Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Life in the Triangle

There are buildings and apartments that I fantasize about whenever I walk past. One of them is the Triangle Building, that hulking wedge of brick between Hudson and 9th Avenue in the Meatpacking District. I've often wondered who lives there and how. So when I wandered in off the street one day and was welcomed by long-time resident Ivy Brown, it was something of a dream come true.


Ivy Brown in her gallery, with work by Tim Groen

Ivy runs the Ivy Brown Gallery, located at the entrance to her long, triangular apartment where she has lived since 1985. She moved into the neighborhood when it was still dark and the air reeked of animal blood. Today, hers is one of only a dozen residential spaces remaining in what is now a transient commercial district.

"I saw an ad in the Village Voice," she told me. "It said 'triangular loft, 1800 square feet, 18 windows, with a wood-burning fireplace.'" The apartment sounded amazing, but she hesitated to move in. "The neighborhood was really gritty. There were no lights. It was just transvestite prostitutes and meatpackers. There was blood and fat all over the streets, and big buckets of what they called inedibles. It smelled to high heaven and every time I looked out a window I managed to catch a glimpse of the Bone Truck." The Bone Truck hauled away the inedibles. It had no top and chunks of fat would fly off it when it went by. Within two years of living there, Ivy became a vegetarian.


Ivy Brown Gallery, with work by Tim Groen

The promise of 18 windows is hard to turn down (years later, after expanding, she's got a total of 25) and life in the Meatpacking District would soon prove to be a wonderful adventure. A great bunch of guys lived upstairs. They worked for Spin magazine or made jewelry. One had a prison cell for a closet. It was leftover equipment from when the apartment had been Lenny's Attic, "a kind of S&M golden shower sort of environment," Ivy explained.

The prison-cell closet had a drain at the bottom.


Ivy's bathroom door

Was that Lenny Waller who ran the Attic? Maybe. Ivy remembers Lenny well from when he ran the basement clubs--Hellfire, Manhole, The Vault--where Ivy's fusebox was located. During a sudden blackout, she hurried downstairs in bathrobe and slippers, and Lenny led her through the club to the fusebox.

"There was a 300-pound woman chained to the ceiling and a guy with a cat o'nine tails whipping her," Ivy recalled, crossing her eyes. "Anyway, turns out, our fusebox had exploded. We had to call the Con-Ed emergency guy. So I'm standing there, trying to make polite conversation with Lenny while all these people are beating each other. My slippers are sticking to the floor. I mean it's like Elmer's glue everywhere. They've got a chain-link spider web along the wall. So I say, 'That's a really nice piece.' And Lenny says, 'Yeah, it's great, it holds two people!' The Con-Ed guy wasn't even fazed. I guess he'd seen everything."

When Ivy's last male roommate moved out and only women were living in the apartment, they enlisted Hellfire's doorman as protection. Charlie was a big leather guy with a German Shepherd and a heart of gold. He invited them to the Slave Auction where they met "a gentleman called Pony Boy, in his late 60s, sitting at the bar drinking orange juice, butt naked and wearing a saddle," along with more of the downstairs regulars.


The bedroom

Ivy was also protected by the transgender sex workers on the block. On the first floor of the Triangle Building, she explained, was a transgender crisis center called Project First Step and across the street was Lee's Mardi Gras, the biggest boutique for crossdressers in town. At 14th was Dizzy Izzy's bagel place, where all the girls hung out. This was their stroll and on weekend summer nights they flourished. "I'd look out my window and see maybe 40 trannies," said Ivy, "almost naked, wearing trenchcoats they'd pull open when the cars came by. And those girls were gorgeous."

Ivy gave them clothing and makeup, and always made sure she had a mirror on the bicycle she kept outside so the girls had someplace to check their lipstick. Her favorite was called Taxi. "Whenever she crossed the street, all the others would scream, 'Taxi! Taxi!' And cabs would stop. They got a kick out of that."

There was little danger in the neighborhood back then. "There was no one to rob," said Ivy. "You wouldn't rob a tranny, you'd get your head bashed in. Today there's much worse crime here." But the sex workers' customers could be threatening.

