Jun 23, 2023, 05:59AM

The Discreet Charm of Lower Manhattan’s Bourgeoisie

A look at downtown’s changing cityscape. Are your friends driving electric?

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Art: Tony Millionaire

A New York Press cover by artist Tony Millionaire in September 1996, depicted merchant Peter Minuit landing on a shoreline meeting the native Lenape in 1626. A deal was struck for about 60 Dutch guilders, some accounts claim $24 in trinkets and just like that, Manhattan was sold. The area below 14th St. became New York City’s epicenter of culture and commerce; a place immortalized by people and myths that live up to their reputation.

Today, mordant hyperventilating observations are in order. It’s easy to forget and hard to remember; everyone’s brainwashed in today’s digital bubble, which at times is confusing. Still, one consideration remains: luxury requires an opposite to preserve its value.

A genuine beaded Gucci shoulder bag in their Soho store costs $4980. Five blocks south, an illegal knock-off plopped on a blanket next to the gutter on Broadway and Lispenard St. fetches $70. Why? The general public always want high-end products they can’t afford. Illegal street vendors make a fast buck. It’s a common strategy used in the biggest East Coast metropolis’ business sector that constantly repositions itself.

Development revises the DNA of a city. More than ever, Lower Manhattan is becoming Disneyfied with a big new Mouse House. It wouldn’t stun anyone to see a hologram of Steamboat Willie driving a massive Carnival Cruise line with over 4000 passengers chugging down the Hudson River. The residential and commercial buildings boast an intoxicating lifestyle, sandwiching industrial old next to cutting-edge new, creating a wealthy must-have appeal with a constant flow of new residents.

The neighborhoods bordering Chinatown weren’t always like this. Going full throttle in reverse: the one-time, business zones were working-class, desolate and closed at night, except for a notorious nightlife. Most of the old haunts, as well as those who worked, lived and played there from the 1970s through the early-1980s are gone. There were a number of well-known local bars and restaurants that are now just memories, including Riverrun, El Teddy’s, North River Bar, 3 Roses, Mars Bar, Downtown Beirut, and How’s Bayou.

New York City’s downtown cultural presence is a who’s who in the art world with independent literature, dance, music, and poetry that lived up to and exceeded our own expectations—these formative recollections remain in hearts and minds forever. The Blank Generation got strung out and even blanker; a case of survival of the fittest. Despite the danger of a bad reputation, a lot of talented people gave it their all for one last hurrah before the HIV epidemic struck.

From vivid to blurry, films and events frequently captured its risqué aspects. Late-night escapades on the streets of Soho are depicted in Martin Scorsese’s dark comedy After Hours. There’s the raunchy atmosphere of The Baby Doll Lounge called The Red Turtle in Jane Campion’s moody thriller In the Cut; scenes took place at the crossroads of Church and White Sts. The scuzzy strip club also displayed a preference for kink in Headless Body in Topless Bar written by Peter Koper. The Harmony Burlesque Theater, where Jennifer Blowdryer staged her live Smutfest with special guest Annie Sprinkle, was only a few steps away.

An artist’s life during the day may have included climbing up four flights of Pearl Paint’s creaky old wooden steps searching for art supplies. On each floor, one could find obscure brands of paper, paint and brushes for making paintings. Canal St., the crosstown traffic corridor. was lined with bargain surplus shops. On the corner of Broadway and Canal, Dave’s Luncheonette had a setting reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting. A young person with acne could enjoy hot, greasy French fries and an Egg Cream sitting at the light green curved Formica countertop while reading a Weirdo #10 comic from Sohozat on West Broadway. After midnight, restless lounge lizards, night tarantulas and street walking cheetahs crawled around clubs and artist bars like Magoo’s and Puffy’s.

