Dream of Oaxaca

My four days in Oaxaca last month are a fading dream. I was already starting to feel nervous about riding in crowded vans, as we did one day to get to the nearby ruins, and my hand sanitizer got a lot of use. But basically it was in the Before Times, when one could still move about freely, go into restaurants and shops at will, and travel on public conveyances, faces unobscured by masks.

Oaxaca, in a southerly crook of Mexico, is a lovely place, a city of fine neoclassical buildings and magnificent airy cathedrals set back on broad plazas. But the buildings that struck me most were the simple two-story attached houses, with ornate carved-stone door and window moldings, painted bright yellow, orange, blue, the sun etching sharp shadows across their fronts.

Some are used as inviting coffee shops set in hushed interior courtyards, where young folks with laptops while away the day. Some are mezcalerias, glitzy and cool or funky and old-school. Some are restaurants, many with steep staircases leading to rooftop bars.

And many are crafts shops — of varying quality, but mostly pretty high. Oaxaca has a number of specialties in that realm, including black pottery, textiles, filigreed jewelry, tinware. There are scores of shops large and small.

The city of a quarter-million centers on a zócalo, or central square. Unlike Mexico City’s barren one, Oaxaca’s zócalo is green and shady, thronged with people and surrounded by cafes. Street musicians, women selling textiles from bales slung over their shoulders, children playing, outdoor dance groups. It’s a lively place for sure.

We stayed at Las Golondrinas (“The Swallows”), below, a hotel a little ways from the center, secluded behind a gate. The garden setting is lush, our familiar houseplants grown to Audrey II size. Outdoor breakfast under an arbor was a little disorganized the first morning, because it was a national day of support for domestic violence victims. Women were staying home, and men were cooking and serving. Chaos ensued.

I loved my pink room but for one thing: the glary light from the compact fluorescent bulbs. I spent part of the first full day in Oaxaca on a quest for warm bulbs (I’m exquisitely sensitive to bad lighting), which took me to a large electrical supply store near the central market. Once again, I surmised, the women who normally work the front counter were absent, and the men, who I’m guessing work in the back somewhere, though very kind, didn’t seem to know where anything was or how to ring it up. It was adorable.

The Mercado Juarez is the phenomenal central market, bigger even than the one in Mexico City. I approached it cautiously, spending less time there than I might had I not been getting paranoid about crowds. It’s everything to everybody, aisle after aisle, from meat and produce to pet lizards, bunnies and fish, bolts of floral-patterned fabric, cut-paper decorations, woven bags, colorful clothing, floor to ceiling and overflowing onto surrounding blocks.

Everything’s so cheap to an American vacationer. At one of the high-end restaurants, Casa Oaxaca, it was all we could do to spend $40 apiece, including tip, on an incredible multi-course dinner — salsa made at the table and served with crisp green tacos sprinkled with cheese, a striped bass entree, a beet salad, a fancy dessert and two glasses of chardonnay from Baja’s renowned wine valley. That was by far our priciest meal. Most other full-on dinners in very nice restaurants, half indoor-half outdoor, ran $16-$18. Huge portions everywhere. Sorry to go on about prices, but for me one of the chief pleasures of a Mexican vacation is not feeling stressed about overspending.

At Las Quince Letras, I had a giant squash with chocolate mole sauce (strange), and a pepper stuffed with mushrooms in a different mole. There were seven moles in all, brought on a tray for sampling. At Marco Polo, a more casual place filled with locals, it was snapper baked in a wood-fired oven and for dessert, mamey ice cream, my new favorite flavor.

The tour of Oaxaca City’s botanic garden, above, on the site of the Santo Domingo monastery, is two hours long, a leisurely pace for a six-acre space. Offered in English three times a week and very popular, the official tour is the only way to visit the garden. It’s all native Oaxacan plants, and naturally beautiful, of course, but not a masterpiece of garden design. It’s called an ethno-botanic garden, so the aim of the tour is to tie the plants in with the native people, which was fascinating, though the guide shared way more botanical information than even I needed to know.

