Up from 90th St. to (usually) 116th St. — down from there to 86th, 79th, sometimes 72nd St. — this is a walk I take two or three times every week. Sometimes I’ll head west over to (and then down) Riverside Drive or into the Park itself; sometimes I’ll head east over to (and then down Central Park West); but more often it’s just straight back down Amsterdam. It’s not a lovely avenue — actually, it’s probably the un-loveliest avenue on the Upper West Side of NYC (although parts of Columbus Avenue are even less lovely). But in certain ways it’s my favorite uptown/downtown walking route.
Here’s one: I’m heading downtown at the corner of 101st St. — just picked up some bagels at Absolute Bagels on 107th and Broadway, best bagels by far on the UWS — and I’ve got the light at 101st but I slow down and stop abruptly at the corner because a van is barreling in, having turned off the Avenue and headed straight west — but now he stops on a dime, hitting his brakes to allow a young girl with a baby carriage who’s smack in the middle of the street, frozen there, to finish crossing to 100 (13 steps; I’ve counted; street crossing are always 13 steps, except when they aren’t). So I’m stopped at the corner — he’s looking at me and I’m looking at him — I nod, he nods back and gives me additionally a barely perceptible wave while the girl finishes her crossing, he heads on west, and I proceed across the street.
What happened here is a curious and delicate little demonstration of three-way courtesy that seems to happen to me often on Amsterdam and seldom on other UWS avenues — just because, I’m guessing, or employing Occam’s Razor, they’re all so much busier. (Well, that’s clearly not true of West End Avenue, which has a wholly different and stricter driver/pedestrian etiquette, and of Riverside Drive, which has no driver/pedestrian etiquette of any kind, especially when the driver is a bicycler, which so often, and woefully, it is). He has deliberately halted his hell-bent hurry across town and extended courtesy to the girl, letting her finish her interrupted (and now spooked) crossing; he nods to me to recognize my recognition of that courtesy. He nods, that is, to acknowledge that I have recognized his courtesy and that I will not take advantage of it to cross in front of him, so he can then continue on as he was doing before he noticed the semi-paralyzed girl and her baby carriage in the middle of the street, not to mention the gray-haired old coot (me) waiting to see if he was about to run her over.
I don’t want to make too much of this delicate (and, I think, macho) courtesy — I’ve also witnessed a young woman just two blocks from here get cold-cocked by another guy in another van — she wasn’t paying any attention crossing the street, he wasn’t paying any attention turning the corner, but boy did he jump out quickly once he had flattened her. Phones popped out calling 911 instantaneously, she came to in a minute or so, picked herself up and walked on ignoring all the commotion, hey Chica, Chica, c’mon back, you okay? — undoubtedly on the phone herself with Cellino & Barnes — call 1-800 -888-8888 — as soon as she got home and plotting with them to sue that sucker for all he’s worth, which is approximately zero dinero, although his company probably had some insurance that will pay off.
No, I don’t want to make too much of this, but I do see it as a very Amsterdam Avenue kind of thing. And I guess what I mean by that is that Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side is a really pedestrian kind of place; it’s “sense of place” is lots of pedestrians and lots of pedestrian activity (which includes inactivity):
pe·des·tri·an pəˈdestrēən noun
1. a person walking along a road or in a developed area.
synonyms: walker, person on foot; foot traffic
“accidents involving pedestrians”
2. lacking inspiration or excitement; dull.
“disenchantment with their present, pedestrian lives”
synonyms: dull, boring, tedious, monotonous, uneventful, unremarkable, tiresome, wearisome, uninspired, unimaginative, unexciting, uninteresting, uninvolving
Amsterdam Avenue, uptown at least, is, indeed, “monotonous, unremarkable,” and, yes, at times even “tiresome.” The stretch I’m talking about here is undeniably an “uninspired” collection of: 1) bodegas and pizza joints; 2) hardware stores; 3) cheap chinese/thai/”asian fusion”/mexican/italian restaurants; 4) pawn shops (including “jewelry” shops that are actually “Buy your Gold!” pawn shops); 5) social service agencies; and 6) pharmacies. That’s really about it — there are exceptions and they are exceptions that prove the rule. What is interesting, and wholly characteristic of these blocks, is that with only a handful of exceptions (one Dunkin’ Donuts, one Duane Read, one True Value Hardware), these uninspiring, pedestrian joints are all Mom & Pop shops, remnants of Small Business in the city. And there is indeed, I think, something very inspiring about that.
