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As I start my new job here at BMCC, I can't help but feel as if I am returning after thirty years. It was in 1982, 28 years ago, that I graduated from P.S. 234, the Independence School, at the end of 5th grade. My morning walk from the train to my office at BMCC today passes the drop-off point for the school bus I took every morning from Greenwich Village to Greenwich Street.
Tribeca was a different neighborhood back then. De-industrialization had left this thriving commercial neighborhood with numerous piers on the Hudson virtually an empty shell. Dark warehouses and loading docks piqued the curiosity of the elementary-school student traveling in and out every day. Independence Plaza--designed as an attempt to remake the neighborhood as a residential gem--was more of a dangerous housing project than an urban oasis.
And of course, there were the twins. Recently completed--but for all I knew as a seven-year-old, longstanding fixtures--these two shining edifices of glass and steel represented the anchor of a neighborhood desperately trying to recover. Strength amidst squalor. How excited I was--we all were--when the school bus driver would ask, on a morning with particularly light traffic, if we wanted to go see them! Instead of turning on Harrison Street, he'd stay on the West Side Highway--then a dark nest of drugs and prostitution under the old viaduct--and pass the gleaming World Trade Center, the "twin towers," before making a U-turn at Battery Park.
But most mornings were mundane--in a Greenwich Village sort of mundaneity. My stop was on University Place and East 13th Street. There was a corner deli where I learned to steal candy and subsequently learned not to steal candy--still there, with different owners--and there was a second-floor window where a fat man would parade around naked--also still there, but presumably with a different tenant. Stromboli Pizza--which we called Amadeo's after the boxer-turned restaurateur who owned it and made every pizza by hand, flipping the dough in the air--is also still there, but Amadeo himself is long gone. (His picture remains, but the owners are not related.)
We'd line up and board the bus and it would take us south on University Place--University was a two-way street then, and New York University then gave as much to the neighborhood as it took--then around Washington Square Park and down LaGuardia Place into Soho. Then it was west on Broome and north on Hudson to drop off the P.S. 3 students and pick up my friend Uri Feiner, who today is godfather to my daughter. Then West on Christopher to the West Side Highway. Finally, east on Harrison and south on Greenwich to what was originally called P.S. 3 Annex, a small elementary school at the top of what seemed like an incredibly long flight of stairs to a plaza with a playground beside a very tall building.
Mundane also meant an early exposure to Pink Floyd. The driver blasted The Wall--that paean to adolescent male angst--and the whole bus would sing along in the afternoons when he'd reach "Another Brick in the Wall, Part Two." Our favorite line, naturally, was "We don't need no education."
One day, during recess, Shawn Adams and I took advantage of the lax security among our teachers, and ran off along the promenade on Independence Plaza's western edge, crossing above Harrison Street and exiting the Plaza at Franklin Street for an unsupervised slice of pizza and a turn or three at "Space Invaders" or "Asteroids." The pizzeria may have also had a bar; it was certainly dark, and knowing what I now know about the neighborhood then, I consider us lucky to have gotten back to school unscathed, let alone our absence undetected.
One horrible morning, Etan Patz didn't get on the bus. His stop was on West Broadway and Prince Street. We weren't friends; he was one year behind me, and a year is huge in elementary school. But everyone on the bus soon knew just about everything there seemed to be to know about him, with pictures plastered all over downtown Manhattan. And after that, one of my parents always walked me to the bus stop.
Graduation came in 1982 and it was off to junior high without a second thought. High school, military service, my twenties, college and graduate school, all have come and gone without visits to Independence Plaza. I've sped by many times on West Street--now without the viaduct--towards the battery--now without the twins.
After thirty years, Tribeca is a different place. Yes, Independence Plaza and the warehouse buildings are still here, but the Plaza is now the posh urban oasis its builders envisioned--and far too expensive for a BMCC professor. The warehouses, however, are more accessible, with trendy restaurants, bars, and coffee houses. The piers have been replaced by the World Financial Center and Stuyvesant High School. There's less room for imagination, but there's also less danger.
I'm glad to be back.