The New York Times
May 10, 2002
This Side of Heaven, Please, in the Village
By MICHAEL FRANK
Three-quarters of the way down on the left. On the same side of the street as the Weathermen-bombing house. Beyond the place where Oscar Wilde stayed after his American tour. Before the cemetery but after Cynthia Harris's lush window boxes. That's it just there: the tall brown brick building looming shabbily over all the Greek Revival town houses. Home. My home. Or one of them, anyway.
This is a piece of mental patter that automatically starts up each time I turn onto 11th Street between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas in Greenwich Village, my block. Sometimes I speak the navigational parts aloud, to guide a cab driver or to spur on my flagging feet. Sometimes the allusions are predominantly historical (Wilde, the radicals, Gerald and Sarah Murphy, whose first home was at No. 50). Sometimes they are more personal, drawing on a quantity of life that has been contained as much by these two broad avenues as by a span of 10 years' time. Always the language acts as a kind of needle to my internal compass, locating and relocating me in this city, this neighborhood, this block.
This block, this block of mine. This unit of urban measure that after apartment and apartment house is about as intimate as you can get in a city whose relentless anonymity I continue, after a decade, to find puzzling. Anonymity and oddness: as a Californian I think I will always feel it's a little bit unnatural to live in perpetual levitation above the earth, without trees, lawn, privacy, birds more varied than pigeons, mailboxes that can hold more than a few days' worth of letters.
My block is my compass, and it is my comfort. It helps, I don't doubt, that I live on one of the nicest in the neighborhood, if not the city. I can take no credit for its comeliness, and my ending up here was a stroke of real estate luck that I am certain would never befall me if I were setting out to find an apartment today. But I believe that even without this particular good fortune I would eventually have come to cherish my block any block where I'd spent 10 years simply because it is mine. From boot scrapers to bricked-up phantom parlor entries to attic skylights, I have come to know its physiognomy intimately over time.
Whenever I venture into the hard-paved anxious wonder, the unbridled possibility and (let's face it) sometimes just plain old tedium of the wider city, I feel the atmosphere instantly change as soon as I return to 11th Street. It lightens; it becomes more oxygenated; it welcomes me back. My block is my front yard, but without the mowing (so much for the nostalgic grass), a stretch of village green where the sunlight is gentler, the shadows less menacing, the faces friendlier than even one street to the north or south. Doesn't every New Yorker feel thus about his block?
I expect that familiarity has a lot to do with it. Familiarity, first, with the distant past, which you feel strongly downtown. The facades of the town houses on my block are not blank to me; they are like the spines of books behind which stories are there to be uncovered, or to unfold. There's Wilde, as I mentioned, triumphant at No. 48, where he stayed for several months in 1882 after "civilizing America" with his lectures. He lingered to recover from a bout of malaria ("an aesthetic disease but a deuced nuisance"), transact theater business and meet Lillie Langtry, to whom he presented a bouquet of lilies before advising her not to wear long-legged boots as Rosalind in "As You Like It." She in turn tried to get him to restyle his trademark curls, but failed.
In December of 1916, Gerald and Sara Murphy were married in her parents' drawing room at 40 Fifth Avenue, the apartment building at the southwest corner of 11th Street. After their honeymoon the couple set up home down the block, where No. 50 became "the first of a series of legendary Murphy houses," as their biographer, Amanda Vaill, describes it, "an artful composition that expressed not just its owners' taste, but also their attitudes about life."
Gerald Murphy was the scion to the Mark Cross leather-goods business and fortune; he and Sara belonged to the post-Edith Wharton and as importantly, the soon to be post-World War I generation of young people born to old New York families who sought to shake off the furbelows of Edwardian decoration, deportment and mores. On 11th Street, the Murphys whitewashed the brick and threw down hooked rugs, à la Elsie de Wolfe ("You and I prefer `shabby genteel' to its inverse," Gerald wrote Sara). But the couple's ambitions would soon grow, as they began to "get a grip on our future," in Gerald's phrase, and set off to lead more liberal, and liberated, lives abroad.
`On Heaven Street'
In the Murphys' case, this meant, chiefly, taking up painting and friendship and living with a distinctive domestic panache in Paris and Antibes, where they were at the center of expatriate life during the 1920's. They knew Picasso, who painted Sara; F. Scott Fitzgerald, who modeled Nicole and Dick Diver on them; and Archibald MacLeish, who once said, "There was a shine to life wherever they were."
