“Rose Hill? Never heard of it,” says a tired looking woman drinking a soda and smoking a cigarette.
During a recent afternoon of asking people how to get to Rose Hill — while walking around Rose Hill — this answer was the most common. Regardless of gender, age or race, almost no one knew about the neighborhood they were standing in. Occupation wasn’t a factor either, even when knowledge of the area would seem important. A postal worker, two Time Warner Cable technicians, a traffic cop and two court house security officers all had no clue what I was talking about. When asked what the neighborhood was called if not Rose Hill, I received a variety of responses ranging from Kip’s Bay to Madison (not a real neighborhood) to Gramercy. Multiple people just named nearby streets as if that counted.
Of the 20 people I asked that afternoon, only two knew the answer. Seventeen had no idea and one blatantly ignored me. The two that did know were both older women who’d lived in the neighborhood for decades, but even they viewed the name as a thing of the past. One called it a “post office name” and the other said she’d read it in a history book. While asking 20 random people over the course of two hours isn’t the most scientific methodology, it’s still indicative of the neighborhood’s identity problem. Despite its rich history (and an apartment building with the same name) Rose Hill seems to have truly been buried by time.
This all started a few weeks back when I began digging into the newly christened area called “NoMad,” a real estate creation at its worst, for our Neighborhood Issue. The name’s rise to relative acceptance since 2009 had struck me as sudden and startling, especially after I learned that much of the area had been known as Rose Hill for hundreds of years. In a city of more than eight million people, with hundreds of semi-officially recognized neighborhoods, I wondered how often this had happened before. A certain amount of history was bound to be lost with the passage of time, yet lately it seemed to be happening quicker than ever, fueled by the real estate industry’s ceaseless greed and a lack of city oversight. Neighborhoods in the sense of communities rather than lines on a map had started to feel like they were on the way out and with massive new projects like Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards in the works, this trend seemed likely to continue. The one concept we can all relate to as citizens — identifying with where we live — was starting to lose its meaning.
Faced with the vastness of this issue I contacted Zeke Mermell, an urban planner I’d met a couple years back at an architecture party, whose card I’d been eyeing on my desk lately. We met for coffee on the back patio of Le Gamin, a Prospect Heights restaurant, one Sunday afternoon in July. Having once lived on Brooklyn’s contentious East Williamsburg/Bushwick border and studied SoHo’s rise from warehouse district to shopping mecca with particular interest, Mermell had many thoughts on the subject. That evening we discussed everything from what constitutes a successful neighborhood (walkable grocery stores are key) to examples of neighborhood creation all over the country. What we kept coming back to was not just why these artificial neighborhoods felt so soulless, but why their names mattered so much in the first place.
“I mean, inherently there is nothing wrong with calling an area NoMad. Do we not like it because it’s so viscerally not needed or the fact that it’s an acronym?” Mermell asks. “Then again, I don’t know, it’s almost like these things have a life of their own. If you repeat something long enough it is what it is.” The widespread acceptance of New York alphabet soup concoctions such as Tribeca, Dumbo, SoHo, NoHo, Nolita and more seemed to prove his point. “Is it almost human nature to call something different all the time? Every place, whether it’s a neighborhood, or a city, or a river, or a state or whatever had a Native American name…Is it an outrage that [it’s] the Hudson River and not its original Native American name?” I agreed that this was all too true and we were left with the question of what comes next. Mermell wondered if we might someday name areas after their alphabetical zones on FEMA maps as sea levels continue to rise or maybe even adopt a gradient map system akin to traditional European settlements, where the outskirts of a town are considered connected but not fully part of it. While intriguing, our conversation made it clear the issue of identity was too broad to ever truly answer. In order to better understand it, I’d have to return to the area which inspired this in the first place.
While researching NoMad, I came across the name Gerard Schriffen listed as president of the Rose Hill Neighborhood Association in a 2010 article from New York titled, “SoHo. Nolita. Dumbo. NoMad?” After a couple weeks of correspondence he agreed to meet, with the main intention of sharing information about the planned demolition of Hunter College’s Brookdale campus on 25th Street and First Avenue. Excited for the chance to learn about a new development in Rose Hill, along with more of the neighborhood’s history, I met him in front of the new Alexandria Center for Life Science on 29th and First for lunch.
