On a recent outing to the Belgian café Le Pain Quotidien, Christiane Celle, owner of the Nolita boutique Calypso, wife of fashion photographer Antoine Verglas and a Tribeca mom, struck up a conversation with another woman who was there with her baby. Without any prompting, the woman told Ms. Celle, who is French, that her child’s pediatrician was Dr. Michel Cohen, who, it so happens, is the man who takes care of her children as well. “Everyone says, ‘I’m with Michel Cohen,’” Ms. Celle said in French. “People are proud of that.”
But then, in the same conversation in which she recounted her tête à tête at the café, Ms. Celle added a little caveat that said how she really felt about the family pediatrician. “He’s not for everyone,” she said.
For as long as Tribeca has existed, the people who have lived in the triangle below Canal Street have always seen themselves as, well, slightly more special than the rest of Manhattan. They weren’t shiny Upper East Siders; they weren’t bourgeois Upper West Siders; they weren’t militant West Villagers or sybaritically hip Soho-ites. The Tribeca universe embodied the best of all those worlds: a multicultural, politically active bohemian paradise with cobblestone streets and million-dollar lofts. And it wasn’t for everyone.
In the world of medicine, French-born Dr. Cohen is Tribeca’s definition of a pediatrician. He rides a bicycle, makes house calls for newborns, has thick-framed black glasses and dark, tousled hair, favors Comme des Garçons clothes and-get this-does not like to prescribe antibiotics unless he deems it absolutely necessary. In his sunlit storefront office on Harrison Street-with its multicultural clientele and its old-fashioned wooden toys-it is possible to cling to the illusion that Tribeca is just Mediterraneo with S.U.V.’s and platinum cards.
“If he were uptown, say on 70th and Madison, it just wouldn’t work,” said Ms. Celle. “He’s very downtown and unconventional: all the doors are open, you hear babies screaming-I love that. Before, I went to the Soho Pediatric center, where you wait for three hours and get yelled at. Here, there are broken toys on the ground-we have fun.”
And so whenever the subject of children is raised in Tribeca, the name of Dr. Cohen is usually raised shortly thereafter. At a time when Tribeca is not exactly the hot neighborhood anymore, he has become a symbol of Tribeca credibility. And if there was ever a time when nurturing was important in New York, or a moment when children needed to be handled with great care, this was it. And if you’re a parent in the Tribeca community-and please use your fingers to put big quotation marks around that word-then, at some point, your child-bearing hips will be parked in Dr. Cohen’s waiting room.
Lourdes for Rugrats
“Tribeca is like a little town in Europe, so everybody knows each other,” said Monica Holzer, 32, an Italian clothing-store owner who takes her 2-year-old son Matteo to Dr. Cohen. “Everybody uses him. I like him because he’s part of the area, he’s there all the time, and he’s very New Age but also very European.”
“It’s like a small village down here; you can just walk right in,” said Paige Fillion, a mother of two who’s gone to Dr. Cohen’s for almost three years. “You feel part of a community when you take your child to see him. It’s definitely a neighborhood place.” A neighborhood place that happens to include Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, photographer Annie Leibovitz and Daily News gossip columnist Joanna Molloy among its denizens.
On a recent weekday morning, half-dressed toddlers padded around that very area, lollipops stuck in their drooling mouths. Their mothers, sitting in colorful chairs, watched them with a smug smile and every so often peeped out ” Dáme un beso! ” or ” Ça suffit !” at their hip little geniuses. During his daily delivery run to the office, Dr. Cohen’s mailman, Mike, called the practice “Lourdes for the rugrats.”
On the waiting-room counter sat a framed page from GQ magazine that depicted Dr. Cohen in a Hawaiian shirt, checkered trousers and his trademark 1950′s-style glasses. He is holding a blond baby in his arms. A caption quotes Dr. Cohen saying that his friends would describe him as “mad” and that he would have liked to have been dancer if he hadn’t been a pediatrician. It also lists his favorite clothingbrands:Commedes Garçons, APC and Paul Smith.
Every so often, 43-year-old Dr. Cohen would walk into this contented scene, peer through his retro glasses at the spectacle before him and call the name of his next tiny patient. When this happened, the mothers all seemed to sit a little straighter.
“He relates to the children,” said 55-year-old Juanita Thomas, who’d come in that morning from neighboring Gold Street with her three grandchildren, in an attempt to explain why she looked so pleased to be there. “He looks like a child, too, he’s so high-energy. And have you seen the examining rooms?” she added, referring to their quaint dollhouse décor. They’re just so conducive to the whole experience!”
Ms. Celle said that Dr. Cohen’s easy way with children counts for a lot of his appeal. Indeed, she said that “every once in a while he forgets about vaccines”-but, she added, “it’s more important to have a doctor who loves children.”
Mothers can go on and on and on about Dr. Cohen. Some things they like about him: He’s a solo practitioner when most New York pediatricians favor anonymous medical conglomerates. He pays house calls, especially when mothers come home from the hospital with their newborn babies. And, they claim, children rarely cry when he gives them an injection.
He’s also a familiar figure in the neighborhood, going to the local park with his three daughters, ages 7, 9 and 11, on weekdays, walking out of his duplex at the back of his practice with his kite-surfing board on weekends, and hanging paintings by his wife Jeannie, an artist, in the office.
