New York Sketches: A walk in NoHo
I am doing much less walking these days, obviously, not by choice. But I still can hobble every morning to the NYU gym and once a week for coffee and a croissant to Lafayette. They are both located on Lafayette Street, a north-south street that runs through many distinctive New York downtown neighborhoods like NoLita, Chinatown and NoHo.
The part I know best is in NoHo, which runs from Astor Place to Houston Street – from Cooper Union to the Angelica Theater Center, which shows art and independent films.
In the 1880s and 1890s manufacturing dominated the neighborhood’s streets, though many of the buildings built then and in an earlier time were architecturally distinctive. But with the decline of the textile and manufacturing industry in the 1960s and 70s artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Chuck Close began to move in.
During that period I knew a photographer who lived with his family in a loft on Great Jones Street and spoke with great enthusiasm of how wonderful loft living was. However, I was wary. For during that period and into the 80s I recall NoHo’s night streets were filled with shadowy huddles of drug dealers calling out their wares from doorways, and I rarely walked there once it got dark.
Predictably, once the artists settled on these streets, this small neighborhood with cobbled streets slowly gentrified, and it was designated a historic district in 1999, saving many of its historic buildings. Among the buildings are the landmarked Colonnade Row on Lafayette Street built between 1831-1833, and families like the Astors and Vanderbilts once lived there. Another distinctive building is the DeVinne Press Building on the NE corner of East 4th Street, which has five different arched windows.
Given the quality of the buildings, some of them were turned into luxury apartments. And the area’s gentrification has seemed boundless — turning into one of the more-in-demand neighborhoods in the city — with actress Kristen Stewart paying $5.4 million for a raw space “artist’s loft.”
Gentrification also means pricey restaurants like Atla, Il Buco, and the one my wife and I often go to — more for latte than dinner — Lafayette. The café/bistro is a massive place with many different spaces to sit including a bar, a bakery with seats, and a dining room. The food is good, but it’s the coffee, bread, croissants and scones (that are baked in-house), the outdoors tables, and the personable and flawless service that make it special.
There are many other restaurants on these streets, but what strikes me most is the transformation of a slightly unstable building that for many years housed pacifist and left organizations like the War Resisters League who owned the building and groups like Global Revolution TV, Socialist Party USA, and Paper Tiger Television. I remember anxiously trying to get an essay published in the 60s at the New Left magazine, Liberation, that was housed there. Like much of gentrified New York it now houses upscale stores, just like the decades old homeless shelter for women across the street has been sold to developers for 27 million, and is being turned into a building selling high-end clothing. Lafayette Street and NoHo now glitters with money and there are no drug dealers wandering about at night — just well-heeled young people.
I don’t miss the danger of earlier decades, as the street is more walkable and useable. But some part of its soul and character is always lost when a neighborhood turns into an enclave that only the wealthy can afford.