I suppose you could say that I succumbed to a temptation. I indulged, maybe unconsciously, in the belief that through the similitude of place, the impassible gulf of time can be crossed. In my defense, far greater minds than mine have committed this sin. As Walt Whitman asks in Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry, “What is it then between us? / What is the count of hundreds of scores of years between us? ” To a poet, the answer is simple: “Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not, / I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine, / I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island…” (In other words, not all that much.) But to a historian things are a bit more complicated. Historians are not supposed to see the past through the present in as much as possible. To imagine that we can unlock something about what we study in the past by experiencing it in the present –- this is a form of heresy. The past is different from the present, we say, and it must be understood on its own terms, in its own voices. This is our fundamental creed, if we can be said to have one. And yet … the temptation remains.
New York particularly is a great practical joke, for historians. And historians of the 19th century get it the worst of all. Large portions of the built environment survive, and it is tempting to imagine, as you walk down Mulberry, that you, too, can understand what it was like a century and a half ago. It’s still crowded; it’s still unpleasant; in the summer, it still stinks. The history is right here -– but of course it isn’t, not at all, not even close. Walking around the Lower East Side is an exercise in historical irony more than historical understanding. And trying to translate that irony to friends and interested parties can be frustrating. See those condos, up there? The ones with the interesting brick masonry on the outside?The ones going for tens and hundreds of millions? Those were tenements. Your favorite coffee shop? It was a butcher -– and not the artisanal kind. And how do you feel about offal?
So maybe it was silly to go looking for answers at the former location of Petitpas Boardinghouse, down on 29th, but I went anyway. I walked through the neighborhood, as it is now -– a weird place where a boarded up building can coexist next to the brownstone home of Ohio Wesleyan’s New York Arts Program. I walked past the New York standards –- a CVS, a Panera, a Staples, a Dunkin Donuts -– but also some places more particular to the neighborhood. There was a bar called “The Triple Crown,” and an Italian restaurant, and a fur wholesaler. The neighborhood had been strange when Sloan and Yeats came to it; it wasn’t much more coherent now. So I chuckled at that, and at a construction site I walked past, like Everett Shinn painted -– a sort of gaping hole in the urban wall.
And as I walked, I thought, for a second, that I gained some insight into just what Sloan et al. saw in this place, in its unmitigated weirdness. The connection was specious, but I liked it anyway.
And then I came to it –- 317 W 29th Street, the former home of Petitpas boardinghouse, the subject of Sloan’s painting. And there I stood, looking up at a building that had clearly been renovated after the war, probably in the 50s or 60s. It had a porch awning that angled up in a way that only something of the atomic age can. The other buildings of the street, which had once together formed a level façade, now emerged in a jumble, each protruding out into the sidewalk in a different way – the product of a hundred years of remodeling, and expanding, and murdering any hope I had of making this a productive visit. And so I stood there, staring dumbly at a modern, ugly brick wall.
That was, I stood there for a few minutes, until I saw a pickup truck pull out of a gated driveway a few buildings down.
And the gate didn’t close.
And I made a choice.
Looking as inconspicuous as I could (that is, not very inconspicuous), I headed into the driveway, and followed it into the courtyard that was my quarry –- this was what Sloan had painted.
I stepped out into the courtyard. It was a surprisingly green space, with ivy growing on the backs of the buildings, and even a few trees and potted plants. There was a playground –- the driveway I slipped through seemed to be attached to some sort of pre-school, or kindergarten. I started to look around, making sure to note the wall-mounted cameras that surely would to lead to be quick and inevitable arrest. I then took out my phone, turned towards 317, and began to take pictures of somebody else’s backyard.
I saw the wall against which I can only assume Yeats at Petitpas was framed still stood. I noticed the patio set out in the backyard space, and chucked at the concept of some group of friends unwittingly enjoying the same space that Sloan and friends had, for the same reason. I tried to take in the visuals of the scene in their entirety –- the green, the windows, the color brick. But really, what hit me most of all was the quiet -– the overwhelming, peaceful quiet. And I forgot, just for a few seconds, just where I was.
It is easy to say that I learned nothing from this, that like every other historian who goes to some site in search of truth, all I saw had either been inevitably corrupted by the passage of time, or wasn’t relevant in the first place. But I’m not quite sure that’s true.
The echoes, the ripples,the eddiessometimes remain, to borrow Whitman’s metaphor. They might be difficult to detect, and many might ultimately prove treacherous. But… still, they might be there. And no one is better suited to really noticing them than us; no one is more capable of separating the wheat from the chaff than us. Through my trip to Petitpas, I came to understand the marginality of the space: it was off-the-beaten path then, and it remains so now. And I came to understand the feeling: sure, the noises outside are different, but the backyard of Petitpas still offers a refuge from them.
In other words: In October of 2015, I snuck into the courtyard of a building, trying to understand what had made John Sloan paint it. And I learned that I, too, could appreciate tiny sliver of green, quiet space hidden away in the middle of a great city.
Josh Schwartz is a Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University.
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