Across the avenue from my doctor’s office is the building with the clock tower. It was 4:05 PM.
Clock towers: “Back to the Future,” the Prairie Village pool complex, with the clock up there where we could look up from the water to see it was the time Mom said we had to leave, “Peter Pan.”
I had allowed an hour to get to the doctor, and it had taken half an hour to get there. I had written to my boss that I would have to leave a little early. Now it was cold and raining and I had half an hour. I crossed my arms for warmth, and crossed the avenue, and followed a mom and a kid up the steps and in the doors.
Inside was as lovely as outside, vaulting ceilings, a grandiose spiral staircase going up and a Hobbity one going down. I went down first, Hobbity, and looked over the space, a bitty art display in the hall, then a room of people staring at laptops and books, a few of them homeless and pee-scented. The public library scene. Upstairs, at the top of the spiral, there was a wheel of iron that kept the tower open, held it to its proper circumference, kept is lung open, and there were more rooms that were now library rooms, the people, the same, basically, quiet, and I walked around spectator only like I had no interest in books and no library card in my billfold.
These were courtrooms, these various rooms, where people, instead of being in quiet, were engaged in civilized fighting and frequently were chewing on all kinds of hostile feelings and worries. The children’s reading room was once the police court, the adult reading room was a civil court.
In the entry, there was a glass case with a display about the history of the building. It was a market and a tower to look for fires (like in the wilderness, now), then that was demolished. Famous architects built a courthouse. Completed, it was named one of the five loveliest buildings in the world. It was a courthouse, then various city offices, then attacked by all the forces of irritability of the city trying to be modern, and saved, post-Penn Station. The building is on a funny-shaped lot, where Greenwich Village starts and things get confusing, and have gotten confusing, in every way since they set up the grid uptown. The back half of the lot is also a funny shape, and on it was built a women’s prison.
It was the 1930s, and prisoners in New York City were moving from what is now Roosevelt Island to Riker’s and to this facility, and they were becoming “inmates” instead of “prisoners.”
When it opened, people complained that the building was too lovely for such a shitty neighborhood, Greenwich Village, 1932.
People complained that the screams of the women in the women’s prison were bothersome. “Hardly the conversation we want our children to hear.” For forty years, people yelled up to their friends, relatives, and enemies housed inside. It was a prison with windows that opened, and whosoever was in jail was yelling out and free people were yelling in and at it.
Dorothy Day, Angela Davis, and Ethel Rosenberg: in.
And what time is it?
After moving our prison from Roosevelt Island to Riker’s, the New York Times suggests, among other ideas, that Riker’s be “given back to the sea gulls.” And the people we imprison or inmate will be moved again.
When the women’s prison was torn down, a process begun by Mayor Lindsay in a cute white hard hat, the courthouse that became a library was no longer overshadowed. Its clock tower could be seen again from more angles. And the piece of land behind it became a park: “10 Star and Saucer Magnolia trees, 7 Yoshino Cherry trees, 2 American Yellowwoods, 7 Thornless Honeylocusts, 10 Crabapple trees, 70 fairy hedge roses around the lawn, 60 pycarantha, and 56 holly bushes in clusters.” I stood and read that with my lips moving because all the names were so melodic, the wind was cold, and I saw that there were roses growing in and on the fence because there were thorns.
It was 4:25 PM.
In the image above, the prison is the ominous thing on the left. The elevated subway on 6th Avenue is long gone.
Photo by Berenice Abbott, 1935, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
My favorite source on the Women’s House of Detention
The Garden and what was planted there.