THIS OLD-HOUSE FIXATION OF MINE is nothing new. I came to Manhattan at 17 to attend NYU and lasted one year in a dorm. Since then, I’ve never lived in a modern building, only 19th century relics — a series of mostly crummy downtown flats which I kept trading for something slightly less small, dark, or noisy.
That’s 17 Downing Street between Sixth Avenue and Bedford Street, above. I paid $157/month for a ground-floor studio in 1969, tiny and dark. There was an old-fashioned pharmacy called Avignon on the corner, and an Italian luncheonette, Pietro’s, where you could get a bowl of minestrone for less than a dollar, both long gone.
399 West Broadway, corner of Spring, above. I remember standing in a real estate broker’s office on a rainy night in the fall of 1970, while she shuffled through a box of index cards. She pulled out a card for a 900-square-foot loft at $175/month. “Where’s West Broadway?” I asked. It was remote in those days, but cacophanous, with the Hoffman boiler factory clanging away across the street. Later, the racket coming up through the floorboards from the new Spring Street Restaurant downstairs made living there impossible.
I even worked in old buildings, including 640 Broadway on the corner of Bleecker, below. The large semi-circular window marks the space occupied by the Law Commune, a firm specializing in draft dodgers and drug busts. (Abbie Hoffman was a client.) I was a legal secretary earning $4 an hour, which I thought was terrific, and I made my own hours. usually 1-9PM.
52 MacDougal Street, between Houston and Prince, below, lasted about three years. A clerk at the Law Commune was leaving his tub-in-kitchen, $100/month apartment, and I took it over. West-facing, on the third floor, it had a decent amount of sun in the living room (the minuscule bedroom looked into an air shaft). Some of the apartments had toilets in the hall. This one had a toilet inside the apartment, which made it a real prize. An elderly Italian lady, dressed all in black, lived on the top floor. She must have been 95, and she probably got to be by climbing five flights every day.
All the buildings are the same as they ever were — in fact, cleaner and with new windows.
I met up with my sister at Souen for a virtuous macrobiotic lunch. Then we wandered up MacDougal for cappuccinos at the atmospheric Cafe Reggio, which I’m very happy to report is still there.