It was the year we were forced out of our beloved apartment on West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village. I never really understood why but I knew something was up when Mom and Dad started going to tenant meetings, something they had never done before. For all I know there were no tenant meeting before then, but their apartments were under fire. Maybe it was that the owner had decided to sell the building; perhaps the landlord had told everyone the rent would increase more than they could afford. The building wasn’t rent controlled, at least I don’t think it was (Don would probably remember a lot more of this than I do as I was all of nine years old). As in a lot of cases where tenants tried to stop a landlord or owner from evicting them, the tenants lost and we had to find a place to live. It was the time of President Johnson’s Great Society and though I know there are many who would deride that program as being the cause of a lot of urban ills, it was a lifeline to us. Part of the program was to build low income housing for families like ours, and many more even less fortunate than us. Rents were already rising in the city and the poor and lower middle class were struggling day to day just to make do and feed their families. Sound familiar? Anyway at the time the closest housing project being constructed was the Robert Fulton houses which would occupy the area from 16th Street to 19th Street and between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, at the time a no mans land of industrial buildings long since abandoned. There would be three tall buildings of 25 stories each and six smaller buildings of 6 stories.
On Sundays after church we would walk over and watch the progress being made in its construction. It was due to be finished just before our last allotted day at the apartment on 12th street. The landscaping wouldn’t be finished but at least we would have a place to go. Given Dad’s salary and the size of his family we were accepted for a two bedroom apartment on the 23rd floor of the first on the projects souther border. It promised to be quite a different experience, living so high up and having to take an elevator to get to the apartment, but it was going to be home. I remember when the building was completed we were allowed to tour the apartment we would soon be moving into, and I ran from room to room not believing the stunning views that the windows allowed. We could see all of downtown Manhattan and New York Harbor beyond it with a clear view of the Statue of Liberty from the living room (construction had not yet begun on the World Trade Center; that would start a year later and the first tenants moved in six years later). The bedroom that Don and I would share faced due west across the Hudson River, and below over 11th Avenue was an old elevated train track, beyond that was the West Side Highway, then the piers, the river itself and then Secaucus, New Jersey with it’s huge neon Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee cup proclaiming “Good to the Last Drop”. The red neon would blink on and off, on and off, all day and night, and it would become a source of great comfort to gaze out at it each night.
It would be weird sharing a room with Don too; we were used to so much more space and now we had to share one room with one closet for all of our toys, books, and clothes. I am sure there must have been a good amount of downsizing that had to happen, but I don’t remember it probably because Mom and Dad shielded me from it. Somehow the move was made and we found ourselves living in the hinterlands a few blocks from the meat packing district which was in full operation, and nothing much more around us.
Huge industrial buildings that once housed the American headquarters of Nabisco, and an unused NBC studio stood nearby, but mostly it was surrounded by small non descript tenements which looked un-lived in. Ninth Avenue had some small stores, but Tenth was given over to garages, parking lots and warehouses. Like I said, it was quite a change from a charming street in the West Village, but we didn’t have much choice – and there was that view.
Sharing the room with Don turned out to be a non-problem; we had always gotten along well and now we would be even closer, like it or not. The kitchen was more a kitchenette but it had the essentials and Mom never complained. We even had a washing machine in the apartment which was a luxury unheard of at the time. Of course there was no dryer so clothes were constantly hanging up in the shower, but they eventually got dry.
The elevators were a bit problematic as many of our fellow tenants were not as clean or considerate as we were. And then there was the dreaded 19th floor where the drug dealers lived. I would cringe every time I was in the elevator and saw it stopping on the 19th floor. When they were straight, there was no problem; they were very polite. When they were wasted, they could be downright scary to a little kid. Years later the Police raided the whole floor and cleaned it out, but for those first years…well sometimes I even considered walking up the 23 flights of stairs.
Pets weren’t allowed, but everyone managed to smuggle in a Chihuahua, the preferred dog of the Hispanic community. And of course that didn’t help the cleanliness of the elevators very much. But like I said we didn’t have much choice. And there was that view.
The large ocean liners still used the West Side piers at the time, so we could watch as the USS United States made its way out into the harbor bound for Europe, its white clad crew standing at attention on the forward deck. We could watch the 4th of July Fireworks explode into the night sky above the Statue of Liberty, and see helicopters land on the helipad on the pier, watch the never ending stream of traffic on the West Side Highway and the last diesel engine go back and forth along that track outside our window, never knowing where it was going or where it came from. It was an entirely different view of the city we lived in, seen not from the streets of a neighborhood, but from the sky itself.
And when the famous Blackout happened that year, we gazed on a dark city something we never saw before nor thought we ever would.
It was a scary and wonderful place at the same time. We felt more removed from the streets in a very real way as now we couldn’t just open the door, go down a flight of steps and be on our stoop. Now going out required more effort, and a potentially dangerous elevator trip to the ground floor. We had lost that sense of community we had on Twelfth Street, replace by a more global cosmopolitan sense of the huge sprawling metropolis we lived in, larger than we had imagined from our vantage point on the stoop.
For Don and I, we had left a bit of our childhood behind on West Twelfth Street and discovered a bit of our adolescence and adulthood on Seventeenth Street.
I can say honestly that I miss them both; the closeness of one, the vastness of the other.
I know Mom missed her friends from the neighborhood, and it was a longer walk for Don to his favorite concrete playground, Dad…well Dad was Dad..he adapted to what he had to. And me? I would make believe I was living the high life, taking an elevator to my penthouse apartment where I would look over the city I loved. I missed my room at the old apartment, and my friends I went to school with that lived nearby, but every time I caught a glimpse of the sunset over the Jersey skyline on a late summer evening, and had the thought that the whole country, all of America was beyond that skyline, and I wanted to see it all…. well that counted for a lot. It made living in a housing project that much more bearable. And then there was that sign, eternally blinking on and off proclaiming some good advice … to embrace life and live it fully, and make it good…good to the last drop.