Urbanities

Stephanie Gutmann
Letter From Tribeca
Spring 1992

Downtown Manhattan seems an unlikely place for an idyllic middle-class residential community. Yet that is precisely what you find when you stroll through the neighborhood known as Tribeca, the Triangle Below Canal Street. Retail use is forbidden on most streets; thus you can walk for block after block without seeing a store. Another fixture of urban life, the predator, is conspicuously absent: In a four-hour walk around the area I saw only one street vagrant. The sidewalks are the cleanest I’ve seen in Manhattan. It’s a neighborhood that even smells wonderful, because of the restaurants that seem to be Tribeca’s only industry.

Twenty years ago, this was a largely abandoned industrial district, an unclaimed trove of well-preserved turn-of-the-century industrial buildings. Carole De Saram remembers those days. When she walked home at night from the financial district, she recalls, she heard nothing but fog horns and sea gulls. When she finally got near the raw, half-excavated loft she called home, she would “walk block after block after block and see nobody—no cars, no people.” Occasionally off in the distance, on one of the dark, warehouse-lined streets, she would see the glow of a hobo’s fire or hear the scratching of the “warehouse cats,” wild inbreds that roamed the deserted district in packs. Mostly, though, she heard her own footsteps, clopping on the cobblestone.

Tribeca was a desert that a handful of hardy, unencumbered young aesthetes who homesteaded here in the late Sixties and early Seventies made bloom. Now, after making the neighborhood safe for the bourgeoisie, they face the inevitable encroachment of urban life: Everybody, it seems, wants in—from drug treatment centers to Shearson Lehman and Drexel Burnham, from the city parole office to luxury-apartment developers and the Commodity Exchange.

Tribecans are fiercely protective of the community they have built. They’ve fought like wildcats to get, and then to preserve, a park, a public school, a library, and relatively safe, clean streets. Predictably, they have been accused of NIMBYism for wanting to preserve their community’s extraordinary low population density (64 people per block, compared with 1,063 in midtown), which accounts for its pastoral “little village” feel and relatively low crime rate. “There are,” as one resident put it, “just not that many reasons for outsiders to pass through.”

Have Tribecans been selfish in driving a planned drug treatment clinic from the neighborhood because they were worried about their children? And if so, does one just tamp down one’s fierce, parental instincts? How is one supposed to protect one’s children? Other neighborhoods might be straitjacketed by guilt or paralyzed by a compulsion to find the politically correct, morally perfect answers to these questions. But the one-time bohemians who pioneered Tribeca don’t sit around agonizing: They jump into action whenever they perceive a threat to their peaceful existence.

Between 1980 and 1990 the number of children in Tribeca nearly doubled, without a commensurate change in the adult population. The baby boomers who settled here in the Sixties and Seventies have had a baby boom of their own. Residents claim their neighborhood now has the highest per capita concentration of children in the city. Tribeca is still a place where people know each other’s children by name. “If you see someone’s kid on the street in trouble,” says longtime resident Liz Berger, “you stop, and you know that someone will stop for yours.”

The usual stereotype of Tribeca is that it is populated mostly by snooty film stars. The average Tribecan, in the popular imagination, dresses in black from head to toe and spends his time in fancy Tribeca restaurants, when he isn’t romping with models in his gleaming, state-of-the-art loft. As with most stereotypes, this one contains a kernel of truth. Quite a few film stars do live here, though probably not as many per capita as on the Upper West Side or in the Village. Robert De Niro bought a building and turned the upper floors into offices for people in the movie industry and the bottom floor into an elegant restaurant called the Tribeca Grill.

But most Tribecans are solidly middleclass, though they are concentrated in what one might call the “visual aesthetic” fields. One finds sculptors, architects, photographers, gallery owners, dancers, landscape architects, painters, real estate brokers, and, yes, film-makers. Still, these professions don’t necessarily make one rich, and most of the residents here are struggling homeowners and parents. Fortysomething, Berkeley-educated sculptor Rudy Serra is an assistant professor of art at a small college in Pennsylvania who paints houses in the summer for extra cash. His wife, Nancy Owens, a fortysomething Berkeley-educated landscape architect, works for the city. The couple and their two young children can’t afford to eat in local restaurants like Chanterelle and the Tribeca Grill. Yet although they’re not rich and famous, they do have a piece of the American dream. “I’ve gotten my kids into a good neighborhood and a good public school,” Serra says proudly.

