Neighbors and Their Dogs
By the time the Christodora House settlement erected its handsomely simple new sixteen-story brick tower on the corner of Avenue B and Ninth Street in 1928—an edifice that loomed over Tompkins Square Park and the surrounding blocks of humble tenements—the Traums had long left the Lower East Side. They were part of that first wave of worldly German Jews who had come to New York City in the early or mid-nineteenth century. Those sedate, self-conscious Jews had slowly migrated uptown as the old neighborhood became crowded with their dirt-poor eastern European cousins, Jews who spoke Yiddish and held to embarrassing old traditions, such as separating men and women at temple. Around the time that WASPs were raising money to fund the new Christodora building, which aimed to civilize these shtetl children and their equally wild-haired Catholic immigrant peers, Felix Traum, an investment banker, was already playing a leading role in the building of the new Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in midtown, a limestone Romanesque pile that would become the most prestigious synagogue in America. Accordingly, Felix had moved his family to the Upper East Side, where they lived in a not-opulent but still very capacious apartment not far from the Ochses of the New York Times.
Felix’s son Steven, not interested in the bald pursuit of money, became an urban planner who, in his quiet way, helped hold back some of the worst excesses of Robert Moses, whose neighborhood-crushing projects stopped short of running a ten-lane expressway across lower Manhattan. Steven was part of that 1960s–1970s generation of planners who were much taken with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and her idea that the best neighborhoods were small, intimate, and dense. On weekends, Steven would find himself taking his wife, Deanna, also an academic, and their two small children, Stephanie and Jared, down from the Upper East Side to the old neighborhood where his family had first landed in America, inside the humble, semiderelict synagogues and then to Katz’s Deli for pastrami on rye.
The neighborhood was almost completely Puerto Rican now, full of junkies and homeless people. Half the buildings were abandoned, including the Christodora, which had fallen on hard times. Decades ago, it had become the property of the city, which used it for various municipal purposes until it sold the building in 1975 for about $60,000. Nearly fifty years prior, it had cost $1 million to build. Such were the depths to which the Christodora, which means the “gift of Christ” in Greek had fallen. In that time the country was poised to take a rightward swing under Reagan. But that did not stop Steven Traum from standing before the Christodora’s facade, with its beguiling and eerie neo-Gothic frieze of angels, demons, and goblins set over the door. Steven held the hand of each of his privileged children on either side and dreamed about reviving the old neighborhood.
In the 1980s, the old neighborhood was rebranded the “East Village,” at least above Houston Street. Throughout the decade, the Christodora, still derelict and disused, had changed hands several times, each time for more money, until, in 1986, its destroyed inner plumbing and wiring was properly gutted and renewed and it became a condo conversion—a shocking development that New York magazine, on its cover, heralded as the inevitable triumph of gentrification in a neighborhood long thought of as a sanctuary for wayward bohemians. The Christodora offered rooms with massive ceilings and windows looking out beyond the drug-scarred mayhem of the neighborhood onto the vistas of Manhattan. Steven, friends with a social worker and a journalist who bought in immediately, could not resist and, for the trifling sum of $90,000, purchased a two-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot corner unit on the sixth floor, suffused with light and overlooking the park, which in the evenings became an encampment for homeless people and heroin shooters, its black square of land dotted with ragtag tents and bonfires.
Steven began using the apartment as an office. Deanna thought he was crazy, but Steven was delighted to spend his days down in the old neighborhood, and most afternoons you could find him getting his lunch at Katz’s, or walking back to the Christodora with smoked salmon on a bagel from Russ and Daughters. Sometimes he would turn the corner on Houston onto Norfolk Street and poke his head inside the ornate old Anshe Slonim Synagogue, whose peak-roofed beauty filled his eyes with tears. In time, he met the Spanish artist Angel Orensanz, who had just bought the abandoned old building to use as a studio. Eventually, Orensanz would turn it into a great arts center, keeping its opulence intact and signaling the rebirth of the neighborhood. Such a rebirth moved Steven to a very fine tremble of excitement.
Steven’s daughter, Stephanie, went to college in California and never moved back, but Jared, a handsome, pale-skinned boy who had a mop of curly honey-colored hair and brown eyes that could flash both warmly amused and arrogantly entitled, went to college not far from New York. Even before he graduated, Jared was shacking up during breaks and summers at the Christodora, cultivating a love of the neighborhood that became a quiet bond between him and his father. Jared wanted to move back to New York City and continue making the kind of industrial sculpture he’d started making in college until he was considered the next Richard Serra, so it wasn’t surprising that he became the de facto resident of the apartment at the Christodora, rising some mornings after nights of heavy drinking with friends only when the sound of his father’s key in the lock woke him around eleven o’clock. Father, arriving with two large coffees in hand, got right to work, while son stumbled to the shower and then, clutching his own coffee, pondered just how he should apply the day toward his goal of being a famous artist. Should he go for an MFA immediately? Find some already renowned artist to apprentice with?