"Walking west, once you left 8th Avenue, the world ended. The girls always saw me to my door and made sure I got home safe. If a guy bugged me, two girls would flank me and scare him away." One night, in an ice storm, Ivy fell on the sidewalk. She was dazed. "Then, all of a sudden, I was like a kitten being picked up by the scruff of the neck. Two big girls lifted me up and carried me home. They never asked me for anything. Never crossed a line. They had my back."


Photos by Mr. Means in the bathroom

Another person Ivy met on the street was Dorothy. An immigrant from the Bahamas, she was called "Grandma" by the guys who ran the downstairs gay bar J's Hangout, where Dorothy collected cans. Eventually, she became Ivy's adopted grandmother. For 20 years they had brunch together every Sunday and went to the LGBT Metropolitan Community Church where Dorothy ran the food pantry. Five years after Dorothy's passing, Ivy still serves food at the church on holidays and hopes that her adopted grandmother is proud of her.

"This building introduced me to a whole other level of my life," she said, thinking of the many people who enriched her over the years in this place.


Hallway full of windows and plants

Hollywood has often been attracted to the building. Ivy recalls washing Michael Douglas' bloody shirt during the filming of Fatal Attraction here, and she tells of the time she had a house guest during the shooting of Ed Harris' suicide scene in The Hours. "My old college professor was sitting in the living room and he was pretty drunk. He saw the body go by and freaked out. He called me in a panic, 'Someone jumped out the upstairs window! And now others are following!' They had multiple dummies of Ed Harris they kept throwing out the window. He couldn't figure out what was going on."

No stranger to death, the apartment is haunted, she told me, maybe from its days as a Civil War hospital. Ghosts linger. Now and then, Ivy still finds one of the thousands of straight pins that once littered the floorboards, leftovers from some manufacturing--there was a lot of that here, from the original resident Herring Safe & Lock Co., to the Follett Time Recording Co., the Hanson Granule Co. (makers of bromide-seltzer), and the Elite Metal Co., makers of "Fancy Metal Goods" in the 1920s (see pic).



People ask Ivy if she hates what has happened to the neighborhood, with so many people she loved swept away and no place for them to exist again among the high-luxury hotels and boutiques.

She responds, "I choose not to live with hate, but I do miss it. I miss my neighbors, the people who've been thrown out. I miss the neighborhood. On Sundays in summer, we'd barbecue on the sidewalk and open the fire hydrants. It was old-fashioned. I used to walk to Western Beef, where the Apple store is now, in my pajamas and a pair of boots to get a quart of milk. Now if I go out without my hair combed, everyone's looking me up and down."



She was unhappy here for awhile, but it got better when she got her dog, Buster. He likes going into the clothing boutiques because they have biscuits, and he introduced Ivy to the people there. "Having the dog re-humanized the neighborhood for me. Before that, it was just Us and Them. It was terrible."

And she loves running the gallery she opened in 2001, where she has tea parties and brings people together. Her artists include Kenjiro Kitade who makes a skull planter in which you can grow a Hibaku Tree from Hiroshima, and Tim Groen who pairs paint-by-numbers with vintage ads and cut-out captions. Ivy's next show will feature the heartbeat drawings of Sasaki.



Most of all, Ivy loves life in the Triangle Building, even with the ocean of drunken noise outside, a cacophony that would have drowned out the streetwalkers. ("I never shouted WOO! when I was in my twenties," she said.) The apartment is outfitted with brick walls and plank wood floors. Pipes run along the pressed-tin ceiling. Books and plants overflow everywhere. It has an energy that pulls you through its length, drawing you to its very tip where it seems to thrust uptown, like the prow of a ship.

"Living in an isosceles triangle is supposed to be bad Feng Shui," says Ivy, "so I do things to counteract that. It's like living in a live body. Things happen here. It makes noises, it leaks, it floods. Sometimes it feels like it cries. It burps. It's got indigestion. Sometimes the electricity undulates. It's not just a normal apartment building, and everyone feels that when they walk in. I respect it. I sage it regularly. It deserves that. It's been so good to me."

