By Robin Jovanovich
My romance with Manhattan began in the 1950s thanks to my grandmothers, both of whom believed that a young girl’s education was incomplete without regular visits to museums and retail emporiums like Best & Company, strolls or carriage rides in Central Park, ice-skating at Wollman Rink, and late afternoon treats at Schrafft’s before taking the train back to Westport.
Starting at age 7, when my parents divorced and my father moved to the city, I spent as many weekends as were legally allowed in Manhattan. My dad and I went everywhere — the Statue of Liberty, the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, where Cary Grant walked gracefully up to me, smiled, and said three little words I’ll never forget, Scribner’s bookstore, Wall Street, Gramercy Park, which was near his family printing business, and even on some of his dates. If the date didn’t mind me tagging along on subsequent engagements, I would encourage my dad to see her again.
I was introduced to classic interior design and fashion by two of my father’s stylish suitors before the age of 10 and started imagining what my first New York apartment would look like, the view it would have, the sounds of the neighborhood at night.
I never imagined a railroad kitchen, roaches darting out when you turned the kitchen light on, unsettling noises emanating from pipes, views of brick walls, unlit hallways with stained carpeting.
But when you’re fresh out of college, going to work early and coming home late to advance beyond the title of proofreader, and can afford cable, you overlook a lot of the unpleasantries of city life. You have a well-thumbed copy of E. B. White’s “Here Is New York” on your cocktail table and are wondering how you get an invite to join The Algonquin Round Table.
My first adult apartment was on the Upper East Side, close to where I lived from the age of 13. I loved Carl Schurz Park and 86th Street, but not my one-step-up-from-tenement abode.
When I got my first real job as an editor, I had enough money to move to the East 50s. Walking to work, I’d pass by Kurt Vonnegut and Katherine Hepburn and celebrated publishers every day. This was the life. I painted the kitchen cabinets and the orange crates that housed my growing library.
After I got married, we moved into a brownstone with a garden. It was the 1970s, rents were low. Everyone wanted to live on the Upper West Side, but not us. We had a big farmhouse kitchen with a fireplace. We built bookshelves under the stairs.
In 1980, we had an opportunity to buy our duplex apartment, but we worried about borrowing $50,000 and being able to pay for nursery school.
We left the city, but not before I explained to my husband that when the kids were out of the house, which took longer than I expected, and we’d saved a bundle, which also took decades, that we’d get a pied-à-terre and spend weekends walking the city, attending art lectures, and brushing up our Shakespeare.
I focused first on Gramercy Park, but snooty board members were adamant about selling to “discerning couples” who were going to live there full-time.
Next stop Tudor City, which was close to Grand Central, charming, and somehow undiscovered. The fact that it was unhip made it ideal. At one of the many gatherings in the building, I met and eventually befriended several residents who had stood on the street to prevent the neighborhood from being razed for urban renewal years earlier.
The walls were so thick in that apartment that it took close to three months for the contractor to break through and start creating a better kitchen. I still miss Louie, the Superintendent, who always showed up and could fix anything.
We let our son and his wife stay at our Tudor City place when they were apartmentless and she was pregnant, which is how we ended up moving out and, six years ago, buying an apartment on Sutton Place South, with a view, admittedly partial, of the East River and the 59th Street Bridge. The apartment needed work; the previous owner was a classic beauty (based on the portrait of her in the living room) but had never cooked a day in her life judging from the non-functioning electric cooktop.
A six-month remodel began, with the same wonderful unknown architect and contractor team we used at Tudor City. I took the elevator up three floors to read on the rooftop garden. We bought a television, but a few weeks later asked the super to pull the wires out of the walls because we wouldn’t have time for television.
The pandemic stopped us in our tracks. Everything closed, except those “original” pizza parlors. No theater, no concerts, no culture.
Manhattan when I was young (the title of a memoir by Mary Cantwell that I’ve never forgotten), was a rare and special place. As I grow old, I miss the New York I knew, the time when I was always looking up so I wouldn’t overlook any part of the architectural skyline. Now, I mostly just keep my head down to avoid the potholes and litter.
I think my dad would be happy to know I returned to the city, where he taught me that the fastest way to get anywhere was to walk, zigzagging to get ahead of the lights. It was our city.