There was no neighborhood here twenty years ago. To understand why people gravitated to Tribeca originally, you have to imagine what it was like for the young aesthete to walk the deserted streets and see the incredible buildings standing empty. No one lived or worked in these vast, structurally sound, Italianate buildings, with their heavy, arched window cornices and broad canopies. Artists especially were drawn by the beautiful detailing: Here was wrought iron filigree, there were carved marble pediments. Rounding a corner one could stumble upon a statue of a headless, winged woman over the door of a building.

Ronnie Moscowitz was 27 in 1974 when she moved, illegally, into an abandoned loft building. She was drawn to Tribeca, she says, because it was so “full of light.” She isn’t getting spiritual; there actually was brighter sunlight in Tribeca back then. Few buildings in the area are higher than five stories, and the Hudson River, Tribeca’s western boundary, acted like a sheet of tinfoil, reflecting sunlight onto Tribeca’s wide streets and low-rise buildings. The light poured into the ten-foot windows of the loft buildings and filled their cavernous, open floors.

Except for a few minor inconveniences—like manufacturing-only zoning requirements—the buildings were yours to homestead if you had the pluck to jimmy open the fortress-like industrial steel doors. For young people approaching the acquisitive, nesting period of their lives, Tribeca aroused what Maggie Gallagher calls “house lust”—but here was a house lust one could satisfy on a budget. The early Tribecans could acquire what most young Manhattanites can only dream about: space, light, privacy, and quiet. In those days, 25,000 square feet of cathedral-ceilinged, light-flooded space went for as little as $20,000. Newcomers did, however, have to make a big investment in sweat equity. After you jimmied open the steel door, you had to live the squatter’s life for a while: slogging up seven flights to the only neighbor who had working plumbing, asking around for help with your electrical wiring, tearing down panels of crumbling sheet rock, filling wheelbarrows with century-old detritus and carting it away. Thus, a self-selection process took place, screening out anyone who wasn’t serious about living here. This has become one of the most stabilizing features of the neighborhood.

When Carole De Saram and her boyfriend, who taught music at Queens College, needed a place for his piano and two harpsichords, they joined a group of young professionals and converted an 1898 caviar-packing factory building from “raw” to “residential.”

Taking over two floors and knocking out the common ceiling, De Saram and her boyfriend created one cavernous space, almost like a concert hall. This meant rigging up hoists and pulleys to drag out the huge beams that had filled the place. It was a bit like excavating an archaeological site: Hacking and scrabbling, they unearthed new layers of the building’s history. They came across old pipes, wiring from different periods, rusting industrial machinery, cigarette rolling machines, hat pins used by factory workers in days gone by, and even a coffin on the fourth floor. De Sararn gingerly handled old electrical cables as thick as her wrist. “We had enough wiring to light the city. Everybody was always doing some kind of electrical work or plumbing,” she says. “It’s a wonder we didn’t kill ourselves.”

“There was a custom, a rule, that still applies today,” she says. “You gutted your place and you put your stuff out on your loading dock so everybody else could have a chance scavenging it. If you could use it, you took it.” Old office furniture was particularly treasured, but sometimes the dumpsters held raw materials: De Saram says everybody she knows from those years still has birch bookcases made from a bumper crop of packing crates she once found. The renovation efforts moved in cycles. After the furniture scrounging, “for a while everybody was painting,” De Saram says. “And then we got into a tree planting scene.”

It was your basic late-Sixties idyll. Folks played volleyball in the empty streets on weekends or drifted over to someone else’s loading dock (the equivalent of a stoop in a stoopless neighborhood) to smoke some pot and watch the sun set. They sunbathed and flew kites along the miles of undeveloped beach on the Hudson River shore. One could pay the city $50 for a parking spot under an overpass of the abandoned West Side Highway and then let everybody else park there for $10.