We easily arranged a half day small-group bus trip to Monte Alban, below, the Zapotec acropolis, through the hotel desk. That cost $15, inclusive of the services of our personable and well-spoken guide. The extraordinarily impressive site was in existence for 1,200 years, from 500 BC-800 AD. The reasons for its decline remain a mystery, but one theory is that getting water up to the elites who lived on the high ground became a problem when the peasants in the valley, who had been carrying it up there for who knows how many generations, got tired of doing so and moved on to other regions. Excavated and opened to the public only for the past couple of decades, Monte Alban is the partially reconstructed remains of a broad plateau of pyramid-shaped temples to various gods, their construction based on astounding astronomical calculations. It was good to get out of the city, which is sited in a valley, and take in the surrounding topography from on high.

Wrapping things up on our final day entailed a walk around Los Arquitos (“The Arches”), a quiet neighborhood, built around the remains of an old aqueduct, with good-quality craft stalls where artisans sell jewelry of their own design and making. Of course, I wish I had bought more. At the magnificent Museo des Culturas Oaxaca inside the Santo Domingo cathedral complex, we sought out the tomb treasures of Monte Alban, a hoard of beaded and hammered gold jewelry which rounded out the picture of the culture we’d gained from visiting the temple structures the day before.

Four days in Oaxaca was a bare minimum. A visit there could be pleasurably stretched to months. Will I ever go back? I really don’t know. I’d like to. In any case, I’m glad I got there at least once.

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Brooklyn Quarantine Diary

Quarantine is rooted in the Italian words quarantenara and quaranta giorni, or 40 days, the period of time the city of Venice forced ship passengers and cargo to wait before landing in the 14th and 15th centuries to try to stave off the plague.

How’s your enforced staycation going? For me, a single woman who lives alone and works from home, quarantine is very much like my regular life. I’m used to plenty of solitude and have no problem with it. What’s different now is that the pressures, external and internal, to go out and do something, anything at all, are completely and relaxingly absent.

I’ve been holed up in my garden-level brownstone apartment for eleven days, and so far, haven’t been bored for a minute. Early on, I placed delivery orders for groceries and wine, which I’d rarely ever done. The supermarket was out of half the stuff I wanted and the delivery window was four days out. It looks like I’ll have to cut my own fingernails soon and possibly my own hair, but that’s about the worst of it.

OK, I’m being flippant, and yes, I’m acutely aware of my privilege. If doing one’s own nails was the worst of it, we’d all be in great shape. People are fighting for their lives on ventilators as we speak, and nurses and doctors are working double and triple shifts without proper supplies, while my anxiety takes the form of being weirdly abstemious with such things as postage stamps, hair products and, yes, toilet paper (food and alcohol not so much).

When I landed at JFK Tuesday night, March 17, after an aborted Mexican vacation, my coronavirus worry was at a peak. I’d spent the last long day of travel first in a crowded van, then in an airport, then on a 5-hr flight and in a stuffy taxi which brought me to my Brooklyn door. To assuage my own anxiety and make sure I didn’t infect others in case I had been exposed, I committed to adopting the slightly more stringent NYC regulations in place for vulnerable over-70s, even though I’m 69 for another few days.

No problem. I didn’t really want to go food shopping or to the drugstore anyway, even with gloves, even for a few minutes, if it meant being extra-paranoid and/or guilty afterwards.

And no, quarantine is not an exact replica of my real life. Most days, under normal circumstances, I get up at an early hour, get dressed and go to the gym, and many evenings, after a day’s work at my desk, I go out for drinks and dinner with friends. Now I’m doing none of those things (except for the work part). I’ve left my building only for neighborhood walks.

This morning, it included the Farmers’ Market at Grand Army Plaza, where vendors were sparse, the produce tables — mostly root vegs and apples from last fall — cordoned off to keep customers at a distance, and people in masks and latex gloves lined up with six foot spaces between.

