Like Thoreau, who “travelled a good deal in Concord,” I have a strong sense of place, having been born, raised and worked in New York City.
I have lived in the same 3½ room, sixth floor, rent controlled apartment at 155 E. 73rd St. for 46 years. When I began apartment-hunting soon after law school, this was the first apartment I saw. Located on a lovely street of carriage houses between Lexington and Third avenues, a pre-World War II apartment building—the building and I are about the same age—with high ceilings, a fireplace and splendid view of the dome of Saint Jean Baptiste, my favorite church in the city, I immediately fell in love with the apartment. For a newly-minted lawyer earning $6,000 to live on the fashionable Upper East Side without paying an exorbitant rent, in the wealthiest postal zone in the country, was the closest to heaven I was likely ever to achieve.
Other apartment hunters thronged the rooms. I caught fragments of their conversation. “Too small.” “Our furniture will never fit.” Here I was at a distinct advantage, not owning a stick of furniture. Small was good. In the first and last residential real estate transaction of my life, I turned to the building superintendent to say, “Yes.”
Now I am like a barnacle attached to a ship’s hull. A few years ago, when the apartment was about to be painted, the idea came to me to vacate the premises and stay at the Hotel Wales at 93rd Street and Madison Avenue. On arriving at the hotel, I became ill. Twenty blocks were too much for my system to absorb. I was homesick for the trees and pavement and carriage houses on my block.
I grew up three blocks from the Hotel Wales at 70 E. 96th St., inheriting my strong attachments from mother who lived in her 16th floor apartment for decades. Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-born essayist and poet, writes of Russians and their attachments: “I am prepared to believe that it is more difficult for Russians to accept the severance of ties than for anyone else…for us, an apartment is for life, the town is for life, the country is for life. The notions of permanence are therefore stronger; the sense of loss as well.” (Brodsky suffered many painful severances in his lifetime. Accused by Soviet authorities of being a “literary parasite,” he served time in an Arctic Circle labor camp. At night in his bunk he read poetry. He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 and came to live in the United States. He is buried in Venice.)
This same strong sense of place extends to my workplace. Fourteen years of my life have been spent in an office at 54 Greene St. in SoHo, between Grand and Broome streets, in a cast-iron building.
From my desk on the second floor I look upon surrounding cast-iron buildings, the original 1870 glass in the large windows creating a distortion, an Impressionist painter’s dream. The view is not of barren rooftops, as with skyscraper offices I have previously occupied, but sidewalks teeming with life. I like the old-fashioned tin ceiling. The flower boxes we place on the wide window ledge. In this mixed use building, seeing children and dogs in the elevator. The granite sidewalks. The bishop crook lampposts. The small town atmosphere. The creative juices of SoHo, with filmmakers paying us $120 a night to keep our office lights on. Passing a subway newsstand, my eye is drawn to a familiar scene: On the cover of The New Yorker are portrayed the façade of 54 Greene St. and the windows by my desk.
Alas, all this came to an abrupt end over the summer when the building owner told me that the lease for Volunteers of Legal Service would not be renewed. I was shattered. The stay at the Hotel Wales lasted three days; this would be forever.
And so began the tedious task of finding a new office. After viewing numerous unremarkable spaces, I came upon a building at 281 Park Ave. South on 22nd Street owned by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. According to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report, this 1894 building “takes its form from the great Medieval and Renaissance town halls and guild halls of Belgium and Holland.”
We moved in September. A few days later, on the excuse of checking the mail box at the old office, I returned to 54 Greene St. The office walls already had been knocked down for the new tenant. My battered wooden desk, used by me for 23 years, but too large for the elevator in the new place, stood forlorn in the empty space, covered with plaster dust. Returning was a mistake.
Like a forest animal intent on making his new lair his own, within days of arriving, and with the help of colleagues, I covered the walls of my office with portraits of favorites of mine from history and literature. Of the Founding Fathers, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton. (I need to add Adams.) My two favorite presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. American writers: Thoreau and Whitman, with Emerson to join them when I find a good picture. It was Emerson who, with courage and generosity, hailed Whitman as the first great American poet, while Emily Dickinson was writing, “I never read his Book, but was told he was disgraceful.” Other favorite writers: Chekhov and Dickens.
Missing from the walls are my college and law school degrees and certificate of admission to practice law in New York State, thrown out by an overzealous housekeeper of my mother, along with my college thesis on George Eliot.
From my fifth floor office windows I have a new view: Calvary Church, Park Avenue South, and in the distance, the trees of Union Square.
I spend my first few days prowling through the new neighborhood. Gramercy Park is around the corner. Nearby are the Flatiron Building, Madison Square Park, and the courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department, “This small marble palace…Corinthian columned,” as described in the “AIA Guide to New York City.” I go to the Greenmarket at Union Square to purchase fresh corn and Macon apples. I begin to feel there is a life after SoHo.
Had Columbus asked me to join him on his voyages of discovery, being rooted to my city—Seville, in this hypothetical—I would have declined. This crustacean has too strong a sense of place.
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.