A music venue plaque on 77 White St., marks the onetime home of the gender neutral, no-wave counterculture trailblazer Mudd Club. You had a good chance of getting in if you were cute or famous; that’s only if archetypal doorman Richard Bloch let you in. Early issues of Details magazine when Annie Flanders edited, printed on newsprint described the scene. The all-night celebrity boldface lifestyle coverage included columnists Stephen Saban and Cookie Mueller. Photographers documenting the transgressive era: Patrick McMullan, Bob Gruen, Marcia Resnick and David LaChapelle. The Ghostbusters firehouse neighborhood transformed from pre-dawn diner breakfasts to restaurant plates of $200 rare, charred duck breast.

But maybe it’s time to forget all that, and chill for a few moments, until optics collide as class and entitlement intertwine. A bucolic man-made environmental setting juxtaposes social and natural opposites together in public. On a warm spring day along Hudson River Park, teachers supervise a bunch of grade schoolers. Whether it’s a sense of privilege seen in a younger generation’s eyes, or just horsing around; the instructors did nothing as they let the youngsters roust a flock of quiet nesting geese on a grassy knoll. Best to leave wildlife alone.

A homeless few slept nearby, tucked away in secluded green spaces. What’s hard not to notice, the massive concrete barriers. That reminds us, Sayfullo Saipov drove a truck down the bike path here in 2017 murdering eight people. A police presence on golf carts now patrols in the shadow of the World Trade Center.

At Bubby’s in Tribeca, home of the “off the commercial food grid” mentality, you’re provided an opportunity to observe the lives of professionals who prefer comfortable, state-of-the-art amenities in their multi-million-dollar spaces. The eatery might irritate some; see for yourselves the towering ex-models, couples engaged in drinking lattes, and eager dad bods pulling up on electric scooters sporting orange aviator sunglasses.

On Greenwich and Chambers Sts., there’s a pop-up maternity ward with hundreds of babies and new moms. Washington Market Park is one of the most fertile places in the universe when it comes to human reproduction. Alien spaceships must beam down semen from the skies into the gazebo flooding the neighborhood. Dozens of nannies suddenly appear out of nowhere around nine a.m. pushing baby strollers headed to daycare storefronts.

Loud screaming turns foul when an emotionally-disturbed person kicks a trash container into the path of oncoming traffic. Time to cross the street. A power couple in sweats stop dead in their tracks. Ready to board a waiting black SUV for a drive to their suburban home, their cocker doodle can’t wait relieve itself in the backyard.

International travelers disembark double-decker buses along Broadway like lemmings. Before sightseeing, a quick detour to one of the 1600 unlicensed smoke shop cannabis bodegas for a $10 pre-roll, ready to expand their cultural horizons. The downtown art gallery scene has made a significant comeback.

One block apart, two skyline wonders bless Church St. The high-end condo Jenga Tower with its new shiny, silver Anish Kapoor “Bean” sculpture and the infamous brutalist, 550-foot-tall windowless skyscraper: the AT&T Building. Built in 1974, the telecommunication infrastructure storage structure is ominous. This solid fortress, one of the most secure buildings in North America, exhibits strength against a nighttime sky. There’s a code of silence regarding AT&T’s involvement with government operations. To note: the average Tribeca resident’s individual finance portfolio is absurdly complicated; according to Property Shark the zip code’s median home sale price is $3.5 million.

Just north of Canal, a townhouse institution remains on Spring St., the 1817 Ear Inn. A short distance away, construction is progressing on a couple showcase mega-developments: the new 22-story Disney headquarters at 4 Hudson Square and the massive 12,000 person $2.1 billion Googleplex facility. Both projects have fortune tellers forecasting a boom.

I wonder about underground parking for electric vehicles; will Googlers bike, walk, scoot, skate or subway in? If you need to cross the perilous West Side Highway between traffic lights, say a prayer. On the other side the road, place yourself on the same shorelines where dockside gangs once ruled. They rubbed shoulders with rowdy sailors drinking corn whiskey. Today, on those same banks, technicians manage the digital economy while runners jog past.

Imagine what it must be like being inside the blocks-long Google building facing west. Busy beavers tap away on keyboards at their workstations organizing the world’s information for humans. There’s an occasional pause to look out the windows at New Jersey’s expanding skyline. I’m sure they’d agree “Look at the sky, look at the river. Isn’t it good?”—Pink Floyd.



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