Schriffen, an older man, approached wearing a blue blazer and walking with a cane. He’d been run over by a truck on Second Avenue a couple years ago and credits nearby Bellevue Hospital for his recovery. As we walked into ’wichcraft, the campus’ resident sandwich cafe, Schriffen launched into some history right off the bat. Apparently, the controversial Revolutionary War figure General Gates had bought the Rose Hill Farm estate in 1790 and once hosted former comrade Tadeusz Kościuszko in the manor house for a year after the man’s failed uprising in Poland. The event is commemorated on a plaque in front of the Church of the Epiphany on 22nd and Second, though the house was actually on 24th and Second. Just one of many examples of the historical inaccuracies in surrounding Rose Hill.
After ordering coffees and food, we claimed a table in the otherwise empty café and got down to business. While much of our conversation was dedicated to the Brookdale Campus demolition plan — which I’ll be exploring fully in next month’s issue — I’ll be focusing specifically on Rose Hill matters for the purpose of this piece.
First and foremost was the question of the neighborhood’s boundaries, since I’d read conflicting reports. Schriffen defines it as extending from 23rd to 32nd and Madison Avenue to the East River. While this only includes part of NoMad’s territory, it contains almost the entirety of Kip’s Bay. Yet since the actual bay itself ran from roughly 32nd to 37th before it was filled in, Schriffen sees this as a non-issue.
“The name was always called Rose Hill. Why are we not calling it Rose Hill now?” He feels that part of this has to do with the Taxi & Limousine Commission’s maps. Right now, the area in question remains nameless. If that were to be changed, it would surely catch on. While Schriffen was instrumental in getting former Borough President Virginia Fields to support a name change in the late ’90s, it unfortunately never went anywhere. At this point, all that’s left would be to have the City Council or mayor get involved somehow — probably to get the taxi maps changed — but that seems unlikely. While this issue of identity was what inspired the article to begin with, it became clear during our time together that the neighborhood’s name was much less important than what it had seen over the years.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history in Rose Hill,” says Schriffen. According to him, 40 years before Hoboken claims to have hosted the first baseball game, it was played on 26th Street and Madison Avenue in a big, empty lot by the New York Knickerbockers. This lot would later become an early incarnation of Grand Central Station and eventually the original Madison Square Garden. While much of this history has been lost to the tide of urban development, a few traces still remain. The murals in the Church of St. Stephen were done by legendary painter Constantino Brumidi — known for the U.S. Capitol rotunda’s interior. What Schriffen calls “probably the most beautiful courthouse in the entire country,” the First Department of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, still stands today.
Over the years, Schriffen has made it his mission to not only preserve Rose Hill’s history but also its community. After being born and raised in Brookyn, he moved to Manhattan in the late ’60s and has lived in the same Rose Hill apartment since the late ’70s, where he raised his family. A career in law has equipped him with the skills needed to combat a variety of local issues such as incinerators (of which he claims to have shut down 7,700 across the city), prostitution, the placement of homeless shelters and more. At one point, he even founded the Manhattan Neighborhood Council — a group of roughly 170 local neighborhood groups — to begin working on issues citywide. In 1995, they came out with a comprehensive map of nearly 1,500 social service facilities on the island of Manhattan to better illustrate how certain areas were being used more than others, which was carried in the Times. “Giuliani asked us for it, because he didn’t have a copy of it. He didn’t know this existed.”
Despite his successes, Schriffen is left feeling like both Rose Hill and the city as a whole are heading in the wrong direction. “There are no neighborhoods anymore, except maybe parts of Washington Heights,” he says. “A neighborhood is where you see grandparents, who were born and raised in the neighborhood, wheeling their grandchildren who still live in the neighborhood. You don’t see that anymore.” Part of this has to do with Rose Hill’s bad fortune over the years. Once home to metal works, ship-building docks, cable car factories, saddleries and more, the area was widely razed in the name of “urban renewal” during the ’60s. Losing the Third Avenue El train in the ’50s didn’t help matters either. “The city came in and condemned everything from 23rd Street to 34th Street, between First and Second Avenue,” says Schriffen. The families that had once lived in this area’s tenements were displaced and the neighborhood lost a large part of its population. He still remembers the bulldozers tearing it all down.
In the years since, an onslaught of institutions have taken the place of these former residences. “We have more institutions in the Board 6 area than I think, it’s safe to say, any place in the United States,” says Schriffen. The arrival and expansion of places such as Bellevue, the VA hospital, NYU’s medical and dental schools, the New York City Public Health Laboratories, the Alexandria Center and more along First Avenue have changed the neighborhood greatly. While they create jobs, they also force out the very residents who could be holding them. “I mean, all of these buildings have displaced people’s homes, absolutely,” he says.
