Posts Tagged ‘LaGuardia Place’

The Two Towers

October 1, 2011

The Silver Towers, back when they still had those globe lights (photo: Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)

The other day I was sitting at the Silver Towers apartment complex watching my daughter ride her new scooter when I realized just how large a presence that Picasso statue is in my personal landscape.  The Silver Towers was (and still is) a world away from SoHo, with it’s unadorned, uniform buildings guarded by doormen set around a large open public space with manicured lawns and “keep off the grass” signs (those signs have since disappeared).  Yet it was just across Houston Street, on my way to the supermarket, on my way home from the school bus stop, and the closest open-air plaza to my house.  It was the first place I ever rode a bike outdoors (after learning how to actually ride in my living room).  It was the first place I ever built a snowman.  It was the first place I ever went trick-or-treating.  It was where many of my friends from P.S.3 lived.  In the winter, the buildings form the fiercest wind tunnel imaginable, but it is also the shortest way to get home from the Village, so I brave it anyway and always swear to myself I’ll never do it again.  During summer, because there is almost no shade there, it gets so hot it makes me want to weep (I’m a wimp when it comes to heat).

Picasso's sand-blasted concrete bust of Sylvette at The Silver Towers

Completed in 1966, the three towers, designed by James Ingo Freed and I.M. Pei, are part of a 5 1/2 acre complex that was part of Robert Moses’ ambitious “urban renewal” program.  The tower that faces LaGuardia Place is a Mitchell-Lama middle-income cooperative building for area residents while the other two, owned by NYU, are faculty and graduate student residences.  The large concrete abstract bust in the center of the plaza sculpted by Carl Nesjar was inspired by Pablo Picasso’s small metal sculpture “A Portrait of Sylvette,”  and built in consultation with Picasso himself.

In the early-1970’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted to wrap the Sylvette sculpture in brown fabric, but this never happened.  In the early-1980’s, the towers were cited as part of I.M. Pei’s accomplishments to date when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize.  In 2008, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the complex, including the sculpture, a landmark.

I never understood why they were called “silver” when they were really a drab beige color.  I guess The Drab Beige Towers just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  Actually, I think they were named for Julius Silver, a major NYU donor, but I’m not 100% sure.  What I do know is that I used to think the Silver Towers were just about the ugliest buildings around.  Why would anyone build anything, not to mention a whole residential complex, in concrete, I would wonder.  But sitting there the other day, I realized that I actually dug it.  The beige.  The concrete.  All of it.  I love it.  There is a soothing, earthy quality to the blandness that pervades the entire “superblock,” especially in stark contrast to all of the shiny glass and metal used to build the towering towers of today.  Is it nostalgia?  Longing for childhood?  Maybe.  Will I feel this way in forty years about the Time Warner Center?  Oh boy, I hope not.

Yukie and Mimi playing in that little playground on the Houston Street end of the Silver Towers complex (now called Rocketship Park)

Small-Time Crook

July 30, 2011

Admittedly, the Grand Union on LaGuardia and Bleecker was not in SoHo, but it was such a huge part of my childhood that I feel I must write about it.  Now called Morton Williams, the Grand Union supermarket, built to serve the tenants of NYU’s Silver Towers and Washington Square Village apartment buildings, was the closest place (except for the bodega on West Broadway and Prince) to buy groceries for most SoHo residents.  A free standing-building, it is quite a behemoth for New York City standards, though no competition with the suburban hypermarkets of today.

For years and years, I would go “big shopping” there with my mother and sister.  We would fill up the shopping cart, spending (gasp!) upwards of $50.00, and have everything delivered to our loft.  It must have been not the worst way to make a living, delivering for Grand Union, because we had the same few guys bringing groceries to our house for ages.

My mother says I was about seven years old when she started sending me to Grand Union with my sister on our own.  Seven!  Children’s Services would be called if you did that now.  She would send us there to get, among other things, ten tubes of Crest Regular toothpaste, ten packs of cookies, and a ten packs of cigarettes (a.k.a. a carton).  My father used the toothpaste to polish the lacquer furniture he made (ancient Japanese secret), he served the cookies to his workers at tea time, and he smoked the cigarettes.  What must have they been thinking at checkout when two very little Japanese girls showed up, on a regular basis, to buy this strange assortment of groceries?  I guess they figured we’d need all of that toothpaste after eating all those cookies and smoking all those cigarettes!

The first (and only) time I ever stole anything was at Grand Union.  A Tiger’s Milk Bar.  A strange thing for a kid to want, but whatever.  It happened almost by accident.  I picked one up and planned to ask my mother if she would buy it for me.  I wandered around the store for a while and got caught up looking at the Happy Days books, novelizations of the popular television series.  I realized that I needed to put down the Tiger’s Milk bar to turn the pages.  With nowhere else to put it, I stuck it in my pocket and then realized that I could just walk out with it, which is exactly what I did.  After I got it home, I felt so bad about having taken it that I never did it again.  Easy lesson learned, thanks to The Fonz.

I suppose Grand Union was your average supermarket in its day.  The National Enquirer up front and a deli counter in the back.  I still call it Grand Union, though you can’t get much there for fifty dollars these days.  They went upscale with the ‘hood, and now they carry imported pistachios and pre-washed salad in a box (both of which I admit I buy on occasion).  I hear that NYU plans to tear it down to build another apartment building.  If that happens, where, pray tell, will a seven-year-old be able to score a pack of smokes?

