Walking Jane’s ‘Hood

In setting forth different principles, I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things: for instance, what kids of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are marvellous and others are vice traps and death traps; why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition; what makes downtowns shift their centres; what, if anything, is a city neighbourhood, and what jobs, if any neighbourhoods in great cities do. In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life, because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practices in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities, and what practices and principles will deaden these attributes. ~ Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

Back in May, I lucked into being in New York City during Jane’s Walk, the annual neighbourhood walking event held in cities around the world. It’s named in honour of Jane Jacobs, the celebrated urbanist, activist, and writer who established herself first in Greenwich Village, and then in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. While I caught a couple of the walking tours (Park Avenue and Manhattan Civic Centre), I didn’t make it to the village, to the pilgrimage site of her former home at 555 Hudson Street.

This week, Jane’s neighbourhood was my unfinished business and a Google maps walking tour my guide. I wish I could say I discovered the area as something more than a tourist, but that’s what I was, poking around to get an initial sense of the shape of the place.

I walked (of course) from E.61st down to 14th, via W.11th and Hell’s Kitchen. The torrential downpour slowed, and then stopped, by the time I joined the High Line at 30th. At Hudson I stripped off my raincoat, sweating in the summer-like heat and humidity.

At midday the streets were mostly sleepy, dotted by women-of-a-certain-age and their tiny dogs taking lunch at streetside tables and benches. A solitary man in sunglasses and his shaggy pooch ruled over the sun-soaked patio of the iconic White Horse Tavern, traditional haunt of longshoremen and poets and writers like Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and Anais Nin. A few blocks on, a crew shot a television series, crowding the sidewalk with imaginary activity. High sun and deep shadows framed the sidewalks; every hour or so the spotlight would shift, illuminating a different person, place or thing.  By dinner time, the bright orange rays beamed low and magically along the east-west axis and the sidewalks teaming with people of all ages: suited men whisking uniformed children home from school and day care, office workers picking up groceries, college students taking advantage of happy hour prices, elegant high-heeled women rushing home from work.

Greenwich/West Village ranks as some of the most expensive real estate in the United States. The inevitability of gentrification has priced it out of the hands of everyone but the very wealthy or those lucky enough to benefit from rent controls.  I can understand the attraction of the place. The scale remains intimate, human, the roads organic, confusing and enviously leafy, brick townhomes uniform yet eclectic, all moulded by history. Everything is at hand: There are restaurants, taverns, shops, churches, schools, pocket parks, public transport, and the river. Charming, pretty, yet solid, it’s a fairytale village where communion with other souls seems possible. And all in the heart of a city of eight-and-a-half million.

Jane’s former home is plain painted brick, two floors over vacant retail space and, at this moment, burdened by scaffold.  In quick succession, it has recently housed a specialty baby shop, a seller of glass wear, and a purveyor of ladies clothing. One has to sell a lot of chotchkes to make the pricey rent, never mind a reasonable living. Unfortunately, it’s the predictable, vanilla chains that can afford this, simultaneously putting dollars in the jeans of landlords while chiselling down the rough edges that lend neighbourhoods their uniqueness and real interest. It’s not exactly what Jane envisioned back in 1961 when she rallied for the preservation of old (old, low-rent and therefore useful vs. old, fancy, expensive) buildings in her famous treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


I felt the urge to genuflect on her doorstep, but settled for taking coffee in the adjacent cafe and effectively becoming a pair of her famously-invoked eyes on the street. How’s that for life imitating art?

I wandered for several hours photographing to my heart’s content before ending the afternoon with a glass of wine and some charcuterie at the delicious and artfully-styled Buvette. Then I hoofed it back uptown in the day’s remaining light.









Greenwich Village
The not-so-secret private/public gardens of St. Luke-in-the-Fields.
Greenwich Village
Everyone’s getting in the Halloween spirit
Greenwich Village
My hands-down favourite? The formerly low-rent Grove Court. Now gated and oh-so-private.
Greenwich Village
The ‘Friends’ apartment building
Greenwich Village
Home of the infamous John Wilkes Booth. Where he planned the assassination of President Lincoln.
Greenwich Village
A rare wood-frame house, formerly a civil war brothel. Wood buildings were phased out after the fire of 1845.
Greenwich Village
Buried under scaffolding: At 10-feet wide, the narrowest building in NYC. Former home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Cary Grant and others.
Greenwich Village
The apartment building where John Belushi drew his last breath.
Greenwich Village
Home of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted and executed in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to the Russians
Greenwich Village
Home of Washington Irving, author of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle. A great companion piece to our Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow visit in 2013.

The Color of Water

What a deceptively simple way to capture the colors of a seasonally changing river in an historic/site-specific installation. Not that I hadn’t walked this portion of the High Line before, it just took a fourth go to stop me in my tracks.

I might have to try this at home with my own river…


The River That Flows Both Ways – by Spencer Finch

Inspired by the Hudson River, Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways documents a 700-minute (11 hours, 40 minutes) journey on the river in a single day. The title is a translation of Muhheakantuck, the Native American name for the Hudson, referring to the river’s natural flow in two directions. Like the rail line that existed on the High Line, the Hudson River was, and still is, an active route for the transportation of goods into Manhattan. The river and the High Line have always been linked in their geography, their function, and their imprints on the industrial legacy of the city.

From a tugboat drifting on Manhattan’s west side and past the High Line, Finch photographed the river’s surface once every minute. The color of each pane of glass was based on a single pixel point in each photograph and arranged chronologically in the tunnel’s existing steel mullions. Time is translated into a grid, reading from left to right and top to bottom, capturing the varied reflective and translucent conditions of the water’s surface. The work, like the river, is experienced differently depending on the light levels and atmospheric conditions of the site. In this narrative orientation, the glass reveals Finch’s impossible quest for the color of water.

