Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Gathering at West End Avenue

What were you doing last Thursday night?

If you were on the Upper West Side you might have been at one of seven Steely Dan performances at the Beacon Theater. You might have been lining the sidewalk outside of Baseball Center on West 74th Street waiting to see a reggeton artist at batting practice. You might have been at the gala night for the New York City Ballet, witnessing the premiere of Sir Paul McCartney's Ocean’s Kingdom. You may have been standing along the red carpet shouting devotions to Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Naomi Watts and Jon Bon Jovi. Or maybe you ignored the stream of rich and famous entering the David H. Koch Theater that night in favor of giving the roar and spray of Lincoln Center’s towering water fountain your full attention, with a bit of time set aside for gelato tasting.

There were many ways to enjoy that cool autumn night in New York last week but on West End Avenue a group of 35 Upper West Siders chose to spend that time focused on a mission: the preservation of one of Manhattan’s grandest boulevard’s and most beloved neighborhoods.

Neighbors, community leaders and a state representative gathered barefoot at sunset at an Upper West Side penthouse for the annual meeting of the West End Preservation Society. There was much to celebrate.

A year of triumphs against aggressive development and careless building practices in the area had generated almost unanimous support from local residents, property owners, government officials and key decision makers at the Landmark Preservation Commission for the group’s ultimate goal – the expansion of the West End Historic District. The general spirit in the room seemed to be one of determination to keep momentum building toward the effort and quiet certitude that victory is near, perhaps only 2 years away.

A group that came together to save two 1894 townhouses on West End Avenue only two years ago (they were eventually demolished) is now in position to save 2,300 buildings and preserve 37 blocks along the same avenue.

A run-down of neighborhood issues that WEPS is helping to resolve revealed a genuine affection for the neighborhood…and an uncanny attention to detail that ought to put West End landlords and developers on alert: these Upper West Siders notice everything (chipped urns, altered sconces, changed lightbulbs – they see it all), they are protective over every inch of the built environment that surrounds them and they know their rights.

There was gleeful talk over one developer’s decision to “cut and run” from a property at West 86th Street once organized pressures against the project became “too much.” There was concerned discussion over “shenanigans” at 732-734 West End Avenue where area residents endure a “noise hell” even as questionable construction work makes vapor intrusion and water contamination a looming possibility for a school next door to the site. The project was coined, “The building full of surprises that no longer surprises,” and strategies were quickly established to resolve each issue.

When New York State Senator Tom Duane arrived he was greeted by applause that seemed as much like an outburst of affection as a gesture of appreciation for his 13 years of service representing New Yorkers. As an ally of those who stand against over-development and as a proponent of careful urban planning, he jumped right into the dialogue then offered to brainstorm effective fundraising ideas for WEPS. It became clear that fundraising is a major area of concern for the group. Despite the fact that West End Avenue is home to its fair share of rich and famous residents, all of whom stand to benefit directly from WEPS efforts, few if any have made the sort of contributions that would give WEPS the firepower it needs to continue protecting the interests of area residents.

When the meeting ended right on schedule, 90-minutes after it began, an animated roar filled the room as attendees broke into clusters to socialize and strategize further. About seventy shoes lined the hallway where attendees continued conversations, slipping into sturdy walking shoes, boots and Birkenstocks. The elevator opened into the apartment and soon a group of neighbors were on the way back down to street level – but not before a stop at another penthouse, this one spilling over with fashionable, tipsy revelers who stared into the elevator with silly smiles and just a hint of condescension.

Did they know there had been a meeting just upstairs organized to protect the building they enjoyed so much?

Could they have any idea that decisions were being made on their behalf to protect their entire neighborhood into the next century? The elevator closed and continued its way down.

Back on West End Avenue, the buildings that had been the subject of so much conversation that evening stood silent and dignified as they have done since 1910 and 1920. Outlined by the evening sky, they seemed aware of their place in history and of their value to architecture. It was impossible at that moment to doubt they would continue standing for decades more to come.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Two Very Different 9/11s

Photo by John Buatti

Where were you on the morning of 9/11? The answer to that question comes full circle today, a very different September 11th. Moments of silence and the sounding of church bells rolled across the U.S., inspiring many to recall the moments a decade ago when four planes became terrorist weapons and thousands of civilians became victims. But in two neighborhoods where residents watched the Twin Towers fall and now watch a new World Trade Center rise, locals commemorated the event with the simple act of enjoying the day-to-day lives the attacks were meant to disrupt forever.

Sunrise broke slowly over deserted Chelsea streets. The night before had been marked by Fashion Week revelers and emergency vehicles rushing to their respective destinations. One group streamed into the Meatpacking District, filling the night with laughter and long-limbed beauties. The other fought traffic with sirens and persistence on the way to pre-cautionary positions at Ground Zero.

At 6:30 a.m., in this neighborhood, on this 9/11, only the very determined rose to meet the morning - runners, dog walkers, homeless men stirring in sleeping bags near Chelsea Piers. A man scrubbed a baker's rack clean at Chelsea Market. A lone mounted police officer rode slowly along the Hudson River facing the World Trade Center, his gaze seemingly fixed on sadness and memories much further away.

At 8:46 a.m. the first moment of silence descended over New York City, but not over West 14th Street and 8th Avenue, where two giggling waifs teetered to a waiting cab; a couple sipped coffee while murmuring to each other and a drunken man barked at sheets of newspaper swirling on a corner.

Further south, the Old Guard of the West Village settled into favorite tables at The Bus Stop Cafe. They greeted each other with warmth and by name. They shared pieces of neighborhood news and the Sunday Times, their grey-flecked hair and horn-rimmed glasses framed in windows open to a breeze. The wait staff moved through the room with at-home ease, dispensing the comforts of hot coffee and genuine welcome to men and women who were treated as favored guests rather than regulars. The bustle, gentle and reserved, continued even as a second moment of silence was being observed at Ground Zero only minutes away.

The residents of Chelsea and the West Village can never forget the events of September 11th. They witnessed them, volunteered in recovery efforts for weeks afterward and chose to stay in their communities rather than abandon them to anxiety about future attacks. It’s unimaginable that any one of them might have missed an opportunity to honor the lost victims in some personal way during the past decade. They live with 9/11 seared into a collective memory. What is remarkable, and inspiring of hope, is the way those New Yorkers were able to spend the morning of September 11th, 2011.

On the same streets where thousands once stumbled in a daze, where the horizon once offered the shocking view of lives and buildings imploding, the fact that everyone could enjoy the freedom to go about their morning in what ever manner they pleased - whether in silence or in the steady routines of a New York Sunday - was a powerful commemoration in and of itself. Their ordinary actions on the anniversary of an extraordinary day seemed clear evidence of a simple truth. We are resilient. We survived. We will continue to stay strong. I imagine that the men and women who lost and sacrificed their lives on that day would expect nothing less.

Here's hoping that on the next anniversary of September 11th we will all have two stories to tell - one about where we were on that day in 2001 and one about how we celebrated triumph over terror in 2011.