“Russ?” he’d call out to his father in the other room, looking up from the New York Times where, in the Arts section, he read with a furrowed brow about the people he wanted to supplant someday.
“Russ,” Steven would call back. “Twenty minutes.”
And in twenty minutes father and son would take the elevator down to the Christodora’s lobby, which was handsome yet very simple, like the Christodora generally, and walk across Tompkins Square Park. It was early 1991, in that short window of time between the 1988 summer riots in the park—in which its longtime homeless denizens and the NYPD phalanxes had faced off amid an atmosphere of increasing rage over gentrification—and the coming May, when the park riots would flare up again briefly and the city would shut the park for renovations until the following year.
Jared had been in the apartment at the Christodora that August night when the riots first broke out. It was 1988, the summer before his freshman year in college. He was drinking and smoking pot with some high school friends, rhapsodizing about the brilliance of the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, which they were listening to, all of them trying to stay cool amid the heat by hanging out near the open window looking down on the park, which was a scene of mayhem. Police lights whirled in the humid night sky and sirens wailed, crowds of shirtless skinheads massed and surged, indistinct voices projected over loudspeakers and young people charged around with bedsheet signs decrying gentrification. Most of the heavy action was concentrated on the other side of the park, on Avenue A, so Jared and his friends followed the proceedings on the street below as a kind of diversion, a channel they switched back to occasionally amid their own stoned pronunciations about art and politics. Inwardly, Jared glowed with pride that his family was cool enough to own an apartment amid the loud grit of the East Village, far from the Upper East and West Sides where he and all his friends had grown up. But of course he wouldn’t say this to anyone.
“It’s so fucking crazy,” said Asa Heath, Jared’s best and oldest friend, whose hair was as glossily straight and floppy as Jared’s was curly. “What do they want? It’s supposed to be a park—it’s not a homeless camp.”
Jared’s stoned eyes flashed with righteous indignation. “It’s public land, dude, it’s public space!” he cried. He had read A People’s History of the United States just that spring in his final semester of high school, and he was getting hip to much of the passionate populist rhetoric that had animated his father for so many years, often to the indulgent boredom of the rest of the dinner table. “If people want to live there—”
“Dude, you think they want to live there?” interjected Charlie Leung.
“Need, I mean,” continued Jared. “If people need to live there, if that’s the best use of public land in this neighborhood, what right does the state have to intervene?”
“Yeah but it’s a park,” Asa plowed forward, notching his voice higher than Jared’s. “It’s supposed to be nice, like, for kids. Would you want to take your kids in there with, like, dirty AIDS needles all over the ground and stuff?”
Jared paused on that for a moment; he loved Asa like the brother he didn’t have, but he’d always thought he was a bit dumb, which was probably why he’d ended up at a safety school in Vermont where skiing was the primary passion. “I like the park the way it is because that’s what it is,” he finally said. “My dad and I walk through there together. It’s what it needs to be and my dad knew what he was getting into when he bought down here.”
This earned affectionate jeers from his friends. “You and your dad are the fucking problem, man!” Asa bellowed. “You’re the reason they’re all fucking down there!”
Jared thought this was ridiculous. “We didn’t kick anyone out to move in here. This building was fucking municipal offices before we moved in. This building is, like, half artists and professors like my dad and, like”—he gestured down at the teeming streets below—“community activists! We’re the ones trying to keep the neighborhood real.”
“Real!” howled Charlie. “You are so real.”
And Jared cracked a ridiculous grin, because even he knew, amid his very pleasurable pot haze, how ludicrous he was starting to sound.
Somewhere around three a.m., they all passed out on the couches, but a din directly beneath the still-open windows woke them. Jared stumbled to the window, then his eyes widened. A big chunk of the crowd had somehow made its way across the police-sealed park and were massing in front of the Christodora, their eyes trained on the building’s front facade, flashing with animus. What were they chanting? “Die yuppie scum! Die yuppie scum!” And approximately half the crowd was skinny, messy-haired young white men like himself. They looked absolutely enraged, stark raving mad. “Come out, you fucking Christodora scum!” A queasiness bloomed in Jared’s gut. “Oh my fucking God,” he whispered to himself, fingers to his parted lips, standing back half a step from the window, suddenly terrified of being spotted. He watched with increasing horror as a dozen of the guys in the crowd picked up a wooden, blue-painted police barricade and charged it toward the building’s glass-paned front doors like a battering ram. He heard glass shatter amid an eruption of cheers.
Then he felt a light hand on his shoulder. Asa had joined him at the window. “My fucking God, man,” Jared said. “They are breaking into my fucking building!” The two young men heard another crash. Now the protesters were throwing bottles and bricks at the facade.