If there is still something worthy of being called Working Class on the UWS, this would be a good example of it. So you could call it that, but I think what we’re really talking about here is the Working Poor. This is a stretch of street that is simultaneously bustling with activity — lots of workers bringing in or taking out stuff out of the hardware stores, concrete mix, drywall, pegboard and all kinds of tools and mechanical stuff that I have no idea what it is — and neighborhood folks buying stuff from the “pharmacies” and bodegas, stores that sell just tons of stuff that you need for everday living: eyeliner, Robitussin, hair coloring, bananas, brooms, condoms, cigarettes, doggy (poop) bags, cell phone covers, hookahs — there’s one bodega that by its display is first and foremost a hookah store — actual medicine, picture frames, “paintings,” — you can buy velvet Elvis or Jesus “paintings” here — Coke and, uh, Coke — I could go on. You can shop for all kinds of things a block over on Broadway, but on this stretch of Amsterdam I don’t think there’s anything you can’t buy.
I remember a line from one of John O’Hara’s Gibbsville stories about a hardware store — If you can eat it, you can’t buy it here. On Amsterdam Avenue, you can eat it at a hardware store, or buy drywall at a pharmacy…
I said “simultaneously” — yeah, there’s lots of activity but there’s lots of indolence as well, people just hanging around the street doing nothing, really, just biding their time (for what?) , shooting the breeze with other folks who’re also doing nothing but shooting the breeze. There’s the lady who seemingly lives on the edge (I mean the literal edge) of the school next to the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus on 96th St., watching over her two carts of possessions and who neither looks at nor talks to anyone; there’re one or two — never more than one or two, in my experience — homeless guys who most of the time don’t even bother panhandling but who customarily greet you as “Chief” (at least if you’re an old white guy like me) — I guess they’ve learned over time that “Sir” is really off-putting but “Chief” earns at least a smile from old white guys; and there are the older and often infirm residents of small housing projects who just want to be outside if the weather is at all bearable and who will take their chances socializing or not with whomever else is outside or walking by.
In sum, lots of hustle and bustle, lots of meh. So, what else? Architecture-wise? Given my ignorance in this respect I suppose I could simply be blind to Wonders before my eyes, but here I don’t think so. There are some nice apartment buildings on Amsterdam, a couple as nice as some on Broadway that are as nice as some on West End and Riverside — a couple, but further down the avenue, not above 96th. What’s of architectural interest are the churches: the afore-mentioned Church of the Holy Name on 96th (as my wife calls it, the red door church), St. Michael’s on 99th (as she says, the blue door church), the West End Presbyterian Church on 105 (rusty red door), the Central Baptist Church on 92 (brown door and home of “Share Jesus Now. Time is Short. Lives are at Stake.”) Best of all might be the Trinity Lutheran Church off the corner at 100th St., largely obscured in street view by its scaffolding but featuring a weirdly out-of-place Gaudiesque spire. Here’s a view of the spire from across the street and looking from Columbus Ave.
Given the generally, uh, undistinguished nature of the neighborhood’s architecture, these are all quite imposing structures, and they certainly hark back to a time when churches really were integral parts not simply of the aesthetic surroundings but of the lives of people in the neighborhood. Maybe that is the case even today: The services offered by all these churches are as much “social” — alcohol, drug, gambling, and family counseling, and ESL and “career services” — as they are ecclesiastical, and they are alternatives or complementaries to the city’s social services, such as The Bridge or Grosvenor Neighborhood House YMCA, which are also ubiquitous in this neighborhood.
Other than the churches, however, the only architecture of note here is the old bank building opposite Holy Name, repurposed — as poorly as possible — as a CVS; what a lost opportunity! — and the Victorian Gothic American Youth Hostels between 103rd and 104th sts., formerly the Residence for Respectable, Aged and Indigent Females (I’m not kidding). It’s a gorgeous building, striking no matter how many times you pass by it, and it’s nice to think that, while it may no longer serve respectable/aged/indigent females — the RAI market is apparently dried up — it seems to be doing well by bunches of young kids from around the world and the country who’re seeing the city and maybe the country for the first time.