NYC is not as quiet as those ghost-town photos of Times Square would have you believe, or as Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio would like. Yesterday, Friday, was springlike, and Fort Greene Park was a de facto gym, with people doing every form of exercise from jump rope to crunches to stair climbing. Vehicular traffic was light but not that light. The sidewalks were emptier than usual, but hardly empty.

Our elected officials’ approach, of asking people to cooperate with the new regulations on a voluntary basis, worries me. Kids have even been playing basketball, a game in which avoiding close human contact is obviously impossible, in city parks and playgrounds the Mayor has been reluctant to padlock. With such lax enforcement, how much longer will this go on than it needs to? Maybe we can be sanguine about quarantine for a bit longer, but soon the charms of vegetating in place will pall.

My personal health panic faded after I watched (and half-believed) a YouTube video touting a best-case scenario, and passed the average incubation times for coronavirus. I’m feeling fine. Meanwhile, I self-isolate, shelter in place, lock myself down, willingly place myself under house arrest. I haven’t even made a dent on the procrastinated-on projects I call my “Winter List,” which I have already blown off several winters in a row. It includes such things as “Go through travel files” and “Go through old photos” (pre-2000, bursting out of a seven-foot wide credenza).

Directly as a result of the pandemic, I lost one of my two freelance clients to budget cuts, so I have a lot more free time than usual. I just don’t know what happens to it. I haven’t done any Pilates or yoga. I’ve cooked only a little, and haven’t cracked a book.

I have, however, raked up the back garden and cleared out under the deck stairs (my domain), throwing away stiffened hoses and broken snow shovels. My landlords are away at their country place, so I have the whole overgrown garden to myself. Early spring is its moment of glory, with forsythia and a magnificent star magnolia in bloom.

Last week, when this was new and things seemed on the verge of catastrophe, I found myself thinking of Anne Frank and her family’s 2-1/2 years in the Secret Annex, as well as my own confinement at age 14 with rheumatic fever. At first, the doctors said complete bed rest for 4 weeks, and that was bad enough. It turned out to be four whole months, from March to June 1964, before whatever it was they were measuring in my blood reached the correct level. But I made it through. The time went by and, in retrospect, it shaped me.

That experience was different, because I wasn’t contagious and could have all the visitors I wanted, but full-time bedrest throughout the entire spring of ninth grade was pretty extreme. I started a voluminous correspondence with an English penpal that remains a rock-solid friendship to this day. Our letters were masterpieces of adolescent reportage, unique sociological documents, largely about our mutual Beatles fandom. I read some memorable books (I remember two, anyway — Gone with the Wind and Of Human Bondage), and immersed myself in music, fueled by the AM radio stations I listened to on my transistor. Beatles, Stones, Motown, R&B, Dylan, Orbison — 1964 was a great year for pop music, and the hits of that season still carry a powerful emotional charge.

I know we’ll get through this as a society and live to fight at least another day (climate change has not been mentioned in weeks). Like everyone else, I’m worried about what happens next. As cozy as I am and as well-stocked, I hope this quarantine doesn’t last long enough for me to get around to sorting my CDs.

Posted in BROOKLYN | 5 Comments

First Timer in Mexico City

SIX DAYS AGO, I got back from two weeks in Mexico. It was supposed to have been a three-week vacation, but fears of the U.S.-Mexico border closing suddenly and the possibility, if flights were cancelled, of having to rent a car and drive cross country from Baja California to NYC (38 hours – I checked), caused my holiday to come to an abrupt end.

When a friend and I left JFK on Tuesday, March 3, there were a couple hundred coronavirus cases in New York. I had heard about it, and checked three drug stores for hand sanitizer before I left (to no avail), but it wasn’t something that would cause me to change my long-arranged travel plans, for gosh sakes. When I got back to NYC on Tuesday, March 17, the number of cases was in five digits.

