A Stroll Down a Side Street (West 71st Street)

Rounding the corner of 71st St. from Central Park West, after having just passed by the Kenilworth, San Remo, the Dakota — hey, shout out to Yoko, haven’t seen you out on the streets for months! — and lastly the Majestic, I go in search on this sunshiney, temperate late-summer’s day, for 24 West 71st St.: A brownstone “on the market” for some $29 million smackers, a record, says the Times, for an Upper West Side townhouse. (That piece describes the interior; this is a picture of the exterior; and the ever-excellent Daytonian in Manhattan, Tom Miller, provides a history of the place in his John D. Barrett House.)

All in all, a pretty impressive building, mostly because it’s just obviously so much “prettier” than its neighbors. As an architectural layman (i.e., as an architecturally-ignorant stroller), I can’t say, that it’s, ah, overtly amazing. Once you finally come upon no. 24, you’ve already seen some strikingly well-preserved brownstones on the south (even-numbered) side of the street, including no. 10, a really fine specimen belonging to the Catholic Daughters of America; whoever, whatever they are, they keep a fine townhouse. At no. 24, you stop, look up, look around, and say to yourself, Yeah, this is it, pretty cool. But nothing screams $29 million, roughly triple the price of the average well-preserved UWS brownstone. (Of course, you can’t see what’s inside, either; you, if you’re me, have to rely on the Times for that.) But I’ve seen dozens of brownstones and single family mansions on the UWS that have more forcibly caught my eye and made me wonder, My God, what must this place be like on the inside? Absent the Times story, I don’t know that this would have been, for me, one of those particularly striking places. Many of these must also be of “museum-grade” quality, as the Times has it, and I’m sure their owners are eagerly awaiting news of a 24 W 71st sale for anything approaching $29MM and thinking, What can I get for my museum-grade mansion?

The block itself, 71st from CPW to Columbus is chock full of beautiful old “mansions,” many, of course, long since converted from single-family mansions to two or more apartments per floor — including, in fact, some of the next-door neighbors at nos. 26, 28, and 30 designed by the same architects (Lamb & Rich). There is no question that the new owner of  no. 24 will be moving into a delightful and dignified neighborhood — although they’ll also be gazing (slightly west) out of their front windows at, incongruously, a Comfort Inn! Ah, well, an eccentricity of the UWS, to be sure — this could never have been allowed on a comparable Upper East Side block — but one wonders if that’s the view that someone who plunks down $29MM on this side of Fifth Avenue expects to see out his front window.

But, then, this is UWS, not UES.  The UWS charm and its eccentricities are quite distinct from those of the UES. UWS is (or was) Barbra and Madonna and John and Yoko; UES is Mayor Mike (billionaire/townhouse) — where’s the fault line between townhouse and apartment owner? — and Fifth Avenue climbers such as Joan Rivers and hedge fund zillionaires (no disrespect to their neighboring legitimate no-name aristocrats and characters in Louis Begley novels). My wild guess: No. 24 will be scooped up by a 29 year-old Silicon Valley “veteran,” having recently sold his mobile start-up, the name of which is (was) known only by the cognoscenti — which is to say, even I, who follow this stuff religiously, never heard of it — to, say, Viacom. He’s long bored by his successes in the Valley and now enchanted with the east coast and a “museum-quality townhouse” even though it faces a patent incongruity like the Comfort Inn. Look, honey, a Comfort Inn; can you believe it? Satnav will shit when he sees that.

One of the things that really catches the eye as you stroll down 71st is how many of these beautiful and imposing buildings are chock-a-block with decoration, planters and plants and bushes and flowers and flower boxes, all in bloom, given the season, and all seemingly  safe and secure. There was a time, not all that long ago, when only the foolhardy bothered with such, even in enclaves off CPW. You could put it there, maybe safely out on your upper floor windows, but anything at street level was likely to be uprooted, stolen, or defaced in some way, overnight. (It used to be even worse further uptown: Across the street from my own place off Broadway on 90th St., the decoration was two prostitutes sitting on cars in front of the then and still-beautiful wedding cake Cornwall apartments, prospecting for customers.) By and large, nowadays, plants are safe!

You also can’t help but notice that there are no bags on the street, not a single garbage or recycling bag in sight. Did I just happen to hit one of those lucky days when there’s no garbage or recycling collection? Or has this privileged enclave discovered some unique solution to this aesthetic nightmare of bag-cluttered Manhattan streets — a private set of pneumatic tubes under the street, like the buildings on Roosevelt Island? Doubtful — nontheless, pristinely clean sidewalks, and clean streets to boot. Of course, it’s summer and the old-growth trees are holding on to their leaves, but it’s fun to think of scrunching down this sidewalk in the Fall when it’s thick with leaves.