Other, non-architectural attractions? Yes, there are several, although it may be that they stand out to some degree precisely because they are such obvious exceptions to the sameness and drabness of so much that surrounds them. In fact, the main reason I began taking this particular walk was to pick up the excellent, varied pastries at La Toulousaine (between 106/107): Brioche, croissants, and turnovers as good or better than any on the UWS. The patisserie was shut down for a couple-three weeks this past summer because of a one-day — the day the inspectors came! — weird infestation of fruit flies. This occasioned quite a scandal in the neighborhood, which was shocked by the news and which had happily supported the recherche establishment for years. La Toulousaine quickly cleaned things up and brought the place back to pristine condition, although the complaints about the grumpy and rude proprietress continue to this day. But, as I’ve said to others, she’s not grumpy and she’s not rude; she’s French.
Truth be told, I also started heading uptown this way because of the excellent burger at The Ellington (corner of 106). I’m not a burger fan as such, but I like one every once in awhile, and Ellington’s burger is as good I’ve had anywhere. (Well, okay, it doesn’t exactly approach the burger at Boulud’s db bistro moderne.) Aside from the casual nod to Duke, Ellington’s is basically a well-run, Irish-owned-and-operated bar with better than average Irish bar food.
Chico Julio, between 97th & 98th streets — Yelp pretentiously locates it in “Manhattan Valley,” a designation perhaps meaningful to hopeful real estate agents, but having exactly zero currency in this neighborhood — is a self-styled “Local Pub” and/or “A CASUAL CANTINA-STYLE RESTAURANT SERVING TRADITIONAL SEAFOOD DISHES FROM THE COASTS OF MEXICO.” The other day when I passed by they had a chalkboard A-frame sign outside, with the hand-lettered message:
Which I interpreted, not too uncharitably, I think, as “Wanna get laid (by a skank) tonight?”
Further down, on 95th off Amsterdam, is Buceo 95. That’s the official name but you can find it in bright red under the hanging white black-lettered Vin’s Tapas sign. This is the kind of local place that locals, infamously, won’t tell anybody about, because they don’t want it to get any more popular and crowded than it already is. Great tapas, some interesting and scarce (volcanic) Spanish wines, but please don’t let anyone know that I told you about it.
A really nice Italian? Yes, there’s one: Gennaro, between 93rd and 92nd: Another local place that in this case has probably received enough publicity (Zagat: Food: 25; Ambiance: 0) that I won’t be accused of betraying neighborhood secrets. The stinco di agnello is primo in any neighborhood; Daniel Boulud would be proud to serve this.
Buy a tee-shirt at BNC General Merchandise — seriously, do so. BNC is what used to be called a “notions” store — it’s another (tiny) Amsterdam stuff store, previously presided over by Bubacar Camara until he was beaten to death by three no-accounts (now upstate) for cash register money (wild-ass guess? 20 bucks). Bubacar was a guy who mostly hung outside his store, waiting and hoping for customers. We nodded a few times to one another, just because faces eventually begin to recognize one another. Word has it that he gave away as much as he sold, or sold for half whatever he wanted to charge: It’s okay, you pay me next time.
Okay, I guess I have to address the elephant in the room on this route, which gives the lie to the purely personal categorization of (my) upper Amsterdam, little impressive architecture, lots of blah: And then there’s the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It’s the architectural masterpiece of Amsterdam and of the UWS and one of the wonders — I mean this literally, where literally means literally — of NYC. I used to tease my Catholic Long Island friends that you could fit three St. Patrick’s into St. John with room left over for Christmas services and a bunch of characteristically esoteric art exhibits — they knew I was nuts because of course Saint Pats is the biggest cathedral in the world, everybody knows that. I won’t dare discourse on St. John — although you could indeed fit a couple St. Pats inside — except to say that it’s unfinished and will remain so for, like, forever, until, per impossibile, some robber baron like Paulson (or maybe Mayor Mike?) decides to leave it billions. Until then, however, you can enjoy it as is, and roam the gardens, where you may (in the spring, summer, and fall) encounter either Jim, Harry, or Phil, the church peacocks — Phil is the albino, leucistic, pure white (and major showoff) peacock. He has his own Twitter account, @CathedralPhil, far and away the best of St. John’s Twitter streams.