Another scion, and life-shiner, the poet James Merrill, was born in 1926 at No. 18, a house built in the 1840's by Henry Brevoort Jr. and as storied as any on the block. In 1930 his father, Charles, a founder of Merrill Lynch & Company, sold what he called "the little house on heaven street" to the lyricist Howard Dietz, who in 1963 in turn sold it to James P. Wilkerson, an advertising executive. Just before noon on March 6, 1970, No. 18 blew up when dynamite accidentally detonated in the basement bomb factory run by one of Wilkerson's daughters, Cathlyn; her friend Kathy Boudin; and three other bomb makers, who died in the explosion. (Ms. Wilkerson and Ms. Boudin escaped and remained fugitives for more than 10 years.)
Young Weathermen radicals who were protesting the war in Vietnam, the group had planned on destroying Low Library at Columbia University, among other places. Mel Gussow, a reporter for The New York Times who was at that time living next door, researched and reported all these facts on the 30th anniversary of the explosion; among the more chilling discoveries he made was an F.B.I. report that noted that the young people had enough explosives on hand to level everything on both sides of the street.
The block remains marked by the memory of the bombing to this day. Merrill wrote a poem on the subject, "18 West 11th Street," which begins:
In what at least
Seemed anger, the Aquarians in the basement
Had been perfecting a device
For making sense to us
If only briefly, and on pain
Of incommunication ever after.
I have neighbors who recall the blast, the flood (from the water firefighters used to put out the fire) and the body parts that turned up in their basements for weeks afterward. Such a method of protest seems especially troubling after Sept. 11; indeed it's interesting to speculate whether, in this climate, the Landmarks Commission would sanction the kind of architectural commemoration that it did in the 70's, when Hugh Hardy designed a replacement townhouse whose sharply angled, protruding parlor-floor window was intended to evoke the bombing.
A thick theatrical vein has long run through the block. Among the actors and directors who live or have lived here over the years are Dustin Hoffman; Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft; Herschel Bernardi; Barbara Harris; F. Murray Abraham; Norma Fire; Angela Lansbury; Cynthia Harris (of whom more in a moment); and Eve Frame and her husband, Iron Rinn (né Ira Ringold), an actor known for his striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. All right: the last two are invented by Philip Roth, in his roman à clef, "I Married a Communist," where their house on 11th Street makes a lasting impression on a young Nathan Zuckerman.
With its "urbanity, its beauty, its comfort, its low-key aura of luxurious intimacy, the quiet aesthetic harmony of its thousand details the warm habitation as a rich work of art," the town house, Zuckerman says, "altered my conception of life as much as the University of Chicago would when I enrolled there a year and a half later." Filled with serious books, classical records, paintings and drawings and etchings, artifacts and sculptures and objets d'art, the interiors give Zuckerman the idea that possessions can be "bound up with pleasurable living and, at the same time, with morality, with mankind's aspiration to achieve significance through connoisseurship and thought."
Well. This is a very young Zuckerman speaking, or rather an older Zuckerman looking back on his much younger self, but one of the questions I would have liked to ask Mr. Roth the day I saw him strolling along 11th Street not long after the book was published in 1998 other than, "Who dusts?" would have been, "Why our block?"
Maybe it was the Weathermen bombing: after all, a similar act of protest is the centerpiece of "American Pastoral," Mr. Roth's previous novel. Maybe it was the street's long popularity among writers, artists and actors, which was in full bloom during the postwar period in which "Communist" is set, though much eroded (under the pressure of absurdly augmenting rents) now. Maybe, who knows, it was the street's connection to New York City's Jewish past.
Quick and the Dead
Not all of the ghosts of 11th Street are famous, you see. Nestled in a triangle of bucolic serenity near Avenue of the Americas is the second cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel. It looks like an embroidered Victorian mourning picture sprung into three dimensions: spreading coniferous trees shade uneven brick paths that thread their way through clumps of ivy and hosta and are flanked by perhaps two dozen largely effaced, often crooked tombstones that mark the graves of members of the city's oldest Jewish congregation, who were buried here between 1805 and 1829.
Our cemetery, which owes its curious shape to an alignment of streets long ago interrupted, or dug up, is one of Shearith Israel's three in Manhattan. The first, at Chatham Square in Chinatown, is a rare remnant of Manhattan's 17th century. The third is on West 21st Street in Chelsea and was created in 1830, when 11th Street, which did not yet cut through to Sixth Avenue, was extended, and half the bodies were exhumed and re-interred uptown.