I hadn’t ever been to CDMX (the new official acronym for Mexico City, for Ciudad de Mexico). I expected chaos, noise, maybe a little danger. Instead, I found it as rich in art and architecture as a European capital and cleaner than New York City, with parks full of jacaranda trees in purple bloom. Our two-bedroom, two-bath Air B&B was ridiculously inexpensive and more luxurious than my normal lifestyle, located in the Roma neighborhood, just around the corner from where the movie of that name was filmed.

Roma and Condesa, the adjoining nabe, about 3 miles from the Centro Historico, are both terrific, but Condesa is where I’d live if I lived in CDMX. It was built in the 1920s and ’30 around the jungle-like, oval-shaped Parque Mexico, on the site of a one-time racecourse. I wandered around, taking in the Art Deco architecture that flowered in Mexico City after the devastating economic effects of the 1910 Mexican Revolution had resolved.

All this wonderfulness was enhanced by the fact that I wasn’t paying much attention to the news.

My main goal was to see the murals of the great social realist Diego Rivera, with visits to his monumental works at the Palacio National (nothing less ambitious than the history of Mexico from pre-conquest times to the 1930s); the futuristic “Man at the Crossroads” mural at the Palacio des Bellas Artes, which also has towering murals by Orozco, Tamayo and Siquieros, and another at the Diego Rivera Museum, a personal and political riff on Seurat’s painting “Sunday on the Grand Jetté,” at the head of lovely Alameda Central park.

And we weren’t about to miss what is surely one of Mexico’s top tourist attractions, Frida’s Kahlo’s famous “blue house” in the Coyoacan neighborhood, a 20-minute taxi ride from the center, as well as the extraordinary modernist home and studio built in the nearby San Angel neighborhood for Rivera by his friend and neighbor, architect Juan O’Gorman. They didn’t disappoint. In fact, they astounded.

A street food tour with Eat Mexico was a highlight. It satisfied my curiosity about the famous Mexico City street food stalls without my having to risk digestive upset. The small-group tour took us to a central business district, Cuahutemoc, where there are tall glass office towers. It’s mostly office workers and construction workers who find these carts, set up in the morning and broken down at night, some that have been in the same family for decades, so convenient.

The food we tried at a dozen stops, ably guided by Ariana Ruiz, was uniformly fresh and delicious, and incredibly high in carbs. There was atolle, a warm sweet rice drink; samples from several tortillerias (of 65,000 in the city), round discs of corn dough, salted and eaten as a snack; cemitas poblanas, another bready thing, with string cheese, avocado and an herb called papalo. I also tried chamoy, a sweet/salty salsa, Asian- influenced, with tamarind, papaya, pineapple and other fruit; pombazo, a way to use day-old bread by soaking it in salsa and frying; shrimp burritos and a seafood tostada, Veracruz- style. It’s cooked ceviche, basically, sushi-fresh and delivered daily from both coasts, each 5 hours away by truck.

Food in general was a highlight of CDMX. We ate everywhere from a retro lunch counter in an 18th century Baroque building entirely clad in blue and white tiles, to the vegan cafe down the block where we sat outside one evening under string lights, to Dulce Patria, a fancy restaurant for which we had made advance reservations, that took us into Mexico City’s poshest neighborhood, Polanco.

We did many of the things you have to do your first time in CDMX, including the 14th century Templo Mayor excavations and museum, dating from when Mexico City, called Tenochtitlan, was on an island linked to the mainland by causeways, and the dizzying, world-class anthropology museum. I’m not sure one of the things you have to do is take the subway, but we did, as an adventure. It was impressively efficient. But Ubers are too, and hardly more costly.

Five days in Mexico City was perfect for must-dos and a bit of wandering, with guidebook in hand. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to carry one around.

By the time we left for Oaxaca March 8, the coronavirus news was casting a pall. We encountered worried Americans there, which we had not in MCDX. Mexicans, too, were conscious of it and big on the hand sanitizer.

Oaxaca, sleepy by comparison to CDMX but of great charm and interest, will be the subject of another post. I’ll have plenty of time to put that together, from quarantine here in brownstone Brooklyn.

