Curbed is based on the idea that all conversation in New York eventually comes back to real estate, apartments, and the neighborhoods we inhabit. That means the site covers urban planning, and architecture, and new restaurants — things that make the spaces we live in. But, given that the core of that space is real estate, and Curbed embraces that fact, I can say this with certainty: the site will bore some people shitless. If you’re one of those people, and a reader of this site, you’ll be happy to know there will be many fewer real estate posts here from now on.
But I think real estate in New York is interesting not because of the dollars and cents involved (although, yes, that can be interesting too) but rather because of what it means for the city, and in a more particular sense, what it means for the neighborhoods we call home.
In high school, a genius friend of mine who now lives a country away gave me a copy of a book and told me, “Read this.” The book was The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. It’s a travel narrative of Chatwin’s journey to meet the Aboriginals of Australia, who encode memory in song following “dreaming tracks” — Songlines — across the Outback.
What really grabbed me about the book was this: Chatwin’s travel proceeds as narrative until about halfway through the book when the narrative flow suddenly stops and a page announces, “The Notebooks.” And suddenly you’re inside Chatwin’s journal.
Chatwin was a traveler his entire life, and his notebooks are full of thoughts on transience, which to him was a necessity on par with breathing. The first entry in the Songlines Notebooks is a quote from Pascal: “Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.” Soon after, Baudelaire: “I think I would be happy in that place I happen not to be, and this question of moving house is the subject of a perpetual dialogue I have with my soul.”
I love to travel, but in all that a life in New York City entails, chunks of time are hard to find; I last got away for more than a month in the summer of 2001. It was right after I moved into my current apartment, on a relatively quiet block with an old Mexican food place and a hardware store that inexplicably closes on Sundays across the street. Since then, this block — this tiny, one block block — has had a bar named after a French poet move in downstairs; an art gallery open a few doors down that a major newspaper immediately declared profoundly important; a hip clothing boutique for women take over an old garment store; a giant Mondrian-clad monolith rise from nothing to tower over the street; and, perhaps most fitting of all, a candy store that has been there forever become enshrined as an unparalleled tourist destination — a place, in other words, where the travelers to our city believe they must go.
I think New York is a city for travelers. I don’t mean the tourists; I mean the residents. A subway ride could take me in minutes to any one of a hundred neighborhoods I’ve never seen. That I can feel a stranger in a place that also feels so comfortable is at the core of why I love New York, and why I like blogging about it.
A close friend observed to me after I’d been doing this site for some time, “What you’re really doing is micro-travel writing.” I’ve enjoyed getting to know a small patch of this city so well, and hope to have the same fun getting to know parts of a bigger whole. And as I type these words in a small window that only shows about ten lines of what I’ve written at a time, I think that Chatwin’s Notebooks happen to remind me of weblog posts, and that that is a happy symmetry.
After I post this, today, like most every Monday since I got back from that trip three years ago, I’ll leave my apartment on Rivington Street and walk towards the 6 Train at Spring. It’s a long walk, but I don’t mind it. I’ll cross Allen Street, then the park at Forsyth, where on rainy days the light refracts off the water pooling on the tiles in the most sublime way, and then to Bowery, where I’ll look straight up at the Empire State Building, checking that it’s still there, because in a city that has always been impermanent, this is a time when impermanence looms larger.
And then I’ll turn down Bowery, and see again the sinewy steel frame rising on the east side of the street, a crazy vertical building that in just a month is already the tallest thing in the area. And I’m as fascinated by it as I am the Empire State Building, because this is new, and there is something about the new that is entrancing; the steel frame could be anything. I don’t yet know what the building will be, which heightens the fascination. Maybe today is the day something will reveal itself.
The comparison of walking the streets of New York City to walking aboriginal songlines is not unique; you may know a wonderful site called New York Songlines run by Jim Naureckas that chronicles, in its own way, exactly that.
That’s what Curbed wants to do too: map the city as it changes, in a different way and a different spirit, but with the same goal, that of understanding the neighborhoods we inhabit a little better.
Today’s first post at Curbed talks more about that site, if that interests you. Now, though, I get to hit reset on this space, which is just as exciting.