With apologies to Glen O’Brien’s “Downtown 81.”
TriBeCa. The name, today, resonates with images of sprawling, well-appointed loft apartments and chic restaurants, its streets and byways populated with stroller-pushing nannies and gadget-twiddling millennials, bustling in and out of high-end coffee bars. In recent years, it’s become the go-to neighborhood for savvy affluents put off by the staid environs of the comparatively conventional Upper East Side. The neighborhood’s once largely low-lying architecture has started to sprout new glass and steel structures, notably that wobbly, Jenga-like tower on Church Street that looms over Lower Manhattan like the dark abode of Sauron (see above).
Obviously, however, `twas not always thus.
When I first discovered TriBeCa and its neighboring hood to the east, the “Civic Center” — does anyone still call it that? — they weren’t anything too special. I only knew the latter for J&R Music World (gone) which I’d visited during my high school years. They have their own big tower, too, the rippling Gehry building, 8 Spruce Street.
I hadn’t really set foot in TriBeCa, meanwhile, until 1989, when my friend Sam moved there (essentially as an ersatz caretaker for his alma mater university’s student loft on Vestry Street) and when Wetlands Preserve (gone) opened up. Amenities of any stripe in TriBeCa were few and far between, at the time. It wasn't so much a badlands as a No Man’s land. The streets were largely unpopulated. There just wasn’t much there.
In any case, check out the video below of TriBeCa and the so-called Civic Center circa 1991. The afore-mentioned J&R Music World makes a fleeting cameo, as does the signature, Liberty-crowned roof of El Teddy’s on West Broadway (pictured below circa 2002). You’ll also spy a huge swathe of otherwise nondescript businesses that once peppered the cityscape down there. There’s still of taste of that on Church Street, these days, but the rest seems entirely foreign to today’s incarnation. It’s all a bit humdrum, but somewhat refreshingly so. Notice no one’s looking at any hand-held devices? Kinda nice, right?
At the time of this video, I would have still been living in Yorkville on the Upper East Side (with my mom, like a loser), working at the comparatively short-lived weekly, LIFE Goes to War as a copy clerk, while still writing for both the New York Review of Records and New York Perspectives, and regularly attending shows at venues like CBGB (gone), The Marquee on West 21st (gone), the New Ritz on 54th (gone) and, once again, Wetlands.