Hope you are all doing well in your seclusion during this weird, anxious time. I have faith it will eventually be over, and we’ll get back, not to the old normal, but hopefully better. After our enforced staycations, we’ll be well-rested and well-read, less crazed consumers, more appreciative of the low-wage workers who keep us going, less frenetic, more introspective. We’ll have caught up with old friends and cleaned out our closets. And I, I hope, will have revived my dormant blog.

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These Walls Talk: Story of an 1830s Brooklyn House

I AM BACK in Brooklyn for the winter and turning my attention to another of my vintage properties, one that hasn’t had much love in recent years: a four-story brick in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, located conveniently but noisily between two major arteries, Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue.

Doesn’t look like much, perhaps, with the fire escape and all, but it has history. I found out recently that it was built in 1835 by a mason named Ezekiel C. Frost, who had a Fulton Street address. It was a pretty fancy house at one time; you rarely see a Brooklyn row house with windows on the hallway stair landings, which this one has.

Land conveyance document showing the builder’s sale (of a possibly uncompleted house, as he had just bought the lot four or five months earlier) to John W. Hyatt on February 23, 1836. Hyatt owned it a couple months before flipping it to someone else… and so it went.

There’s no stoop, just a couple of steps up to the front door, surrounded by original carved wood moldings in a plain but obvious Greek Revival style. The parlor floor’s high ceilings were once bedecked with ornamental plasterwork.

When we bought the building vacant in 1979, it was unlivable, an utter wreck, with graffiti on the inside and other relics of NYC’s bad old days (metal gates across windows, steel apartment doors). The pipes had frozen and burst; the boiler was useless. But a few decorative details, including fluted moldings around the tall windows on the parlor floor, had miraculously survived.

The parlor floor as it looks today.

It took us four years to renovate the building, much of it hands-on, into three rental apartments — a ground floor one-bedroom, which replaced a former bodega; a 4-bedroom duplex on the parlor and third floors, above, created by installing an interior stair; and a top floor two-bedroom.

There were even a few shards of plaster detail left forty years ago, but we were so naive about historic preservation, we didn’t save them. I cringe to report that the bits and pieces of plaster we threw away in 1979 suggested our house may have had something akin to the plasterwork in the 1832 Old Merchant’s House, below, a historic house museum on East 4th Street in Manhattan, though not as ornate.

The house had a hectic history, which I delved into one Saturday morning last month at the Brooklyn Historical Society. In a two-hour workshop called “If These Walls Could Talk,” held in the hushed late-Victorian library of the BHS on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, we were introduced to various resources and materials, including maps, land conveyance documents and residential directories. There are also invaluable websites, notably the digitized archives of The Brooklyn Eagle, a daily newspaper that began publishing in the 1850s. (I wasn’t a total newbie at this; I did a similar workshop a few years back, researching our Cobble Hill building.)

That afternoon, I spent a further few hours in the library, coming away with a real sense of lived history, of the specific individuals who worked, ate, socialized on the very same wide-plank floorboards we’ve sanded and re-sanded and patched and filled, because they’re too full of character to replace.

Most moving of all were some 1850s classifieds in the Eagle, advertising ponies for sale, lost earrings, musical instruments (“French tremolo $20, Spanish guitar (a gem, only $35), English concertina $20”). Real people with real lives, who wore top hats and bustles and took meals at a communal table, meals probably prepared in what is now our basement boiler room.

Housing classifieds in the same paper of the same period were even more revealing. Seems the house may never have been used as a single-family home, but was always a multi-unit building. Individual floors and rooms were advertised to let, with or without board.

TO RENT – A beautiful parlor floor in a first class house; gas, water, &c. In good order; inquire of Mrs. Scott from 10 A.M. to-morrow till 3 P.M.

BOARD – Gentlemen and their wives, or five or six single gentlemen, can be accommodated in pleasant front or back rooms, on first or second floors, with good board. Cars pass the door.