“Socially and economically, [the early Tribecans] were people who came out of the Sixties,” Ronnie Moscowitz says. “There was a sense of awareness, the utopianism of the Sixties, wanting to build something. There was a sense that there were no rules.” A little city was rising, but its citizens’youth and high spirits gave it something of the feel of a cartoon.

Even their run-ins with the law had a Keystone Cops flavor. The city made a half-serious attempt at investigating the illegal loft-dwellers. And De Saram and company made a half-serious attempt at covering up their doings. They would see city inspectors skulking around the windows looking for house plants, a sign of habitation. Sometimes they got wind of an inspector’s visit and everybody would haul his food and bedding (sure indications of habitation) down to the basement, then carry them back up when the danger had passed. The only other characters in the little drama were truck drivers who passed through occasionally and swaggered along the deserted, midday boardwalk sidewalks like Wyatt Earp.

But as the Tribecans got older, the stakes got higher. The children of the Sixties had children of their own—and made the transition from bohemian to bourgeois. “When I first was here in the mid-Seventies there were no kids,” explains Liz Berger, a lobbyist for the Naderite New York Public Interest Research Group. “Then everybody had children. It started in the early Eighties: Everybody had their first kid, and then two to four years later, everybody had their second kid. That changed the neighborhood dramatically.”

The Tribecans could no longer be satisfied with a neighborhood that was merely habitable and pleasant. They transformed their community into a place where they could raise children. In 1984 they won themselves a new public elementary school, the first to be built in Manhattan in decades. In 1989 they got a public library. In May 1991, after years of wrangling, they won “historic district” designation for 17 blocks—which means that anyone wanting to alter, tear down, or build new buildings in this area will have to get permission from the city. In 1983, community groups took possession of a 1.1 acre piece of land which they turned into a park. Washington Market Park is managed by a board of directors who pay for its upkeep with revenue from a privately owned parking lot. The city’s Parks Department has nothing to do with it, which may explain why it is so clean and well-maintained that mothers let their children run barefoot there. It has one of the longest list of park rules I have ever seen. Pets, food, and roller skates are all banished. The gates are locked at dusk. But, Berger says, Washington Market Park is the equivalent of “a town square in New York City.” For Nancy Page, another Tribeca mom, it is “everybody’s backyard.”

Last October, at a meeting of Community Board 1, Project Return, a not-for-profit organization that runs rehabilitation centers for drug addicts, announced that it was about to buy a Civil War-era building at 107-113 Franklin Street, in the heart of Tribeca. Tribecans learned that their would-be neighbor had a 65 percent recidivism rate, that most of its clients were ex-convicts, that the state was going to spend $2.3 million to purchase the building and another $4 million on renovations, that the building would hold 160 beds for live-in recovering addicts, and that the center would run an outpatient treatment center from 6 to 11 o’clock at night—making for something very unusual in the area: lots of people on the street after dark.

But the state and Project Return didn’t know what they were getting into. After all, they were tangling with men and women who spent their youth shutting down campuses, marching on Washington, and lodging sex discrimination suits against big corporations. Carole De Saram, Nancy Owens, Rudy Serra, and others immediately went into their activist mode. A meeting a few weeks later drew three hundred to four hundred people, united in the view that a quiet residential street in a family neighborhood—their neighborhood—was the wrong place to plop down a home for 160 drug addicts, many with prison records.

The proposal was ill-conceived in other ways as well, making it fairly easy to attack. De Saram, a real estate broker, knew that 107-113 Franklin—a dirty, dark green industrial building straight out of Dickens—was obviously not worth $6.3 million. Because it is in a sort of urban canyon, it gets no direct sunlight, and it is flanked on three sides by taller buildings. No wonder it had been for sale for seven years. De Saram sensed a sweetheart deal:

Somebody in state politics, she suspected, wanted to take a white elephant off the hands of an influential property owner. One way to do that is to enlist the aid of a nonprofit and then go to the state for the purchase money. Charitable organizations, after all, are relatively inoculated against hard scrutiny. Critics of such an arrangement appear heartless: “We were perceived as elitist, racist, spoiled kids,” Owens recalls.

