Magazine | April 16, 2018, Issue

Street Scene

(Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

The city’s streets are caught in a struggle between money and effort. Since effort sometimes generates money, the struggle is endless. Big money, longing to grow even bigger, erects towers that, when they are not magical, are blocks of dullness, darkening the sun and depressing the spirit. But effort always seeks to hold or find its own corners to work in, however small.

I saw the struggle epitomized on one of the dreariest corners of midtown. The side street approached the avenue like a meager thread between two megaliths. But, hugging the sidewalk, stood a line of food carts, little points of effort: Greek, King Tutz Halal, something Mexican decorated with an Aztec warrior clasping an almost naked princess. Through the pavement of success the grass blades of would-be success poked up.

I recently cabbed down an avenue that, almost uniquely, keeps the city’s forces in balance. My route was a straight shot, four miles south, gradually descending in elevation via a series of hills. I began at the Jewish Y, home of broke students and good concerts. Architecturally, the Y sits in a neighborhood of no distinction, marked by poor man’s row houses of drab brick, the occasional pointed roof or rounded corner trying gamely and vainly to add a little zip. These alternate with newer brick buildings — taller, plainer, duller.

The interest comes from the store fronts. What do people want to buy? Alcohol, from either liquor stores or bars. The Irish tricolor = thirst no more. Repairs — to shoes, jewelry, and bodies (women must be very anxious about their faces and hands, there are so many places to service them; you want Perfect Brows, I know the spot). Lotto cigars periodicals, all jammed in holes in the wall, hope, lung cancer, and Gutenberg going down together. More than anything, people want food: from grocery stores, of course, but mostly from eateries: doughnuts, Chinese, yogurt, subs, bistros, Grab and Go, Pastrami Queen, Pick-a-Bagel, Dulce Vida (Marcello Mastroianni is not a regular). What delights is not the originality of any individual storefront, or even their variety — they offer the same few things, over and over — but their profusion, and the implied profusion of their customers: You want, we have, you want, we have. No grand vision here, but a thousand needs and a hundred opportunities for satisfying them.

After about a mile, the width of the store fronts and the height of the buildings remained the same, though the needs being satisfied went up a class notch: One bar boasted of its bookshelves; one store actually sold bound printouts; there was a bespoke clothier, and some antique stores. A snack place advertised its savoir faire with an Eiffel Tower on its sign.

Next came a mile dominated by large buildings, some of them buildings of note. A Moorish grand hotel, formerly a residence for ladies, now given over to condominiums; a skyscraper with a snowy skin and a slant top; a tourist from Las Vegas or Miami Beach, teal, with a ridge running up its flank like the crest of a dune; a Gothic tribute to electricity, sporting metal lightning bolts; finally, at the very heart of the city, the masterpiece, the tallest building in the world for one year, 88 years ago, futurism frozen and so never to know disappointment. Like their slab siblings, such giants offer little in the way of street-level intercourse, but what they refuse to appetite they give to imagination, pleasing the eye as they yank back the head. On my father’s first trip to the city, with his older sister, using their brakeman father’s rail pass, Big Sis hissed, “Don’t look up, people will think you’re a rube.” I am a rube forever.

Who says we are not religious? On my ride I saw seven houses of worship: two Lutheran, two Catholic (one whose priory had an actual lawn — only a foot deep, it is true, but in the city that is like a par-five hole), one Unitarian, one Moravian, and one synagogue. Who says we are ignorant? There were three colleges, one for Orthodox Jewish women, two run by the city. Who says we aren’t dangerous? I passed two armories, built in part to make sure that the Draft Riots would never happen again. One is now given over to art shows; the other, though it hosted the Armory Show, is still also the home of the 69th Infantry Regiment (Fighting Irish).

But by thinking in categories I have jumbled the avenue’s sequence. After a stretch of restaurants catering to office workers and commuters — Nirvana, Home of Lasagna — came a small hill, and an island of gentility: a few blocks of brownstones, a private club for soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. On the downslope, the spot where the first baseball game supposedly was played (it wasn’t; they took the plaque down long ago). A dull modern building that once housed NR’s headquarters. Then a home stretch of the funkiness in which I began. Short buildings, bars and restaurants, one old print shop bucking the tide, Little India and its riotous appropriation of nomenclature: a restaurant called Sahib, a business called Shiva Wireless (don’t fall behind on your payments to him). An old hotel converted to student housing, another old hotel converted to hipness. Then it ends in greenery: a park, breaking the city’s street grid, surrounded by an iron fence. You need a key to get in.

What keeps the avenue untamed? Certainly not lack of transportation: a subway line runs its entire length, directly beneath or only a block away. Sturdy bedrock would support skyscrapers side by side the whole way if anyone wanted. Narrowness may be the cause: It is a relatively tight channel, most of the parallel avenues are broad boulevards in comparison.

Coda: South of the park the avenue continues, under another name, for six blocks before ending for good at a cross street. Sometime I may write about this stretch, since I really know it.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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