Among the other intriguing things I found out:

  • The house’s original address, as the street name was different in the 19th century. That was key to finding out other things, but not all. Land conveyance documents are based not on addresses, but on not-to-scale lot drawings showing measurements from nearby street corners.
  • The house was likely built as a spec project right around the date I had surmised. It is a less grand version of the 1832 Old Merchant’s House, a historic house museum on East 4th Street in Manhattan, similar in proportion, detail and layout.
  • It changed hands, as did most of the other lots on the block and in the neighborhood, many, MANY times over the course of Brooklyn’s 19th century building and real estate booms.
  • There were births and deaths in the building, not to mention foreclosures and bankruptcies and day-after-Christmas visiting hours, when a pastor lived there in the 1890s.
  • That because of all the frantic flipping, continuing into the 20th century, my wasband and I have owned the building far longer than anyone else ever did.

It may have been this last startling realization that recharged my sense of responsibility toward this historic, if degraded, property. It spurred me to plan a spiffing-up, this coming winter, of the public halls, which haven’t been painted in many years and are sorely in need of new floor tile and stair carpet.

My cosmetic improvements are happening at a time when the house is about to be dwarfed by a mixed-use complex known as 80 Flatbush (renderings above — it’s the weird basket-shaped thing), with two towers of 40-something and nearly 70 stories. Ezekiel Frost would be very surprised.

The construction will take eight years. But this house is a survivor, and it will go on.

Posted in BROOKLYN, HISTORIC PRESERVATION | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Appreciating October: Old Houses & Fall Color

OCTOBER HAS BEEN A MONTH for remembering my love of old houses, which is why I started this blog in the first place, and for being blown away once again by the beauty of Long Island’s South Fork. That includes my own humble half-acre, above and below, whose fall colors are more brilliant than at any time in the decade I’ve been here.

They say it’s because of all the rain we had this season (which continues). Usually, the oak trees that dominate this region turn dull brown in fall, while the red maples and golden hickories are fewer. This year, it seems, the oaks haven’t turned yet and so remain green, while the others have colored up in timely fashion. It’s so blazingly beautiful that for once, I’m not suffering FOMO over not being in New England or the Hudson Valley.

Meanwhile, an article in the East Hampton Star about some local historic preservation awards for two recently restored Colonial-era houses caught my eye, and I trotted over to check them out. One is the early-18th century Hiram Sanford House on Egypt Lane, below, a plain and modest structure behind which new owners are building some kind of modernist bunker out of shipping containers (don’t ask).

Around the corner from it, un-awarded, is an even cuter house of similar vintage, below, which I only noticed because I parked in front of it.

The more outstanding preservation project is the Gardiner Mill Cottage Gallery, below, a 1750 saltbox with leaded windows. It sits on an open 3-1/2 acre lot that has remained intact in East Hampton Village since 1638, and also contains an 1804 windmill. The building is now a new art museum, open weekends only, with rotating exhibits of historical landscape paintings.

Nearby are two more of the oldest English Colonial houses in the country, Mulford Farm and the so-called “Home Sweet Home” museum, below, plus another fine windmill. I’ve been to these numerous times, and to the lovingly maintained kitchen garden that sits between them.

From there I spotted a house across the main road, below, that appears to have equal historic integrity, with asymmetrical windows and a steeply pitched roof (for shedding snow?) Certainly more than two centuries old, it just sits there with no awards, plaques or fanfare.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to Europe in a while so I’m not jaded, or maybe it’s because I’m about to go back to NYC for the winter, but suddenly, the architectural heritage of this pretty town looks especially rich to me.

I can’t say I’m ready to go back to the city, exactly, but it’s been a good long season and things are winding down. The coleus in my window boxes are only a frost away from turning black and falling over.

I’ve planted about 1,000 early bulbs — tarzetta daffodils, crocus, glory of the snow, winter aconite — here and there throughout the property, to welcome me back next spring.

The city has its charms, and I’m determined to rediscover those, too, this winter. But it doesn’t have this: