by Alyssa Matesic
The fireplace to my left is cold, and the evening air outside is biting, but warmth emanates from words spoken behind the microphone. Heavy coats are draped across the backs of black folding chairs as the entry room of the quaint little house fills up. Soon, the cozy audience in the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House is crammed in tight. High-pitched greetings and gentle, friendly hugs make the environment feel familiar, even to a stranger.
The first poet takes the podium and begins to read. Her voice is low and inviting, and her words pierce and caress the air around us. I feel at ease, almost entranced. Over the course of the hour-long poetry reading, my mind is pulled along the street outside. It’s strange how few in the NYU community know of this building, this street and this community. The Creative Writers House has served as a meetinghouse for artists since its establishment and construction in 1836. Though I’m surrounded by unfamiliar faces, I feel the community of West 10th Street.
I look out the room’s large, cut glass window behind the poets and into the dark street. It was, once, a fashionable area for Victorian New Yorkers to live and has historically been a gathering place for artists. West 10th is now a residential pocket between the chaotic Fifth and Sixth Avenues, a quiet escape from commercial Manhattan. The homes are all equally charming; most have façades of old red brick, arched windows and stoops decorated with potted plants.
Outside the window, I can see dark shadow puppets moving about inside their private homes. The residents on the street all live within this beautiful architecture dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. The inhabited windows emit a warm yellow, not the color of the sun, but deeper, darker, richer. It’s the color of fire simmering down in the fireplace. The color of home.
I like to think that masterpieces have been created in the buildings on this block. Poet Emma Lazarus supposedly composed her most famous piece, “The New Colossus,” at 18 West 10th Street, the poem engraved in a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
By dusk, the London-inspired street lamps on the street outside have all kicked on. Inside these homes I see beauty in the delicate glass chandeliers hanging in whitewashed rooms. I see hallways decorated with framed artwork and narrow staircases with carved wooden handrails. I see a woman eating alone at a plain, wooden dining table.
Back in the Creative Writers House, the last poet steps up to read. Her pieces center on domestic struggle and seem to hit home with the group. A few audience members sigh aloud as she finishes her last lines. It’s like music to the ears, familiar music. I remember stopping in front of 12 West 10th Street at a multi-story townhouse and hearing the faint sound of a piano. It was once the home of American author Emily Post, famous for her musings on etiquette. It seems fitting that her residence is accompanied by an elegant soundtrack.
Continuing down the block, I remember passing the former homes of Mark Twain, Marcel Duchamp, Jerry Herman and Edward Albee. The artists would’ve embraced the light of West 10th, the warmth. I trace their steps on the sidewalk as I take my own.
I visited the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House in search of proof that masterpieces are still being created, and spoken, and received, on what may be considered the most beautiful block in Manhattan. And I successfully found my evidence in the way poet Anna Journey pierced the air with her harsh consonants and brilliant diction, in the way poet Geoffrey G. O’Brien completely adopted a new expression and persona while reading, in the way Martha Rhodes’ words elicited such a response. That evening, in the three-story townhouse dedicated to encouraging creative minds, magic happened. It’s comforting for me to think it happens often on West 10th Street.