Coordinates

Last year, in conjunction with a pair of exhibitions considering the past, present and future of Manhattan’s street grid co-organized by the Museum of the City of New York and the Architectural League, we announced an essay competition for non-fiction writing inspired by the grid “as paradigm, rubric or muse for urban life.” The exhibition on the history and evolution of the grid is on view at MCNY through July 15, and the eight speculative visions included in The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan (which recently closed) will be available on the League’s website later this week. Here, we offer an opportunity to consider our present-day connection to Manhattan’s grid in “Coordinates” by Annie Choi, one of the runners-up of the essay competition. In the winning essay, “Transgressing the Grid: Adventures On (and Off) Manhattan Island,” Philip Kay presented a series of anecdotes and personal memories that chart a childhood, adolescence and adulthood spent embracing and challenging the grid. In “The Grid and Its Guises,” runner-up Aaron White considered our collective fascination with and constant desire to interpret the grid through a more formal analysis of its myth. In “Coordinates,” Annie Choi takes us on a neighborhood stroll that reveals, in simple and lighthearted fashion, the grid’s subtle influence on our everyday experience of the city.

V.S.

Start at my apartment, a rent-stabilized tenement in a nice part of town. The building is pre-war. Not sure which war, so you can choose whatever war you’d like. I prefer the Second Seminole War myself. Photos by Leni Riefenstahl are hung up in the hallway, I guess because someone wanted to make the building look nice and, in addition, remind you of Nazis.

If you walk a block west, you’ll find a little French bakery with a yellow awning. They make buttery, flakey, crusty, slightly sweet, slightly salty croissants. You eat one and forget everything; the croissants make you stupid.

If you walk a block north, you’ll find a park with a pool. On oppressive summer nights, able bodies scale the fence and take a dip. It’s refreshing, until you remember that during the day hundreds of children kamikaze into the pool and pee in the water. We are, after all, 60% water.

The Law & Order franchise has filmed many episodes in this park. The detectives have found three hundred and twenty-two dead bodies there. This number is approximate.

A good friend lives in the apartment building down the block, next to a café that caught on fire last year. I always look up to see if a light is on in his apartment. Sometimes we run into each other on the street and grab an empanada from the guy who hits on every girl who comes into the joint. “You are too beautiful to have a boyfriend.”

Up the block there’s a store that sells rings made of horn. Buffalo horn. That means the eight and a half buffalo left in North America have no horns. But there’s good news — the rings are pretty.

Two blocks west there’s a deli, open 24 hours. It’s owned and operated by a family of elderly Koreans. You pay for a bagel with a five, and the cashier says, “You change is three hundred dollar!” If you are Korean or a regular — and I am both — you get free chocolate. It’s a horrible deli if you hate free candy.

Across the street is a restaurant that specializes in vegan food. Judging by the smell, I’d say it only serves celery.

A block east of that is a trendy restaurant and bar that serves teensy oyster sandwiches and martinis with pickled ramps. I bought music equipment from the executive chef. He makes beats for rappers on his free time.

Walk one block west and one block north, you’ll find a store that sells fresh mozzarella, hand-pulled and plastic-wrapped into little white bocce balls. Out front, two old Italian men sit on plastic lawn chairs, which are chained to a gate. They bicker a lot, or maybe they just seem like they’re bickering because they’re mostly deaf. The shop has handwritten signs yellowed with age, a warped tin ceiling, and peeling linoleum floors. If you ask why there’s a UV light in the store, you will not get an answer.

Across the street is a tiny closet of a pasta restaurant. The week before a friend moved to California we ate there to say goodbye. He finished his plate, my plate, and then ordered another. California has since made him soft.

Three doors south is a hair salon that looks like a punk gothic bordello tripping balls on acid.

If you walk a few blocks north, near a Jamaican snack counter, you’ll see a psychic. She sits, patiently, next to her crystal ball, as though she’s waiting for something to happen. Sometimes she listens to the baseball game.

Now you’ve reached a corner found in nearly every part of the city: Duane Reade on one side, Citibank on the other, a subpar pizza joint, a bar with lousy music (think Bon Jovi, but without irony), a dry cleaner, and a homeless guy sitting on a box. This one is the nice guy. There’s another, less nice guy who declares, “Chinks never give change.”

On the third floor of a building nearby there’s a nail salon. Everyone in the neighborhood seems to agree that it’s a house of ill repute. I don’t know anyone who has taken advantage of the services, but everyone can’t possibly be wrong.

There’s a cantina two blocks east that has a banner for Cinco de Mayo festooned on their wall. It’s up all year long. Every day is Cinco de Mayo.

Around the corner, there’s a famous restaurant, helmed by a celebrity chef. It was the hot spot for exactly two days and now everyone agrees it’s “only OK, and kind of expensive for what you get.” Again, everyone can’t possibly be wrong.

Next door is a popular sushi place that doesn’t take credit cards. There’s an ATM on the street that always has a line. The transaction fee is $4.00, the highest I’ve seen so far.

If you want to buy a purse or stroller to carry your dog, let me know. There are a few in the area. I will make fun of you though.

There was once a bookstore, but it’s now gone.

The pleasant smell of fresh laundry hovers around the Fidelity Investments.

If you walk two blocks south and two blocks west, or if you walk two blocks west and two blocks south, you’ll reach a community garden. It’s small, but packed with pansies, marigolds, oregano, rosemary, and a concrete birdbath with a fairy on it. On the weekends, gardeners come and pick the Corona bottles and cigarette butts out of their beds.

I saw Owen Wilson and Matthew Broderick near there, but not at the same time. They are shorter in real life. Lou Reed smells like patchouli. I’m disappointed too.

Just a few blocks away is the subway station where I stepped in vomit last month. Note: this is not the 50th Street C/E station, where I have also stepped in vomit, nor is it Penn Station stop, where I stepped in vomit. I understand now that the 8th Avenue line is a favorite among those who like to vomit. Also, I need to look where I step.

One block north, there’s the gelato place where my friends got engaged. He bought them cones and then went down on one knee.

My office is exactly two blocks west and twenty-five blocks north of my apartment. Riding the subway, it takes twelve minutes door-to-door, but I prefer to walk.

All photos by Annie Choi. 

Annie Choi is the author of Happy Birthday or Whatever (HarperCollins). Her work has appeared in White Zinfandel, the New Museum’s The Last Newspaper, and Pidgin Magazine, among others. Her second book will be published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in 2013. Her blog is at annietown.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.



2 Responses to “Coordinates”

  1. Karina says:

    This essay is lovely. I miss New York. I miss Annie more.

  2. Jon says:

    After reading this I’m not sure if you were telling us a little about alot or alot about a little. Either way I had fun!

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