Dispatches: Crosby Street

Why do I love Crosby Street?  It inspires in me the kind of preference I remember having as a kid for lucky talismans, strange everyday objects I became attached to and took with me: I have a sentimental feeling of loyalty when contemplating it.  Streets go to work with their parallel neighbors and perpendicular interceptors, sharing affinities and sometimes friendships.  Crosby is friends, in my mind, with Howard Street, and Grand.  It’s cordial with the slightly tony Prince, affable with Mott.  With Houston, it forms a strangely superfluous intersection.  To its grander parallel neighbors, Broadway and Lafayette, it functions as the humble employee, the service road, or the mews, maintaining their emporia’s delivery entrances and fire escapes. 

Those fire escapes: Crosby retains, more than any other street besides perhaps Greene, the trademark look of Soho, all cobbles and rickety rusty iron-rung ladders.  Because so much of it is back entrances, there’s very little flash, and the traffic is mostly of the type given to handcarts and freight elevators.  Its sidewalks meld quickly into metal plates and loading docks.  Food is delivered to Dean and Deluca, which leaves its refuse on Crosby so as not to put off the paying customers with the smell – even when Broadway is at its most oppressively populated, on summer Saturdays, Crosby’s quiet.  Crosby’s an honest street like that. 

Yet there is grandeur, too.  At the very top of the street, at Bleeker, lies the Bayard-Conduit building, New York City’s only work by Louis “Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor” Sullivan, complete with gorgeously ornate plaster facade.  Growing up in Buffalo my favorite building was always Sullivan’s red Guaranty, and I always like glancing up Crosby at its fairer sibling.  To be a little mythopoetic about it, it makes my life trajectory seem more continuous.  But that’s not the main reason for my liking Crosby; if anything, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

No, Crosby’s appeal lies in its steadfast resistance to being pedestrianized, mallified, the way every other street in Soho has – except maybe Wooster below Grand, where street art sanctifies wrecked facades.  Crosby is a living, working street.  The Housing Works used bookstore is nice, but next door the Housing Works itself conserves some of New York’s social diversity.  Where once Houston Street was peppered with gas stations, the only one left is at Crosby.  Accordingly, the Lahore Deli across from it is a permanent cabbie break, and one with excellent samosas, chicken patties and tea with cardamom (which I guess some might redundantly call “chai” tea). 

An alley-ish street, Crosby also crosses one of the most beautiful New York alleys north of Canal: Jersey Street, connecting to Mulberry.  Balancing my chicken patty on my teacup lid, I often look through to the back of the Puck Building, with its beautiful pink iron window shutters.  Back when Keith Haring’s Pop Shop felt like an arty outpost in the dystopia below Houston, the alley had more life: people practically squatted there.  Now it’s free of the homeless and the Pop Shop was too lowbrow to survive next to Triple Five Soul’s seventy-dollar hoodies.  But Crosby has not gone that way completely, yet.  Either that or it has, in a more complicated way.

Crosby Street is both what it is and a stage set at once.  It is a working street of deliveries and tea breaks, recalling an earlier downtown, but that very appearance makes it more desirable as real estate for the wealthy.  Because of its untimeliness, it’s a magnet for loft-dwellers, their places’ value concealed by the tasteful disorder of the street itself.  Some of the most expensive and celebrity-filled co-ops in the city are here.  For these residents, Crosby’s anonymity provides both relief from the paparazzi and a satisfying, faux-hemian sense of keeping it real. 

This may be the time to bring up the great postmodern institution at Crosby and Spring: Balthazar.  Opened in 1997, most first-time visitors would be more likely to guess 1897, so successfully has Keith McNally’s ready-aged restaurant settled in.  At first, it seemed ridiculously contrived, a Parisian brasserie-fantastique composed of cracked mirrors and stained teak, the walls painted the perfect shade of nictotine.  The bathroom attendants were a particularly audacious touch.  Yet over time, Balthazar started to seem less inauthentic, especially by comparison to *actual* classic Parisian brasseries, La Coupole and Brasserie Nord, now owned by the conglomerate that runs the sterile European steakhouse chain Chez Gerrard.  The food’s good, if too buttery (the one false note, like they’re trying too hard), the bakery is just excellent, and the restaurant repopularized of the plateau de fruit de mer.  It’s a set, but one so well art-directed that it makes you question whether no art direction is just one more form of art direction.

Given Balthazar’s confused relation to reality, it makes sense, then, that it’s located on Crosby, which returns me to the question: why do I love Crosby Street?        After all, the things I mention–working life, humility, unreconstructed looks–are things that make it out of place in its neighborhood.  Am I nostalgically romanticizing the street?  Making New York’s industrial past the pastoral idyll and its current incarnation the debased present?  What kind of ethnographer’s lens am I looking through, approving the signs of labor and deprecating idle wealth? 

I don’t want to be the Wordsworth of Crosby Street, endlessly bemoaning lost authenticity.  I just know it will be a more boring city if Crosby turns into Mercer.  And, economically, it makes good sense for me to hope places like the Lahore Deli stick around – I can’t afford their replacements.  And what’s important about Crosby Street is that it renders a diversity that in other places is largely hidden.  Fulton Street Fish Market, like La Pigalle and Covent Garden before it, has been outsourced.  Now it’s free to become another museum.  But we’re poorer for it, culturally.  Likewise, Keith McNally, who hastened the demise of the old Meatpacking District with Pastis, once laughably remarked that he wanted it to be the kind of place where meatpackers might pop in for a croque monsieur and a café au lait.  Sure, Keith, sure.  But I understand his impulse.