Living Off the Grid in New York City

By Suzanne Wasserman

I have lived off the grid in New York City for over twenty five years. Living “off the grid” has come to mean living by choice without electricity and therefore without such 21st century basics as lighting, stoves, flush toilets, dishwashers, air conditioners, washing machines, and dryers. But in New York City, “off the grid” has an entirely different meaning. The grid I live off of is not an electrical grid. Rather it is the grid of horizontal and vertical streets implemented in the early 19th century that makes up New York City.

Exactly two hundred years ago, a state-appointed “Streets Commission” convened to plan “for the orderly development and sale of the land” on the island of Manhattan. [1] Called the “Commissioners’ Plan,” the city adopted the state legislature’s proposal in 1811. The plan proposed the implementation of a regular grid pattern of horizontal and vertical streets regardless of Manhattan’s topography. Hills, swamps, streams, and meadows would disappear and be replaced by twelve orderly, numbered avenues, each 100 feet wide. The avenues would run north and south starting at the northern edge of town. [2] Cross streets would appear every two hundred feet, at right angles. Every street above Houston Street and below 155th Street would be on the grid.

Stuyvesant Street
The grid was not mapped out on a true north-south, east-west axis but rather ran roughly parallel to the shore of the Hudson River. Once instituted, the actual grid was slightly askew. As the City implemented the plan, it cut right through all previously laid out colonial estates. One such parcel that lay in the way was the estate of Petrus Stuyvesant – the great, great grandson of New Amsterdam’s Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant. In the late 18th century, Petrus Stuyvesant developed his ancestor’s estate into a village on land that today makes up the East Village. Called Bowery Village, its streets lay on a true north to south and east to west basis. Located outside the city at the time, Bowery Village had its own groggeries, post office, brothel, and oyster house. It even had its own village newspaper. [3]

In 1812, the grid cut Third Avenue through the Stuyvesant property. The powerful Stuyvesants fought the City and were ultimately allowed to keep one street of the Village intact – the small lane that led from the Bowery Road to the former site of Peter Stuyvesant’s manor. The manor had burned down in 1778 but the small lane is still intact today. Stuyvesant Street crosses East Ninth Street between Second and Third Avenues.

A little over two centuries later, my boyfriend and I moved to that lane – Stuyvesant Street. We lived there from 1981 to 1989. Our apartment building at 40 Stuyvesant Street sat exactly on the site of Stuyvesant’s manor. [4] I became fascinated by the neighborhood and while living there worked on my doctorate on the history of the Lower East Side during the Depression and the emergence of a nostalgic tourist trade.

Our street was a little oasis in the East Village. It possessed charm and romance. Our neighbors were mostly artists, dancers, and actors or older Jews and Ukrainians who had been in the neighborhood for decades.

The street was a favorite location for film and television productions; it evoked an earlier era that translated easily onto celluloid. Closing the street was a common occurrence; it was a singular Manhattan street that did not disrupt traffic on the grid. It did disrupt our lives. It was both annoying and exciting when the street shut down for a shoot. The idling trucks, the electrical equipment, the food spreads for cast-only used to drive me crazy. Once, a passing bag lady made a grab for Elliot Gould’s genitals. Another time during the filming of the B, possibly C-rated Loose Cannons with Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd, Dom DeLuise’s assistant pounded on my window and woke my napping son (we lived on the first floor) to ask if Dom could borrow a pillow for his aching back. During the shoot of the 1988 film House on Carroll Street, my twin sister was staying in my apartment. When a crew member asked her to open our window gates at 6:30 a.m. so that the scene would be historically accurate, she demanded to be paid. Thanks to my sister, an on-line reviewer noted that “unfortunately, the reconstruction of 50′s scenes comes off a whole lot better than the picture” in this “forgettable film with McCarthy era intrigue.” [5] Recently, the street was the setting for Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman. It would be nice if the street were featured in a really great film; instead the street always seems to upstage the film.

By 1989, we were ready to leave the East Village. I’d grown up in Chicago in the 1970s and wasn’t intimidated by the omnipresence of urban crime. But the escalation of crack and other drugs was relentless and deleterious to the block and to our lives. Once we were awoken to the sound of a prostitute plying her trade in our stairwell, on another night to the sight of junkies shooting up between their fingers.

Even with a baby, we never considered leaving the city. Instead we moved ten blocks uptown – to Stuyvesant Town – and again managed to land off the grid.

