Thursday, August 7, 2008

NYC Past and Present, Dreams and Reality

From Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York: "As the Cooper Square Hotel has risen and spread, it has engulfed the block of Bowery between 5th and 6th Streets. Two original buildings remain: the tenement home of poet Hettie Jones and 35 Cooper Square, a building with a long and interesting history.

That history has been painstakingly uncovered by artist and East Village resident Sally Young in an attempt to get #35 landmarked, thus saving it from the wrecking ball. Rumor has it, the hotel developers plan to have the building demolished. And Landmarks has turned Sally down, stating, "the property does not meet the criteria for designation."

Originally called 391 Bowery, #35 was owned in the early 1800s by Nicholas William Stuyvesant, great-grandson of Peter Stuyvesant. When he died in 1833, the building passed through several hands, including an undertaker, a teacher, a hotelier, and a saloon owner.

In the 20th century, it became a home for artists. Painter and photographer J. Forrest Vey lived there after WWII. He rented the upstairs dormer rooms for $5 apiece to people like Joel Grey, star of Cabaret, and Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land.

Mr. Vey once broke into the attic, which had been sealed ever since a man hanged himself there. He found Civil War newspapers, a stove-pipe hat, a sign that said "5-cent Hot Whiskey."

Beat poet Diane DiPrima moved into #35 in 1962. There she wrote many poems, and her memories of the place can be found in her memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman. She writes to Sally, "We were visited there by probably hundreds of artists and art patrons, including William Burroughs, Cecil Taylor, Frank O’Hara," John Weiners, Herbert Huncke, and Warhol Superstar Billy Name, who lived with DiPrima for a time.

Billy Name recalled in an email to Sally, "wooden broad plank floors and a very comfortable homey feeling from all the wood and open space and kitchen. and, as opposed to all the tenement buildings in its surrounds it actually looked like a 'house' from earlier america. looked and felt like it might have been the perfect home for walt should be designated a historic site and have a nice bronze plaque on the front."

Finally, the building made it into the news in 2004 (The Villager and the Times) when owner Cooper Union opted to paint over a 9/11 memorial mural and make room for advertising, against protests from the locals.

The memorial has been erased and there won't be any bronze plaques. There probably won't even be a building to hang it on. #35 is one of a few lots on the block bought last year by a group of Cooper Square Hotel investors. One investor told The Observer, 'These lots were to become, possibly, a restaurant-lounge and/or expansion to the Cooper hotel so we (Cooper investors) would be able to leverage the brand, amenities and staff of the Cooper Hotel next door.'

In her memoir, DiPrima wrote, 'From the moment when I first laid eyes on 35 Cooper Square, I knew it was the fulfillment of all those fantasies of art and the artist's life, la vie de boheme, harking all the way back to my high school years or before.'

What will happen to such fantasies--and their dreamers--when all the 35 Cooper Squares of our city have been demolished and New York fails, again and again, to fulfill them?"


Ming the Merciless said...

New York Magazine did a really great article on the same topic -- gentrification of the Lower East Side.

Ken Mac said...

Thanks Ming..

Anonymous said...

The neighborhood loses. We all loose. Our children and grandchildren lose when we erase our history. There should be one ironclad Federal moratorium law in place for all historical buildings in every city small or large alike when citizens question a building's demise where demolition is halted until citizens are satisfyied. A law that would force all developers from the start to think before developing. For now, we all should put in place some kind of protection of our charming, historical places -before developers do.

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