Ninth Street Nostalgia: Nice to Have Heat, But What Is Lost?

I moved downtown, to East Ninth Street, something like 10 or 12 years ago. The building’s landlord, a crusty grouch named Gary, kept a cluttered office in the first-floor storefront. He was always there for tenants to see, not that he’d do much of anything for you if you stopped in—though to his dubious credit, my rent was never raised because he had too many building-code violations.

Down in that cramped office, I could spend a good 20 minutes arguing with Gary about whether or not my kitchen faucet was dripping. I would say it was; he would respond: “What you describe cannot possibly physically exist.” On winter Sundays, with bone-chilling regularity, the building’s boiler ran out of oil and our heat was off. Inside my apartment, I bundled up. I could feel winter’s frozen breath blowing directly through the apartment’s decrepit, single-paned windows.

The thing about Gary—difficult, annoying, willing to do very little—was that he was a real person. While he generally wouldn’t accede to my demands, at least I could have my say face to face. And he couldn’t have cared less if I decorated the landings on the somewhat grim stairwell with art: posters and paintings salvaged or rescued from elsewhere. One or another would periodically be stolen, which would just be another opportunity for me to find a pleasing replacement. Since my one-bedroom apartment was at the top of six flights, the walk up was always that much more aesthetically appealing.

Back then, the block was sketchier: some empty storefronts wedged between a few funky antique shops. An old Ukrainian woman named Mary had lived in an apartment across the street since the 1950’s, when she had moved straight to Ninth Street from a refugee camp. Her son had moved upstate and wanted her to move there too, but Mary wasn’t leaving. People knew her here. Well into her 70’s, she was strong as an ox and never idle. In layer after layer of clothing, a babushka on her head, tiny Mary paced the sidewalks, picking up litter, replacing garbage-can lids, even volunteering at the neighborhood bakery. And best of all, she was always good for a comforting, surprisingly strong hug—definitely worth crossing the street for. She was characteristic of a rapidly disappearing type: Remember the grizzled neighborhood ladies gathered on Tompkins Square Park benches, casting skeptical eyes at the transvestites parading during Wigstock? Back then, it seemed like these shmatte’d old women represented the past and the ribald, glittery cross-dressers represented the future. But it was not to be.

Many people who visit (and even some who don’t) are appalled by the rigorous climb to my apartment. But since a disabling bout with pneumonia a few years back, when I had difficulty climbing them, I have developed an appreciation for the stairs’ aerobic benefits. On the sixth-floor landing there was an upright piano, long abandoned, supposedly by a resident of my apartment, two tenants before me. When a visitor huffed and puffed up the stairs to see me, I would sometimes play a little tune on it to make their journey more amusing.

I spent hours on the roof, working, reading, watching planes and the occasional star. My neighbor Fredda (a fifth-floor resident since 1966) inspired me with her tales of past rooftop nude sunbathing; now and then, I’d follow her lead. And every morning, I would walk up that one flight to the rooftop to get some air and check out the day’s weather.

It was there under a perfect blue sky that I watched the Twin Towers collapse in a terrifying, toxic heap. And in the days afterward, we kept being told that nothing would ever be the same, that our world had just been permanently altered, that our innocence (a concept never fully embraced by New Yorkers) had been irrevocably lost. It was even said that irony was dead. And what would replace it: wishful thinking?

Over the years, my East Village block got fancy. It’s now crowded with bridal shops. Hopeful young women haunt its sidewalks, eyeing expensive, unsullied white formalwear. It used to be that the only bridal gowns you would see in this neighborhood were worn by six-foot drag queens. Where have they gone? At Tompkins Square Park now, it’s all yuppies with puppies at the dog run. I know. With my pit bull Romy, I’m one of them. Then again, maybe not: My apartment’s too small and I’m too old to be a yuppie.

A corporation bought the building from landlord Gary. I send my rent to a post-office box. After pressing touchtone buttons transferring me, I leave voicemail messages for the management. There’s an art ban in the stairwell. The new super threw all the hallway art I’d carefully collected into the garbage. Now climbing those stairs under the fluorescent lights, at each landing you are treated to another blank wall of fading yellow paint. I tried to talk to the super and manager about this, but the issue wasn’t open to discussion.

They installed a better intercom system and door buzzer. They fixed the windows. Though less pretty than the old ones, the wind no longer blows through the single panes. Further on the downside, roof access is now denied. A shrieking alarm goes off if one even enters the stairwell leading up to it. My morning communion with the sky has been terminated, presumably due to the persuasive and brilliant logic of today’s liability laws.

To get the weighty piano off the sixth-floor landing (a fire-code violation), it was murdered: smashed to bits. I knew I should have sheltered that tired old monstrosity in my apartment, but I never rallied the wherewithal to actually lug it in. And then it was too late. Among its splintered wood skeleton, I kept in memoriam a curlicued piece of its music stand.

My rent now creeps up every two years with startling regularity. To New Yorkers I still have an incredible deal, though my rent’s too high to reveal to people back in Wisconsin, particularly if they know the size of my apartment. And it would be no good getting naked on the roof now anyway, since there’s an up-market high-rise nearby with lots of balconies.

The sweet Ukrainian lady Mary died. No more bracing hugs.

New York may still be the center of the universe if you’re in financial services. But once upon a time, some of America’s greatest artistic achievements were sparked by this town’s collision of race and class, when rich and poor were smushed up against each other. You don’t see that much anymore. It may even be that Manhattan residents are happier with less poetry and more doorman buildings.

Not me. Call me a misguided romantic with a taste for bygone squalor, but I fear that a New York without respect for historical preservation or cultural diversity will no longer beckon to artistic souls around the world. Diminishing values such as these are not easily rendered in real-estate terms.

And on Ninth Street: no paintings, no music, no access to the sky. We have been consumed by commercial clashes, a sad fate for an island with a past so glorious. And it’s less interesting. After all, who wants to listen to complaints from someone with a rent-stabilized apartment?