I’ve hesitated to cross 110th St. because now we’re entering another world from the one I set out to describe — it’s now the world of St. John’s and, a few blocks north, Columbia University and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s — talk about ecclesiastical reconciliation! — and they kind of own everything and everyone around and it’s all very different from 90th to 110. We’re leaving behind the working poor of Amsterdam Avenue (even if St. John may administer to some of them) — a largely brown and black world — and entering a new world of middle class and upper middle class strivers — a largely White (and Asian) world. Cut through the central campus of Columbia where, if you’re of my generation, you can mentally nod to Mark Rudd exhorting the faithful to occupy the campus in ’68, or, if you’re of my educational classicist background, you can marvel at a whole building dedicated to Homer | Herodotus | Sophocles | Plato | Aristotle | Demosthenes | Cicero | Vergil; they probably use it for computer science nowadays, but still…
So walk on, cross Broadway, pass Barnard, enter Riverside Park: two blocks and worlds away from Amsterdam Avenue.
Addendum (but think of it instead as a Bonus!): A few days after first posting this I took another walk up to La Toulousaine — apple turnovers today, I think — and surprised myself by a couple of things I had intended to mention but didn’t. First, Tatz Gourmet Sweetz — well, I can’t blame myself for missing this because, while the Web site lives on, the shop itself is now gone. (In a very Heideggerian fashion, I noticed it by its absence.) But how could I have forgotten Mary’s Garden? On the northwest corner of 100th and Amsterdam, “Mary” has constructed a tiny village from found and no doubt donated objects, kind of like what Joseph Cornell might have made of a “village garden” if he had done gardens rather than boxes. Mary’s Garden brings some frivolousness and liveliness to the Amsterdam Houses, a smallish part of the Frederick Douglass Houses, stretching from 100th to 104th, Amsterdam to Columbus.
On the southwest corner of 100th is another kind of “garden” — a well-manicured but completely fenced-off and barely noticeable plot of grass abutting St. Michael’s Church. It’s remarkable only in the summertime when the grass has just been cut: For what could be more remarkable on a late summer afternoon on Amsterdam Avenue than the smell of freshly-mown grass?
Whatever-it-is-that-you-add-to-an-Addendum, is what this is, as of 1/19/16:
Mary’s Garden is no more, or rather Mary’s ownership of it has been quite literally wiped out: Presumably there is new ownership (as yet unnamed) as the assemblage of objets trouve has been noticeably altered, although it’s just as trouve as under Mary’s reign.
Also, noticed for the first time, just off the corner of 100th, a branch of the one-time New York Free Circulating Library, here in a photo circa 1898: the Bloomingdale branch:
That’s it, except for the fenced-in grass plot belonging to St. Michael’s on the east side and a nondescript apartment building on the other side. The building itself is in remarkably fine condition although what if anything it is being used for at this point is not obvious: There is a little notice to the effect that the library is “on the next block” and you can ring the bell “and wait” — which I will do one day in the spring, not now in the winter.
One more really neat thing: On the wall of the north side of the above-mentioned La Toulousienne, appearing a couple weeks ago, is the very Banksy-like:
Is it in fact a Banksy production unnoted from his previous NYC incursion and hidden until just recently? A nifty recent homage? Is the graffito above the artist’s tag? I don’t know but will add whatever I can find out when I find it out. Either way, it’s a perfectly appropriate upper Amsterdam Avenue kind of thing, just like, in its own way, the Bloomingdale branch of the NYFCL.
Okay, one more nifty thing (obviously been there for a while, don’t know how I could have missed it): Sign over the postage-stamp plot of dirt in front of the Douglass Houses at 102: Positively No Picknicking or Barbecuing Allowed. I think it’s the “Positively” that does it.