block showcasing trendy boutiques, restaurants, or bars. At Avenue C and 10th Street, stop inside the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) for a reminder of the community activism that has long been a part of this neighborhood’s character. MoRUS also holds exhibitions relating to the historical implications of housing cycles within different urban neighborhoods. Closed Monday and Wednesday, but open other days from 11-7, there is a $5 suggested donation for admission, well worth it to support a volunteer organization that promotes ecologically-sound urban environments. MoRUS also supports the network of community gardens that flourish throughout the Lower East Side. These community gardens sum up the feeling of Alphabet City today – a community with an abundance of opportunities for entertainment but also with pockets of quiet. Street art, nightlife, and gardens – all part of the complicated mix that makes Alphabet City another unique place to live in New York City. Viva la vie bohème!

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Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park>
On a beautiful early summer weekend afternoon, I decided to take a dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) in Greenwich Village. Getting off the 4 at Union Square meant being immediately immersed in a hub of activity – on this day, an extensive pet adoption event, but on other days, Greenmarkets, or a rally for political or social justice causes. Passing by the usual assortment of street performers (of note on this day was a group of older men performing 1950’s doo wop songs), I headed down University Place. Originally part of Wooster Street, this short stretch (from Washington Square to 14th Street) was renamed University Place a year after New York University was founded in 1838. Although the street is packed with places to eat and drink, I found myself magnetically drawn to Washington Square Park, beckoning to me a few blocks to the south.

Although all the surrounding blocks are named after the Square itself (Washington Square North, South, East and West), it is more helpful to think of the park as being bordered by Waverly Place and 4th Street to the north and south, and University Place and MacDougal Street to the east and west. Once a cemetery, and in fact the place that yellow fever victims were buried in the early 1800’s to contain the spread of the disease, in 1826 the square was leveled and turned into a militia parade ground. By the 1830’s, the city’s populace had begun to expand from the southernmost tip of Manhattan, and the Georgian revival homes along Washington Square North date from these times.

In 1889, a temporary arch was constructed in the park to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration, followed in 1892 by the permanent Stanford White-designed arch that dominates the north end of the park today. Clearly inspired by the Arc d’Triomphe in Paris, it stands 77 feet tall. The two statues of George Washington visible on the north side were added later, in 1918. On the day I was there, a man played a grand piano (in hopes of tips, of course) just under the arch – I wish now I had asked him how he gets the piano to that spot and away again (and are the tips sufficient to be worth it?).

Washington Square Park is not truly a park that glorifies nature (most of it is paved over), but is more an urban park that encourages people to gather. On most days, but particularly on weekend days in warmer months, it is impossible to be in the park without experiencing several street performers. On this day, a woman was creating enormous bubble displays to the delight of several children, and in the drained fountain in the center of the park, a group of acrobats performed an elaborate show along with crowd participation. It is certainly possible to relax here and imagine Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson discussing the joys of fame (as they did, according to Twain), but I find that Washington Square Park is more energizing that relaxing. Greenwich Village deserves several different dérives, since it varies dramatically from the surreal small town quiet of Washington Mews just one block north of the square, to bustling Bleecker Street, and runs the gamut between. Washington Square Park is certainly Greenwich Village’s hub, however, and always an entertaining way for residents and visitors alike to spend time and feel a part of this vibrant neighborhood.

A peek at the Puck Penthouses

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A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of agents who were given a tour of the extraordinary new Puck building penthouses. We were shown the penthouses by the developer, Jared Kushner, whose enthusiasm for this project is evident. The Puck building, built beginning in 1885 by Albert Wagner in the Nolita/Soho neighborhood of lower Manhattan, is adorned by two statues of Shakespeare’s character Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and was once the home of Puck magazine. The penthouses (there are only six) have their own entrance, 295 Lafayette Street. When waiting for the elevator, a charming stained-glass portrait of Puck sets the tone for these penthouses – a blend of old-world, artisanal, and modern.

Of the six penthouses, we were originally told we would see three of them, including one fully staged, but during the tour Jared was persuaded to let us see the duplex roof penthouse, with enormous terrace space (including a hot tub outdoors with a view downtown of One World Trade and the Woolworth Building). Although they are still putting the finishing touches on this one, it is simply spectacular (and could be yours for less than $60 million; contact me if you are interested). All of the penthouses have delightful architectural details (such as brick barrel-vault ceilings and fluted iron columns) that respect the historic nature of the building, juxtaposed with the most modern amenities possible. I was impressed with the level of care and detail that had clearly been a constant in the development of these homes.