45 comments:

Marty Wombacher said...

This was a great piece of writing and New York City memories. Thanks to Ivy Brown for sharing those great stories. I'm definitely going to check out her gallery and The Triangle.

City Of Strangers said...

Jeremiah,

Agreed, great piece of writing. The bone truck! Man, I could almost see it looking out my window. And the Con Ed worker not batting an eye in Lenny's dungeon. Perfect. That's really what's going missing in New York now, that collision of worlds. Well, that's not entirely true, actually not true at all, but you get much, much less of those absurdist moments that made this city so special. Those kind of moments where you had to laugh and say, God, only in New York.

t.

John M said...

Of all the great posts that have been written here, this one really has to be put on top. What a great, human, moving story...and what an interesting person Ivy is. Yes, very well written, too.

It took me back to the 80s when I used to ride my bike through that neighborhood on blissfully quiet Sundays. And cab rides that took me past the hookers on weekend nights. And going to Florent at 3 or 4 in the morning when it was the only business there. Man, this city has turned to crap in so many ways....so homogenized now.

SpragueD said...

I agree with Marty - a wonderful piece about a fascinating person and place.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks guys. i loved doing this one. Ivy is a wonderful person who tells wonderful stories. it gives me hope to know such people still exist in the city. be sure to check out her gallery.

Marco said...

Great tale of a unique person and neighborhood told with style.

Anonymous said...

nice piece. thanks for sharing!

Carol Gardens said...

I was at a business-related party a few years ago, in the newly renovated bar in the basement. All the people who had lived in NYC for a long time (including me) couldn't stop talking about what the place "used to be". I have heard that the Hellfire/Manhole space was once a stable for police horses. Don't know if that is true. I never went there back in the day but sure heard about it a lot. I DID govto Mother and Florent when the nabe was all about animal entrails and hookers. The hookers never bothered us.

MIke said...

That was a FANTASTIC piece of reading! Bravo! I only caught the very tail end of the old MPD. I remember walking through the stench of fat in the summer going to the gay pride pier dance. It's remarkable how that neighborhood has changed. It is wonderful that Ivy is around to remember all those things. I hope she writes it all down.

Anonymous said...

J, this is your best!! For years, I lived a few blocks south of this bldg.; wondered what its residents were like. Would never venture into the area at night. When I took cabs home at night, remember seeing the "can people" on 14th, west of 9th. They were homeless, sat around large cans with big fires, to stay warm. They were unofficial guards. You can see them in Fatal Attraction. Ivy, please tell us more!

Caleo said...

This to me is a distillation of the Old New York that is disappearing. When I moved here in the late 80's, it seemed there were so many people like Ivy, so many wildly different people living side by side and making it work. There was room for everyone, all fitting in somehow, or building their own little world in some old tenement.
And now...almost none of this type of life left.
All the overserved undergrads and upwardly mobile bankers, they just can't replace what has disappeared.
There used to be 8 million story's in the naked city, all unique and interesting.
Now it's pretty much the same story replicated 8 million times.
Great piece though.

Tricia said...

I can only echo what other commenters have said: Beautiful writing, choice of subject, your best yet. Would love to see a book of portraits of Vanishing New Yorkers by Jeremiah Moss

Goggla said...

These are the people whose lives make up the personality of the city I love. Thank you for sharing this.

I miss Florent, too, and those snowy winter mornings when I'd walk down to the Triangle to stand in the middle of the pristine white square and enjoy the silence.

JSE said...

Really great piece here, I hope you continue in this vein. I agree with the sentiment of some of the other posters, the true essence of NYC living is the collision of worlds or the great experiment, as it were. And although the city has changed so much, it always has and always will. I just hope it stays weird.

lauras said...

a triangle is good. i had a vestibule room like that in my apt in boston. it was built like late 1880s. it was a rectangle space in general but one of the wall was on a slant. also the bedroom it led to had a slant on one of the walls. i know ivy's building. did they destroy all the wooden structures? this was he OLDEST area in manhattan. where there were wooden structures all in a row. not just one or two. i passed there in summer 05, it as a sunday 7 p.m. & very hot. thought no one would be around but here were hunrads of college kids screaming! & pastis was obnoxious, what a shock. walked south down 9th ave, to escape. i had no idea!! this was the beginning of my crazy visits back to NY! i hope someday to return but this takes research!!!! jeremiah thanks for the good post. lr

outwalkingthedog said...

