“Nostalgie de la Boue”

Here is a phrase I only just became aware of: nostalgie de la boue (“yearning for the mud”). In his chapter on the demise of Times Square in Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul, author and blogger Jeremiah Moss further clarifies this, via architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, as “the sentimental attachment to decrepitude and sleaze . . .a venerable urban tradition.

Muschamp went further, in 1996: “Where have they gone, the chicken hawks and stiletto knife displays, the peep show shills, the pickpockets, coke heads, winos, pimps and tramps? We had a world class gutter here. Must we trade it in for a shopping strip of retail chain outlets?”

If Muschamp and Moss can lament, let me add my small voice to the chorus. That tawdry, tactile, magnificent mess of a neighborhood was my first home in New York City, and I too mourn its demise. The world it contained informed the adult-child I was in the early Seventies just as indelibly as had the small suburban enclave where I grew up.

Danger always flickers at the edges of any child’s universe. Disappearing fathers with their strong, reassuring arms catapult one closer to the flames, testing personal limits and capabilities of how to feel safe. Alone. All these years later, faint tracers of that trajectory still stream through my consciousness.

The last time I was on 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue and felt any vestige of that hyper-pulsating block (that I dared myself to walk down upon arrival, just to see if I came out of it alive), was in the late 1980s. I had earned my green belt in karate and needed to buy a bō, a long martial art stick, from a shop that might have been there all those years previous, tucked between peep shows and porn theaters. The irony didn’t escape me. All I was packing in 1971 was an eighteen-year-old “good girl’s” sense of daring. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and I knew it.

The Disney-fication starting to happen in the 1990s, and my red flags went up as the red light district went out. It all sort of sounded good, on the surface. Make things safer? Who could argue? Perversely, me.

Fear is a basic instinct—nothing else heightens the sense of feeling alive as that breath you finally exhale when you get just past it. Yet, I guess it’s all relative. For me, the all-consuming plague of corporate porn is far worse than the old-fashioned garden variety that once flourished in Times Square. I could never attempt to match Jeremiah Moss as he describes meticulously why it this is so, in Vanishing New York.

All I know is that I feel gutted when I visit my old neighborhood.

8th Ave.

How easily I plugged into that throbbing street energy, and with it, the tactile seediness. My suburban backdrop faded into history—bland Colonial and ranch houses (reflecting even blander life prospects), slow trawls through the local hangout, McDonalds (required first stop with a newly acquired drivers license), unrequited crushes on boys (both squeaky clean jocks and the shadier rebels without a cause)—all just an out-of-town tryout for the stage set before me.

Our turf. Irish bars with wafts from steam table fare and stale beer snaking over the sidewalks, pawnshops beckoning with diamond rings and musical instruments long abandoned by desperate owners, shoeshine men stationed on high-traffic corners with stained fingers whipping the rag, over and over, and tired hookers tucked into sooty SRO doorways trying to meet nightly quotas for their pimps, who, like cockroaches, were rarely seen in the light of day. Enveloping, even nurturing—while soaring above it all—was that ever-seductive siren, the Broadway theater world: the heart of the sexy beast beating deep behind velvet curtains.

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there’s always magic in the air.

 

Second Day in NYC – Mon. Sept. 6, 1971 (Labor Day)
[Letter to high school friend]
Dear D____ ,
Tessa and I were walking all over town today—I really like her. The Y is fantastic—big room (not dingy at all), good location (the theater district). Like 8th Ave. is junky, but things improve as you go east. The location is good cause it’s a 10 minute walk to Central Park, 5th Ave., & any other midtown place & subway. Yesterday we got in at 1:30, lugged all my junk up (my mom got the look-over by the elevator guy & told me to watch out for him). Tessa got in at 6 and we didn’t go out, just talked and talked. Today we found out 8th Ave. is the prostitute hang-out, & there’s a porno movie house opposite our room. But there’s also, just catty-corner from us, a Howard Johnson’s, a deli (with YOGURT!) around the corner—like everything is so convenient. So we’ll likely stay here all year. We fell in love with the city today. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

lyrics copyright Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller

 

 

 

Whose Skyline Is It Anyway?

It’s every generation’s lament. When I look at the downtown city skyline, I barely recognize anything. The area—especially around and below Houston Street—is now shimmying with new kids on the block. Ubiquitous glass and chrome high-rises continue to shoulder their way into old neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. I know change is inevitable, I know Manhattan was founded on the bedrock of commerce—but like most aging New Yorkers, I also love to complain about it. New millennial money, faux immigrant hipsters, and corporate chutzpah have made me avoid my old stomping grounds for over a decade. But this past weekend I wanted to take in a block festival in NoHo, see an art exhibit on Eldridge Street, and purchase my favorite plastic summer slippers in Chinatown. Where I finally found a skyline that I could still embrace.

East Broadway

My very first apartment was on 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. In 1971, you made sure you were triple-locked-in at night. But—oh!— during the day, there was nothing more exotic than exploring the Lower East Side.

