Manhattan's Hidden Village
Bram Lewis stands with his hands sunken deep into his pockets, just outside the wrought iron gates of this unusually sequestered patch of the Upper West Side. He smiles and unlocks the small gate that leads into Pomander Walk, a slice of one of the city’s most heralded neighborhoods that most New Yorkers will never see.
The Walk, as locals call it, is a small English-style mew modeled after the streets of London and named for a romantic comedy by British playwright Louis N. Parker, set on a similar mew. It’s an anomaly for the Upper West Side, or anywhere, really–sixteen Tudor homes wedged into the middle of one city block that stretches from West 94th to 95th Street and Broadway to West End Avenue. Two rows of houses run north to south smack in the middle of the block, facing one other from either side of a car-free walkway. Painted in bright reds, greens and blues with decorative window shutters and miniature gardens, they resemble the cottages of a quaint, sleepy village—the backdrop to a fantastical play about dukes and early European colonies. Perhaps the village in “Downton Abbey.” Enclosed by a stone arch and iron gate at either end, the Walk caters to the fantasies of many passersby while simultaneously squashing them—the half-timbered houses are off-limits to anyone but residents.
Dating to 1922 and originally developed as a placeholder for what businessman Thomas Healy hoped would become a hotel, the Pomander complex encompasses twenty-seven buildings in all, including eleven three-story townhouses in addition to the timber-framed cottages, many of them multi-family now. Healy would never raise enough money to complete his hotel, so the houses of Pomander Walk got their reprieve. Throughout the twentieth century, locals and residents repeatedly fought to preserve Pomander as skyscrapers began to flank the serene inlet, casting shadows of a city too busy to notice.
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The first thing one sees when entering Lewis’ house is the incredible amount of books piled everywhere: on shelves, coffee tables, the floor and the piano. A voracious reader and, like his street’s namesake, a playwright, Lewis offers to take my coat and make me a drink. His home feels far from New York, as if in the suburbs, but somehow familiar, like visiting an old friend for the hundredth time.
Lewis has called Pomander Walk home since the 1970s. After graduating from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where he fell in love with his college sweetheart, Wendy, he moved to New York to pursue a career in theater. Shortly after he arrived, Carlos Goez, a British friend who had lived on the Walk for six years and taught at Riverdale Country Day School, invited Lewis over for dinner to show him the place. Goez was preparing to move back to London at the time.
“I took one look,” Lewis recalls, producing an affable smile, and said “‘Yeah! Great!’”
The rent when he first moved in was $150 a month for a floor-through apartment that is now valued at about $850,000. Similar rentals on the Walk now go for up to $3,200 a month.
“So not only was it pretty, it was cheap,” Lewis says over the incessant crackling that emits from his—and all of his neighbors’—sagging heater pipes. “Even for 1974 that was hysterically cheap.”
For Lewis, who had just turned twenty-one, and Wendy, life inside Pomander’s gates slowed to a mere saunter while their new, chaotic city carried on around them.
“I pinched myself,” says Lewis. He’d moved between seventeen places in London—from cold water flat to cold water flat—and was overjoyed to have instantly found the Walk, with its tranquil atmosphere and tight-knit community of actors and artists, a place he would ultimately live for decades. “I couldn’t believe it.”
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Shaka, a black cat, moseys into the living room from the kitchen, leisurely stretching here and there as she goes. She passes a towering stack of New Yorkermagazines and a side chair made in the Adirondacks out of rough-hewn birch branches, the seat and back caned with bark.
After a final languid stretch, Shaka hops up on the couch, curls on the sofa armrest and begins purring. Across from me, a man named Peter Francis James is sitting with his legs crossed at the ankles, twiddling reading glasses in his outstretched hand.
Minutes before, Lewis had opened his front door and cupped his hands around his mouth to summon James.
“Yo!” he yelled, his eyes beaming at his neighbor across the walk. “Yo, PFJ!”
James, wearing a black t-shirt and a short crop of salt and pepper hair, speaks of life on the Walk as you might speak of your senior year of college. He recalls being a young actor in the ’80s along with Lewis and the others who came and went with the years—as well as those who never left.Lush gardens of perennials, boxwoods, forsythias and roses line the walk between the adjacent two-story cottages. A tandem bicycle rests on its kickstand.
“Occasionally, as a young man, you might return so late that it was actually early, especially in theater in your middle-twenties, which we were,” he says, easing back in time. “And you knew on a Sunday morning they’d be up watching David Brinkley,” he adds, referring to a group of four women who lived on the Walk during that time, and often caught him returning home early in the morning.
“To be clever, you’d get a Sunday New York Times under your arms as if you’d gone out for the paper. I remember thinking this worked brilliantly,” James says.“Well, good morning. I see you have the paper,” one of them, a head nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital, would say. “How nice that it didn’t cost a roundtrip!”
James lurches forward, drowning out the sound of the heating pipes with a baritone laugh. A professor at the Yale School of Drama, he moved to the Walk shortly after Lewis in the early ’80s. He’d stayed with Lewis, whom he’d known for some time, before moving in to Lewis’ upstairs apartment for three years. Then, after leasing his own house on the Walk for ten years, James finally bought his own place and moved in 1992—all the way to the other side of the mew. This exchange of buildings is common among residents here, who have no formal neighborhood association but plenty of informalities to live by.
James’ windows are closed now, but if they weren’t his laugh would surely echo throughout the Walk, spilling into the open window of Priscilla Clickstein’s kitchen a few houses over.
“I lived on the Upper West Side for many years,” says Clickstein, over a now-familiar sound emanating from her walls. (“The banging,” according to James, may be a result of the complex’s horizontal layout, with adjacent buildings connected to the same heating system.)
