“It’s The Cobblestone Streets That Send Me Back”
Working in an office next door to my second apartment in New York City — thirty years later
Comprehending the pre-COVID makeover of Manhattan from grunge to gleam requires a deep dive into the recent past. Nothing captures the transformation of New York City in the 21st Century better than a walk on the High Line, an elevated greenway stretching for about a mile and a half above the far west side of downtown. The view from the High Line is startling, even surreal, for both visitors and longtime residents — albeit for different reasons.
Looking at the lopsided and cantilevered architectural design of the many new buildings, the uneven peaks and jagged angles, is disorienting; it takes a minute for your eyes to adjust. Especially if you remember the not-so-distant period when this neglected neighborhood — and the city overall — appeared to be on the verge of collapse. In fact, a section of the old elevated West Side Highway (now incorporated into the High Line) actually did collapse in 1973.
Opened in 2009, the main section of the High Line promenade is a former railroad spur for the New York Central Line. The area below the walkway around West 14th Street is known as the Meat Packing District. Before the pandemic, weekend evenings found the narrow side streets jammed with young people and well-heeled visitors. They all stumbled over cobblestones on their way to browse in boutiques or sip cocktails in rooftop hotel bars. A few warehouses remain but it’s the cobblestone streets that send me back.
When I lived nearby, from fall 1981 to spring 1985, the crumbling railroad spur was partially torn down yet still accessible to intrepid urban sunbathers and alert joggers who stepped over the gaping holes. In the early Eighties, crossing Ninth Avenue and continuing west on 14th Street felt like falling off the map. During the day, this commercial district — the meat-packers’ marketplace — formed a bleak panorama. The streets reeked all day, even after the cobblestones were cleansed of the pre-dawn butchers’ bloodbath. Open dumpsters and rubber trash barrels lined the sidewalks, filled to the rims with freshly rendered hunks of peppermint-striped animal fat. Forget about rats; in the Meat Packing District the flies were scary.
After dark the warehouses turned into hives of activity, much of it furtive. Camouflaged in black leathers, men prowled the shadowy blocks all night long, loners and duos stalking past the packs gathered near a doorway or loading dock. Were there dozens of people walking around on any given night, or hundreds, bar-hopping between the murky nightclubs and after-hours spots? I can’t say. It looked like a lot of guys from across the street.
So a stroll along the High Line today, taking in its sweeping second-story views and manicured foliage along the path, in the company of orderly citizens and tourists alike, represents nothing less than the rehabilitation of New York City.
My old building still exists, visible from the High Line two blocks down 14th Street. 48 Ninth Avenue now sits across the street from a polished Apple Store, catty-corner to Google’s New York offices. Our old front door has been impressively fortified, and a pair of relatively pricey retail shops now border that familiar portal. The ground-floor restaurant, where the Greek-American proprietors gruffly dispensed coffee and soup, is no longer labelled a diner though it’s still a faceless (though much more expensive) everyday eatery.
The imperious, looming Googleplex encompasses an entire city block: bordered by Eighth and Ninth Avenues, 15th and 16th Streets. When I lived next door this monolithic structure was a Port Authority facility, primarily a garage. Today giant computer servers occupy the old parking bays.
Besides me, nobody else in the Google cafeteria read a print newspaper while eating lunch. Naturally many employees studied the screens of their mobile phones or company-issued laptop computers while enjoying the delicious and insanely varied array of free food every day. However, more than a few people conducted face-to-face conversations with each other. I was a couple decades older than most of my colleagues but that gap never felt awkward, perhaps because I appeared younger than my 55 years. Working for the tech behemoth as a temporary Senior Editor, during 2012 and 2013, occasionally felt like the best job I’ve ever had. At the very least, I didn’t miss all those print-media egomaniacs and their endless melodrama. Well not too much.
I was one of twenty or so Senior Editors hired in 2012, under non-renewable one-year contracts, to re-brand the venerable Zagat restaurant guide as a digital competitor to Yelp, the popular user ratings website. By the following spring, we’d written and edited data-based reviews of more than 50,000 restaurants, hotels and shopping outlets in major urban markets. But for reasons known only to Google’s top echelon, our work never went online.
Our Zagat team “curated” — churned out — vast amounts of digital content about restaurants, travel attractions and retail shops. We functioned as assembly line workers in a digital-age information factory. In fact, during the last few months of my one-year contract, there was a daily quota of content imposed on our team: a goal I always met and often surpassed. My co-workers were pleasant-enough people, but they came across as self-contained, even timid, at least in comparison to the ambitious and flamboyant personalities I routinely encountered during my years in print journalism. At Google we silently sat in front of our computers, writing while listening to music on headphones. Online research (rather than interviews) formed the basis of what we wrote and the resulting headlines and capsule summaries were measured in characters, not words.
My experience in the late Nineties, witnessing the music and publishing spheres go through wrenching changes, had been traumatic. By 2012 I was happy just to be employed in the brave new world of technology. In any capacity. I didn’t harbor illusions about my future; Google is a young person’s company. My mission there was straightforward; I tried to function as a sponge and absorb as much as possible in the allotted time. And my 40 hours a week (no overtime) ticked by like clockwork: the regularity and predictability were comforting. Especially compared to the preceding 30 years of career chaos. No more deadline aneurisms, no more publisher tantrums, no sudden regime changes upending the editorial apple cart.
Nearly every day in the Eighties, on my way to work or wherever via the subway, I traversed the stretch of 15th Street that abuts the Google building’s south side. In 2012 and 2013, commuting via subway from the Upper West Side, I made my daily approach to Google’s Ninth Avenue entrance along the same block. The grand old bank on the corner of Eighth and 15th, long unoccupied, is now a CVS drug store. But the apartment buildings on the south side of West 15th Street still look the same.
Walking to my job at Google, I wondered if any of the same people lived there and soon I had my answer. I began noticing a Latina woman, close to my age, who looked familiar. Every time I saw her, sitting on the stoop or hanging out the front window, the calendar pages flipped back 30 years. It seemed reasonable to assume she’d been living here, on West 15th Street, all this time. When I finally summoned the courage to introduce myself on a spring evening, she replied with pleasure even if she didn’t recognize me from walking past her every day in the early Eighties. Why would she? It’s not as if we ever spoke then. Now she told me about her grandmother’s recent death. “She lived here too, you musta seen her with me.” Only then, I clearly recalled the two of them, a teenage girl and her abuela, watching the sparse parade of people march past on what was then a dead-quiet block across from a hulking industrial garage.
Just before my job contract ended in September 2013, curiosity and nostalgia de la boue propelled me toward the one place in Manhattan I’d tried to forget over the years. So I took an after-work detour to Washington Square Park, before meeting my wife and son for dinner. There it was: my first home in the city, where I lived during the spring and summer of 1981, significantly refurbished but instantly recognizable.
A clean-cut blond man in his mid-twenties sat on the front steps behind a freshly painted iron gate. He looked quizzical as I lingered on the sidewalk in front of him, so I explained the purpose of my visit. “I lived here 32 years ago!”
His mild interest seemed more polite than anything else, though he mentioned that one of his neighbors had lived in the building at least that long. “Marty — and here he comes now.”
Miraculously, an elderly man slowly approached from the west. He pushed a walker down the sidewalk.
It was my former next-door neighbor. The hotel bellhop had grown fleshy and grey.
“This guy says he used to live here, Marty.”
“Hey, wait, I remember you. Sure. Mark, Mark Coleman. You got rescued in the fire.”
After that encounter, my memories of the early Eighties fired off a chain reaction, one recollection sparking another. I began writing them all down.