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Meet 12th Street

Change has always been a force, for better or worse, along the East and West Village side streets. This is particularly true on the east side of 12th Street, where not one, but two distinguished churches have met their fate. Recently, Mary Help of Christians Church was reportedly purchased for $41 million by developer Douglas Steiner, who plans to build an apartment complex. Built in 1917, this Roman Catholic church was closed by the New York Archdiocese in 2007. Today, much of the street between Avenue A and First Avenue is surrounded by construction and all its detritus as demolition and reconfiguration begin on what were once a church, rectory, school, and much-loved flea market.

I did a double take when I came upon the facade of another church at 120 East 12th. Unraveling the history of so many of the sites that I have encountered continues to be a highlight of my adventure. This intriguing structure seemed to call out for discovery. It is disputed who originally built this structure in 1847, either the Episcopalian or the Baptist community. In 1854, the fairly new Reform movement of Judaism purchased the building and converted it to a synagogue. Temple Emanu-el held services here until they moved out in 1868. Two years later, the pastor of St. Ann’s Catholic Church purchased the building; elaborate construction ensued. At completion, the church was able to seat 1,600 people. Only from photos can I detect what a magnificent structure it was. Unfortunately, it was never given landmark status. Therefore, shortly after the Archdiocese of NY decided to close its doors, a developer scooped up the property. In 2008, New York University completed Founders Hall, which provides residential housing for its students, and today, all that is left of St. Ann’s is the facade.

Not every historic building is at risk on 12th. At 34 ½ East 12th Street, a building was erected in 1855 that became one of the first all-girls schools in New York. Today, the building remains open and operating as the Police Athletic League’s headquarters. For half a century it has been a center for programs that pair New York police officers with children in communities around the city. Thankfully, in 1998, it was designated as a New York City landmark.

Interestingly, with the exception of Artikal, where Holly Slayton has her millinery studio, there are no fashion boutiques on 12th. Despite the construction and the more subtle changes taking place here, there are several shops and restaurants worth seeking out. The Cure Thrift Shop is a blend of vintage, random items, and a cause. As a child, Liz Wolff was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, which spurred her to open a non-profit thrift shop to fund diabetes research.

On the corner of Broadway and 12th street, the 18 miles of books housed at the famous Strand Book Store have been mesmerizing readers and collectors alike since 1956. The perfect gift shop lies much further west at Teich, which always enchants with their selection of handcrafted items.

Holly Eastman at Kentshire Galleries (now closed, sadly) chatted with us about the changes that she has noticed on 12th over the years: “The area used to be all about the wholesale, design and furniture industry, but much of that has moved to midtown. Today we have a younger neighborhood. Therefore, there are boutiques and more restaurants and bars surrounding us, and what has reflected that change is who enters our antique shop. Now we have more of a retail customer base, rather than those coming in from the trade.”

A smorgasbord of eateries spans East 12th Street. In two totally disparate settings where organic food and healthy eating play an important role, we enjoyed meals at  Ciao for Now and Hearth.

Nothing characterizes 12th Street’s fresh, young side quite like Will and Julie Horowitz’s Ducks Eatery. Cooking is in their blood. The duo’s paternal grandparents owned a Jewish deli in Harlem, while their maternal grandparents lived and cooked in Italy. Each has lived and cooked around the world and brought that global experience to the Eatery. Motorino Napoletana’s pizza is considered one of New York City’s best, and Sarita’s Mac and Cheese is a great concept for those who crave this American favorite. At Num Pang, it might not look like much when first stepping up to the counter, but the sandwiches are topnotch.

Moving further west, the list goes on with Dorado serving terrific Mexican fast food, 12th Street offers Strip House, and never to be forgotten is popular Cafe Cluny and Graydon Carter’s Beatrice Inn.

Standing right alongside these places that have opened in the last ten years or so are John’s of 12th Street, which has been serving Italian food since 1908, and Gotham Bar & Grill, which has consistently served outstanding food since the 1980s.

Despite its impending developments, 12th Street remains an East and West Village side street to its core. It is a mixed bag of independent spirits, quirky niche shops, and that bohemian flair that permeates its surrounding sister streets as well.

Read more about every place on 12th Street!