Ms. Holzer told The Observer that she likes to walk by Dr. Cohen’s practice in the summer time at the end of the day because he’ll often be sitting out in front of the building with a glass of wine and his wife and daughters. “It’s so beautiful,” she said.
Cue the Ennio Morricone music and page Ms. Fillion, who said that the mothers of many of Dr. Cohen’s patientshaveasecret crush on him. As a result, there is a certain amount of mild fantasizing that goes on about the pediatrician. One mother who spoke to The Observer compared him to a “French country doctor.” And though Dr. Cohen likes to travel around his neighborhood by bicycle, another said she imagined him in said French country “with his satchel, walking down the road to visit his patients.”
Rx: Bread, Brie & Wine
Some of the mothers who take their children to Dr. Cohen even joke about his parsimonious use of antibiotics. Ms. Fillion said she and her friends like to imitate him, prescribing “a bottle of red, a hunk of bread and a piece of brie” for their kids.
“He has all these tips to give you, these old-fashioned things,” Ms. Holzer said. “If kids have a fever, he says, you put them in bathtub with lukewarm water. It’s very comforting.”
When Ms. Holzer came back from the hospital with Matteo, Dr. Cohen paid his customary visit. He wore shorts and carried his bicycle, Ms. Holzer’s father thought he was a friend.
Still, sometimes, Ms. Holzer said, she feels Dr. Cohen is “too calm,” she said she wishes he would “freak out” like she does when Matteo is sick, but she eventually realizes it’s okay.
Dr. Cohen smiled when asked about his reluctance to prescribe antibiotics. He was sitting in the eclectic but tastefully decorated living room of his duplex loft, which is connected to his practice. He wore a light-blue button-down shirt with heavy stitching and high-tech Nikes.
Speaking in his native French in slow, measured sentences, Dr. Cohen described his general philosophy as “low intervention.” He stressed that he would prescribe remedies when it’s clear they’re needed, but that he always advocates taking a little time and giving children a chance to get better on their own.
Still, even Dr. Cohen admitted that his philosophy may not be for everyone. “Sure, some people are surprised, yeah,” he said. “There are parents for whom we’re too much and that’s fine, they find another practice. But it’s pretty rare. If you explain what you’re doing to people, if you involve them in the decision, they’re capable of understanding. People are less stupid than you’d think. If they don’t come with that philosophy, they learn. They grow up with us, a little bit.”
About his fashion sense, he was less cautious. “I like nice clothes,” he said in his native French about his outfit. “In the end, a doctor’s a public person and people would rather look at something nice. I mean, most doctors look like dumps.”
When asked about his cult status in the area, Dr. Cohen brushed it away with an embarrassed smile and sweep of the hand.
“It’s true we have a good reputation,” he said. “And we’ve also created an image, with the decoration and everything.” Then he switched to English. “But in a way, we spend time,” he said. “If I see a kid who’s sick, it’s important to me, it’s in my nature, I’ll make sure he gets better. I’m really involved in what I’m doing so all the rest is irrelevant to what I’m doing.”
“We really try to be simple, to have a personable approach, a relationship with the patient,” he added. “And the fact that I live here with my three children, with my wife who’s an artist, it means we know our patients, we know who they are.”
Dr. Cohen originally hails from the town of Nice, in the South of France, where he grew up and studied medicine. Until he was about 30, he also studied modern dance and toyed for
a while with the idea of becoming a professional dancer. He even set up a dance ensemble in Nice and would parse his years in medical school with years at Merce Cunningham’s dance studio in New York-an easy thing to do in the French school system, he said.
At the age of 30 he decided he “had to do something” and went back to medicine. His first work experience was in Agadez, in Africa, where he worked mostly with children, setting up a dispensary for a foundation of the Prince of Monaco over the course of several months.
“After that, I decided I wanted to go into pediatrics,” he said. “I like working with children, it’s happy. I mean, it’s happy every day, mostly, and it’s always very pragmatic, the kid is sick or he isn’t”
It was in Nice that he met his wife, Jeannie, an American artist with whom he decided to move to New York. Setting up as a solo practitioner is hard in France, he said, and he thought he’d start working in America and then go back home.
He never did. After a residency program at New York University and Long Island College Hospital, Dr. Cohen settled on Tribeca roughly eight years ago, after biking around the area and liking the neighborhood. He started work on the raw space, people took notice, and within six months had a complete practice. In that time, he watched the area change, with artists and photographers moving out of their I.M.D. lofts for “quite a bit of money” and making way for movie executives, designers, dot-com entrepreneurs and investment bankers.
“It’s a little sad,” he said. “But it’s still great to live here, everybody has a cool edge.”
Recently, Dr. Cohen brought in another pediatrician to handle some of his growing workload. A nurse practitioner was also added. Tribeca’s country doctor is also thinking about building another practice, for adolescents this time, right next to his current space on Harrison. Or, he may move down to Murray Street and do the same. It’s up in the air.
Dr. Cohen’s expansion-at one point he had to ask a number of mothers to stop referring him because he couldn’t handle the volume-raises the question of whether he’ll soon be presiding over one of those giant child health mills that dot Manhattan. But the Tribeca mothers said they like the new additions and aren’t worried.
After all, in their heart of hearts, they know Dr. Cohen isn’t for everyone.