Friday, October 19, 2007


This is Blissville, a hodge-podge of garages interspersed between other businesses. This garage sits on the corner of Greenpoint. One one side is the floral shop with fake flowers, on the other, the Long Island Expressway. Once it was also a gas station but only the sign remains. Its prices attracted only desperate drivers before their journey out easy on the Expressway, which has a history of its own.

This expressway was the vision of city planner Robert Moses. Construction began in the late 1930s. By 1940, a six-lane viaduct towered over Long Island City. It ended just below this corner, what is now known as Exit 16.

Decade by decade Moses extended his highway. By 1960 it reached the edge of Queens. Out on Long Island, in Nassau County, the highway proceeded in segments, thought not contiguous. Construction continued until all the parts connected.

In 1966, the highway stretched out to Exit 61 in Patchogue, a town back then of both closing factories and hopeful vacationers looking for sunny beaches.

The highway was completed as we know it today in 1972 in Riverhead. Exit 73 is its last exit. Back then drivers emptied out into a landscape of potato fields. Today it dumps them onto a route that leads to a complex of malls. Tourists from as far as Japan arrive in busloads to shop for designer garments by Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren.

Take the highway one early Sunday morning and watch the light out east fill the horizon. Outside the window enjoy the suburbs with their strips of stores flying by. Whizz by the new developments of housing springing out farmland. Pass through the scrub of pinelands. By now Exit 70 will have arrived, then 71, then 72, and with it, signs that announce the highway's terminus. Even so, it arrives suddenly and simply expires.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


As I wonder about the histories of the buildings around me, I wonder, too, about my 2nd-floor apartment on 35th Street. I know it was built before World War I because of the carved wooden moldings lining its top, still preserved. And, as added proof, my neighbor above said he found newspapers buried in the walls he was tearing down. They were dated 1911.

It has an odd layout, this railroad apartment with two inside windows. The panes are no longer there, but their pulleys remain. Other windows, looking out at the staircase, have been boarded up. And a doorway, too. And so I muse. What did they need the windows? Who lived here? Just one or were there two families? Did the apartment look as it does now or was the kitchen once an enclosed porch?

This apartment of a bathroom, kitchen, living room, study and bedroom, has two fireplaces. One is utilitarian in the kitchen, the other, decorated, replete with mantel, in the bedroom that faces out on the street. So perhaps a single family lived here, a luxury, I think, in those years. But what did they do? Who were they? Where did they go?

An older resident once told me that the first floor was once a hardware store. So perhaps they managed the hardware store. Perhaps two families lived in this building, one on my floor, one above.

When I moved in, I saw rows of sewing machines in the space below. A few years later, the landlord emptied them out and converted it into a rough loft. Karmic for one set of neighbors who moved in. She was a dress designer.

Laundry would have hung across the backyard, as our neighbor's still does. And beneath, on the floor where our garden is, the outhouse. As for winters, surely colder than the ones we enjoy now, I cannot fathom.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ten Rows In

Stickball in Blissville was played on an empty block by the cemetery, close enough so mothers could watch over, far enough to give the players a sense of freedom.

A home run, as Bobby Czartoryski explained to me in an email, was when the ball was hit so hard it went ten rows into the cemetery. It took several boys to lift one over the wall to fetch the ball. Bobby is one of the old-timers still living here.

November tenth marks a reunion, the first of its kind, for residents of Blissville during the 1940s, 50s, 60s and any other epoch. It will be held at what was once the Old Bradley's Inn. I once photographed, simply by coincidence, a man whose father once owned the inn. He remembers a childhood of Christmases there, marked by watching his father stuff a paper bag with money, under the counter and ready for when the police came by.

His father finally sold the inn. By the time I moved here it was the Cork Lounge where ceilis were danced and potatoes were grown in the tiny backyard behind the kitchen. Now it's the Bantry Bay Publick House. Little is changed inside from the days of the old Cork, but now they serve a shepherd's pie more divine than words could describe. These are the marks of time in Blissville.

Monday, October 15, 2007

All in a Name

Found on Van Dam, on a house whose ivy obscured the laundry hanging in the Sunday sun.

Monday, October 08, 2007


Why should Blissville be immune to the changes elsewhere in the city and beyond? Where once it supported a tannery, several lumberyards, a shipyard and a bevy of cemetery workers, today its buildings and lots have been converted into storage spaces.

Some buildings have been turned into storage rooms. Just $50 a month, they advertise across their fronts. Other lots hold scaffolding equipment. Still others, cars. Further afield but still in the neighborhood, scrap yards. As one empties out, another takes its place.

But for how long? In a year – or two, or three – new buildings will go up in their places. Maybe they promise new apartments or lofts. Maybe more hotels. But either way, they'll crowd the skyline and our streets, too.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Edible. And Recommended.

Not many ornamental cabbages grace the fronts in Blissville, thankfully. When they first appeared decades ago, I had hoped at least that they were edible. When people told me they weren't, I liked them less.

But now we have Google, and a search reveals that they are indeed edible, though tough with a strong flavor.

I am hardly the "Wildman Steve Brill," seeking out wild delicacies and medicinal plants at the city's fringes. But along the fence to the Best Western City Motel I did find flowers of promise. They covered the yews that grow in planters, and so I imagine they were sown incidentally, by a bird or the wind.

They are hardy plants, taking root between the cracks of the macadam. Give them another month, and they'll produce winter squash. But for now, I'm content to pick the cherry tomatoes living among their leaves.

Monday, October 01, 2007


One evening we found ourselves in the same neighborhood bar, Evelyn, Tito and I. Tito told me it had been her arm in the open window at the Skyline office.

Evelyn didn't know about this blog. But she wanted me to know about her. And so she began.

Almost twenty years ago, in another epoch, she worked at home, the mother of three children. She lived on public assistance. She had never worked for anyone else. Her older sister Mercedes was the one with a job. Mercedes worked at Skyline .

I always wonder: why does change happen when it happens? One day Evelyn told her sister she'd had enough. She was sick of being on public assistance. She wanted to turn her life around. She wanted a job.

Mercedes found her a job at Skyline. It must have been difficult in the beginning. Evelyn had so much catching up to do. She'd never worked in an office. There were phones and computers to learn. She had to see to all the impatient personalities who passed through, fetching what they needed when they needed it. Her day didn't end at Skyline. Each night she had her children to pick up, meals to make, homework to supervise, bedtimes to observe. And then another day.

It's been nineteen years, and Evelyn has done every job at Skyline practically but President, but to be that, she'd need to work as a driver, and she's not interested. I'm sure she could have been one of the people answering my late night call when I was freelancing at a magazine that had a contract with Skyline. She certainly knew enough of my colleagues.

And Evelyn is only 43. But her time at Skyline is almost half a lifetime. She has married, had three more children and then divorced. Her oldest children have children of their own, making Evelyn a grandmother of six. Hard to believe for a woman who looks like she is in her late 30s. Perhaps it's her gratefulness. Her children have jobs, houses and lives of their own, every parent's most cherished hope. Her younger three are making their way through high school.

Tito and I left her at the bar and took a turn around the neighborhood walking off the sandwich and shepherd's pie we had just eaten. At that hour most houses were dark. We walked up one street and down another. I pointed out to him the house I'd spotted for sale, where I'd peeked through the broken window to its abandoned rooms. The camera only saw the window that reflected me back.

We turned back and threaded our way back to our block and all its familiar landmarks. First we came to the Skyline parking lot. Then their new building. Then their old one where I'd seen Evelyn's arm. Tito paused in front of the next building. We were four doors away from our own building. "This is where Evelyn lives."