My life and the changing Village over the years: Part I

A portrait of the writer, who is now 93, as a young artist at her easel.
A portrait of the writer, who is now 93, as a young artist at her easel.

BY OTIS KIDWELL BURGER | Martha died in September 1914, a little more than 100 years ago — the last of 3 billion American passenger pigeons, shot, netted and sent to market, and extinct in just 50 years. The Village is not going extinct, but in the 90-plus years I’ve been around it, many of its buildings, houses and some of its distinctive flavors have disappeared.

I was born on Staten Island in 1923. In the late ’20s, my parents built a house on the heights of Staten Island, from which we three children looked down on the harbor, the ships and waited every Thanksgiving for an escaped Macy’s Day Parade balloon to come our way.

We were never taken to the parade; New York was too full of germs. But in the ’30s, Dad would drive the car onto the ferry, and we children would feed stale bread to the seagulls, while homeless men sold apples, played musical glasses, or walked the decks with their kits, murmuring, “Shoe-sh, shoe-sh.” We would watch the green copper-roofed towers of Lower Manhattan — the Emerald City! —grow closer until the ferry slouched into the dock.

We visited the Museum of Natural History (free then) and the zoo, ate at the Automat and Schrafft’s, shopped at B. Altman and Shackman’s, rode the Sixth Ave. El (fewer germs than the subway). We wore white gloves and gargled with disinfectant when we got home.

Our family had been living on Staten Island and Manhattan since before 1800. The Dutch had been there well before us, cutting down trees, making farms and villages. But Manhattan was still pretty green. My great-grandfather, William Henry Willcox, born in Lower Manhattan in 1821, helped his nearsighted brother, Edwin, collect beetles and butterflies from the surrounding countryside. Harlem and Greenwich were still villages, and the city, in 1830, ended at E. Ninth St.

Edwin collected so much that he was able to trade duplicate insects to collectors in England, France and Germany eager for American specimens. Edwin also supplied missionaries sailing to exotic countries with bottle, alcohol and instructions for collecting and returning specimens. He amassed what was said to be the finest collection in America. When he went blind, his collection was broken up, and some was given to a museum in Philadelphia.

The Village waterfront was bustling and international. So the family once gave a West Indian man named Richard Carty money to buy interesting foreign goods for resale in their store. Carty returned with an African lioness.

“The market for lionesses was not very active,” my great-grandfather wrote. So she and her cage were stored in a large double loft, and Will, after befriending her, would let her out to bound around and exercise. She was eventually sold to a menagerie, and probably never again experienced such freedom.

The harbor teemed with wildlife — porpoises, striped bass, bluefish, sharks feeding on the offal from slaughterhouses, and many other fish. My mother said there were once also oysters as big as dinner plates that were settled on sunken barges in the Arthur Kill, to “sweeten.” (Today that waterway is too foul to “sweeten” anything).

Even in my childhood, there were schools of menhaden and shad nets in the Hudson every spring and shad roe in the markets. Around the late ’20s, the old fort at Battery Park — which had once become “Castle Garden,” full of music — was filled full of fish in an impressive aquarium where local fish swam under glass and under grim stone walls, and I was given my very own little local dried seahorse in a box.

Even later, old men fished for eels and striped bass on Upper West Side piers. And the Hudson froze every winter. Even in the ’40s two adventurous teenagers — one I knew later — were marooned on the river on a chunk of floating ice and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard.

In the 1800s, the East River was lined with shipyards. An arm of the sea, the East River is salty, and in those days was ice-free long after the Hudson was supporting skaters, ice sailing boats and commercial sledges. The South Street Seaport bristled with masts of tall sailing ships headed to Europe, Asia or around the Horn to the goldfields of 1849.

In my youth, New York was still a famous first-class seaport. Longshoremen unloaded cargo from the holds of cargo ships and onto the piers. Tugs, barges and fireboats, ferries and small craft filled its busy waters. On shore were rooming houses and seamen’s bars and seamen. And I once saw a desperate, doomed cow galloping down the riverfront, escaping from two men from the slaughterhouse near Gansevoort St. Now the onetime Meat Market, with its huge carcasses and barrels of entrails and calf heads, has mostly been transformed into clothing and gourmet shops, and meat comes tactfully wrapped in plastic.

The huge covered piers echoing with the sounds of the enormous ships, the bustle of passengers and baggage handlers coming and going — this splendid confusion into which my family and I disembarked, returning from a trip to England in 1936 — is now all gone, long silent.

And in 1950, we saw a friend off to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth, and my little daughter Neall wailed, “But I thought we were going to Yurp! I wanted to go to Yurp!” (She did, later. But by then, by jet plane.)

The Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary, the Normandy, back then all left from those piers, proceeding escorted by a royal entourage of tugs, fireboats and a few smaller attending crafts, to a pomp-and-circumstance solemn accompaniment of booming foghorns and whistles.

And then they were all gone. New Year’s Eve no longer booms with those sonorous yearning voices. The railroad through Westbeth no longer clanks and screeches. The elevated highway also came down. And container ships took over. There was less of a need for longshoremen and able-bodied seamen. The great liners were replaced by cruise ships — those floating apartment buildings — and jets. The waterfront dwindled.

The school for seagoing cooks on W. 13th St. turned into the Gay and Lesbian Center, and its auxiliary school ship, the John Brown, was removed from its berth alongside Pier 40. A seaman friend rescued one of the cannibal-sized kettles. It still sits in my Berkshire woods. I’m trying to persuade Pier 40 to take it home again, a last memento.

