Notes from a village
Anyone who ever read Archie comics as a child (could I be the only one?) will remember the sweet soft lawns, the peaceful streets of Riverdale, home to Archie and Reggie, Betty and Veronica and the rest of the gang. I wanted to live there myself. Riverdale embodied my earliest concept of community.
I wanted to live there chiefly because its communication was primitive and almost instantaneous. If Archie wanted to speak to Veronica, for example, he walked down to Pop Tate's Sweet Shoppe. Sometimes he would run into her on the way; the reader would see them approaching the same leafy corner from adjacent streets and be the first to know. If they didn't meet up, Veronica was likely to be at Pop's -- everyone went there after school. If not, Archie would leave a message with one of their friends. The grapevine was speedy and reliable. The telephone was a last resort.
The morning seven years ago when I bought a just-off-the-press copy of the Village Voice and turned right to the classifieds, I had long forgotten Riverdale. Afraid of being as lonely as I was, I still wanted to live in New York, a city full of writers and artists and their work. Under Apartments for Rentm I found an ad that said "VILL VIC, N. Moore St." I checked a map of Manhattan and couldn't believe it: N. Moore St. looked like a wharf. It was practically in the Hudson. Doubtfully, I got on the subway and emerged on a cobblestone street lined with old brick warehouses. It was filled with trucks backed up to loading docks and men unloading cargo with conveyor belts and forklifts. The landlord had stretched the truth in putting VILL VIC; the heart of the Village was many blocks to the north and this neighborhood bore no resemblance to its winding little streets of cafes and boutiques.No doubt he had wanted to make N. Moore St. seem attractive.He might have said that it smelled of cinnamon and horses, but it didn't matter. I had found it nevertheless.
Today the same ad would simply say "Tribeca," the name the neighborhood has come to be called by whoever names such places.Tribeca denotes the triangle below Canal Street, a neighborhood just south of SoHo (which is south of Houston Street).They are artists' neighborhoods, former commercial districts whose warehouses have largely been converted to residential lofts. SoHo underwent the transformation first; when it filled up, artists ventured down across Canal and found more lofts being vacated by furriers, textile merchants, tool-and-diemakers. The rents at the time were the lowest in town, and the highceilinged, many-windowed lofts made perfect studios. After 5, when the trucks pull out, no place in New York is quieter.
But the best thing about Tribeca is the light. The buildings are low so there's a lot of sky. At 8 on a spring morning as you walk east along Canal, the people you pass are silhouettes edged in white light. Late afternoons in summer there's a Hopper show of hot red brick, black fire escapes, pools of filmy light in the streets leading west to the Hudson. The river is blue in summer, green in winter, silver at sunset.
The neighborhood diner turned out to be a classic of the chrome and steel glorifiedbus genre. There was grocery; it was small but it carried peach-pear nectar and many different kinds of bread. The cafe around the corner seemed a friendly place. Faces began to be familiar; first we nodded, then we smiled, then, in time, we spoke. We come from Roanoke, from Waco, from small towns in Oklahoma. We grew up as neighbors to neighbors, and we haven't had to change.
The cafe's owner, Tommy, lets us pay monthly, even sporadically. Sometimes he accepts a painting or photograph or sculpture in place of money, and part of his collection covers the walls. Any evening I stop by there I can sit down with friends. I can leave a message for someone I've been trying to reach; it will be delivered. I can talk to an artist whose show I've just seen, or talk about it with others.I can get support, when I'm stuck in my work, from people who've been through that themselves.
Across the street from me is a warehouse full of spices. The Precinct 1 police stable their horses around the corner. They exercise them at dawn, when the street is very quiet, and often I wake to the echo of hooves on cobblestones. No wakening has ever brought me out of sleep so generously -- an appreciative gift, I like to think, from a city I had faith in.
One day my first week in town I was carrying home a full-length mirror from the Cut-Rate Store. At a corner I met a woman carrying a long, narrow pane of glass; we looked like extras in the same movie. We walked the rest of the way together, talking for the first time, a writer and a sculptor, two of the gang in Riverdale where the sidewalks lead us all to one another in the slanting light of any afternoon. A small town, a nice town, where the counterman knows what you want for breakfast, where the storekeeper cashes your checks, where you m ight bump into a friend at any corner.