I snapped some photos while on the tour, and while they are not of the quality that the marketing materials for these penthouses have, they will give you an idea of the feel of these stunning residences.

DISCLAIMER: I do not represent the seller of these properties, and all views expressed are my personal opinion.

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Early morning in Central Park – from the Metropolitan museum to the Shakespeare Garden

Shakespeare garden

On the first day that New York City felt like spring, I was compelled to take a dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) through Central Park and I wrote about it earlier this year. Yesterday, on the first morning that it truly felt like summer, I was drawn to the park yet again, this time beginning on Fifth and 84th Street, entering the park to the north of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On this very warm morning, it was hard to imagine the winter days I have been sledding on the sloping grounds next to the museum! Looking through the glassed in enclosure to the Temple of Dendur within the museum is most impressive at night, when there is no glare to prevent the surprising view of a temple built to Isis (and others) around 15 BC, framed by views of grand apartment buildings to the east and skyscrapers off to the south.

Dogs are allowed off leash in Central Park before 9 AM, and if you visit the park during the early morning hours, you are likely to encounter many in the Arthur Ross Pinetum, mid-park between 84th and 86th Streets. Although pine trees were an original part of Olmstead and Vaux’s plan for Central Park, they were eventually replaced by deciduous trees before being reintroduced into the park in the 1970’s. There are 17 different species of trees in the Pinetum, including some from Japan, Macedonia, and the Himalayas.

Continuing west, it is impossible to miss the Great Lawn, a 55-acre green expanse almost exactly in the geographic center of the park. Originally the site of a reservoir, it was filled in using the ground excavated from the construction of Rockefeller Center and opened in 1937 in its present form. Although there are some baseball diamonds around the edge, and a few concerts are still held on the Lawn, it is primarily an open space to relax and enjoy the park during the warmer months.

Heading south around the Great Lawn, to the east is something even older than the Temple of Dendur – Cleopatra’s Needle. An Egyptian obelisk from 1450 BC, it is one of three obelisks (the others are in London and Paris) all similarly named, and all with dubious links to Cleopatra. Our Cleopatra’s Needle is currently covered in scaffolding and is being cleaned of the grime that has accumulated since 1881 from its location in New York City’s open air.

Continuing around the Great Lawn, Turtle Pond appears on your left. A small remnant of the reservoir that once covered the Great Lawn, it does in fact house turtles, believed to be descendants of house pets that outgrew their city accommodations and were sent to the Park to live. Belvedere Castle is visible behind Turtle Pond, and is one of the original buildings created in the park by Calvert Vaux. Its name translates as “beautiful view” and a visit to the castle will in fact reward you with wonderful vistas in all four directions. The National Weather Service official temperature and rainfall amounts for New York City are measured from equipment in and around the castle.

Next to Turtle Pond, on the southwest edge of the Great Lawn, sits the Delacorte Theater, home to Shakespeare in the Park. The Public Theater has been putting on free performances of Shakespeare for over 60 years, and is known for its innovation and stellar casting. I can say personally that the summer nights I have spent in this theater seeing excellent performances as varied as “Hair” and “The Merchant of Venice” have made me feel truly immersed in this wonderful city and its unparalleled artistic offerings. This summer, “Much Ado About Nothing” will run from June 3- July 6, and “King Lear” from July 22- August 17. To get free tickets, line up in the park early or try the virtual lottery on the Public’s website. Financial supporters are given tickets without having to wait, but the Public actually limits the number of supporter tickets available to ensure that free Shakespeare in the Park is available to as many as possible.

Just north of the Delacorte are large outcroppings of Manhattan schist, the bedrock formed during the ice age and the foundation for many of our skyscrapers.  Behind the Delacorte is the Shakespeare Garden, a four-acre beautiful tranquil space with lovely plantings featuring plants and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s works, interspersed with small bronze plaques with quotations from Shakespeare. It’s a rare spot in New York City that allows one to connect with nature and feed your intellect simultaneously, making this one of my favorite hidden spots within the park.

Tucked behind the Shakespeare Garden is the park’s Marionette Theater, a delightfully old-fashioned place to take children during the warmer months. Walking out of Central Park to the west, you find yourself on Central Park West and 81st Street, facing the Beresford apartment building and the Rose Center of the American Museum of Natural History. This dérive ends here, less than a mile from where it began, and illustrates once again the rich variety of experiences packed within the relatively small island of Manhattan.