Wow. Fantastic post, Jeremiah. Like so many other commenters, I remember the meat district in the 70s and 80s, Florent, the stench of the streets, people warming themselves at trash can fires and so on. But I never saw or heard of the Bone Truck before. Thank you to Ivy for so generously sharing her beautiful home and her memories – and thanks to you for your curiosity and wonderful writing.

Ivy Brown said...

Wow, its amazing to read about oneself and then to read the reactions, well its all a bit overwhelming, in the best of ways. I feel so lucky to be here and to be able to remain here is truly a gift. There are so many things that have happened in my life via this triangle. My life and those in it would be so different had I not moved in here. And to think I hesitated! Anyone who wants to be on our mailing list for the gallery please feel free to email me at ivy@oneegg.net. And thank you Jeremiah, your words are like the best flood I've ever had!

Anonymous said...

Please ask Ivy to write more. The Bone Truck, Grandma, Taxi, Dizzy Izzy all sound like Southern Gothic elements. The area has now been cleaned up, sterilized, for hotel guests resulting in the MPD becoming an elephant graveyard for Trendies.

Starzstylista said...

You know it was disgusting when you walked through, but I kind of miss the smell of the blood, racks of meat, buckets of ?

My lizard brain is always confused when I go there and there is no meat smell.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Thanks, Jeremiah. I'll just echo everyone else - a really great piece.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i would love to do more like this--interesting people in interesting apartments--but you don't stumble upon an Ivy Brown every day.

DK Brown aka Mr. Ivy Brown said...

You certainly don't meet people like Ivy Brown every day, and I should know. I'm the lucky guy she's married to. Brilliantly written article Jeremiah, absolutely brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Lived south of Triangle. One p.m., exited my apt., almost hit by a car. Female passenger yelled into her cell: "We're late; we are lost; hold our table; have never been in this weird neighborhood before!" Male driver yelled at me: "Where's Pasties?" Me: "Don't know." Driver: "You stupid f-ck!" They sped off. The Horrors had invaded my nice neighborhood. Didn't know where to go but I couldn't wait to get there.

ShatteredMonocle said...

Ditto everyone else. This is one of my favorites.

Anonymous said...

Very nice writing, really vivid.

Jeremiah Moss said...

"The Horrors." good word for them.

laura photographer said...

i told jeremiah to do a book. if he does he should include me.

Ellie P said...

What Ivy knows and what we learn from listening is that she is rich in the only thing that matters: Love of life. She hopped on the bus and hung on for dear life, and we can be grateful that she shines a light on the dark corners of this wonderful city. She has a generosity of spirit that is rare.
Ellie P.

NickB said...

I used to live on Washington St back in the early 90s & friends were afraid to come so far west at night. I romped all over that neighborhood in my platforms leaving Jackie 60 at 5am or lined up at the triangle building to get into J's Hangout after hours. That neighborhood always was super chic to me. Love the leatherboys walking the cobblestone streets early morning and the trannies always said WORK about my outfits. Oh and back then the piers were just so beautiful, sort of decomposing and the water and the moonlight. Love that Ivy keeps it real, the way we used to. I always loved the raw lofts & low buildings & knew the architecture was really great.

Anonymous said...

Here is another triabngle story, in about 1990, the Pope of Pot had a weed spot at the Southeast corner of that same building. I would go in there (16 years old) and they would make huge dime-bags on request from a large black garbage bag filled with weed.

There was another really good weed spot about 2 blocks from there.

All that good stuff is gone now.

donnafleischer said...

