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The sky and windows (295 of them) glow blue, as if one signals the other. Twilight above and televisions within.

The 295 windows peer into seven floors of apartments. First built in 1884, with 40 units of eight rooms each. Demolished. Rebuilt in 1926 with almost 80 much smaller units — this time, half studios and half one-bedrooms.

When this neighborhood was designated a New York City Landmark, its story was this:

It was once exquisite. (“. . . with many excellent buildings.”)

Then, it was less-than-exquisite. (“. . . with the advent of apartment houses and the infiltration of rooming houses.”)

But it came back. (“. . . a remarkable renaissance.”)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission attributed this renaissance (between 1955 and 1965) to an influx of young couples, many of whom enthusiastically restored houses back into individual residences, presumably for the sake of their young families.

The 295-window building was an example of just what Landmarks suggested had ruined the neighborhood — not only was it an apartment house; in its rebuilt form, it made less, not more, space for young and enthusiastic families. With 80 studios and one-bedrooms anew, it welcomed more not-families than families.

“Infiltrating,” they said? Today, in the midst of a pandemic, it is invigorating.

As daylight slumbers, the 295 windows rouse. Blue rectangles say someone is home. Someone is watching. Watching television, but watching nonetheless. The watchful have dwindled here: the exquisite neighborhood saw almost half of its residents flee in 2020. Which half? Dancing blue lights suggest it was not the not-families.

The watchful stayed. Flickering televisions mark their stay, more so than an LED or an incandescent. Those still-white-and-yellow lights are loiterers, void of action. Television, however, boldly calls for action: its dancing light an invitation to take part in a collective. When the world is so blue (the feeling), seeing blue (television light) signals participation. More than ever, participation — sharing, involvement, membership — is a savior, loudly crying out, “I. AM. HERE.”

The crying watchful are very much not-families here. Their inverse, families once abundant in youth and enthusiasm, supposedly saved this place. Nonetheless, not-families remain behind the blue windows, despite their menacing tendency to infiltrate. The glaring subtext in the neighborhood’s narrative is that their status is somehow an inferior one. Their presence, their mere existence, inviting that less-than-exquisite appeal.

These times suggest otherwise. It turns out that exquisiteness was misunderstood as simply an appeal. A look. Unroused. Dark. No participation. No sharing, no involvement, no membership. All flight. No fight.

Watch.

The sky dims.

Watch.

The windows only grow brighter.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.

Series

Whereabouts

We’ve grown used to things being strange. And to things being very familiar. A series of short texts by architect and writer Neena Verma on the ins and outs of our whereabouts.