An Emerald City Wheezes: A NYC Walking Tour of the Cherokee Apt. Building on 78th & York.

I click my heels three times.  There’s no place like home.

New York is an electric mess of metal and concrete, noise and people. Slick and buzzing, a thin layer of ice covers a worn grid etched over a tiny island.  An emerald city is dying inside the snowy mist and grime. It erodes by the water, wheezing.  It’s called The Cherokee.  This is my building and I was entirely unaware of its unique history when I moved in about 6 months ago.

The Cherokee – a hidden oddity beyond the freezing rain-soaked streets – below York Avenue, squats over an entire block.  The building is painted like an emerald inside the city.  It’s a historical relic and one of the city’s most natural, hidden museums.  This summer when I answered an ad on Craigslist, I sprinted over in the crippling heat and humidity to see the place.  Ornate green arches greeted me.  The building itself, felt steeped in another time, like a Parisian Belle Epoque.  It’s sepia-toned and splashed with layers of green – green doors, emerald banisters and railing. The walls arch and creak over an outdoor staircase.

Immediately after I saw the façade of the building, I applied to live there.  I don’t know why I was inexplicably drawn to this fossilized landmark building, but soon after I moved in, I started googling its history.

The Cherokee was erected in 1909, funded by the Vanderbilts.  Originally referred to as “The Shively Tenements” (named for Dr. Shively, the man who dreamed the place up), the massive building consumes the entire block.  It once served as medical housing for poverty-stricken New Yorkers with tuberculosis. The project was scrapped after four years and the building became a cooperative by 1924. Decaying along the riverside, the Cherokee is a stalwart emerald city within the city, aging under collecting layers of paint.  Unchanging and magnificently faded, it reaches to the river, eroding under the city’s artificial light.

Currently, every apartment is maintained or rented out by each individual owner, while the shell of the building retains its original, crumbling grandeur.  Law prohibits the use of anything other than the building’s original materials for repairs.  This is why my windows are cracked.  All screens and air conditioners must be hidden from view.  The face of the building still wears traces of the past, of tubercular-times when the patients who lived there would sit out on their balconies and attempt to breathe freely.

Every apartment in the once consumptive Cherokee has big wonky-eyed windows to allow for easy access to “open air,” the only treatment for TB back in the day.  The windowed eyes of the building hoard sunlight (a New York commodity), perhaps to ease the sickness. Too much sunshine illuminates the dust in the air — particles of waste — the cracks and flaws, the past. Decaying floor-to-ceiling panels line the walls. I look out on the twinkling city from my translucent tower, and the city returns my gaze.

The iron rails that run along the building are painted the same emerald green.  They swirl like curlicues.  Dozens of identical balconies line the building on all sides.  Each one looks like a set of spindly witch’s fingers reaching outward to an expansive sky.  On the outside of the building, ornate swirls of faded color grip wizardly crystal bulbs to light a path.

I circle up the outdoor stairwell and quickly become lightheaded.  Easing my way up the stairs, I hold my breath.  My apartment is 250 square feet and six flights up.  There is no elevator.  I’m isolated in the sky in this box-shaped IKEA-stocked home for the modern Rapunzel or withering Dorothy.  I sense the spirit of the wizard nearby.  Spiriting us into asphyxiation and momentary magic, an eternal cough is nestled into the network of fibers, just below the surface, in the pores of the walls.

We are haunted here.  And the ghosts have landmark status.

My ascent up the Cherokee stairs makes me think of the tuberculosis-stricken families, treading up to the sixth floor and stopping along the way to rest in little emerald-green metal seats bucketed along the stairs.  The seats are now planters.  The building’s old clawed bathtubs are two-toned, cosmetically enhanced, newly green and scattered throughout the courtyard, filled with flowers and dirt and giant beetles that live in the soil.  A sick person once bathed there, but the scent of past families and the city’s sores, the sepia and rotting spots are delicately masked and painted over. I watch the bathtubs grow smaller from the circular outdoor stairwell.

The essence of illness laces the walls and distills in the open air.  The history – the echoing cough of generations past – is faintly apparent, consumptive, ghostly. The Cherokee is designed to consume air, but it breathes with great effort.  The building archways make shadows on the doorstep, curl into green fumes of iron and rot.  The paint peels.  The windows gape.  The architecture makes shade, swathed in glowing lamplight and iron bursts of luminescent color.

In the summer – when I moved in – a collective air conditioner gushed through the courtyard.  It made the building sound like a massive lung, straining, wheezing, struggling to breathe.  It gurgled fluid, exhaled with great effort. All year-round, Green claws of iron grope the air and gasp.  The Cherokee is suffocating, sepia-toned and green-tinted, sickening inward for a century.  This is what’s left of a tubercular lifestyle.  Places like this exist in New York — still the same.   One hundred years old and barely breathing, arching like a sick animal about to cough – aching – braced for magic.