Mint-condition brownstones, “natural” decoration, clean, clear streetwalks aside — and I forgot birdsong — you want charm? How about Grace and St. Paul Church on the opposite side of the street. If ever such a tiny building — three stories high but now dwarfed and muscled-in by its neighbors — deserves the adjective magnificent, this is it, although it’s a decidely modest High-German style. This is the kind of thing — often churches and, praise New York City, public schools — you seem to encounter on every several or so side streets of the UWS, and you stop and wonder, Whoa, how did that get here?

And then just as you keep walking west, within a few steps you’re now face-to-face with an imposing Catholic Church — I mean, if you have any sensitivities to this stuff, you just know that Grace &… is Lutheran, and this one is Catholic — in fact, if you peer up through the unfortunate scaffolding, you can make out that it’s the Blessed Sacrament. All its doors are wide open and you can see the nave clear to the chancel and the altar, as inviting as you will ever see a church on the UWS. Take in what you can through the doors but then cross the street to stare up at the grandiose structure.

A few steps further west — we’re almost at Columbus now — it’s easily missed, it’s so tiny and after all you’re still looking up at the Blessed Sacrament — there’s the Bella Giardino, as pretty a little “garden”of a sliver restaurant as you’re likely to find in NYC. I can’t stop now — we still have a few blocks to go — but I’ll definitely give this a try for lunch one day: After all, it’s “by Nicky Meatballs” and the “Winner of the Five-Borough Meatball Competition.” And then what do we see just across the street, right around the corner from from Columbus? Now that’s a shocker: Big Nick’s Burger & Pizza Joint!

Big Nick’s — owned by a different Nick than Nicky Meatballs — was an institution on Broadway for 51 years and a singularly cohesive force for generations of culturally contentious UWSers. Its closing — due to an abusive rent hike, of course — was bemoaned by all, even by the New Yorker for goodness sake. By the looks of it, today’s reincarnation is more like the McDonald’s we’re about to encounter a block further west — metaphorically miles and years away from the seedy “authentic” joint on Broadway. But Big Nick’s menu — twenty-five pages long and including every conceivable type of diner food known to man — remains unchanged. Can this down-home, démodé Broadway joint survive on ever-upscale-striving Columbus Avenue? Talk about cognitive dissonance… This is like meeting Mom at an orgy.

So, now we’re across Columbus — across the bike lane and its accompanying little plot of bright purple and red pansies (I almost said playful plot…) — and we’re once again in the land of Brownstone. Past the pansies, as we head toward Broadway, we’re leaving charming behind: With only a couple exceptions these are carved-up apartment buildings rather than single-family mansions, slightly but noticeably less formidable, less lovingly-maintained than those we’ve left behind. However, as we used to say in our uncouth unaware youth, I wouldn’t kick her out of bed. This would be a nice street to live on.

If CPW to Columbus can be summed in one word — elegant — Columbus to Broadway would be shabby chic, which indeed befits this micro-neighborhood. And here we do see another of the eccentricities of the UWS: More than a handful of these brownstones house small businesses, which off the bat really doesn’t make much economic sense unless the owner of the brownstone and the owner of the business are the same person, which I suspect is the case. There is one verifiable jewel here that’s impossible to miss: The Dorilton, an over-the-top, even flamboyant, Beaux Arts building — hey, I may be an architectural dilettante, but I know Beaux Arts, and flamboyance, when I see them. As its Wikipedia entry notes, the Dorilton has a “limestone and brick exterior, featuring monumental sculptures, richly balustraded balconies, and a three-story, copper and slate mansard roof.” That’s flamboyance.

We’ve actually come a good long way now, a couple thousand FitBit steps — this happens when you’re drifting down a side street — and we’re already at Broadway. Immediately in sight, catercorner (yes, correct spelling: but let’s say catty-corner) to the Dorilton, is a — McDonald’s. Don’t let that deter you, cross Broadway and keep walking; trust me, it’s worth it. BTW, during the school year after, say, 3:15pm, this corner of Broadway is the gathering spot for scores of kids from the nearby MLK and LaGuardia schools — mostly black and hispanic with a smattering of white faces — who, just released from school, are pumped-up, raucous, jumping around and onto one another, shrieking, faux fighting, generally doing what bunches of kids do when they’re lumped together like this, and generally just scaring the crap out of nearby adults. I always get a kick out of watching the grownups migrating to safety on the east side of Broadway.

