Sunday, April 29, 2007

My 89th Street

New York is a city of odd little neighborhoods, and you come to expect that you'll stumble upon something strange each time you venture into an unexplored part of the city. Visitors to Worth Street encounter a 500-foot tall windowless obelisk. If you live on 30th Street, you live next door to a police fortress.

Over these past few years, whenever out-of-town guests have visited us on 89th Street, I've been cheered to show them our strange wonder: The Claremont Riding Academy at 89th & Amsterdam, the last public stable in Manhattan. After 115 years of operation, it closes today.

In honor of the Claremont Riding Academy, I thought I'd share a reminiscence of my strange 89th street.

Walking down 89th Street between Riverside Park and Central Park is a visual and cultural treat. Starting at Riverside Drive, you encounter the first of two Jewish schools on my street, reminding you the Upper West Side is not only the most densely populated neighborhood in the United States, but also one of the most demographically Jewish neighborhoods outside of Israel. After passing a row of brownstones, another Jewish school, and 5 of the Upper West Side's ubiquitous 12/14 story apartment buildings, we arrive at 89th & Amsterdam.

If I could pick a phrase that best described Manhattan living for all of its residents, "Nobody Rides First Class on the Subway" would be an easy choice. The central difference between living in a varied urban setting and anywhere else I've visited is that rich & poor interact with (or are proximal to) each other to a far greater degree here than elsewhere. My street is a microcosm of Manhattan — 100 yards from the affluence of Broadway, and across the street from a building touting "Luxury Apartments," a 20-story public housing complex sits at the corner of 89th & Amsterdam.

Walking by this intersection during the summer means walking by a table or two of old men (and occasionally women) playing dominoes all day and into the evening, latin music on the portable radio, the whole scene having a certain Norman Rockwell quality to it. There was a gang-related murder here in broad daylight back in May 2006, reminding residents that things are not always just grand for those who live in public housing. But this is not a scary place. It strikes me that fear is usually just unfamiliarity, and these environs have become very familiar to me over the past couple years.

Also familiar, and soon to be missed, is the frequent sight of horses, walking single file down the street, either turning right on Amsterdam to head to Central Park via 90th street or returning from the park down 89th. Passing the stable during the day meant that there would usually be children inside, learning to ride. Each time we'd have a friend gaze through the open doors of the academy to view the trotting horses inside, we've enjoy watching a broad smile cross our friend's face. The reason someone standing in Manhattan loves the sight of these horses is the same reason that Central Park is so wonderful: To be in an urban environment, surrounded on all sides by concrete, and then to have just a glimpse of something wild or green or agrarian reminds you that the world is not yet entirely paved.1

Passing the stables, you come to the 1898 Gothic edifice of P.S. 166, The Richard Rogers School of Arts & Technology, the primary school where Jonas Salk, J.D. Salinger, and – naturally – Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers & Hammerstein) started their educations. The elaborate facade of P.S. 166 usually leaves me asking the same question that so many New York buildings instill in me: How stonemasons used to work in this city? How many are still here?

A few more apartment buildings and a row of brownstones and you've arrived at Central Park, just south of the 90th street gate. Like so many living in New York, I've grown attached to the little idiosyncrasies that differentiate my street from elsewhere in the city. As the Claremont Riding Academy closes its doors, I'm sad to see one of those points of distinction disappear.

1 I think Albert Camus detailed a similar feeling in his Desert Island (New York):
Manhattan. Sometimes from beyond the skyscrapers,
across the hundreds of thousands of high walls,
the cry of a tugboat finds you in your insomnia
in the middle of the night,
and you remember that this desert of
iron and cement is an island.
Albert Camus, 1946

No comments: