The Local: Tribeca's Last Gritty Street

Watts Street does not have a sign at the moment, but residents of the edgy, untrammeled, Tribeca block cut-off by the Holland Tunnel probably prefer it that way.

At the crossroads of SoHo, Tribeca, and the West Village, the two-block strip of Watts below Canal Street had been passed over during the downtown development boom until recently. It remains the same gritty, inaccessible no-man’s land today as it did 10 years ago; but the residential construction flanking Watts at Canal on one end and West Street on the other suggest that the tide may be turning for Tribeca’s last holdout.

These days the graffiti scrawled on the vacant, one-story, warehouses and low-rise residences is illuminated by light from neighboring apartments and towers across the river. Amid the scattered galleries, studios and offices is the four-story, 1875 landmark Flemming Smith Warehouse, which was converted into a commercial co-op and is home to the 27-year-old Capsouto Freres French restaurant—an incongruous mainstay on the otherwise desolate street.

Violene Huisman has worked on Watts Street for the better part of the past decade, first at the independent publishing house Seven Stories Press and now at the Jack Hanley Gallery that opened in December. During that period, Tribeca has undergone a full-scale residential conversion, Ms. Huisman said, while Watts Street has remained more or less the same.

“Eight years ago there was nothing here but an Italian restaurant and Capsouto Freres,” she recalled, referring to the infamous mob haunt Ponti’s the French restaurant. Back then Watts Street was seedier, said Ms. Huisman. It was a popular destination for truckers, used condoms were a familiar sight on the street, and everyday there was new graffiti.

“Until that monster started going up this area was really impervious to development,” she said. “South of Watts on Greenwich the pedestrians totally change, and you start to see blue-suited Wall Street types. I go around the corner to Gorgionne for coffee during the day and everyone’s talking about real estate. But here it’s edgier, a lot of artists and their children.”

Ms. Huisman thinks the "monster," the 16-story Gotham building on the Hudson River—where condos will start at $6.5 million—will “radically transform Watts Street.”

Dan Simon, who moved the offices of his independent press Seven Stories from Broadway and Houston to Watts Street in 1994, is not expecting an influx of thirty-something, high-rolling bachelors to arrive.

“I’m not worried at all, but I’m curious to see who is going to be there. I overhear conversations in the neighborhood about people being laid off, some very handsomely, but still I’m assuming that the guys this building is built for are not buying this type of real estate right now,” Mr. Simon says.

Regardless of Wall Street’s financial woes, he is dubious that any development has the capacity to surmount the “fact of the Holland Tunnel” or any of the other inconveniences that have protected the character of Watts Street in the past, he said.

“I always say that Vestry to Canal on Hudson is our white pricket fence because people don’t want to cross that line and deal with New Jersey people commuting home," Mr. Simon said. "Since no one wants to cross that boundary, the other side of the white picket fence is peaceful and quiet and undisturbed.

“We’ve had some nice sunsets lately that we won’t see as much when the buildings are up, but I really don’t think the neighborhood is going to change otherwise.”

Some long-time Watts Street residents believe that residential conversion might not be so bad. The nearest grocery store is 12 blocks away, there are few schools in the district, and other services are hard to come by, said Albert Capsouto, a 14-year member of Community Board 1 who owns Capsouto Freres with his two brothers.

“There is going to be an influx of people," he said. "Once people are here, it might help a little to bring more people so that retail can be supported. We’ll have more need for schools and services, and there is something to be said about a residential conversion. There is no demand for commercial development from us."

His brother Samuel Capsouto also seemed open to changes during a conversation at the bar of his sprawling, wood-paneled, lily scented restaurant. The waiters wear bowties, classical music plays in the background, but the restaurant forgoes stuffiness. Family photos hang on the walls and the brothers greet each guest personally—many of whom are regulars.

“You step outside and you see the sea here and that’s rare in New York,” Samuel said. One of the regulars interrupted: “Not when that new condo goes up.”

“OK so you’ll have to crane your neck a little, but it’s there,” Samuel said with a dismissive hand flourish. “You lose something and you gain something.”

The Local: Tribeca's Last Gritty Street