My 11th St. story; How I became a New Yorker

BY NANCY GENDIMENICO | There’s nothing left of my old apartment at 112 E. 11th St. except a sign on a wooden partition with the address. Behind that is rubble, a bulldozer and wide-open space between Third and Fourth Aves.

The writer’s former building on E. 11th St., covered with scaffolding and ready for demolition. Local preservationists and community activists had fought to save the handsome historic building and its neighboring building from the wrecking ball, protesting that both should have been landmarked. But instead the site will be turned into a trendy hotel catering to Millennials. Photo by Nancy Gendimenico

I’d been monitoring progress of the demolition since the announcement was made last summer when Pan Am Equities sold what was once my home along with the neighboring building, 114-120 E. 11th St., to the Lightstone Group, a real estate developer.

The site of my former home will become the Moxy Hotel, a Millennial-oriented chain owned by Marriott. Back in 2008, these four 19th-century tenements had been considered for designation for landmark status. But when word came of the pending purchase in the spring of 2016, it was too late to reapply.

Having lived in Manhattan for almost four decades, seven of them on 11th St., I mourn the loss of favorite shops, theaters and restaurants priced out of the neighborhood. Banks, national retail chains and hotels — the brands and companies able to afford the steep cost of doing business in Manhattan — have changed the face of the Village. Now a physical piece of my personal history, my life in Manhattan as a young striver, has disappeared with a few swings of the wrecking ball.

Though it’s been 30 years since I lived on E. 11th St., my current apartment is four blocks away. Earlier this spring, I went to check out the demolition in progress. The crew watched me take photos.

“I used to live here!” I yelled to them.

A worker yelled back, “Sorry!”

I wondered how the renters booted out last year had fared with six week’s notice. Where did they move given that reasonably priced rentals in the Village have gone the way of my old building?

Yet finding a Manhattan apartment regardless of the era has always been daunting.

When I arrived in 1980, I was in my mid-twenties. I chose to live Downtown, rather than the Upper East Side where my department store friends were, because my sister lived on Fourth Ave. and E. 12th St. East Village prices made it possible for me to live alone.

I’d spotted the 11th St. apartment listing on a hot June weekend. My hunt had led me from one dump to another with my rental budget set at $500. I remember calling about the studio from a phone booth, asking to see it before returning to Washington, D.C., where I was living at the time. I was relocating to New York the next month after getting promoted to my dream job, buyer at Bloomingdale’s.

A woman answered, “You sound like a nice person. Come over on Sunday.”

When I got there, the narrow foyer was filled with other “nice” apartment hunters surveying a sleeping loft, big closets and a renovated kitchen and bathroom for $400 a month. Realizing it would be scooped up quickly, I raced out of the building and hopped into a cab and zipped over to the realtor’s office.

A guy with the same idea, around my age, insisted on sharing my taxi to the Upper East Side. He quizzed me during the ride about what I did for a living. I knew he was asking to determine whether I would “qualify” to get the rental, assuming I earned less than him. He was wrong.

When I got to the realtor’s office I was prepared — I had my employment verification letter and a new American Express card to show my good credit record. The apartment was mine!

Then reality set in. I froze in the winter and sweated in the summer. My living room windows were nailed shut. But that didn’t block the street noise from The Ritz (now Webster Hall) nor the burglars who broke in with the very keys I’d provided to the super. This happened five months after signing the lease. When I replaced the locks, I refused to give my keys to Pan Am Equities, the landlord who sold the stretch of buildings to Lightstone.

After the burglary, I worried about walking east of Third Ave. for fear of getting mugged. But I soon learned there was more to the East Village than bars, thrift shops and Ukrainian clubs. I discovered Russo’s cheese store, Veniero’s bakery, Lanza’s restaurant and De Robertis all right around First Ave. Given my Italian-American roots, I assured my mother that, although I hadn’t the time to cook, I could buy food like her homemade meals blocks away.

I spent hours in Pageant’s Book and Print Shop, the Strand and nearby cinemas on Sunday afternoons. When N.Y.U. began its expansion, and was about to start construction on its E. Ninth St. dorm — then designated the tallest building in the neighborhood — I went to the community meeting at the Third Street Music School Settlement, glad for the diverse group banding together to fight development. Of course, we lost.

During seven years on E. 11th St., I’d fumble with New York living, my heart broken by the wrong move with a man or my career. Meanwhile, The Ritz was never quiet and never closed. Revelers spilled onto the street after hours and sometimes into our building’s tiny foyer. Stepping onto the sidewalk devoid of puke or blood the next morning after the club’s all-night parties was a rarity. I traveled for work, a sometime respite. After a long overseas business trip, often staying at hotel rooms larger than my 400-square-foot apartment, I was happy to be home, despite the grittiness of E. 11th St.

While living there, I saved enough money to make my way out, as I had when I left my Pennsylvania hometown. By taking a job I’d soon despise, I earned enough for a down payment and bought a one-bedroom co-op apartment in 1987. But I could not forget about 11th St. Next year there will be a 13-floor hotel in its place. I will know what had been there before and how my time on 11th St. helped shape me into becoming a real New Yorker.