Stuyvesant Town
The neighborhood where Stuyvesant Town now sits was known in the 19th century as the Gas House District because of the gas tanks stored there. The notorious Gas House Gang terrorized the community with robberies, extortion, and prostitution. The gas storage tanks, which leaked noxious fumes, were mostly dismantled by the 1930s. Into the 1940s, the community continued to be a solidly working-class, immigrant community composed of over three thousand families.

As most New Yorkers know by now, Stuyvesant Town and its neighbor Peter Cooper Village were recently sold in the largest real estate deal ever. In 1945, construction began on a new residential project developed by Metropolitan Life Insurance designed to accommodate the middle income housing shortage in Manhattan and the anticipated homecoming of veterans at the end of the War. Unlike the powerful Stuyvesants, the residents of the Gas House District were unable to save their homes. In order to make room for the new development, Met Life removed these long-time residents along with five hundred stores and small factories, three churches, three schools, and two theaters. [6] Marketed as a “suburb in the city,” tenants began moving into Stuyvesant Town in 1947. Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village run from 14th Street on the south to 23rd Street on the north and from the Avenue C to First Avenue. Together, they house over 25,000 people in 11,250 apartments in 110 buildings. [7] In 1989, with baby in tow, we moved into a two-bedroom apartment on 20th Street in Stuyvesant Town. I remember a sense of relief at leaving the East Village. My sad parting memory will always be of a crime – with all our boxes neatly packed, burglars absconded with all our worldly possessions. Along with our television, stereo, and assorted other belongings, the thieves took my Kaypro computer. It contained 400 pages of an almost completed dissertation. When a neighbor called to tell us of the break-in (we were visiting my parents in Chicago), all I could ask was, “Are my floppy discs there?” They weren’t.

As a young mother and soon-to-be historian (I was only able to finish the dissertation because the robbers hadn’t taken the one hard copy I’d printed out. Scanning was a new technology in those days and and I had to re-enter all my thousands of footnotes by hand), Stuyvesant Town seemed a good place to start the next chapter of my life.

We’d landed off the grid again. Although our new address read East 20th Street, we moved onto a fabricated street called the 20th Street Loop. The 20th Street Loop runs in a semi-circle south off East 20th Street between First Avenue and the East River and faces the oval interior of Stuyvesant Town. From my son’s window, we can see the moon on clear nights. Although we are only a few avenues east of our old apartment, the fishy, ocean-y smell of the East River wafts in on certain days. Stepping off First Avenue, the temperature drops a few degrees. Trees and space create a cool oasis even though the place looks much like a housing project. Until September 11th, 2001 we had an unobstructed southern view of the World Trade Center. By the time I finally arrived home that day, the towers were gone.

Stuyvesant Town’s controversial history of segregation and the fight against it has been well documented by historians, journalists, and memoirists, most recently in Amy Fox’s New York Times article “Battle in Black and White.” [8] On Stuyvesant Street, I had lived on the site of the manor of the colonial governor who had four hundred years earlier tried to keep Jews out of New Amsterdam. My new landlord had done the same to African-Americans.

Penn South
Although promoted as the cutting edge of real estate in 1947, today, sixty years later, Stuyvesant Town residents are among the last middle-class renters in the city, our fates at present unclear. Today touted as “luxury” apartments, much of Stuyvesant Town is actually off both grids. About a decade ago, Stuyvesant Town had to be completely re-wired for air conditioning and still lacks the juice for dish washers or washing machines.

It seems that it has been my destiny to live off the grid in New York City. Stuyvesant Town was not my second home off the grid. It was my third. Back in 1980, fresh off the boat from Madison, Wisconsin I lived on West 24th Street as an illegal tenant in Penn South. Officially known as Mutual Redevelopment Houses, Inc., Penn South is composed of 2,820 apartments in fifteen towers that run between 23rd Street and 29th Street and between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. In the late 1950s, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union provided much of the funds to undertake this massive cooperative housing project. On May 19, 1962, at Penn South’s dedication, President John F. Kennedy, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mayor Robert F. Wagner, and Eleanor Roosevelt attended. [9] My first stop off the grid, the building on West 24th Street, ran on a semi-circle west between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. From our window we could see the top of the Greek Orthodox Church below and west to the Hudson River. That residency was relatively short; an ironically named “cooperator” turned us in as illegal sub-letters after we’d been there about a year and a half. But management was lenient; they gave us a few months to move to our next home off the grid.

1. Mike Wallace and Edwin T. Burrows, Gotham: A History of New York to 1898, Oxford University Press, p. 419.
2 Ibid, 421.
3 Ibid.
5. IMDb February 3, 2001
6. Wikipedia
8. Amy Fox, “Battle in Black and White,” New York Times, City Section front page, March 19, 2006.