About the author: Gardiner Comfort is an actor and teacher who grew up in a loft in Tribeca [above]. He graduated from Brooklyn Friends School, Skidmore College, and then the American Repertory Theater’s Acting Institute at Harvard. He curates a monthly night of new work at the Parkside Lounge on the Lower East Side and finds himself performing in Shakespeare plays more than anything other type. He lives with his wife in Harlem.
When I’m walking through New York, I spend a lot of time going out of my way to notice little details on buildings and in streets. Sometimes I’ll stand and stare at a wrought-iron fixture in a brick wall and try to understand what it’s for. Or I’ll find myself marveling at manhole covers or the way a sidewalk crumbles into the street. I especially like finding elements of old New York that are still lying around, rusting away amid all the progress, something the improvement somehow missed. I look at all these things with a longing and a sense that I’m recording them, because I know they will be short lived. They too will undergo renovation.
I’m a serious nostalgist, and I have trouble letting go of times gone by. I guess that growing up in a neighborhood like Tribeca makes it all the harder. Even when I was born in 1980, the neighborhood was already in flux. Strictly industrial for a very long time, it saw its first residential boom not long before I came onto the scene. Of course, it would be a long time before residents outnumbered industrial spaces but it was quickly becoming a haven for artists, and many residents had young children. And we thought it was all normal: to operate aging freight elevators up to our homes while our parents watched on, or to find petrified lentils in our floors, reminders of the area’s food-storage days. It wouldn’t be long before Tribeca would develop a cachet and sense of mystique for adventurers from north of 14th Street. But no one knew then just how popular and “improved” a neighborhood it would become. The changes are so vast and ever-increasing that it seems all the more important to revel in the memories of the days of yore. The mystique of a desolate industrial landscape seems so out of place with so many people around, crowding into sleek restaurants and high-end stores.
One of the times when I knew everything had gone haywire was maybe 10 years ago, when a truck was loading something into a building on N. Moore. It was using the traditional method of backing directly into the loading dock and jutting out perpendicularly to the street, so that any traffic would have to drive around it—causing chaos and anger in the livery cab and SUV drivers. In the ‘80’s, kids in Tribeca would duck under those trucks to avoid the long trip around them. I recently relayed stories of checking with my mother before doing so to a new Tribeca resident who brusquely expressed that it sounded dangerous.
Another memory of old Tribeca is that of beat-up stairways. Just about every friend I had as a kid lived in a loft building and most of the stairs looked more or less like they had for decades: dimly lit, atrophied, with a long ascent from the street level door straight to the third or fourth floor, an exhausting climb with the occasional break at each floor’s landing. There was always a good deal of artsy decoration at each tenant’s door but my favorite was the treasure my friend Orien lugged up from the street: a four-foot-tall, foot-operated industrial stapler that we would stamp upon entry. Such a find would be unheard of now.
But Tribeca, like all of downtown Manhattan, was once a treasure trove of found objects. I remember getting tons of use out of those massive cardboard fabric tubes that were always lying around, skateboard jousting being a favorite activity. One winter, when people had resorted to standing discarded Christmas trees up in the snow drifts, my mom and I found mannequins on Franklin Street and upped the ante by propping them up as well, as if they were at some surreal, naked Christmas party.
At a certain point in the 90s, at least half of the block surrounding my parents’ house was vacant warehouses, and my friends and I learned that we could access them from our roof. We creeped through spooky, dark spaces and stepped over holes in the floor. I somehow believed that the defunct water tower and shattered skylight were ancient artifacts that shouldn’t be tampered with. I was a kid, and I didn’t believe in change.
In many ways I still don’t. I sometimes laugh at myself for being so stubborn about inevitable changes in this ever-evolving city. The past will never return, no matter what I do. And I imagine people like me hold themselves back with our refusal to accept the reality of change. It could be argued that there is a use for modern street lamps and paved streets. But I know that at least a part of my nostalgia is worthwhile, that there must be something to my constant and desperate recording and remembering, my assuring myself that the past really happened. One day I was in a diner at Chambers and Church and I saw a man I hadn’t seen in the neighborhood for years. He had worked at the hot dog vendor depot in the ground floor space of my old friend Stefan’s loft building, where the proprietor with the Salvador Dalí mustache would sit out front greeting people. Oddly enough, though it’s prime real estate, the space still houses the hot dog garage. I watched the man as he sat at the counter, staring at the exposed kitchen. I might be reading too far into it but he seemed so unfazed by all of the changes around him, comfortable in his place in the world. I wanted to share the moment with someone, to make it live on in some permanent way. But looking around, I saw only strangers. I could only transmit the image to a safe place in my mind, the only spot where the past can truly live.