Anchoring the Corner

I've lived on the same block in Greenwich Village nearly all my life and for a good part of it next door to Annie Leibowitz. So when the cat that anchored the front of the house disappeared, I knew something was up. It probably sensed Annie was selling up and left first.

Neither the neighbors nor myself ever spoke with Annie. Though we'd see her regally depart with her children and dog in a chauffer driven "four by four," she wasn't the kind of woman you felt free to greet. Yet I kept my eye on her, because she had bought my old friend, Mr. Wall's compound.

Mr. Wall had owned the 19th Century set of three attached brownstones and a tiny one-room-wide annex, unified by a walled garden and a gate for many years. Everyone believed him to be a ship captain. For no matter the weather, he wore a captain's hat as he swept out front day after day, whether the sidewalk needed it or not.

Rumor had it Mr. Wall bought the houses before the War. Some said he was in the Navy, hence the hat. But what mattered most to me when I left my parents to come to the Village was that I was living next door to a compound of unparallelled beauty and safety.

This was the late '60s when Hudson Street was a DMZ zone separating the 'real' Greenwich Village from the dangerous waterfront of Irish, yes Irish, gangs. Now that's all changed, what with Julian Schnabel's piazza just down the block and the Richard Meier buildings down on the river.

When Mr. Wall settled on the corner of West 11th and Greenwich, no one wanted to live here. He was an urban pioneer. You might say that Annie Leibowitz bought Mr. Wall's dream.

Despite the bargain she got by purchasing the property from New York State after Mr. Wall died intestate, despite the huzzera she wrought by illegally taking down retaining walls and supposedly interfering with gas lines, despite all the ill-will she incurred, to her credit Annie Leibowitz retained the look of Mr. Wall's dream, right down to the last sprig of ivy.

Now that she's gone, that's what I'll miss most -- the comforting look of those ivy covered houses anchoring the corner. I worry the new owners will change everything. Even abiding by the guidelines of the Greenwich Village Society For Historic Preservation, new owners change things to make a house their own.

Consciously or unconsciously people gain comfort in the familiar. Merely passing by and seeing that cat hiding in the ivy gave pleasure, as did watching Annie's cook preparing dinner in the annex, in full view of the street.

People take comfort in the collective memory of the past. Glancing at these houses looking just the way they did when 11th Street was called Hammond, and there was an elevated train running up Greenwich, imparts a sense of belonging to my neighborhood.

I don't know who has bought Mr. Wall's compound, as I still call it. I'd like them to be sensitive to the past. I wish them well and hope they come to realize their compound anchors a corner of memory. I also hope they'll get a cat, and not cut down the ivy.