“We better step back,” Asa whispered. So the two men did, just as Charlie was coming to on the couch, rubbing his eyes.
“They’re breaking into the fucking building,” Asa told him. “Is the apartment door locked?”
But Jared suddenly felt revulsion at the idea of cowering in the apartment while mobs marauded the hallways. “This is fucking ridiculous,” he finally said, looking around for his Nikes. “I’m gonna go down and talk to them and tell them we are not the problem.”
Asa looked terrified. “You are fucking not! They’ll kill you!”
But Jared was messily tying his laces. “Be pussies then,” he said.
Asa and Charlie traded flummoxed looks. “Okay,” Asa said. “We’ll come.”
They took the stairs, which gave onto the back right corner of the lobby—where, Jared saw, much to his relief, cops were already pushing people back out onto the sidewalk. Someone had upended one of the lobby’s large planters, leaving a mess of ficus branches, black soil, and terra-cotta shards. A light fixture also hung, broken, from the wall. Ardit, the square-headed Albanian doorman, spied the three young men and hurried to them.
“Go back upstairs!” he ordered. “All residents stay in their apartments. It’s under control. The police are here.”
“But why the fuck are they doing this?” demanded Jared, who was loath to simply retreat. And at that moment, he caught the eye of one of the messy-haired young white men who looked so much like himself—a young man who was being steadily but forcefully pushed back out onto the sidewalk by a burly cop.
“Shame on you! Shame on you!” the young man screamed directly at Jared, jabbing a finger over the cop’s shoulder toward him. “Get out of the neighborhood!”
This brought Jared to a new level of rage. “You’re fucking crazy!” he screamed back, advancing into the lobby, which earned Ardit’s hand on his elbow, aiming to pull him back. “I support the homeless in the park! We are not the fucking problem!”
The young man’s face lit up with a kind of malevolent amusement. “You are the fucking problem. You! Yes, you, you fucking idiot!”
Jared wanted to charge at him. But he felt paralyzed by something. It was the fact that the guy was laughing at him so frankly. That, and because the guy looked so much like him.
“You!” the guy continued to cackle, looking straight at Jared, as the cops pushed him and his compatriots farther and farther back. “You, you, you!”
“Fuck you!” Jared called back, once, for good measure. But he suddenly felt a little halfhearted about it.
“Come on, guys, go back upstairs,” Ardit said again.
And as he and Asa and Charlie climbed the six flights to the apartment, Jared entertained a monologue in his head, which basically went:
Okay so fine, they think we’re the fucking problem. Which is pretty ridiculous because half this building went to the meetings and spoke out against the curfew. But I guess if we’re up in this tower and we bought apartments in here, then they’re going to see us as the problem, and what can we do about it? Just that we’re not. And just that it’s so sad that they think we are. I mean, if we’re the problem, good luck with the fucking real problem!
“You know,” he turned and said to Asa, “if we’re the fucking problem, then good luck with the fucking real problem, right?”
“I’m just glad they didn’t really get in,” Asa said.
But of course, all that had been three-and-a-half years ago, and now, during the 1991–92 winter break of Jared’s final year in college, he and his father walked through the park toward Russ and Daughters on Houston Street, father to get his lunch and son to get his breakfast, and neither had to say what they both happily felt, which was: We are back where it all began. And also, in the intervening years, a major dream of Jared’s had come true. For several years, he’d been in love with Millicent Heyman, a beautiful painter with dark curls and worriedly beseeching eyes, a heart-shaped face, a husky voice, and a dancer’s body she covered with paint-splattered T-shirts from her dad, sometimes tied at the waist, and high-waisted, equally paint-splattered old jeans, often cut off and rolled to just above the knees to make shorts. They’d known each other vaguely all their lives, going to separate private schools uptown, but when they wound up at the same college, in the same art classes, Jared realized in short order that he was in love. He was rendered inwardly dopey by Milly’s beauty and by the way that sardonic cynicism and wide-eyed wonderment seemed to coexist so amicably in her. His cock twitched uncomfortably in his jeans whenever they talked, and he would exhaust and befuddle himself trying to remain glib and breezy with her and not collapse into a state of ardent, babbling animal lust. He was not used to this loss of inner control, and on one hand, he did not like the feeling at all and worried that it was not a useful one for him, but on the other hand, he lived in a state of delectable anticipation between such episodes.
And as for Millicent, the short answer to a complicated question would be to say that she loved Jared, too. And that is how she came to live in the Christodora with him after college, when Jared’s father fully ceded the apartment to them, and also how, in a matter of about seven years, in a series of extremely random events that somehow all tied together, she and Jared ended up adopting an orphan boy named Mateo, which led to the three of them all living in the Christodora together.
From CHRISTODORA. Used with permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2016 by Tim Murphy.