Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Monday, June 14, 2010

Signs of change — for whom?

I prefaced yesterday’s post on “Tenth Avenue: signs of change below 14th Street” with a brief potted history of this part of the street — actually “potted history” is too generous a term: “crude mash-up of mostly Wikipedia entries” would be more like it, though I’d like to believe that the entries I drew from are reasonably accurate (but I can’t say that I know that they are).

I did this out of the belief that the historical context is meaningful for understanding the changes I’m looking at — or, for that matter, for understanding any changes anywhere.

But aside from the questions of whether my sources are as reliable as I’d like them to be, and whether my reading of them hasn’t introduced errors of its own, there is another question, perhaps more relevant to the enterprise of reading and understanding the signs of change from a sociological perspective (however informally).

Tenth Avenue & 14th Street, Southeast Corner
(2006 above, 2010 below)

That is the question of how much of this history, or even more of it, would be known to someone — anyone — who might happen to walk these few blocks south from 14th Street intending, say, to cross over West Street into the new Hudson River Park at West 11th Street?

Of course that’s an impossible question to answer without getting more specific about who, about what sort of someone, that person walking those blocks might be.

A quite elderly woman, a lifelong resident of the area, who remembers the excitement she felt as a young child watching the elevated highway and then the High Line go up, the one to the west, the other to the east of this part of Tenth Avenue? And who remembers when that section of the elevated highway collapsed in 1973? And who remembers when Manhattan was still a thriving seaport and the piers a hive of activity day and night?

Or a gay man nearing sixty who remembers, ruefully or wistfully, some good times and even some harrowing ones in the piers a little further to the south on West Street, long since abandoned even in the 1970s?

Or the woman in her forties who moved into the Westbeth complex for artists twenty-some years ago and remembers the failure of the Westway plans (which she opposed) and the beginnings of the reconstruction of West Street and the Hudson River Park and, what seems in retrospect to have happened so suddenly, the influx of all the galleries from SoHo to Chelsea, no more than a mile to north?

Or the young couple in their early thirties who just moved into the renovated apartment building at the corner of West 12th Street, which they took with fond memories of having met in a bar in the newly hip scene centered around Washington Street a scant ten years ago?

Or the couple from Omaha who just moved into the same building last year after they both contrived to get transfers to New York and whose knowledge of the city and its history is mostly their memories of watching the Ric Burns’ documentary not long after 9/11 and who don’t find it at all astonishing that their building — in this neighborhood! — has a uniformed doorman standing under the canopy over the sidewalk?

Or the very young Mexican working as a dishwasher in one of the area's trendy new restaurants?

Of course, some of the signs of change anyone might recognize, even a first time visitor.

A vacant lot with a new plywood construction fence around it, newly painted blue and stuck all over with building permits and ads for the new “luxury” condos.

A tower crane set up to the side of the street, or scaffolding in front of an older building.

Freshly tuckpointed brickwork, new metal sash windows, and a new front door with just one doorbell in a midblock townhouse on Jane Street while its neighbors still have a slightly tatty look about them, with eight or ten separate doorbells screwed right onto the door frame over its peeling paint.

But after even only a year, or less, a newcomer to the area, even from out of town, would notice that that restaurant on the corner has closed, that somebody is remodelling the storefront next door, that the “for rent” signs in the second floor windows are gone, that a high-end realtor has a "for sale" sign up again on that renovated townhouse on Jane Street already, that there seem to be more, or fewer, young couples pushing MacLaren double strollers down the sidewalk now than there were even last fall.

How long does it take for a newcomer to become a New Yorker? Five years? Ten? Twenty? — Twenty seems like a good number to me, perhaps because that’s about how long I’ve been here myself (even though I was born here, I spent nearly 40 years away from the city). And twenty also, again with a “perhaps,” as being long enough to develop some intuitive sense of the way things change in Manhattan, and especially what the signs of change are — the ones that matter, that is.

But let’s be generous and say ten years — what does such a person see, recognize, as “signs of change” after living here for ten years?

For instance, walking north this time, starting at the corner of West Street and West 12th Street, my “zero” level “Tenth Avenue” corner in the preceding post: anyone will recognize the scaffolding on the southeast corner as a sign of change, if only of a building facelift or renovation, while anyone who has walked past the northeast corner with any frequency over the past few years surely couldn’t help noticing that the building on the corner has been torn down and that whatever is going to replace it hasn’t gone up yet.

And a block north, at Jane Street, they might note with interest the appearance of the porta-potty on the southeast corner and wonder what that implies for the future of the parking lot there. They wouldn’t necessarily see the barrier posts as indicative of a time when the street still connected to West Street here (though they might make the inference). They surely wouldn’t miss the Riverview Hotel facelift on the northeast corner.

Another block to the north they would have noted that the scaffolding came down on the building on the southeast corner, the facelift or renovation now complete, while the building on the northeast corner looks the same as ever. And again (though they might make the inference), they wouldn’t automatically read the barrier posts as a sign that the street once went through here too.

They wouldn’t see any change on either corner at Gansevoort Street, though anyone would recognize the construction visible down the block towards Washington Street and Greenwich Street as a sign of change, though of what significance might not be obvious. And it would be impossible to miss the new building, taller than most in the area, that is visible to north, up on West 13th Street.

They might note that the Gansevoort Meat Center on the southeast corner of Little West 12th Street has been cleaned up some, along with the High Line behind it too.

And they’d surely notice that the building long under construction  — well, it seemed long — on the south side of West 13th Street is finished, even if the rather derelict building on the northeast corner is about the same as always — yes, the overhead conveyor structure was dismantled, in part, a while ago, but that’s about as far as that one's progressed.

Arriving at last at 14th Street, they’d see that the vacant lot is still vacant, but the plywood construction fence has been repainted, the overhead conveyor structure is gone here too, and a chic not to say very “designy” new elevator is in place to carry visitors up to the new High Line Park. And when, exactly, did Sabrett start sending hot dog vendors to this formerly godforsaken corner? (A first time visitor wouldn't notice that.)

If they were very observant, they might notice some new traffic signs here and there as well (a first time visitor of course wouldn't notice these either). But not much else — mostly because there isn’t much else to notice: in this area, this part of Tenth Avenue, one doesn’t see the more finely grained, relatively ephemeral signs of change — new signage, awnings, paint jobs, portable street furniture — that are so densely visible, say, a couple of miles to north, in the forties.

Possibly, probably even, this is because Tenth Avenue down here isn’t a residential street, nor even, really a commercial street, at least not retail commercial. Which means that whatever changes are taking place, they’re relatively large scale, and only large scale.

Which leads me to a sort of obvious conjecture: small scale changes are apparent at street level in the city only where residential and retail pedestrian traffic is relatively dense — conversely, when small scale signs of change begin to appear for the first time (or for the first time in a long while), it’s an indication that the area is changing in the direction of increasing residential and retail density.

Is this always a move upscale? If such small scale signs of change begin to disappear, does this mean the neighborhood is going downhill?

And what about the appearance (or disappearance) of hot dog vendors? Surely that tells us something about what’s happening in a neighborhood.

One last remark: the above recitation of changes is very nearly the same as the one in yesterday’s post — is that because I fit, if not the ten year, then the twenty profile I sketched out above? Or is it more objective, at least in the sense of more intersubjective, shared, than that? Might have to go out and actually ask people about that in order to get an answer.

Something to think about as we go on up Tenth Avenue, starting at Fourteenth Street.

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