Saturday, May 31, 2008

Downtown different

I was lucky to have some weekdays off from work, and I decided to spend them exploring downtown, as documented in this week's posts. Part of exploring a place is to think about what it would be like to live there. I was walking along San Pedro Street, and saw a sign for a new residential complex, offering tours of its model apartments. So I decided to check it out.

The downtown residential boom brings up a lot of conflicting issues, including the pros of revitalizing the neighborhood, preserving historic properties, and retaking the streets from lawlessness. Or the cons of gentrification, pricing out the poor, and allowing rampant development.

I could approach this post a couple of different ways. I could do an ironic take on the new affluent condo-community living down amongst the puebla in the gritty streets. Or I could write a boosterish promo of downtown living for the hip and cool.

It's way more complicated than that.

For one thing, if I were to decide to live in a downtown area, abandoned to the poor and destitute, forgotten so profoundly that historic architectural buildings were preserved by neglect - it wouldn't be the first time in my life I've done that.

In the late 70's, I lived in a large room in an old cast-iron-facade building on the corner of Broome Street and Greene Street, a manufacturing area of Manhattan that was only just beginning to be called "SoHo." I paid $150 a month to a painter named Kimiko for a bedroom behind a nailed up partition. I remember when I would come home from working in the theatre at night, I walked down the middle of the cobble-stoned streets from the subway stop. That way you could avoid the smell of piss from the bums who slept in doorways, and besides, there were no cars or taxis driving those streets, in those days.

So the idea of living in an edgy environment is both intriguing - and familiar. I know that it's not scarey. My experience enriched my life.

Plus, as an avid consumer of decorating magazines I like the style of living downtown. I like the contrast, crystal chandeliers against rough concrete walls. Like any American consumer, I'm an easy sell on that stuff. How romantic - how hip!

But hold up.

The reason I rented from Kimiko, and the reason she needed a roommate was because we didn't have many other choices. She paid the rent by selling paintings. She needed a space to paint in, and it had to be cheap. I paid the rent by working free-lance in the theatre. I needed a place to sleep in, and it had to be cheap. If we had a crystal chandelier edgily juxtaposed against the rough concrete walls, it was because I found in in the trash over on Allen Street and I brought it home to replace a bare hanging light bulb.

These new downtown lofts are another thing entirely. They're not for those who scuffle.

It's a large industrial building, six floors high, dating from the middle part of the 20th century, with sturdy walls and floors and large concrete structural columns. As designed, the primary access is from the parking garage - residents and their guests are most likely to arrive by car; park in their designated spot, and enter the complex.

The security guard at the electrically controlled gate on San Pedro Street was a little surprised that I came from the sidewalk teeming with homeless people - did I not have a car?

He let me in and sent me to the next buzzer-accessed gate, where I met a salesperson named Nicole. Her office was airy and open, with hardwood flooring, modular furniture, and Asian-inspired decor. Lush oriental rugs were on the floor. I told Nicole that my husband and I were considering a downtown condo for Our Son, who would soon be graduating college, and entering the work force. She bought my story - which may almost be true - and didn't seem to mind my casual attire (including my brand new heart-and-skull vans). She offered coffee, tea, water - I opted for a bottle of water.

I was given an elaborately designed sales brochure - heavy stock, cut-outs, folded pockets - and off we went to tour the models.

First we saw the serene pool lounge area, screened from the street on the ground level.

All the model units are fully furnished, with all kitchen and bath appliances, finished hardwood floors, and individual climate-control systems. Stacking washer-dryer units in each apartment.

Nicole said there are some 140 units in the building; about 80% already sold. The 6 model units range in price from around $350,000 to around $700,000.

The building, she said, is fully WiFi networked.

I asked Nicole about the neighborhood. Was it safe at night? Were there places to shop for groceries? Walk the dog? Restaurants and bars? Oh, yes, wonderful nightlife, she said, only you want to stay to the north side of the neighborhood, rather than veering south, where you get into where the Missions are. She stressed the convenience of having onsite reserved parking - which made it so easy to grocery shop anywhere. There is even an enclosed dog-run within the secure complex.

It seems like you could live quite comfortably here and hardly ever encounter the smell of piss on the sidewalks of San Pedro Street.

Part of me wants to live in this place, with its elegant decor; I can just see myself driving a Mercedes (or no, let's be sustainable - a Prius!) into the garage and ascending the elevator to emerge into my Loft with its crystal chandeliers, artwork on the walls, and its tall metal casement windows overlooking the decrepit neon sign over the Hotel Rosslyn. I can see myself offering a glass of champagne or cabernet to artsy guests - a neighbor, perhaps, just back from an opening at MOCA, or an event at Disney Hall. A gallery owner. An actor.

Yet another part of me wants to burn it all down, spray it with grafitti, reverse the trend, to banish Nicole and her chic black pantsuit, and the pricey printed brochures, and the elegant red market umbrellas to hell and beyond. I want to rent the space behind the vacant windows in this building,

and rent a machine to sand the industrial dirt off the old but sturdy wooden floors. I want to stay up till 3:00 in the morning drunk on cheap wine and the fumes of varnish I apply to the floors myself, and then fall asleep on a futon in the corner. I want to paint a canvas in the morning light streaming through my window - or play my guitar with a pick-up band - or install a bathtub purchased from a salvage house. Before going out to a punk club later that night.

Such fantasies are not becoming to middle-aged successfully employed people like me.

If lofts on San Pedro Street are going for $600,000, perhaps only successfully employed people like me can do things like this now.

So - where will the artists live?


M. Bouffant said...

Is that Fire Station @ 4th & Wall?
Let me know if that's the one. My time is too short to explain now.

g said...

Yes, it's 4th & Wall.

JCK said...

Thank GOD you started blogging. You are such a born writer. You've got to write a book about those NY years.

And I'm with you on the cheap wine and sanding floors. Although I'll be drinking the whiskey and SUPERVISING.

M. Bouffant said...

I responded at my own blog. (You didn't have to go there to answer as well, but thanks. You're too kind. Really.) There was a two-story well inside for drying the firehoses, which Mr. Champagne used as an echo chamber for his recording efforts.

And for those who don't visit my blog, the station was used in the Ghostbusters flicks.

Arachnophobia said...

The "Engine 23" building is featured in U2 video clip for their song "Where the streets have no names".