In the fall of 1982, I moved into an apartment at 545 West 49th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. The rent was one hundred seventy dollars a month.
I shared the place with two guys, Barry and Harvey. I was working as a fact checker on a high school U.S. history textbook for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, and Barry was doing editorial production work for them—proofreading, if I recall correctly. When a room opened up in his apartment, he offered it to me.
The bedroom I lived in was almost entirely taken up by my futon that ran along the floor. My two roommates were not the most fastidious guys, and it was not uncommon to see mice scurrying across the apartment, especially in the front room, which served as a very cramped eat-in kitchen and bathing room. The tub and shower were about a foot from the refrigerator and stove. In the winter, the heat in our living quarters was sporadic and the windows rattled. My girlfriend was especially impressed that she could put her drinking glass on the windowsill by the bed at night and find that in the morning the water had turned into ice. She was less pleased by the cockroaches running up and down the shower curtain and across the toothbrushes.
The tenement landscape of the north side of my new block reminded me of the Lower East Side neighborhood where I had grown up. There were six-story buildings with fire escapes, and in the middle of the block were several buildings that had been abandoned. On the northwest corner of 10th Avenue there was a Travelodge, a dismal white brick hotel that looked like it belonged just off an exit of the New Jersey Turnpike. Harvey informed me that a couple of years earlier, police had dug up the parking lot behind the hotel looking for victims of an Irish-American street gang called the Westies.
The south side of the block also had tenements, but it was punctuated on the east end by the abandoned New York Central Railroad tracks that ran below the street grade. The middle of the block was dominated by a large red brick building that housed a commercial laundry operation. It looked like a prison and its impenetrable façade reminded me of the Men's Shelter near my boyhood home.
It was a quiet, sullen street. The mood was different from the despairing, crazed quality of some of the heroin drug bazaar blocks around Avenue B that I navigated in my childhood. But my new street and its immediate surroundings also seemed to lack the eccentric extrovert vibe of the East Village with its loquacious bohemians, bookstores, hole-in-the-wall music clubs, and record shops. Of course, I was a newcomer and the neighborhood surely contained multitudes not visible to the naked eye. Like any dense working-class neighborhood in Manhattan there was a surface life and a subterranean one, which an interloper like me was never going to understand.
A portion of my block was occupied by a small group of Puerto Rican marijuana dealers. A peaceful street, one that didn't attract the wrong kind of attention, was important to their livelihoods. After a couple of weeks of hard stares, they realized that I lived nearby, and before long they were giving me the New York head nod of recognition as I walked by them every day. By the time I moved out, about eighteen months later, one of them, no doubt bored half to death from standing out on the street all day, was striking up conversations with me about the weather and the condition of the block. Two of the vacant buildings were, by then, in the early stages of renovation, and the changes on the horizon were a matter of fascination and concern.
Ten months after moving to West 49th Street, I began attending classes at CUNY Law School in Queens. It was a new school, and I was in the inaugural class. As permanent building space had not yet been secured, we were housed in an elementary school in Bayside. The water fountains and toilets had been built for children between the ages of five and ten. The cafeteria was our law library and the gymnasium served as the main auditorium. The traditional law school curriculum had been tossed aside for an interdisciplinary approach geared toward public service, and there was an emphasis on what today might be called "social justice." The tuition was remarkably affordable, and most of the students were much older than me. My classmates were retired cops, nurses, firefighters, teachers, social workers, journalists, tenant organizers, and musicians (one of whom had toured with the Bee Gees).
I was grouped in "House One" with about twenty other students, including a tough-talking GOP City Councilman representing the Bronx who looked like a middle-aged James Dean with a toupee. He disappeared one day, never to return, after being arrested for illegally purchasing a machine gun and other firearms in a gun-smuggling scheme. House One also had a Dominican nun named Yvonne, acutely attuned to the inequities of the legal system, and a guy named Henry who had been a colonel in the Malawi army. Henry told me that he had been educated at Sandhurst military college alongside British royalty, and would sometime call me "old chap" and "good fellow." I sat behind Pam Brown, a Guyanese immigrant living in Brooklyn who had worked at Burger King while going to college at night. The two of us partnered in several simulations in which we would role-play as lawyers confronting issues arising from the material we were reading.
