My life and the changing Village: Part II

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

BY OTIS KIDWELL BURGER | In 1949, I was pregnant and my husband and I moved, just in time, from our roach-filled five-flight walk-up to rent a tiny ground-level rear house on 13th St. — $80 a month! It was close to the seamen’s cooking school, the current L.G.B.T. Community Center. One dusk, as I was returning home, I saw two burly men coming up behind me. I walked faster, but so did they, and as they passed, I heard them discussing methods of making lemon meringue pie.

We had our first daughter there, then moved to a larger apartment near Stuyvesant Park on E. 15th St. in time for a second daughter. Just across the street was the Friends Meeting House. My great-grandmother was Quaker. I occasionally went to meetings and at one meeting, a man accompanied by a large dog said: “I have an announcement. Please don’t feed Otis”. I jumped! It turned out that the dog’s name was Otis. The building we lived in has since been replaced by smaller apartments, but the Friends Meetinghouse is still there.

Then we, thank God, moved back to the Village, to a garden duplex on Bleecker St. owned by my Aunt Anita and my Uncle Henry. They had rehabilitated a row of boarded-up buildings in the West Village, all facing into a huge communal garden, complete with swings and a wading pool and conveniently close to St. Luke’s School, to which I already had an odd connection.

Once, when we were still living on 13th St., I had put an ad in The Villager to find our missing cat, Edward. Someone called to report a cat on the construction site of St. Luke’s School-to-be. I was very pregnant, wandering around the site in the dusk — some houses had been torn down, nothing much as yet there but the cement foundation — calling plaintively: “Edward, Edward!” A small boy appeared, eyed me up and down, and asked: “Whatcha lookin’ fer, lady? Yer husband?”

Thus began a long and happy relationship with St. Luke’s. My children and I acted in plays, worked for the school fair, sang at Christmas. I taught an after-school clay class. The head of the school was Reverend Paul C. Weed, known of course to the children as Father Seaweed. And some of the teachers there were Mrs. Hathaway Melchior, daughter-in-law of Lauritz Melchior — the pre-eminent Wagnerian opera tenor of the 1920s through ’40s — Mrs. Taylor, Father Leach and Mrs. Munsell. Among the parents were Katherine Maldonado (Lewis), Charles and Eleanor Roth (Topper), Margie Boyce (Katie and Campbell), Edith Schloss Burckhardt (Jacob), Sally Shephard (Hugh and Debbie), Pat de Witt (Susie and Mary). My daughters still attend reunions, revisiting old classmates.

The Collier’s magazine staff was also part of our lives, a big, complicated family, with many problems and three-martini lunches. They discovered many new writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, another Cornell friend. My Cornell roommate, Eleanor Porter, also worked there, as did Gertrude Buckman, once married to Delmore Schwartz, who typed Kurt’s manuscripts. We all partied on Bleecker St. together; Norman Mailer always arrived late; we knew the literary agent Don Congdon and his friend, Jerry Salinger, with whom I once had pizza down in the southeast Village. There were also Cornellians Walter and Ann McQuade — he was with the Architecture Forum and she published a novel and a cooking column for Mademoiselle (though she was a novice cook and once called me up for advice); we played poker, visited their beach house at Riverhead. They were a heady brew, many interesting people.

Meanwhile, I was also writing. I published two books, short stories in Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction, poetry — some of which made it into the New Yorker, Good Housekeeping and Gourmet — and book reviews in the Times, Voice and Book of the Month Club. And, at Judson Church, I was involved in happenings and also acted in the play “The Great American Desert,” by Joel Oppenheimer; I was a madam.

There were street fairs all over the Village. I entered my work in the Jane Street Fair twice. There were many of us who, like me, were involved in the many things that made up “the life of Greenwich Village.”

In 1959, we looked at houses in the Village. There were still some empty ones, including a onetime boarding house with a communal dining room on Bedford St. We settled on a four-and-a-half-story brick townhouse, with two floor-through apartments with a porch and a garden downstairs, and two-and-a-half upper floors converted to a rooming house, with a room on every window, $8 to $20 a week, with shared bathrooms.