Heading west, we are of course on route to West End Avenue, away from the lively if downscale commercialism of Broadway and toward WEA and Riverside opulence. Now we start to see brownstones rather more like those of CPW-to-Columbus than of Columbus-to-Broadway: There’s no. 212, an “ornate” townhouse owned (and oft-partied in) by one-time Mayor Jimmy Walker — or was it Caruso, or Houdini, or just an old speakeasy? However that may be, its neighbors at 214 and across the street at 213, are every bit as attractive. More to come: More brownstones, of course, and quite attractive ones, but also an obviously understated luxe apartment building at 251 and, just before that, the Parc Coliseum, at 228, trying a little too hard to seem luxe and so probably isn’t. There’s the West End Day School at 255, a kind of classic Little Red School House that’s totally out of character on this (or most any UWS) block — red-brick-rounded-corner-in-the-middle-of-the-block? — but seems to fit right in anyway, like your genial buck-toothed cousin fits in the family. Equally odd but oh so right is 251: an apartment building richly detailed at street level but featuring a Brutalist flat cement exterior above with extra-wide, extra-high windows — which today are flung wide open, as if the building, like an Italian palazzo, was giving itself an airing out.

Remember Bella Giardino? How about a real Bella Giardino, a beautiful garden? Here is one, four-tenths of an acre, even tinier than that sounds — purportedly the tiniest of the city’s (by definition) tiny “vest pocket” parks. There’s not a lot to it — ba dum bum — just a nook between two brownstones, a couple of benches in front of some greenery — one bench with a taped-on sign stating that greenery loves water and, oh, there’s a store around the corner where you can buy a jug of water if you’d like. (Truth be told, the garden could use a bit of water and loving care.) True serendipity for me to have stumbled upon this little miracle of a place, and though I’ve now ruled out serendipity for you, you shouldn’t for that reason fail to seek out Septuagesimo Uno (meaning Seventy-One in Latin, or at least that’s what former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern audaciously christened it). It’s the perfect place to finally take a break on this stroll and stop for a smoke, but of course it’s a public park so, no, non fumare. There’s also a nifty tall bear claw gate, open all day and evening, and then closed late night — by whom? — a neighbor, or is this on the duty-round of some Parks employee? (There’s a nice picture here, along with some other vest pocket parks.) One does wonder how the neighbors view their responsibility for this gem of a park: Of course, one must first “do no harm,” but can (should) one proactively garden there? You wouldn’t do that in Central or in Riverside Park (although one can “own” a Volunteer spot of land in the latter). But here in this so-easily forgotten bit of space, activism almost seems called-for. In any case, I think I’ll bring a bottle of water next time I head this way.

I suppose SEPTUAGESIMO UNO is our crescendo and we should quickly wind things down now, but I’m a literal sort of guy and, after all, if we’re going to stroll West 71st St., we still have a block to go — from WEA to Riverside. But, hey, we’ve seen plenty of brownstones and while there’re even more to see — in fact some very handsome specimens on the even- or south-side of the street — let’s end with what I think what must be one of the most impressive rows of townhouses, on the north-side of the street, you’ll ever find in the city. The eight rowhouses from no. 329 to 343 — for that is what they are, rowhouses, although for a boy from Baltimore, for that is what I am, the term seems incongruous — are in fact every bit as unexpected and striking as our little Septuagesimo Uno. From an old Landmarks Preservation Committee document that I dug up later, one learns that these rowhouses are Renaissance Revival, clad in “brick, stone and terracotta,” with “classically-inspired details, uniform cornice heights, and the use of such elements as stoops, bows, and oriels which [sic., that] create a sense of depth on the facades.” Or you could say that they are just drop-dead stunning, especially in the context of this cul-de-sac block; yes, as the doc cited above states, this block sports a true “sense of place.”

In fact, you really don’t want to walk any further than the last rowhouse — if you do, you just end up at so-called Riverside Boulevard, which is about the last thing the word Boulevard conjures up and okay if you’re a car but a wasteland if you’re human — so my advice is simply to turn around at no. 349, head back east to WEA and take in some more rowhouse details, such as the (I think) ceramic baby doll lolling in the oriel window of no. 329. There, the side-street stroll done, you could catch a cab, call for an Uber, proceed over to Broadway for the 72nd St. subway, or maybe, just maybe, enter Riverside Side Park at 72nd and WEA and start a whole new stroll…

This entry was posted in New York City, Personal and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.