Some of the nightlife of the piers ended when one of them burned on a suitably windy day. Towering clouds of black smoke — had it been set?

The other piers were rehabilitated, some converted into sports piers, one had an art show. The fate of Pier 40 has been debated for years. And of course, the Hudson became polluted, as rivers do. The fishermen stopped fishing, the shad went away. The Clearwater and Pete Seeger (and my daughter Neall and many others) began sailing up and down, singing of clean water and fish, and there was sewage treatment and other measures. Now the Hudson and the harbor are cleaner and the shad are beginning to come back.

We fought off a six-lane Westway and buildings on the Hudson and got a moderate highway and the riverfront park instead. The elevated highway is gone, but we have new, tall glass towers along the waterfront, which, like everything else near the river, suffered from Superstorm Sandy.

And recently some developers were talking of “developing” the waterfront? Please! It’s all gone. And we’re built on landfill. Turning the railroad into the High Line was a brilliant save, and a nice place to take visitors, but its plantings are not like any vegetation of old Manhattan and Staten Island — catbriers, poison ivy, sassafras saplings, wild onions and violets. At Staten Island’s southern tip were Osage oranges and forests of very tall reeds.

The Staten Island waterfront has changed, too. In the ’60s, whenever a friend and I grew tired of civilization, we drove onto the ferry and then around the west side of Staten Island. At night. No lights. A proper profound, primeval pre-Dutch dark. Then all the festoons of poison ivy and catbrier were scoured away and replaced with little houses.

In 1944, when I was illustrating a book of fish for Dr. John Tredwell Nichols at the American Museum of Natural History, he told me that when he was a boy, there were goat farms all up the West Side of Manhattan. A living eyewitness! He is portrayed in a diorama about the making of maple sugar in a ground-level hall at the museum. And yes, he could have been a boy in 1870 or 1880 and seen the creation of that “wilderness,” Central Park.

After 1830, when my grandfather lived on E. Ninth St. — again, then the upper edge of the city — building rushed uptown rapidly. In 1941, when my mother and we three kids moved to 16 E. Ninth St. (not far from where Great-grandad William Henry lived), the Village was already totally settled, with a lively history of its own. Speakeasies and Edna St. Vincent Millay were gone, but there were plenty of poets and local characters, such as Joe Gould (“An Oral History of Our Time”) and a street woman with an enormous beehive of unwashed hair. We also had what were later known as hippies, transvestites and other folks in costumes.

My mother’s apartment, at 16 E. Ninth, was a huge garden duplex, so big that she rented out the upper rear half — big living room with fireplace, terrace, bedroom, bathroom, hot plate and private entrance — for $250 a month, just what she paid for the entire apartment, and lived rent-free. In those days you could also get a cold-water apartment for $100 a month, or a furnished basement apartment for $60 a month. Down the street was Aunt Clemmy’s, with a billboard showing a large black lady with a red bandana on her head, now politically incorrect. Around the corner was a Gristede’s. Across University Place was the Hotel Lafayette cafe, where a friend took me to tea with Bertrand Russell and his wife.

To the west of the corner of Fifth Ave. were the Mark Twain House and the Hotel Brevoort. Double-decker buses took you down Fifth Ave. for 10 cents. Along Eighth St. were Lee Baumman’s Clothing, Tom de Lime’s Crafts, many art-supply stores, the Whitney Museum, the Art and the Eighth St. movie theaters, the Jumble Shop and Wanamaker’s, now all gone. But Bigelow at least is, thank God, surviving. It all had a comfortable, real-Village feel. And there were far fewer people.

I entered Bennington just before Pearl Harbor. My brother joined the Army Specialized Training Program. Ration books. Blackouts. Big black headlines. Lessons in lethal geography. Horrors ending in horrors, dwindling down to duck-and-cover and the mass-produced postwar suburb Levittown.

In 1945, my redheaded brother shed his Army drabs and bought a purple plaid suit and went on to medical school at Columbia. My mother started a lumber business in the Adirondacks. My mother also started her own medical research. Her bedroom was full of guinea pig cages and plaintive guinea pigs. Our little sister later on briefly became a showgirl in Michael Rose’s Follies on Broadway.

And then, in ’46, I graduated from Cornell and married Knox Breckenridge Burger, also from Cornell, who had been on Saipan with Yank, the Army newspaper, covering the B-29 attacks on Tokyo and the famous fire raid. We had no money and no jobs and rented a very dark basement apartment on W. 73rd St. for $60 a month.

I sold a couple of display sculptures, but we were down to our last $200 when Knox landed the job of fiction editor at Collier’s magazine. He was 26. We then moved into a five-flight walk-up on Barrow St. I took post-grad classes at N.Y.U., sold display work to B. Altman, Franklin Simon, de Pinna’s and Georg Jensen, now all gone, and sold sculptures at the first Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit to admit craftspeople.

There were coffeehouses. And music. We went to Chumley’s and Nick’s and Eddie Condon’s and heard Eubie Blake and Charles Mingus. Josh White performed at Café Society Downtown, as did Imogene Coca. Susan Reed sang at the Café Society Uptown, where another young woman and I once accompanied her one Christmas, singing carols. Gene Saks, once J-E-A-N now G-E-N-E, was at the Cherry Lane, as was Bea Arthur. Bea was later at the Theater de Lys in “Three Penny Opera” and then on television as “Maude” and Gene — who were married in 1950 — went on to Broadway in “A Thousand Clowns” and other shows. …