One of my best friends at CUNY was a typesetter named Jill Boskey. In 1969, along with four other women, she had destroyed the draft records at thirteen Selective Service offices. Her role in the "women's draft board action," included removing the "1" and "A" keys from typewriters in board offices—"1A" being the official designation for draft eligibility. Jill would often give me a ride to school. She was profane, generous, funny, loud, a chain smoker, and a prodigious coffee drinker—she was occasionally pulling midnight-to-8:00 a.m. typesetting shifts. I was impressed that she paid only thirty-seven dollars a month rent for her Mott Street apartment, a one-room hovel with boarded-up windows that she shared with her dog and cat. The contentious and often cantankerous characters of House One frequently engaged in heated exchanges guided by the faculty House Leader, a good looking and mischievous African American law professor named Harold. These sessions—or "reflections" to use the school's lingo—frequently turned into emotionally draining group therapy sessions. Jill, who managed to be both intellectually rigorous and empathetic, was the person most responsible for keeping these discussions from degenerating into vituperation.
Back on West 49th Street, I often found myself heading over with my law books very late at night to Munson's, a twenty-four-hour diner, about fifty yards from my apartment building, on the southwest corner of 11th Avenue. The striking façade of the eatery, which went back to the 1940s, was made up of vertical strips of stainless steel offset by bright blue enamel panels. Inside there were fifteen counter stools and seven small booths. The vintage neon Munson's sign, announcing the restaurant to drivers and pedestrians, cast a red glow on the avenue.
I'd grown up eating out at cheap Ukrainian coffee shops in the East Village. Leshko's, Odessa, the Kiev, Teresa's, Christine's. Scrambled eggs, home fries, pierogis, blintzes, stuffed cabbage. These were the staples of my diet. So the prospect of spending some time at a diner right by my apartment and escaping my claustrophobic and freezing bedroom was enticing. Munson's, however, turned out to be nothing like any of the places I had eaten at previously. The food was terrible. Runny scrambled eggs, overcooked hamburgers, stale banana cream pie. But the place was empty enough that I could spend hours there without anyone complaining. During my late night visits, the other customers were mostly taxi and car service drivers on the overnight shift, or prostitutes who worked on nearby side streets and along the West Side Highway. Pimps would occasionally wander into Munson's, but their presence was discouraged. I'd study into the morning, seated in my booth, reading about due process, criminal procedure, and the interstate commerce clause. The Munson's waiters referred to me as "the professor." And once a lady of the night, after asking me what I was reading, said to me, "You're gonna be a lawyer? I could use a lawyer. You got a card?" Munson's could be a sad place in those early a.m. hours.
Other than the diner, 11th Avenue was fairly dead. Lots of car dealerships and warehouses. On 11th and 46th there was the Landmark Tavern in an old building that had housed a saloon going back to 1868, but it was a lonely outpost and a bit too gussied up for my taste. The street life was over on 9th and 10th Avenues. What had been mostly an Irish and Puerto Rican neighborhood was by 1982 already in the early stages of transition, and some of those changes were evident in the storefronts. A couple of ambitious restaurants had recently opened on 10th Avenue. There was a nice Italian place and a cafe that served bluefish. But there were also vestiges of an older Hell's Kitchen—bodegas, barbershops, a laundromat, the big Hess Gas Station, a pharmacy, and a lousy Chinese takeout place called Foo King. There were still several Irish bars on 10th Avenue a few blocks from my apartment.
Years later there would be published accounts of murders and mayhem happening in some of those taverns in the late '70s and '80s, stories about Irish neighborhood gangsters killing rivals and proudly displaying the victims' body parts in glass jars behind the bar. Most of those stories are apocryphal. I must have been in nearly every bar on 10th Avenue at least once or twice when I lived in the neighborhood, and never sensed any danger or menace. Some places were more welcoming than others, but they were all struggling to stay in business and happy to take my money. The other patrons included Irish seniors, washed-up longshoremen, civil service workers, theatre stagehands, small-time hoodlums, white collar professionals who'd moved into the neighborhood because it was cheap and a ten-minute walk to midtown, and fresh-faced kids like me.
My two favorite drinking places were over on 9th Avenue between 44th and 45th. The Film Center Café was across from the art deco Film Center building, where movie studios used to do editing. The place had a stainless steel exterior and advertised itself with a blue neon sign. The crowd was friendly, the drinks were cheap, and most importantly there was an addictive shuffle bowling game that involved sliding a chromed metallic puck down an eight-foot waxed Formica lane and striking the metal switches jutting up, which caused the tiny pins to retract upward. The puck returned by bouncing off the back rubber wall and the scoring was done electronically. During the time I lived on 49th Street, the bartender, who also owned the bar, a guy named Milon, was shot and nearly killed by someone early one evening. It was never clear what the story was there.