Perhaps Rose Hill has failed to register in our city’s neighborhood collective because it’s struggling to remain one. It used to be that “you’d see kids out on the street playing, living in the same buildings, going to local schools.” Now, many families have moved out and the neighborhood has become home to a younger, more career-driven crowd. Though some residents are married, few have children and most of them are less involved. “They’re so damn busy working just to pay bills…the few hours they have, they want to go out and have a good time. I don’t blame ’em,” says Schriffen. If only they knew how much history lay right around the corner.
In the weeks following my meeting with Schriffen, I still couldn’t help but feel like something was still missing. If no one could agree on where these neighborhoods began and ended, did it even matter what we called them?
I found my answer at the Church of St. Stephen this past Monday. On Schriffen’s recommendation I’d set up a time to view the Brumidi paintings. Maria, a middle-aged Latina woman with short hair, an oversized polo shirt and a casual kindness, led me up into a back hallway where she flipped on a bunch of switches in two large breaker boxes. Once ready, we entered the church itself and as promised, my jaw nearly dropped. The room’s sheer size alone was enough to give anyone pause, but its level of detail was another thing entirely. As if the marble floors, hand-painted vaulted ceilings, intricate stained glass windows and ancient organ weren’t enough, expertly painted scenes filled every corner. The main attraction was the largest image of Jesus on the cross that I’ve ever seen towering over the altar.
According to the church’s website, it was built in 1854 and Brumidi began painting in 1869. Over the next 12 years — the same period he did his work in Washington D.C. during summer recess — Brumidi would travel to New York while Congress was in session and create 45 paintings and murals for the church. He completed them in 1879 and died the following year.
Maria grew up in the area and has been coming to the church since she was a kid, back when they still did the services in Latin. Her mother used to chastise her for not paying attention because she was more interested in looking at the colorful murals. Since then, Maria has stayed in the neighborhood and raised her own family here. Both her children had their first communions in the church and still attend. Her son was even baptized in the original font. Having worked for the church since ’97, she’s seen a number of changes, but all for the better. With the arrival of a new pastor recently, the church has undergone much-needed renovations and will soon host its first wedding in many years. While she was unfamiliar with the name Rose Hill — as well as NoMad — Maria says she likes the area better now than she used to, partially because stores like Subway and a dry cleaner have opened up nearby. She’s happy to live and work in the same area, whatever its history or future may be, and largely stays out of citywide affairs.
After spending about 20 minutes talking in the church, Maria shut the lights off and we parted ways. At first, I didn’t know what to make of the exchange. Maria’s level of contentedness with her neighborhood had given me a new perspective on the whole situation. According to some of the basic tenets for a good neighborhood I’d discussed with urban planner Zeke Mermell, Maria had everything she needed in Rose Hill. Maybe it didn’t matter what your neighborhood was called as long as you were happy there. For all she knew, NoMad and its trendy outposts might as well be on another planet. The concept of neighborhood identity is just one way to ground ourselves in this big city.
Regardless of its official status, the history of Rose Hill was still alive and well as long as you knew where to look.
Two weeks prior, Gerard Schriffen and I had concluded a lunch full of historical discussions, blueprints, city codes and more with a walk over to the doomed Brookdale campus. When asked what it would take to put Rose Hill back in the public conversation, Schriffen said that maybe some kind of renewed interest from real estate developers could do it but that otherwise the area would likely remain anonymous. The Rose Hill Neighborhood Association — true membership unknown because they don’t collect dues — usually only meets three or four times a year. “Now with this [Brookdale], we’ve been meeting more often.”
If what Gerard had just spent the majority of our lunch telling me about came to fruition, the consequences would be very grave indeed. The Department of Sanitation had already drawn up plans for a multi-story garage to house trucks and salt spreaders — along with an above ground fuel tank farm and salt shed they’ve yet to admit to, but will logically need. Mayor Bloomberg has orchestrated these plans to ensure that if all the contracts are finalized soon, there will be no stopping this project once he’s out of office next year. Not only would Bellevue’s ambulances be blocked by garbage trucks, but the entire neighborhood’s public health would be at risk for a variety of reasons.
Schriffen hasn’t had a good fight in a while, but now it’s time to stand up for Rose Hill once again.
Stay tuned next month for my investigation into just how deep this proposal goes, why no one wants to talk about it during election season and whether it’s already too late.