A widely respected authority on urban planning and architecture, Alex Garvin is President and CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists, a planning and design firm in NYC. As adjunct professor of urban planning and management at Yale, he teaches a wide range of subjects including “Introduction to the Study of the City,” which for more than 48 years has remained one of the college’s most popular courses.
Mileage covered: 1.71 miles
Sunny, 62 degrees
At 1 p.m., on the dot, Alex Garvin meets me in the lobby of his high-rise apartment building, zip code 10028. Yorkville.
Always dependably natty, in suit, white shirt and bowtie, Alex is joining me to walk and talk. And do his rounds: he is hosting a lunch the next day for the winning team in a competition he has held in one of the graduate courses he teaches at Yale. He has groceries to buy.
“I teach with games. And the first game is a housing one where the 20 teams of three people each bid for a property in New Haven. They have to design an apartment building and figure out how to finance it. And the prize for the winning team is to come to dinner at my home in New York.”
The other guests will be five teaching assistants in the course, plus a developer-architect who was once one of Alex’s students.
As we cross Third Avenue and head to the first stop on Alex’s rounds, I am thinking that I could not have a better, more urbane -- and urban -- fellow stroller than one of the country’s most learned and respected city planners, teachers and writers.
First stop: Andre’s, Second Avenue just down from 85th Street.
“We are going to order dessert. Two apple strudels that will be freshly baked for me tomorrow. Andre’s is one of the many newer stores in my neighborhood but there are only three that I can identify that were here when I was a boy. This is not one of them but it’s been here for eleven years.”
Alex is a local lad, born and raised in two UES zip codes, 10028 and 10128.
“I was born in Doctors Hospital. (Since replaced by the luxury high-rise 170 East End). I grew up first on 74th Street . When I turned eight years old we moved to 82nd Street where we lived until I was 14. Then 92nd street where I stayed until I was 22. And then we moved to 90th street and then on to 86 Street in 1969. I lived there for seven years until I moved to where I live now where I have been since 1977.”
Next stop in Alex’s rounds is a Yorkville mainstay, Schaller & Webber. One of those three neighborhood stores he recalls from his youth.
“I’m very lucky to live near three of these old stores. I’m going to get sultze, head cheese. I’ll cut it up into cubes which will be served along with champagne for starters,” he says.
Told the store no longer offers sulze, he takes the next best, a wurst head cheese. Commenting on how well-dressed this customer is, the man behind the counter addresses him as “doctor,” which Alex corrects. “I’m a professor. And a writer.”
Classic New York, Schaller and Weber never seems to lack for loyal clientele. And that is the case today as we head out for our next culinary station, Fairway.
Along the way we cannot avoid the elephant in the zip code, the Second Avenue subway construction. We share our comments on the gradual recalibration of the construction obstruction, noting that whole swathes of the avenue have recently been opened up, only to have the other side of the avenue dug up for more infrastructure.
I mention the Yorkville Clock, an avenue away on Third in front of the McDonalds. Featured in a famous scene in “Lost Weekend,” as Ray Milland leans against it, having tried to find an open pawnbroker on Yom Kippur where he can swap for money for booze. “I was here when there was an elevated subway on Third Avenue,” seen in that shot from the film.
New York is always changing, we agree.
“I remember when Gimbels opened on the corner of 86th and Lex. People were very concerned because of the multiplex theater bringing people from out of the neighborhood. And as I write in “The American City: What Works and What Doesn’t” there was pressure because all these small stores were allegedly being pushed out by fast food places.”
We head into Fairway, destination: produce.
“And the pressure was to do something about it. So the city planning commission approved a change in the zoning that required retailers be no more than 25 feet wide. What we got was a 25-foot wide Burger King. It didn’t work. The only special zoning district that was eliminated from the zoning ordinance.”
Once his basket has been filled with broccoli, dill and onions (the endive-shaped radicchio will have to be foraged someplace else) his larder is pretty much complete for the awards luncheon:
· Cauliflower soup
· Smoked turkey (flown in from North Carolina)
· Cranberry Orange Relish
And that strudel, yet to bake, accompanied with a moscato d’asti, a sparkling Italian dessert wine.
As we share in the cartage, I suggest a cortado at Jax, a fairly recent additon to the area’s growing coffee options. “Great, a place in my neighborhood that is new to me!”
I note that he was able to pick up pretty much everything he needed, and all within a few blocks of his home.
“I live a very busy life. I have a consulting business and I am going to Florida on a job in two weeks. I go to New Haven once a week. And I’m finishing a new book,” he tells me. “The time issue you raise is essential. My brother would tell you that time is the leitmotif of my life. And living in this neighborhood means I don’t have to waste any time.”
Sitting out back, in the coffee house’s tiny garden, located off the downstairs space that looks like a university library peopled with students intent on their laptops and Ipads, I tell Alex that we just raised the median age of the place. Sitting down, we talked about walking, the public realm, his new book (“What Makes a Great City”). And the private support of city parks.
“I’m a great supporter of these things, these conservancies. If the government is going to cut money that is being spent to maintain public parks I don’t care how that money is being replaced. I grew up when Central Park was filled with children. I watched it deteriorate and I believe Betsy Barlow Rogers did an extraordinary job replacing it. And I think Doug Blonsky (president of the Central Park Conservancy) is terrific.”
We polished off our coffee and walked back out onto 84th Street, he heading west to get back to do whatever a protean city planner does in his home office. No doubt taking note of a few more changes in the cityscape along the way.