A couple of doors down there was a bar called Rudy's. One of the Film Center Café patrons told me the only people who went there were bums and whores. This wasn't true, although both groups were well represented. Lots of old men living on Social Security checks also drank there. A few years later, the owners of Rudy's would realize that people with money liked dive bars and, as the neighborhood became safer and people with money moved in, the bar became very popular, especially when it began offering free hot dogs.
One of my classmates at CUNY who lived in the neighborhood was a tenant organizer. She knew my block and told me she had recently tried to help a family facing eviction in one of the buildings. Through the seventies, many Hell's Kitchen landlords had neglected their properties or abandoned them. In some cases, the City had taken over buildings for non-payment of taxes. This had also happened on the Lower East Side, but here it somehow seemed different because it was just a couple of blocks from the office towers lining Sixth Avenue and a short walk from the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.
By 1982, though, things had started changing again. The value of an empty building was much greater than one occupied by rent controlled tenants. Some landlords got the poorer people to move out of their apartments by offering them a few bucks. Others withheld heat and water, or deliberately set fires in their buildings. Tens of thousands of SROs (Single Room Occupancy housing) that provided cheap accommodations on the West Side were also being emptied out. During the time I was at CUNY, several SROs around Times Square were illegally demolished in the middle of the night by a landlord who eventually replaced them with a luxury hotel.
All this upheaval and displacement was a precursor to the gentrification that was just getting underway. A number of neighborhood groups were fighting back against the abandonment, neglect, and efforts to remove tenants who were considered undesirable. There were rent strikes, lawsuits seeking to halt conversions, and dramas that played out daily in Housing Court. Several of my classmates were doing their best to stem the onslaught. Law in the service of human needs, as it was described in the CUNY Law brochure. But on my block and many others, the buildings had already been emptied out.
There were several stables just a few blocks from where I lived. On many nights, lying in bed huddled under the covers, I'd hear the clip clop of hooves on the pavement as the carriage horse drivers rode down my empty street after a long day of work taking tourists around Central Park and down Fifth Avenue. Listening in bed to the cadences of horseshoes on asphalt, I could tell if the horse was walking, trotting, or cantering. There was something magical about the sound that suggested to me a different New York, somewhere in the distant past.
Time travels backward as well as forward, and sometimes it moves sideways. 545 West 49th is still standing and looks as battered and beat up as it did thirty-three years ago. Much of the rest of the street is barely recognizable. In the middle of the block there is a seven story forty-seven-unit apartment building, a renovation and combining of structures that were uninhabited when I lived on the block. Next door is a narrow fifteen-story building, constructed sometime after I moved away, that until this summer had served as a homeless shelter for families. In explaining the decision to close the shelter, the head of the non-profit operating it noted that its residents came from other boroughs of the city. The location, he said, was no longer an appropriate one.
The commercial laundry is long gone, and the building that housed it, after a full makeover, is the headquarters of the American Red Cross of Greater New York. The old Travelodge on the corner has been remodeled and is the Skyline Hotel. The last time I checked on Trip Advisor, 369 people rated it as Excellent, 130 scored it as Poor, and 69 said it was Terrible. The Film Center Café closed in 2011. If you know of a bar with a miniature shuffle bowling game, please let me know. Rudy's is still in operation and has become such a beloved dive that people come from all over the world to drink there. Munson's Diner closed, and in 2005 it was loaded on a flatbed truck and transported upstate to the town of Liberty in the Catskills, where it is now known as Stu's Lake Street Diner.
What about my CUNY Law classmates? I have lost track of nearly every one, but I get periodic reports. A good number of them, I'm pleased to say, continue to be troublemakers and agitators. Some are tenant lawyers representing clients in Hell's Kitchen and elsewhere. Many work for Legal Aid. Several became law professors. Others had drug and alcohol problems and suffered nervous breakdowns. A lot of them have retired. Quite a few are dead. Pam Brown has been a Queens County Supreme Court judge for fifteen years. Jill Boskey represented poor people, immigrants and the disabled in Social Security cases, and took on the federal government in several class action cases. She died in 1999. There are hundreds of lawyers she trained who are carrying on the work she did in her much too brief legal career.
West 49th Street, like so much of New York, is always changing. Builders barging rudely ahead. Hustlers hustling. People coming and going, moving in and moving out. Stories of wonder and sorrow, one after the other. But even on this ordinary street, as the city charges ahead, obliterating whatever came before, the past always pulls us back. Horse hooves beating on the pavement. Images of the impermanent city suspended in memory.
Title image "In the Kitchen" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.