In early 1993, I was recruited to do some reporting by an old colleague from LIFE Magazine who had just started editing the alumni periodical for Cooper Union, the elite art, engineering and architecture college located on Astor Place. The school had just built its first dormitory in its 133 year existence, a brown, priapic sliver that sprouted up over St. Marks Place. At the time, the dorm was a source of conflict in the East Village community. Its looming height and artless, utilitarian style were entirely at odds with the aesthetic, character and architectural integrity of its East Village environs, and the natives balked at its builders' blithe disregard.
My assignment was to spend a week living in the new dorm. I was to mix and mingle with the student body and get a taste of the experience of the revered school's first foray into on-campus living. I was summarily put up in the "Visiting Scholar's Suite," a spacious apartment-sized room located immediately over the dorm's entrance. Dutifully, I roamed the halls and knocked on doors and chatted with the students. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it was the architecture students who did the most grousing. Many were appalled that a school renowned for excellence in the field had constructed such an architectural travesty, asserting that not only was the building an eyesore, but hinted that it was even structurally unsound. These were hand-picked, cream-of-the-crop pupils for whom architecture was almost more of a devout faith than merely a field of study.
In the surrounding neighborhood, the opinions were equally dismissive. While the merchants behind the cash registers at Gem Spa, the Continental Bar and San Loco Burritos didn't really mind (more business for them, ultimately), the dwindling populace of panhandlers, punks and junkies on St. Marks Place eyed the tower with a mixture of derision and fear. I distinctly remember a bondage-trousered mohican in a vintage Germs t-shirt presciently lamenting to me in front of The Grassroots Tavern that the appearance of the dorm was "probably only the start."
Fifteen years later, now that the cityscape of the East Village is starting to resemble the dystopian opening scene of "Blade Runner" (especially up and down The Bowery), that anecdote of community uproar seems tragically antiquated and quaint. Where are those hotheaded protectors today when we really need them? Has everyone bowed down to let the steely, unrelenting treads of "progress" simply plow them over?
Somewhat recently came news that yet another building is slated to go up on Astor Place (as if that 21-story shampoo bottle and hateful K-Mart weren't damaging enough). Though the building it's slated to replace is hardly a structural marvel, the new building is said to be yet another glassy, prism-like Rubik's Cube which will further render Astor Place virtually indistinguishable from a food court at Epcot Center's "Futureworld Pavilion."
Goodbye open space. Hello future business and shopping district.