There were some exotic tenants, including a magician with “Tetragrammaton” written on the smoke-stained ceiling, and a closet heaped with empty cat food cans. (My daughters decided he was really a werecat.)

Other tenants included a black transvestite, and also Jane Jacobs, who wrote most of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in an $8-a-week room, and a black engineer with an “L”-shaped room crammed with equipment.

They all faded away, quickly replaced briefly by a gang of little boys and a dog: “Say, lady, is this your house. Say, lady, can we have a clubhouse up here?”

They knew how to get into every vacant house in the Village. Renovation finally expelled them from the top floor, after Hal Edelman, a Cornell friend and a Village architect, had drawn up plans and started a gut job. Walls upstairs were removed, everything was rearranged, new electricity lines, plumbing, kitchens, bathrooms were installed.

“Oh, Eddie, you have so much electric!” said the departing boy gang. They gave us their dog. Wonderful dog. We took her with us on a vacation to Montana, and when we came home, she give us five puppies.

Over its history, this house, 27 Bethune St., has been rearranged at least twice. A coal chute provided coal for coal-burning grates and fireplaces, and presumably later for an enormous cast-iron cook stove that replaced the immense fireplace — with its hooks and kettles and cranes — in the downstairs rear kitchen for a while. But then a coal-burning furnace was installed, with the pipes going up through the fireplace. The coal-burning furnace was converted to burning oil, and then replaced by a proper oil-burning furnace and huge oil storage tank in the basement, and of course radiators on all floors. No. 25 Bethune St. had no central heating; there was later electric heating for each apartment. No. 29 went to gas.

Then we get to the water system. The backyard was a central part of the house, with the outhouse, washtubs, the clothesline and a cistern to collect rainwater from the eaves. All this was swept away — along with all the pumps on the sidewalks that provided, often-polluted, drinking water — when Croton Aqueduct brought fresh drinking water and eventually plumbing to the Village.

All the old Village houses had to adapt after the introduction of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842. This house added a rear extension with a kitchen and bathroom. Upstairs, there was a pantry and a dumbwaiter next to the dining room that was made over into a bathroom. The two bathrooms on the top floor seem to have experienced a fairly free-floating existence before arriving at their present location.

The four of us and our dog Dutchess and cat Tigger lived under months of plaster and dust and tramping feet. I scraped and painted. For years since then, I have fielded messages from folks who call or write: “I just walked by your house. I’d like to buy it.” The taxes have gone from $800 a year to more than $23,000. The assessment or market value, or whatever, is more than $10 million. Repairs have become constant, repairmen come from all over the world, some larcenous, some marvelous.

The neighborhood has become a Gold Coast. People moved to Brooklyn, but even Brooklyn is becoming too expensive. As an uncle said, “The Good Lord don’t make no more Village townhouses…,” though some people have tried. A friend of mine said recently, “The Depression saved the Village — there was no money for building!” (except the Empire State Building). But there is now. As someone else said, “There are scaffolds everywhere.” And empty stores, waiting for enterprises that can afford staggering rents of $13,000 and up a month, I have heard. Who can pay that? Come to think, who can afford the price of the top floors of what used to be the Village Nursing Home — now known as The Abingdon — at Hudson and W. 12th Sts.? Whatever happened to the old, low, cheap, comfy Village?

Bethune St. was a decaying, mixed-use neighborhood. It was only three blocks long, once much shorter, ending in inlets and marshes and Joanna Bethune’s farm. Then came landfill —“garbage, junk, ballast from sailing ships,” someone told me. Under our house, it is big river stones, stretching down to the Hudson.

In 1959, there was a big abandoned commercial building on the east end of Bethune. Thieves stripped out all the copper wire. When the building was finally bought, Bethune St. had a party in the vast echoing empty space. Then it was extensively rebuilt into apartments with the restaurant Nadine’s and supermarkets — A&P, Key Food, Duane Reade and now Mrs. Green’s — below. A quick lunch across the way became gourmet.

