Volume 76, Number 53 | May 30 - June 5, 2007

Talking Point

As my puppy looks down, it’s hard for me to look up

By Michele Herman

For 18 years I’ve lived on the westernmost block of 12th St. I always thought of my block, when I thought of it at all, the way I think of a supper of leftovers: It was cobbled together from humble, disparate parts, and it was perfectly satisfying.

Now I think about my block all the time. I think about my block because we have a puppy whose daily routine includes a lot of time there. And while I hold the leash, I think about how and why my block is disappearing before my eyes.

My block is disappearing — sounds melodramatic, doesn’t it? I suppose there’s a little hyperbole in the statement, because the cobblestones, the newish Rockrose building and — thank the lord — my big stuccoed building, a former spice warehouse, are not going anywhere anytime soon. But all the other buildings on the block — the former cracker factory, lead foundry, blacksmith shop and stable — have been, or are currently being, smashed to pieces and carted away in dumpsters to make room for new ones. The finest tree on the block, the star of late April’s pear-tree fashion week, has been badly damaged in the process and is not looking long for the world either.

On the south side of the street, all that remains of the Superior Inks building that we tried so hard to save is the banner carrying the empty marketing-speak promise “Something Superior Is Coming.” On the street’s north side, everything but the bland Rockrose building at the eastern end, where the High Line used to run, is being wiped out. Diane von Furstenberg’s headquarters is giving way to an 80-foot-tall apartment building. The garage came down last year in a failed rush attempt to install a new foundation — which would have allowed a taller building — before the property was downzoned; rumor says the owner is about to break ground in earnest for a 100-foot building. That leaves the sagging Gulf Coast building on the western end, which long served as our block’s cheery riverfront landmark. How many times did I tell visitors, “Just look for the little mint green building with the Gulf sign — you can’t miss it”? The Gulf Coast is falling down all by itself with a little help from gravity and the benign neglect of its owners, the Gottlieb heirs.

It’s funny the things you worry about. Before we made the leap of faith of getting a puppy, I worried about the dreaded early-morning walk on the block. I pictured family arguments in deepest, grumpiest January about whose turn it was. Little did I suspect that I would sign up for the job. I don’t mean “sign up” in the default-to-Mom sense. I go out every day year-round because, next to my nightly peek at my sleeping boys, it’s become my favorite daily routine.

The puppy, who’s more of a sniffing and listening creature than a seeing one like me, can’t get to the sidewalk fast enough. It’s as if he’s received a hundred e-mails, and they’re all filled with breaking news stories or well wishes or juicy gossip. He reads the messages left in the butts of cigars, in the mockingbird who imitates car alarms in the pear tree, the mourning dove perched on our roof asking “Who? Who?” the sweat of the joggers and the worsted suits of the businesspeople rushing to the office at 7:15.

The puppy has nowhere else he needs to be. Like a tiny Huck Finn, he travels the fragrant river of pee that flows in the mortar between the cobblestones, thrumming with excitement as he traces its bends. When we get to a certain tree pit he strains at the leash, desperate to rub his body in the rich stink where (I happen to know from seeing it) a tiny mouse carcass dissolved into the earth not long ago.

There is peril on the block, too. The herd of wild motorcycles has rain covers that sometimes pounce with no provocation at all. Several times a week a mountain of bagged trash appears, drawing him near with its vegetable aromas but then scaring him off with its monstrous black plastic skin. Like a sandpiper, he marches bravely up to the danger spots, and then beats a mad retreat.

Up at my eye level, where I focus, the peril is everywhere. Lately the block is thick with workers and dark with scaffolding. With the destruction almost complete, the demolition guys are handing off the job to other trades: the pile drivers, the dewaterers, the foundation builders, the masons.

A new block will soon rise. It will be a far taller block, and a shinier one. It will be cleaner, but with longer shadows and more worsted suits. We have already been informed by one of the newcomers that our curbside garbage will pose a problem, though it’s never posed one before.

I know I have few rights here. I didn’t sign a contract when I moved in guaranteeing me anything at all. And I know that in coming to the pioneer apartment building on the block, I’m part of the great cosmic demographic that tilted the block onto its current course; it’s hard to move outside the zeitgeist.

Still, I liked my block just the way it was, with one foot in the 19th century and one in the early 20th. It was filled with reminders that people once worked with crops and ore and animals and then, when the last great technological revolution changed everything, with machines and chemicals. You can call that silly nostalgia for a time that was smelly and noisy and dangerous, but you can also call it genuine grief for a lost connection between humans and their hands and between hands and the earth.

When I’m very old and someone asks me what life was like when I came to the far West Village, I will tell them that I came in the interregnum between the transvestites and the mega-developers. I came during the brief, hopeful era of adaptive reuse, a period when the city’s current needs could be met comfortably by its existing structures. When I moved in, the old buildings housed a lively Cajun restaurant, a driving-school garage and a set-design studio, the home and studio of a well-known artist, a printing-ink factory and my solitary co-op. When I moved here, people still made things on this block.

I suppose it’s not one of the stronger urban allegiances: New Yorkers and their block. We mechanically write our return address, which in Manhattan is usually a flavorless thing: a few numbers and an “East” or a “West.” When we leave our building, we’re running elsewhere, and when we return, we’re skipping ahead to what’s awaiting us inside. But here in Manhattan it’s naive to assume that your block will be waiting for you when you fling open your front door. Any day now, when my block of 12th St. enters the 21st century, I’ll be taking my cue from the puppy, who walks with his head close to the ground.

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