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Volume 75, Number 9 | July 20- 26, 2005

These blocks were made for walkin’, a writer says

By Ellen Keohane

Most New Yorkers walk the streets of Manhattan with a brisk stride, expertly dodging other pedestrians and cars with one thing on their minds: their destination.

Robert Jay Kaufman, 53, the author of “Blockology: An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan,” would like to see more New Yorkers take the time to wander aimlessly. “I would recommend to everybody the experience of walking without a destination. It makes you so much more observant and really hones your powers of observation,” Kaufman said in a recent phone interview.

Kaufman speaks from experience. From May until October of 2003, he walked every block in Lower Manhattan below 14th St. Kaufman estimates he walked 1,544 blocks in total.

To pursue his project, Kaufman took a sabbatical from his position as chairperson of the illustration and animation department at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. He sublet an apartment in the East Village, and with his wife and daughter’s support, started walking.

“I had always wanted to do a walking adventure, but it had to be urban. I’m not really a nature boy,” Kaufman said. After Sept. 11, 2001, Kaufman knew he couldn’t procrastinate any longer. Part of the reason for doing the book was to call attention to and support the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, he said.

Occasionally, Kaufman walked with friends, but he primarily walked alone. “It was really a solitary experience,” he said. The result of his wanderings is his book, “Blockology,” which was self-published in March.

“I’d do two to three hours before lunch and then another two to three hours after lunch,” Kaufman said. “It took me 52 days to finish my first go-round.” On average, he covered 30 blocks a day, working his way from north to south. On his walks, Kaufman took photographs and notes while contemplating the people, architecture and feel of each block, often taking extra time to walk both sides of each street, he said.

Following his “first pass” through Lower Manhattan, Kaufman selected 62 blocks to revisit. He then went back, and took more photos and extensive notes on each block, before returning to his home in Brookline, Mass., where he culled the 62 blocks down to 36. “It was a difficult process,” he said.

“Blockology” is organized and color-coded by neighborhood, starting with six blocks in the West Village and Greenwich Village, and ending with four blocks in the Financial District and Battery Park City.

Kaufman devotes two pages to each block highlighted in his book — on the left-hand page, he includes a map and a description of the block, including its residents and history. On the right-hand page is a collage of images, including photographs and original illustrations by Kaufman.

“I’ve always been fascinated with Lower Manhattan,” said Kaufman, whose ancestors first arrived in New York City in the late 1880s and settled in the Lower East Side. Over the years, Kaufman’s extended family moved to other neighborhoods throughout New York City and its suburbs.

Kaufman grew up in New Jersey, but loved taking trips into Manhattan while growing up, he said. After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1970s, he moved to Tribeca where he lived in a loft on Franklin St. Eventually Kaufman was priced out of Manhattan and relocated to Hoboken.

Over the years Kaufman moved from New Jersey to North Carolina, and then to Massachusetts. But he still considers Manhattan “one of the best places in the world to live.” Eventually, he’d like to move back, he said. But for now, his daughter is still in high school and he has a job that he enjoys in Boston.

Kaufman’s favorite blocks weren’t necessarily the most beautiful or the ones with the best shops. “I was more interested in the quirky nature of blocks,” he said.

For example, Thomas St. between Church St. and Broadway in Tribeca is included in “Blockology” for its divergent architecture. On one side of Thomas St. is the imposing granite AT&T Long Lines building, which is next to a park enclosed by a tall, ironwork fence. On the opposite side of the street is a 1950s New York State Insurance Fund building, a vacant Victorian-style building that’s falling apart and, further down, the marble side wall of a McDonalds. “It’s really outrageous,” Kaufman said. “Certainly no urban planner would do this.”

In his book, Kaufman calls this section of Thomas St. an “archipodge block,” which he defines as “a block that has not two buildings with the same architectural style.” Archipodge blocks are all over Manhattan, but none are as extreme as Thomas St., said Kaufman.

During his treks, Kaufman started to notice all types of block patterns, which he defines in the glossary of his book. For example, a “puff block” is a block where people smoke in front of buildings. A “chat block” is where people tend to stand and talk, while a “go block” is one that’s always full of walkers.

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