Over the years, a machine shop morphed into D’Agostino, with a pricey castle on top. A garage gained a few stories and became apartments. Pickwick Papers was ingeniously transformed, with two apartments actually underground. Baby Buddha has gone Italian. Westbeth, once Bell Telephone Labs, with hordes of workers, every day, a.m. and p.m., is now subsidized artists’ housing and quieter. And Superior Ink — in whose parking lot we once house-broke a very nice German shepherd found one freezing night on Pier 40 — has added a row of brick neo-townhouses, more costly than the original ones down the street — most of which have been extensively remodeled and updated.

We have vastly increased living space, but vastly increased rents and have driven many people to Brooklyn and beyond.

The rest of the Village has also changed profoundly. The beautiful, historic Rhinelander Houses were supplanted by P.S. 41. Several of the old houses on W. 12th St. off Seventh Ave. were torn down to erect the National Maritime Union building, with its nautical-decor portholes; I once attended a boxing match there.

Nearby was the old Loew’s Sheridan, where I took my two daughters to watch cowboy-and-Indian movies (“Oh, the poor horses!”). When it was torn down, a wall fell, killing a man and his dog. At the same time, Ralph Campo, a seaman, was across the street getting into a fight with an N.M.U. clerk. The place was already swarming with police due to the accident; it took 10 of them to subdue Ralph.

Then container ships finished off the waterfront; the N.M.U. building was sold and converted to doctors’ offices connected to St. Vincent’s Hospital, and more recently into a 24/7 emergency department, while the rest of St. Vincent’s is now condos.

Wiped away are all the little craft shops where I once sold my sculptures, Patchin Place Emporium, the Unicorn Shop, Hudson Papers, Ester Gentle and others, and antique shops, shops selling Middle Eastern, African art and exotic jewelry, the pushcarts on Bleecker St. below Sixth Ave. selling fruit and vegetables— all gone. Bleecker St. now sells only clothing.

I spent many hours in the St. Vincent’s emergency room over the years, including 40 some years, off and on, with a friend: stroke, pulmonary embolism, bowel resection, heart attack, heart failure, gout, heart transplant, finally, lung cancer. I think he was one of the last people to die in St. Vincent’s upstairs. With him went a whole history of colorful and continuous past. What would we ever have done without St. Vincent’s. What will we do now?

We have lost many things besides our hospital: Savarese drug store where you could have a speck removed from your eyes without going to St. Vincent’s; a warehouse near there, with a painted Indian head, replaced by Abingdon Playground and a mini-park; the Emerald Grocery, run by two very Irish Irishmen, now a restaurant; Mrs. Hudson’s glorious video rental store, where you could get everything, including Buster Keaton, Will Rogers, English movies; a lot of houses at Jackson Square replaced by the Van Gogh; the White Castle at 14th St. and Eighth Ave., where a friend regularly left his teeth after a night out — the manager learned to save them until reclaimed — replaced by an immense glass tower.

Along 14th St., we have lost Jonas Housewares; Artie’s, invaluable to households and landlords; Patterson’s Silks; and an immense two-floor Woolworth’s, with a basement full of wonderful things. A salesman from PC Richards said wistfully that his mother used to take him to lunch on the main floor at Woolworth’s; the armory is long gone, replaced by apartments and the McBurney YMCA; the treasure troves of May’s and S. Klein’s are long since vanished; and very recently, Met Drugs, the Big D (new treasures every day), Radio Shack, also are no more.

All down Eighth Ave., just within the last months, also succumbing to soaring rents have been the House of Cards, Typewriters and Things — for those die-hards who still have typewriters — the Chocolate Bar, Integral Yoga Pharmacy, the Left Bank Book Store — all the comfort shops that helped make the Village a home.

We are wealthier but blander.