Paradoxically, it was the cemetery that first helped introduce me to the living and breathing 11th Street. During the first years I was a resident of the block, the cemetery walls were being repointed (slowly) by a crew of workmen, who in time abandoned the job without completing it and left the site in a state of what I felt was disrespectful disarray. My heart ached every time I passed by these markers of the dead, who were now not only forgotten but also maltreated.
On one of our annual block cleanups, organized by the estimably civic-minded Arthur Levin and his West 11th Street Block Association, a neighbor and I decided to hop the fence. We began, that day, a rigorous tidying that gradually evolved, for me, into three years of graveyard-tending: I set upright the fallen tombstones, replaced the trampled ivy, divided the neglected hosta and planted white impatiens along the paths. (Eventually a fresh crew finished the masonry work, and the congregation's caretaker resumed maintaining the grounds.)
Matching Faces and Stories
The block association put names, and as importantly, stories, to recognizable 11th Street faces. While planting the small plots around our trees, I one day found myself digging alongside Cynthia Harris she of the standout window boxes, television ("Mad About You") and stage fame. (She opens on Monday in the world premiere of Noël Coward's "Long Island Sound" at the American Theater of Actors on West 54th Street.)
Ms. Harris asked me if I had written any short stories she might read at Symphony Space, where she regularly appeared in its Selected Shorts program. As it happened I had, and a year later I found myself sitting with 850 people in the old bedraggled but beloved auditorium on upper Broadway listening to her read really perform a story of mine called "My Husband's Best Friend's Second Wife." It's a mouthful of a title admittedly, but Ms. Harris handled these words, and the many others that followed, with such assured craft that by the end I was convinced she'd made up half of them at least.
A different block friendship, among the more poignant I've made, began years ago with the "Hello, Gov'nor" offered to me, and I suspect all regular passers-by, by Richard Walker, a retired, elderly and very gallant tap dancer, who lived in the building that has since been gentrified into the Larchmont, a bed and breakfast at No. 27. Always immaculately dressed, in a three-piece suit and fedora or panama hat, depending on the season, Mr. Walker would set up "shop" a chair and a radio, tuned to jazz all day long in clement weather and wish us 11th Streeters well as we went on our way. When he finally went on his, he was eulogized at the First Presbyterian Church at the end of the block, with several dozen of his neighbors in attendance.
Places can offer friendship, or something like it, too. At No. 73 there's Gene's, the only midblock commercial enterprise (unless you consider education commerce, in which case there's the New School at Nos. 64 and 65). Established in 1919, Gene's is an Italian restaurant of what I think of as the red-sauce variety: the food is old-fashioned but comforting, the bar and its habitués evocative of a nearly vanished Village, and the waiters greet you as though you were their nephew.
A more modern restaurant, French Roast, a cafe at the corner of 11th and Avenue of the Americas, is pleasant enough and conveniently open 24 hours. It does have the particular distinction, though, of standing on the site of the Grapevine, a tavern built in 1838 and popular with the artists who lived and worked at Richard Morris Hunt's fabled 10th Street Studio Building (opened 1858, demolished 1956) around the corner. Famous gossips, these painters who included at various times Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt and William Merritt Chase used to claim they heard their news "through the grapevine."
Today on 11th Street, we are more likely to get ours at Nikos's newsstand, which has to be the most comprehensive in the city. Presided over most of the time by the owner, Nikos ("I never give my last name"), or his mother-in-law, Helen ("She never gives hers"), this corner emporium (11th Street at Avenue of the Americas) is the sort of place they do still exist where you can leave keys for friends, pick up envelopes from messengers, and find or order most every periodical you can ever imagine wanting to read.
I was away on Sept. 11, but when I returned to the city a week later, the normally stolid Nikos was one of the many people I came across who seemed compelled to talk. The 11th Street facade of his shop was papered with those haunting faces of the missing; a smell of smoke and fire filled the room, overpowering its usual aroma of news- and magazine print, pipe tobacco and chewing gum. Nikos's door stood open, as it customarily does in mild weather. As he looked through it he said: "There is something on this street and in the Village that I have not seen since AIDS came. A feeling of community. A feeling that we are not so anonymous, or disconnected, anymore. I wonder if it will last."
I too wondered then, I know now. It hasn't quite lasted. Nor has it quite gone. Probably we won't be able to tell, until more time has passed, how deeply certain habits of life and relationship have been altered in this city. But on this one street, this block of mine, I have found palpable connectivity these last 10 years. I've found it in the past, I've found it in people, I've found it in plants. I've found it, recently, in love: on this block, no less, and with a woman to whom I have this to say: I hope we can find a way for 11th Street to house us for all time.