In college, we used to walk past "the gargoyle building" on our way to V&T's Pizza around the corner, and I would always pause in front of it, look up, sigh, and say, "I want to live there some day."
Times were different then. Nobody well-heeled wanted to live on the Upper West Side, because it was full of sprawling old apartments that had not been kept up, and the streets were full of petty criminals. Musicians lived there, because the walls of the old buildings were thick, and it was near Lincoln Center. Academics lived there, because there was plenty of room for books, and near the university. Immigrants lived there, from big Puerto Rican families in tiny walkups, to widows of Viennese intellectuals who'd come in 1939, to Chinese fleeing Cuba who had restaurants where you could get big plates of spicy picadillo and squid-in-ink sauce and cafe con leche and flan. When I walked to the subway, young men leaning on the corners would hiss, "Hey, chica! Chica!" Some blocks were just not safe, and on the rest, you always kept your wits about you and an eye out for who was nearby. When I graduated from Barnard, I bunked in my Uncle Ron's livingroom for a few weeks, job- and apartment-hunting. Ron, recently divorced, had a 1-BR on W. 95th/Riverside, across the street from some SRO's (Single-Room Occupancy - essentially, flophouses with single rooms that rented by the week to the recently-released mental patients the city decided it didn't have room for, and various other down-and-outers - it was summer, and they spent evenings out on the building's stoops to cool down . . . it was summer, and we kept the windows open, and I'll never forget the night I was awakened around 3 a.m. by a huge booming voice shouting musically from the street: "I . . . am the Lord. . . Your. . . God! And I am very annnnngry with you, my children!" ) When I was in college, my uncle used to walk me back up to Barnard (114th) from there if I visited late. As we walked by the women in short skirts leaning against the drugstore on the corner of 107th he'd nudge me and murmur, "Hey, Ellen! What do you think she does for a living?" His old building has recently become a luxury co-op. And the drugstore now sells high-end sneakers or something. We all lived there because it was cheap.
A friend & I called the gargoyle building's agent, and were shown a 2-bedroom on the back, but the apt's only shower/bath could only be reached through one of the bedrooms, and after some agonizing, we declined and took a tiny walkup on W. 81st off Broadway, right down the street from the old Sesame Street studios, I'm told. At the other end of W. 81st was the Museum of Natural History, but I remember that the 2 blocks between were pretty dicey. What really did us in, though, was the noisy neighbors across the airshaft off her bedroom, and the noisier all-night salsa parties on the stoop of the apt across from mine. In August, in the spirit of "Why not?" we tried the gargoyle building again, and on Sept. 1 moved into a swooping 2-BR on the front courtyard, with an octagonal wood-paneled diningroom (with ceiling beams radiating out from a central carving) plus a little maid's room off the kitchen, where we promptly installed a 3rd roommate, a grad student, to share the $410 rent. (Oh, lordy, when I think of the 2-BR on West End with views of the Hudson that we decided we couldn't afford at $750....! But by then I was working as an editorial assistant at Ace Books, where the starting salary was just under $8,000/year. Loaves of sliced bread, though, sometimes went on sale at 4/$1.) We lived on the 5th floor, left: in the pictures, you can see my corner bedroom (1 window on street, 3-sided one on the courtyard) above the tree.
And there I stayed, with a revolving panoply of roommates (including a boa constrictor and t_windling, though not at the same time), until Gentrification hit even 110th Street, the building went condo, the last remaining roommate & I borrowed the money from our parents to buy at an insider price and then, both having left NYC 2 years later, sold at twice the price - funding my small house in Boston.
And now I'm back in NYC. I still love the pizza at V&T's. And, if you visit me, I'll probably make you go there, and walk my old neighborhood, and stop and look at "my building."
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Here are more great photos of the gargoyles, the building - and a sort-of credible "explanation" that they're telling the story of Chicken Soup!(?) [and you can see my old kitchen/diningroom/maid's room windows on the left half of the front...]