Avenue A

 

Tessa and I pooled the last of our five dollar bills and moved our meager belongings out of the YWCA—one trip via “Man with Van”—down to 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. Our new home would be a fifth floor walk-up with the prerequisite ornate fire escape, dingy hallway, cooking smells, and marble stairs; each one literally worn down and sloped to the center from a century of treading shoes. The heavy door had a peephole and the old iron police lock—a bar that angled up from a slot in the floor on the interior to brace the back of the door against a break-in. Once inside, we were standing in the small kitchen dominated by a claw-footed bathtub next to the sink. A tiny water closet off to the side was large enough for a toilet, with its pull chain connecting to a wooden box suspended above. I loved the very quaintness of the antique plumbing, every yank of the chain metaphorically flushing away the rube I had been. Exposed brick walls added the kind of charm I could never even imagine in my suburban fantasizing, and a non-working potbellied stove plunked in the central room was altar to our new sanctuary.

2nd Street unpacking
“Wow. I can’t believe we’re here in our own place!” I circled slowly to take it all in. The pièce de résistance was a partitioned area that housed our separate closet-sized bedrooms. Each held a loft bed platform with a built-in desktop and clothing rod below. There was no natural light; the windows faced an air shaft with a foreshortened view of the next building that we could almost touch. A burglar gate was in place over the kitchen window next to the fire escape. Who needed light? We were positively beaming!

 
Our landlord had even given us a modest stipend to furnish the flat. Feeling like kids let loose in a candy store, Tessa and I first bought thick foam cut to order on East Houston Street—two mattresses for our loft beds. That was our first encounter with Hassidic shopkeepers who were ruling over their individual fiefdoms in cramped and dusty storefronts while I had been wheeling a cart in the wide-aisled Weis Market and selecting sheets in Bowman’s department store back home. Next we purchased a used wooden kitchen table and an old rocking chair, precariously hauling them by foot down Avenue A on a mover’s dolly. Home Sweet Tenement! —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

chinese slippers
There’s no place like home!

copyright Sharon Watts

So You Wanna Be A Fashion Illustrator

Forty-five years ago (!) (I just did the math, both in my head and on the calculator), I was shifting into what would ultimately be the ejector seat that got me to where I am today. Which is sitting in a chair at my computer, going through digital mountains of Collyer Brothers-style desktop folders filled with scans of my art through the decades. Over the years I have often detoured from the fashion art I had felt destined to create since childhood, but the whimsical style that became my career trademark is all here— interspersed with more serious veins I tapped into through collage, assemblage, and photography. This is one of my new year’s resolutions: to see what all I have and organize it. The archivist in me is following her slightly OCD’d lead.

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I still have my tackle box for toting art supplies, and my first and only pack of Color-aid paper. All purchases were made at the Parsons School of Design “company store” in 1971.

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After a bumpy first semester, where I decided that Draping and I were never going to be a seamless match, I switched departments from Fashion Design to Fashion Illustration. And the rest is, shall we say, history.

By the end of the first semester, I had managed to extricate myself from the Fashion Design department and was transferred into Fashion Illustration with my full scholarship intact. Amid my angst of landing in the wrong place after all those childhood years of strategic fashion career planning, there was also discomfort from my weight gain and shame. I no longer enjoyed dressing inventively, or envisioning myself in my own creations that had once filled spiral sketchbooks. Besides, I had gotten a whiff of where fashion was heading and I wasn’t embracing it. Counterculture values were combining with my newly hatching mores, convincing me that there were more important things to focus on than French bodices and cutting fabric on the bias. Besides, the current styles were meant for very thin, androgynous people.

Like Richard—my first openly gay friend—who always came to draping class with a pale midriff peeking out from under a cropped sweater, slim arms stacked wrist to elbow with his signature chunky Art Deco bakelite bracelets. From there, it was a short trajectory to the glam rock look that would erupt onstage just one year and a few blocks away from our Avenue A apartment, at CBGB’s on the Bowery.

After the department transfer, I found myself in the deep end with city sophisticates from the High School of Art and Design—mostly young women with names like Romney, Anelle, and Karin (with an “i”)—poised and secure on their classroom stools, and in their place in the world, or so it seemed to me. They wore boutique folkloric blouses and pricey Frye boots, and were clannish with each other and chummy with the teachers. Desks lined three sides of the classroom, freeing up the wall for us to hang our 18” X 24” newsprint pad sketches. I would compare our differing styles, wondering if I could hold my chin above water in that talent pool on the Upper East Side.

Soon I would even be mixing with the General Illustration department, leaving behind Women’s Wear Daily dish for discussions about Cat Stevens, Carlos Castaneda, and Color Theory.

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Fri. Jan.21, 1972

Dear Mom,

I like illustration a lot. Here is my schedule:

schedule-card-spring-1972

Even tho my course names are repeated, I always have a different teacher. No homework so far, either. This weekend, Penny and I are going to art galleries, buying furniture, going to church (?!) (you heard right—Norman Vincent Peale’s), eating out in a cheese restaurant, and seeing A Clockwork Orange (again).

There’s so many things (little) wrong with the apartment—the piping at the tub still leaks (it was fixed once), there hasn’t been hot water, & no heat! We might check out another apartment on 12th St. that is a bit smaller and $200/month to our $180. Ours has more character but is more of a fire trap. Also, in my bedroom, the ceiling is cracked and water or something leaked along the cracks from the apartment above us. Plus someone is breaking into mailboxes.

I’m in a life drawing class now, on a break. I think the only other “A” in Life Drawing besides me last semester was Richard.
Well, that’s all that happened.
Love,
Sharon
P.S. Art supplies CO$T A LOT!! — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

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