We started and ended our Manhattan amble in the Meatpacking District, that venerable neighborhood from around 14th down to Gansevoort Street that has been totally gentrified in recent years. This is a place that in 1900 had 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants lining its streets. The paving stones under the butchers’ awnings used to actually lie slick with lard and blood when I first came to New York in the late ’70s. Now Diane von Furstenberg has a building of refurbished brick with lavender windows and a penthouse that looks like a geodesic glass bubble on top, and there are eateries like Bubby’s opening that pride themselves on their farm-to-table cuisine.
The sign announcing the imminent arrival of the joint puts across it’s down home, wry message: Defending the American Table (also, we steal recipes from grandmas.)
With illustrations around the side that already seem faded as a pair of farmer’s Levi’s.
It reminded me of a sign we saw up in also gentrifying Morningside Heights recently, on Broadway near 125th Street.
There was a man on scaffolding outside and we weren’t sure whether he was taking down an old sign or putting up a new one with an exquisitely vintage look. The sign down below left us equally confused.
Maybe you can figure it out.
Anyway, on from the Meatpacking District to see a movie on Houston Street, at the northern lip of Soho. “What Maisie Knew” is based on a novella written by Henry James in 1897 about a classic dysfunctional family. Sad, sad, film.
It features Julianne Moore as a self-absorbed rock vocalist married to a self-absorbed art dealer played by Steve Koogan. At the heart of the story is their seven-year-old daughter, Maisie, who is being torn apart by the breakup of her parents’ marriage. The two adults literally abandon her places – the story takes place in contemporary Manhattan — when they tire of her. I wondered what James would have made of the profane adaptation.
The novelist was a theater aficionado and aspiring playwright. Couldn’t he be satisfied with being the most brilliant prose stylist of his day? He never got the reception on the boards that he so very much wanted. Movies might really have rocked his world. We think of him as fusty now, but Edith Wharton writes in her memoir A Backward Glance about how much James loved to “motor.” Yes, driving in the new, perpetually breaking-down automobiles, feeling the wind in his pate, was just about his favorite thing.
Making our way north, we grabbed a schnitzel and a wurst at a little German joint. En route, we passed the phenomenon that has been around longer than anything else I know in New York: the basketball game at West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue, also known as the Cage.
Anybody can play and there are fierce tournaments. The supports for the baskets are actually padded with duct tape to mitigate injury to players who stuff.
Under the High Line, where we had earlier found parking (who said it’s tough to get along in New York? Come with me, I have the best parking karma in the city) night had fallen.
A park so beautiful that even Manhattanites are impressed, the High Line was once quite different. An old elevated freight line for meat packers, built under the aegis of Robert Moses, it ran through the buildings of the district, raised up above the streets underneath. The rail bed had long since fallen on hard times when I first saw it decades ago. It was basically a long, winding, dispiriting field of syringes, condoms and weeds. Some brilliant dreamers fought to bring it back to life as a park planted throughout with native plants, meticulously cared for, ingeniously designed. The first section of the park opened in 2009. Now people throng to it day and night, both to walk and to lounge on the massive wooden chaise lounges found along its length.
Gil climbed the stairs and waved down from the dark trees above. I was content looking up past the old, weathered, still-extant butcher’s awning at the winking moon.