I wrote to Ana on Fb: WOW to this blog, your article, and Bow Wow to Tim Groen's work at the Ivy Brown Gallery. (Is The Triangle near the site of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took so many women's lives?)

I am posting on my blog word pond: http://donnafleischer.wordpress.com/ . ~ Donna

john_burke100 said...

In the 1950's there was a bar at the sidewalk level in that building called Johnny Romero's. In those days interracial couples were at serious risk from random thugs but also from cops, who affected to believe they could only be a hooker and her pimp and would roust them on that supposition. Romero's paid off the local precinct captain to relax this policy for its patrons, so it became the one place in Manhattan where an interracial couple could go have a drink, hang out, dance to the juke box in safety. Charles Gordone's play "No Place to be Somebody" was set in a thinly disguised version of Romero's.

thegaycurmudgeon said...

Just happened upon this piece through a link in the New York Times. Kudos to you for this piece and for this blog.
P.S. I once met someone who lived in this building and I also went to Jay's Hangout once. I lasted about five seconds. When I walked in, I saw some guy in a bathtub being pissed on. That was enough for me.

Anonymous said...

good on yu , ivy .............bohemia in a classist nyc.....................such a sad state for urban centres that only the fucking rich can enjoy them

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks John and Curmudgeon for the extra details. i wish there were photos of that place and time--really tough to find them.

Anonymous said...

Phenomenal post! Thank you IVY for sharing your story/history with us, and I hope you write a book because you are one of those wonderful people who has the history of an entire neighborhood in your head.

Joachim said...

I recall watching a fashion shoot in '88 from Ivy's windows. Turlington, Campbell, Seymour, Patiz as rather young supermodels.

Double the amount of trannies were showing them how to pose & shasay. Not Paris, but the Meat Packing district was Burning...

EMMA HARVEY said...

Darling Ivy, the most stylish, kindest and interesting people I ever knew.... I remember when you moved into that building and I can't believe you are still there!

I will always remember you nurturing me back to a sound state of mildness, when I arrived at a soiree you were having - after trekking through minus 35 degree wind chill forces, back in the mid 80's!

How are you girl - still looking fabulous! Much love from Emma in Ausrtalia xx

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read. I am a tgirl and sometimes went to to the meat pack area from my place on Ave A in the 80's. Frequented the Vault, ate bagels from the bagel store, even shopped at Lee's, I kinda knew people who worked at Lee's. Thanks for writing your story, it brought back dear memories for me, friends long lost, dreams unattained, I miss those days, but memories are precious unfortunately,,my memory is fading, thanks again for bringing memories back to me..

Jeremiah Moss said...

Anon tgirl, glad you found this interview and got to relive some memories. i wish the Meatpacking District was still for you and your friends.

Yvonne B said...

Thanks for replying back to me, I am not really an anon tgirl,, my name is Yvonne, I just don't know how to work things. I wish things were still the same, I think most of my friends are dead. I just wish for one more week, or just one weekend together, as it was back then. I did things, not too proud of but one had to survive. Jobs were not there for me back then. But still, it was fun times. Thanks for your work on these blogs and stories, I get a good feeling reading all the stories of past NYC.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Yvonne, if you'd ever like to share some of your stories of that time and place with us, please write me at jeremoss@yahoo.com.

Anonymous said...

I lived in New York from 2001 to 2008. Having just returned a couple of months ago after a 5 year absence, I'm staggered how a city could change so much. Homogenized, generic, too safe. Is it societal change or local politics that has ripped the heart ( and crotch!) out of this city. Dozens of quirky little places ( and the big night clubs ) are gone. High rents and government regulations must play a role in killing the spirit of businesses. Bring back the spirit and enthusiasm to encourage the 'Jays Hangout' types of places. Its what made this city in the first place. Shock, laughter, surprise, intrigue. Try finding that in the next Duane Reade they open on your block.

Debra Ordway said...

Awesome, I loved the 70's and 80's in NY. These stories bring me back to a time of creativity and struggle. Thankyou for reminding me of how much I loved Manhattan back then!

princessselena said...

love this place!....
Ivy is great!