“When I was on 93rd Street I would walk by Pomander Walk and say ‘Someday, I’m gonna live there,” remembers Clicksten. “Someday.”
She knew it wasn’t a very realistic dream, having heard that houses here are usually passed along through family lines, or among friends like James and Lewis. So she moved downtown to Chelsea, until one day in ’93, right after the blizzard known as the Storm of the Century, her husband phoned, asking her to meet him on the corner of 94th and Broadway right away. Stan had a surprise.
“We’re just going to go down the block,” he told Clickstein, leading her toward Pomander, where he rang the bell at the front gate. The couple occupying the house in question had a baby and longed for a bigger home than their eight hundred square foot abode. The Clicksteins moved in shortly after.
After two years of renting they purchased the house, though the quiet and peaceful community would soon butt heads with building contractors and city officials—a not uncommon occurrence for the oft-embattled Walk.
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The trouble began with the Symphony Space performing arts center at Broadway and West 95th Street, which, in the early ’80s, was being hawk-eyed by developers as it struggled to stay out of the red. Many hoped to tear it down and build condos, and a complex land grab ensued.
The theater, like Pomander Walk, was once owned by Healy, the businessman, and then Broadwest Realty Corporation, until it and the properties along the Walk were sold as a packaged deal in the summer of 1981. They ended up in the hands of developer Bradford N. Swett and Pergola Properties as part of a $4.8 million deal.
The Associated Press reported at the time that Pomander residents were in an uproar and frightened that “Swett sees not a charming enclave, but an underutilized lot with too many rent-controlled tenants.” (Under city law, rent control—ordinances that control the price of housing rent—applies to tenants who have lived continuously in the same unit since 1971 or earlier in pre-war buildings.)
Swett, who said he only wanted to sell the attached townhouses individually, not tear them down, argued that the residences were separate homes, more like individual row houses than one single apartment complex. Under the city’s rent law, if a building has three or fewer tenants, then it’s not subject to the rent control or rent stabilization laws that govern larger apartment buildings.
True to Upper West Side fashion, the Walk’s ninety-seven tenants eventually banded together and successfully lobbied for city landmark status, which Pomander Walk received in 1982. But what really saved them was the clanking nuisance—at least to the untrained ear—that is still heard today.
In order for the residences to be considered official townhouses, each would need its own separate boilers and water units. This wasn’t the case for the Walk, which was technically built as an apartment building that lays flat. A single heating system ran from 95th Street through one row of houses, then looped back around the other row, all serviced by the same boiler.
The tenants’ fight would continue, though, as they also sought to stop the skyscraper planned to rise at the Symphony Space site.
”I have had all my neighbors say to me, ‘I’ll never go into Symphony Space again,” Stan Clickstein told The New York Times in 1999. ”We’re outraged. We feel violated. And we feel there’s nothing we can do because they’re building as of right.”
Stan was right. That year, seventeen stories’ worth of apartments would arrive atop the space, casting their long, modern shadow over the formerly sunny enclave.
* * *
Verna Pierce, a Jersey-born stage actress with captivating wide eyes, and her husband Steve Cowie, a stoutly Texas native and set builder for “Saturday Night Live,” are sitting on a couch in Lewis’ apartment. The mid-November day is crippled by rain and light flurries that leave a glow about the Walk and a slight calm unknown since the first snowfall three weeks prior.
True Winter has yet to blanket Pomander Walk, but Christmas lights and wreaths are festively strewn across building fronts. The surprising shimmer of lights visible through the locked gates reliably catches the gazes of passersby, some of whom stop to ask if they can come in. Of course, they may not. As the gate clicks shut, the city withdraws. The traffic and busy streets outside are virtually undetectable.
“Even though the city is all around you, it’s amazing what an effective illusion it is when you walk in the gate,” says Cowie, sipping a beer he’s just opened.
“You fall in love with it,” Verna happily chimes in. “People just fall in love with this or they hate it. I have friends who say ‘You live there? It’s so small.’ So they don’t get the idea that it’s a village. It’s not like the city; you’re really in the county. It’s like being in a small town.”
Minutes, then hours, pass, filled with stories about life on the Walk.
“Peter James always used to have this love of the greasiest, most terrible, most unhealthful food,” Lewis begins, settling into his chair. “He would call up at, like, two o’clock in the morning on his way home from a show and say,”—here Lewis imitates James’ booming voice—“‘Lewis, Lewis! I’m on my way home. I’m at Taco Ricos. You want me to pick you up a burrito?’”
“And I’d say, ‘No, James, that’s such a health trap. You’re gonna die; you’re never gonna make it to thirty. Give me a break.’”
“‘No, no, no, you don’t understand!’ he’d reply. “‘It’s the best food. With the cockroaches – it’s even better!’”
The next day, Lewis relates, he got another frantic call from James. Finally, very early one morning, Lewis says, James made a similar call—and Lewis gave his usual response—but this time the Tex-Mex fanatic was frantic.
“No, no, no! You don’t understand,” James said on the other end of the line. “They shut down Taco Rico. It’s the end of the neighborhood!”
In the end, they all blur together—tales of weddings, blackouts, fires, and cockroach burritos–resting snuggly between the two gates on either end of the path called Pomander Walk.
Late that autumn night, a brisk chill nips down the Walk from the gate at the south end and breezes past the cozy green gardener’s shed that resembles the cottages surrounding it. But before it flies out the exit on the other side, it passes a small sign dangling from one resident’s door—a serious reminder to all who live here, all who ever have, and all who ever will, just what it means to leave Pomander Walk: “Gone to Town.”
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Emon Hassan, Narratively's multimedia editor, is a photographer and filmmaker based in NYC. He is a contributor toThe New York Times and The Atlantic and his work has appeared on BBC, Einestages,The Washington Post and PBS. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.