26 Cornelia Street is an apartment house on a street that is exactly one block long in the heart of Greenwich Village in New York City. 26 Cornelia is on the right side of the image below and the first of the three green canopies marks the front door. You are seeing the entire length of Cornelia Street in this image:
We moved there when I finished my Columbia University MFA course work in 1990 and we paid $900 a month for the studio apartment that had been converted to a Co-Op when the building turned — a massive budget-breaker from the $596.00 we were paying for a Columbia-sponsored one bedroom apartment located at 112th Street and Broadway.
Our Columbia apartment was one block away from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and four blocks from the main campus. Our old apartment building is right behind the Labyrinth Books sign and the Cathedral is dead center a block away…
…and in our Columbia apartment we also lived right across the street from Tom’s Restaurant made famous by Seinfeld and by singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega. That crosswalk leads directly from Tom’s to our front door.
26 Cornelia Street was an old world dwelling with the bathtub in the kitchen. We were renting from a friend who said he could easily get $1,200 a month for the place because of its prime location in the Village and how near it was to NYU and so many subway stations.
We believed him. The apartment was incredibly convenient to everything New
The entirety of the 26 Cornelia Street apartment was less than 200 square feet. You could see a partial view of the Empire State Building out the window if you cranked open the window and craned your neck around the outside of the building and then held out a mirror with your left hand to pinch a view.
There was no shower. There was a small bathroom that hid only a toilet.
The walls felt as if they were made from foam core. There was a large closet we used for storage the previous tenants called a “bedroom.”
Taking a bath in the morning was always an event. There was a large block of wood covering the bathtub — it served as the dining table — and you’d swing up the wood via a hinge and fasten it high above you with a metal hook into an eyelet. The only way to access the bunk bed we’d built to give us more room was to climb up and down by using a step ladder perched on top of the bathtub’s tabletop.
You had to carefully orchestrate bath time with eating and sleeping and napping.
When the building was converted from gas lighting to electric lighting, the gas line in the ceiling was never capped.
We slept in the top bunk with the slight scent of gas filling our noses. Luckily we were able to smell the gas swirling along our ceiling from our high sleeping perch and Consolidated Edison came over and turned off our gas service until our landlord closed the open, ancient, lead pipe.
Con-Ed guessed that pipe had been leaking gas for over 100 years. We were grateful we weren’t smokers or we probably would have blown up the entire building when we lighted a match.
The day we moved in the ceiling fell on us when the tap dancing tenant above dropped a refrigerator during his self-approved Co-Op renovation.
Over a century of muck — horse hair, newsprint, plaster bits, nails, leather latticework — covered the little everything we owned. It took eight months to get the 6×6 foot hole patched.
Rumor had it the great poet W.H. Auden lived in our apartment and that was always a thrill knowing the everlasting echoes of a genius mind were prattling around in the night.
We stayed about a year at 26 Cornelia Street — that was all our Midwestern sensibilities could take — but we wouldn’t give up the experience for anything. I wrote my MFA thesis in that apartment.
We became true New Yorkers for life there.
We felt the real world of New York pulsing all around us 24 hours a day and it was an experience most people only read about in books or watch in movies. We lived it. We
Cornelia is a quiet and elegant street where just around each corner perpetual danger and mayhem and idiocy and brilliance all lurk. We shared the brightest of both worlds — the historic and the now — while living in ancient New York with a partial view of the momentary Empire surrounding us.