Taken from: High Line Art


If Wes Anderson Owned a Museum

A shrunken head. Mummies. Dinosaur bones. An anaconda skeleton. Shells the size of a child’s head. A life-sized origami Pterodactyl. A gorilla guarding the staircase. With nearly three million objects spanning natural history, ethnology and mineralogy, the Redpath Museum in Montreal is the ultimate Victorian curio cabinet.

The first purpose-built museum in Canada, it was commissioned by Peter Redpath and opened in 1882 to preserve and display the collections of Sir William Dawson, a noted Canadian natural scientist and Principal of McGill University. Architects A.C. Hutchison and A.D. Steele “conceived an idiosyncratic expression of eclectic Victorian Classicism, synthesizing ancient and modern as well as European and North American sources to dignify the campus and express the significance of its purpose.”

The controllers of the overwhelming majority of Canadian rail, shipping, timber, mining, fur and banking consisted of a small group of about fifty men who called the Square Mile ‘home’ …[F]rom about 1870 to 1900, 70% of all wealth in Canada was firmly in the hands of this small group.1

It sits in the centre of the ‘Golden Square Mile’,  former farmland on the slope of Mount Royal north of Sherbrooke Street. It became, from the late 1700’s until the early 20th century, the wealthiest residential enclave in Canada. Montreal’s anglophone captains of industry shifted from the crowded confines of Old Montreal to rural, expansive surroundings, building estates that reflected their social position.

The Redpath is a theatrical, bodacious building, a late example of  Greek Revival and a shrine to the wealth and civilizing pursuits of the English. For fans of the film A Night at the Museum, think an intimate, manageable version of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

While the eclectic collection is fun and cleverly curated, it’s the building that steals the show; no Hollywood set designer could offer improvements. The coffered ceiling, Virgin Mary blue, is the heavenly colour of ecclesiastical ceilings and temple-like public buildings. With its apse and nave, it was designed in the classical shape of a church. Honey-coloured wood trim, cast plaster ornamentation, and built-up mouldings deck the walls floor to ceiling. Freestanding and built-in oak and glass cabinets house the collections. Shifting light streams through the atrium windows, creating late-afternoon shadow play between the cast iron balustrade and floors of the elevated walkway. Imagine what it must look like by moonlight.

The museum has several research labs and a unique, circular Victorian teaching auditorium, which can be seen in this Historica Canada Heritage Minute.

The fortunes of the neighbourhood eventually waned and most of the mansions were torn down or assimilated into the university.  The Redpath remains an enchanting remnant of a dynamic time and place in Canadian history.

Front-door details
The 2nd largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in Canada
The shrunken head

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Drive-By Shooting, Saskatchewan Style

Saskatchewan is ridiculously beautiful even on the rainiest of days.

I am heart-broken that torrential rain is falling – and scheduled to keep doing so – for the three days we’re meant to camp in Grasslands National Park. I have saved some of the best for last, a coveted new stop before we make the final push home to Ottawa after a summer on the road.

I make the mental calculation and already know the outcome: Four kids, two adults, two potentially drenched tents and a wet camera, a fully-loaded van with four inches (max) of clearance and zero off-road capability. Sigh. We will have to keep this part of Saskatchewan for another day. Thank goodness we had time in the Great Sand Hills and Manitou Beach and some excellent back-of-beyond wandering on the way through, as well as the memories of a previous trip that included the Cypress Hills, Qu’Appelle Valley, and the tunnels at Moose Jaw. Never enough time to do everything on my list.

I relinquish driving duties to Husband and crawl up into the passenger seat to sulk. But how can I sulk when I see THIS through the rain-streaked window glass?

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Dear Guy in the Tan Sedan:

What I want to know is this:

Was it worth speeding down the main street in our village to catch up to the three cars who were already over the swing bridge? Was it worth ignoring the one-lane bridge protocol of stop-and-wait-then-go-and-wave to shave thirty seconds off your trip? Or the 10 km/h speed limit on a structure that’s been around since the mid-1800’s?

Was it worth hearing my honking horn and rant about bloody well slowing down? Was it worth giving me your well-practiced smug look? What about flat-out lying to my face about not seeing me after I clearly watched you speed up and fly onto the bridge?

I’ve crossed that bridge thousands of times and, honestly, today is the first time I’ve witnessed that stunt. I know others have done something similar in the past because my neighbour once found a dead body in the cab of a half-submerged pick-up that failed to negotiate that curve you drove today.

I can tell you it wasn’t worth it for me. I lost my temper and with it  my dignity. I feel ashamed. Your impatience wasn’t an excuse for mine. I’m sorry for calling you a weirdo.

Would it have killed me to have waited for one more car after waving through the other three? No. It would have cost me nothing.  On a gorgeous sunny day I would have had thirty more seconds to breathe in the million dollar view of the river and the stunning palette of changing leaves. I would have driven home smiling instead of buried in a frowning, angry cloud.

I think of you tonight and will again tomorrow and the next day and the next when I’m stuck in traffic, in line at the supermarket, or waiting for the endless things we wait for as humans. I will pull out today’s embarrassment, hold it up, turn it over, and take a good, hard look at it’s ugly face. Then I’ll tuck it away – not too far away – as a reminder of what I don’t want to be.

So thanks for the lesson. Maybe it was worth it after all.



Exploring the intersection of people, their homes, and communities