Before SoHo was SoHo (Part III): The Etymology of Street Names

June 11, 2011

One way we New Yorkers define ourselves is by where we live—in what neighborhood, on what street.  We’ve repeated our own addresses an untold number of times, yet we usually do not know for whom or for what the streets that make up our neighborhood are named. As I discovered during my research for this post, the etymology of street names reveals much about the history of the areas through which those streets run.

Houston Street

Four Views of Houston Street, late 1800's (photo: NYPL)

In the early 1800’s, Nicholas Bayard, once the largest landowner in Manhattan, cut a street through his land and named it after his son-in-law, William Houstoun, a congressman from Georgia, who, it is thought, pronounced his name house-ton, instead of hews-ton, like the city in Texas.   There is a Houston County in Georgia that is also pronounced house-ton.  At some point, the second “u” in Houstoun was dropped, but the pronunciation remained. Some have said that the name comes from the Dutch words huijs tuijn, meaning “house garden,” but this etymology is false.

Canal Street

Early Canal Street (photo: via The Bowery Boys)

Collect Pond was a fresh water pond located just southeast of the present-day corner of Broadway and Canal Street.  In the 1700’s, it was used for recreation as well as a reservoir, but as industries began dumping waste there, it became a toxic wasteland.  In 1807, the city widened a small spring that ran from the pond to the Hudson River to drain it and planted rows of trees along both sides of this new canal.  This path was known as Canal Street, even after it was paved over in 1821 because residents complained of its foul smell.

West Broadway

West Broadway at Canal, 1936 (photo: NYPL via Ephemeral NY)

Until the mid-nineteenth century, West Broadway was called Lorenz Street, after a general in George Washington’s army.  The street was nicknamed “rotten row” because it was lined with numerous brothels.  Briefly renamed South Fifth Avenue, it was re-renamed West Broadway in the 1870’s.

In 1972, Auguest Heckscher, the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Administrator, proposed that the stretch of West Broadway between Canal and Houston Streets be renamed “Jackson Pollock Place”  The proposal was not very popular amongst residents (read my post on the controversy surrounding this proposal here).

The portion of West Broadway that is north of Houston was renamed La Guardia Place, after former New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, in 1967.


And early view of Niblo’s Garden, at Broadway and Prince Streets, ca. 1930 (image NYPL)

Originally a native American trail called Wickquasgeck that meandered through Manhattan, Broadway was made into a wide thoroughfare by the Dutch.  Before 1899 when the name “Broadway” became the official name for the entire road, it was known by different names in different parts of the island.  The name is a literal translation of breede weg (Dutch).

Spring Street

Lispenard's Meadow taken from the N.E. corner of the present Broadway & Spring St. (Drawn by A. Anderson, 1785 via Art NYC)

Spring Street was named for a spring that flowed in Lispenard’s Meadow, which, along with Collect Pond (see “Canal Street” above), was used for recreation by early European settlers.  Spring Street was earlier known as Brannon Street, because it ran through the garden of a man of that name.

Collect Pond was located just southeast of the present-day corner of Broadway and Canal Street. (Image via The Bowery Boys)

Many of the other streets that run through SoHo, such as Mercer Street, Greene Street, and Prince Street, were named for Revolutionary War heroes whose legacies stretch beyond the borders of New York City.

So the next time you are wandering through the neighborhood, if you picture it as a seedy red light district, perhaps you will feel grateful that instead of brothels, we now have not one but TWO Camper stores along Prince Street.  But if you instead conjure an image of the bucolic expanse of Lispenard’s Meadow, perhaps your yearning to run barefoot through grass will remind you that we could use a little more green space on SoHo and a little less Spanish footwear.

Meet Me on the Corner of Pollock and De Kooning

February 5, 2011

West Broadway @ Houston, 1970's (photo by Straatis on Flickr)

Did you know that West Broadway could have been named Jackson Pollock Place?  I guess those of you who were already grownups in 1972 might remember that in February of that year, Auguest Heckscher, the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Administrator, proposed that the stretch of West Broadway between Canal and Houston Streets be renamed “Jackson Pollock Place.”  The proposal was not very popular amongst residents.  According to David L. Shirey of the New York Times, some said it would commercialize SoHo, some felt that Pollock did not represent the current aesthetic of SoHo and would therefore misrepresent the neighborhood, and others thought that some of the artists living in SoHo at the time still felt they were in competition with Pollock and would therefore not want to see his name on every piece of mail they received.  If the proposal had been approved, it would have been the first time a street was named after a modern American painter in New York City.  West Broadway was previously called Fifth Avenue South and before that it was Lorenz Street, after a general in George Washington’s army.  The portion of West Broadway that is north of Houston was renamed La Guardia Place, after former New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, in 1967.

A few years later, in 1976, artist Gary Reister planned to paint a mural depicting twelve pioneer abstract expressionist painters, including Jackson Pollock, at 393 West Broadway.  This plan also came up against strong opposition from the SoHo community.  Does anyone know if the mural was ever painted?  I don’t remember it.

P.S. Does anyone know the name of the artist who did the mural in the photo above?

P.P.S. Here’s a photo of the hardware store mentioned by SoHo Man his comment, with the Jason Crum mural visible in color in the background (source unknown):

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