The newspapers quickly joined the fray, crowing about the NIMBYism down in Tribeca, where the rich liberals were finally showing their true colors. NIMBY—WHERE THERE ARE NO YARDS jeered a Daily News headline. The Post’s Amy Pagnozzi snarled, “What is a conservative, but a liberal with a mortgage? ... Who do these lofty residents of Tribeca think they are anyway? This is not ’Little House on the Prairie,’ this is dirty downtown Manhattan. I don’t care if you’ve got a Carrera marble countertop.... You’re living in a warehouse.”

“It’s funny,” Serra says. “I’ve gone from ’hippie’to ’yuppie’ to ’NIMBY’ but my income hasn’t changed.”

The community was unfazed by such attacks. The Tribeca Community Association quickly raised enough money to hire an accountant, an environmental expert, a lawyer, and a zoning consultant. Volunteers spent nights and weekends combing mortgage papers, articles of incorporation, civil court cases, newspaper accounts, and Freedom of Information Act documents. The search was fruitful. It revealed, for instance, that the building lay in two zoning areas, but that Project Return hadn’t applied for a zoning variance. It was conceivable, therefore, that the deal would go through and Project Return wouldn’t be able to operate its clinic. The community association pointed out that this was a peculiar site for a treatment center anyway, because the building would be crammed and there was no room for an exercise yard.

Project Return countered by offering to reduce the number of beds from 160 to 80 and to provide a 24-hour security guard. Then the Tribeca Community Association discovered that Project Return planned to close a 45-bed treatment center uptown and transfer its residents to Tribeca. “So now we’re up to almost $7 million for 35 [new] beds,” De Saram says.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, the Cuomo administration announced that the deal was off. Project Return blamed the budget crunch, but De Saram thinks the organization backed out because local residents had “made the costs so public.” “Nobody who makes his career in Albany was going to be stupid enough to put his name on the dotted line for this boondoggle,” she says. “The research we were doing was incredible.... It would have blown up in their face.”

So what’s next for the stiff-backed Tribecans? For one thing, they still have to worry about what one resident calls “the horror movie named ’Wall Street Eats Tribeca’”—the northward creep of Wall Street firms, presaged by the installation of Shearson Lehman Hutton and Drexel Burnham along Tribeca’s waterfront. “Tribeca is becoming the sacrificial lamb of Wall Street,” Serra contends, “because it doesn’t have height limitations, unlike the Village and Soho.” The Tribeca Task Force, a local group, is working on barring the Commodity Exchange from building a twenty-story tower on an empty lot next to the neighborhood’s only public school. The task force says the tower would put the school and Washington Market Park in shadow most of the day and that it would put over 13,000 office workers daily onto the neighborhood sidewalks at roughly the same times that our school children leave and return from school.” It is ridiculous, the task force says, for the city to cooperate with the Commodity Exchange’s planned move to Tribeca at the same time as it is desperately trying to find tenants for the empty offices in the depressed Wall Street area. Tribecans themselves have been eyeing the site—the last empty lot in the neighborhood—as a place to make a ballfield for their children, who will be hitting their teens before long.

Spokesmen for the city make a sympathetic argument, too: They want to keep a business from moving to New Jersey, as its managers keep threatening. If they want that site—maybe because of the proximity to Tribeca’s lovely, uncrowded streets—we’ll give ’em that site, the city says.

It seems inevitable that this idyll cannot last. Like water seeking its own level, the congestion of the rest of the city will ultimately push into this uncrowded place. After all, most everybody else wants what Tribeca has: air, light, and elbow room.

But maybe this conclusion underestimates the people of Tribeca and their drive to protect the community they built from scratch. These pioneers are a particularly tough breed. Moreover, they seem unburdened by the guilt that paralyzes other middle-class neighborhoods, locking them into endless arguments about how to solve community problems.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Tribecans have given up as so many Manhattanites have, that they’ve become cynical and fatalistic, that they will begin to think of their neighborhood as only “dirty downtown Manhattan.” Some people have an amazing ability to make their own “Little House on the Prairie”—even if the prairie is a ninety-block triangle at the bottom of this crowded little island.

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