If visitors on lower MacDougal Street can't put their finger on which neighborhood they are in, it's probably because the tiny block is its own particular microcosm of old New York—a tableau that is disappearing throughout the city.
The micro-neighborhood between Prince and West Houston streets oozes small-town charm—something little seen any longer in most SoHo streets. Its low-rise 19th century townhouses, apartment buildings and storefronts presents a strikingly different tableau from the bazaar-like jumble of cafes, shops and falafel stands on MacDougal north of Houston.
The 11 buildings on lower MacDougal's east side are speckled with restaurants—as modest as the aptly named 12 Chairs Cafe and as buzzing as the 90-seat Hundred Acres, a farm-style restaurant that replaced the popular Provence restaurant six years ago. On the west, a stretch of mostly Federal-style townhouses is interrupted by King Street, which begins at MacDougal.
"It's a very sedate block…a wonderful block with people knowing each other. It's not unique in that regard, but it is unusual, and unlike any other in New York," said Richard Blodgett, president of the nearby Charlton Street Block Association.
The lower portion of MacDougal Street in the South Village is lined with townhouses and restaurants. Above, Hundred Acres.
It's so down-to-earth, in fact, that for the past two decades, celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick have come here largely undetected for the discreet services of Something Special, a scruffy mailbox rental and key store.
Many people associate MacDougal Street with Bob Dylan (he lived north of Houston at No. 94). Lower MacDougal also has star associations: Patti Smith and Leontyne Price live in the neighborhood, and local lore has it that Pablo Picasso's son painted in a studio behind No. 54.
But, for all of its low-key allure, MacDougal also seems to hang by a thread. Of the half dozen restaurant spaces on the block, one has closed and most have changed ownership in the past couple of years, said Victoria Freeman, one of the owners of Hundred Acres.
"At one point, the only thing here was 12 Chairs and us. It felt a little depressed around here—a whole block of boarded-up stores—it was really sad," she said.
A retail space, formerly occupied by a calligrapher, remains empty on the northeast corner of MacDougal and Houston. And residents worry about older, empty buildings on the block: the landmark corner building at 43 MacDougal, has been abandoned since 1986. The owner erected stabilizing scaffolding, but the inactive site attracts rats and homeless people, say neighbors.
Most recently, a demolition permit was approved for No. 54, a vacant three-story house on land that was once part of the Richmond Hill estate owned by U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr.
Warren Horowitz, speaking for Ajax Investment Partners LLC, which bought the building in October, said there were no immediate plans for the house, whose ownership history includes several old New York families such as Ezra Weeks and Daniel Ludlow (of Ludlow Street).
"I respect the fabric of the neighborhood, but ultimately, research says it is an old building on a quiet SoHo street," he said. "There is no mystery or secret plan, but I am exploring the options that are available for the property."
No. 54, the shortest house on the street, is somewhat of a poster child for the campaign to gain city landmark status for the South Village, an effort coinciding with the city's proposal to rezone the neighboring Hudson Square. Historic preservationists fear the Herald Square rezoning will add development pressure on South Village properties if they are left without landmark protection.
This week, the City Council's Land Use Committee modified the Herald Square rezoning proposal to add restrictions on height, limits against demolitions and to allow new residential space. A vote on the revised zoning proposal expected this month, according to a city spokesman.
In a separate action, the council scheduled a vote on the portion of the proposed South Village historic district that is north of Houston. Lower MacDougal is part of the parcel that will undergo a survey by by the landmarks commission by year end.
The rezoning is a concern to Silvia Beam, who has lived on nearby Vandam Street since 1949 and is worried that it will bring too much activity to the area.
"They're saying we'll be a vibrant 24-hour neighborhood, but we don't need or want another SoHo," she said. "The history of New York has always been tear down and build—can't we just keep a little part of it?"
For all its issues, MacDougal Street still retains its fan base. Felipe Donnelly, who opened the restaurant Comodo in July, calls it "one of the most classic New York blocks."
"We know who our neighbors are…and I can walk five minutes away and get fresh-made meats, mozzarella and pasta," he said. And although he would welcome more foot traffic, Mr. Donnelly added: "We want to make sure that the block stays as magical as it feels right now and not overdo it."
Thursday, March 14, 2013