I’ve seen that child before, a boy of 10 or 12 in suspenders and a newsboy cap. He plays the cello. He rides a unicycle. Once I saw him in a sycamore in Abingdon Square, a sliver of a park in Manhattan’s West Village. Once I saw him in a tree outside my window.
The far west end of Christopher Street has been the site of a 16th-century Lenape settlement called Sapokanican, a 17th-century Dutch tobacco farm called Bossen Bouwerie, an 18th-century prison called Newgate, and a 19th-century market called Weehawken. To approach Christopher Street Pier, one passes a Catholic church founded in 1887 and dedicated to Our Lady of Quinché. A Golden Wok stands near Oelhaf and Meier’s Marine Repair Shop, closed since 1984. At the corner of Christopher and West Streets, one reaches the site of the Badlands, once a men’s erotic video store, now shuttered and festooned with graffiti: THEOSOPHICAL DEGRADATION!
Not far from these artifacts of old New York stand the work of another Meier: three new glass towers line the river, one of them home to Perry Street, the westernmost arm of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s New York City empire. (The restaurant closed for four months due to damage from Hurricane Sandy, when flood waters rose all the way to Washington Street.) Looming still newer over the tiny Weehawken Street Historic District stands 150 Charles, the 15-story Witkoff Group tower-in-progress, a steel frame dominated by a yellow crane. Linking old and new is Rockbar, a nightclub advertising a RuPaul drag night and a Bear Meat dance party: you can hear the Wild Cherry pumping as you pass by.
On the first warm evening of 2014, the pier, for months the sole province of intrepid joggers, dog-walkers, and German tourists, suddenly came to life. Under the bare elms closest to the Port-a-Potties, a young transwoman with a boom box played “Rapper’s Delight” for one cluster of friends, while on the short dead grass enclosed by the boardwalk, a young shirtless man with a guitar played “Wonderwall” for another. Two men in black ponytails approached two beauties, each with a magnificent head of curls: one pink, one green. An elderly Asian American woman slumbered in the sun.
Toward the far end of the pier stood the white canvas canopy that in summer months offers shade to a sunset tango class. Up in the canopy, some 12 feet overhead, a human figure swung one-handed from strut to strut like Tarzan, a dark cutout swooping against the evening sky. “Hey, Spidey,” I said aloud.
At the end of the pier, the old ferry building across the river squatted as it had for decades, still bearing its legend: LACKAWANNA. A man fished, dwarfed by the glass towers of Jersey City. As if waving at the Verrazano Bridge, the Statue of Liberty brandished a bare arm, as did a tall African American woman tickling her short white boyfriend nearby. Two women looked south towards Lower Manhattan. “If they’re finished with the Freedom Tower,” one asked, “why does it still look like it’s got scaffolding up one side?” The water taxi roared by, churning the river into foam.
Turning my back on the Hudson, I approached the canopy—and its arachnid daredevil—once again. Except this time, the boy wasn’t backlit, so I recognized him. This time, I spotted it, lying on the boardwalk beneath him: the unicycle.
This piece is the first in Public Streets, a series of observations on urban life curated by the novelist Ellis Avery.