"When beggars die there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."
Shakespeare – "Julius Caesar"
For people in the West Village where he lived and died, his colleagues and fans around the world, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was a prince.
The news of his death has become personal as the condominium where he lived, Pickwick House in the West Village, fills the view from my apartment window. Flanked by the Hudson River in the west, the Meat Packing District to the north, Hudson Street to the east, and Bank Street to the south, Westbeth, now historically land marked as the former Bell Labs, has housed artists in all mediums since its opening in 1970. Walking home on Bethune Street late on February 2nd, I was shocked to see flashing police car lights, yellow caution tape and flower bouquets leaning on an icy stoop. After I went up to a NBC News truck to find out what happened, I was soon lit with a mike in my face. I later discovered that many of my friends, bartenders and other locals had been interviewed to round out the story that had just begun.
Public gathering across from Hoffman's Building, NYC
After his passing, in an array of tributes, poignant headlines and media coverage, more has become known about Hoffman's private life and brilliant career than when he was alive. His studied legacy reveals an acting genius committed to applying his talent to portray depth of character and a stature he used to promote the development of theatre for future generations. His untimely death by a suspected heroin overdose has sparked greater controversy than the numerous roles he courageously tackled in film and theatre – his pedophile priest in "Doubt"; charismatic cult leader in "The Master"; his Oscar winning portrait in "Truman Capote" and his recent Tony nominated performance as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman", a man humiliated by society, disintegrating before our eyes.
Rather than choose a glamorous Hollywood lifestyle, Hoffman remained in the Village where he graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in 1989 and lived like a regular guy riding his bike, schooling his kids and hanging out. Almost unrecognizable, his disheveled appearance fit in with Westbeth's casual artists who shared his daily trek to the supermarket. However, for many tenants who live in our federally funded complex of lofts and studios who have shared celebrity sightings of Glenn Close, Sarah Jessica Parker and Julianne Moore and witnessed the massive upscale to our neighborhood, our annual salary is less than Hoffman's monthly rent
Westbeth Courtyard - 155 Bank Street, NYC
Hoffman frequented our building as home to the Labyrinth Theater that he helped found in 1992, often directing and appearing in plays they produced. On Wednesday, February 5th, as Broadway dimmed its marquees, the theatre hosted a moving community prayer and candlelight vigil where solemn mourners stood in the snow-piled courtyard and listened to an eloquent eulogy by Rev. Jim Martin.
The irony of our prosaic West Village is that it has witnessed so much violence in recent decades. From the Stonewall riots in 1969 that triggered the gay rights movement - its seedy reputation in the 1970s as a mecca for transvestite prostitutes who serviced their johns in trailers by the river where pimps stashed drugs in trees on the piers setting off a spree of robberies, murders and suicides – the bizarre S&M scene centered in the dungeon of the Anvil club that spread the killer aids – our close proximity to the World Trade Center on 9/11 when the stench from smoldering flames lasted for months – to the floods caused by the surging Hudson River during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 - we, as true New Yorkers, have survived and thrived.
For those who've lived here the longest, the neighborhood's transformation brings a mixed blessing. Although the streets are safer and we enjoy the beautiful waterfront Hudson River Park, the extensive housing development that began in the 1990s jacked up rents so high they drove out many favored haunts and historic venues. New wealthy residents fueled the Meat Packing District's extreme make over. I remember its blood soaked sidewalks and butcher warehouses now high-end hotels, clubs, restaurants, galleries and designer boutiques. My favorite sleazy supermarket, Western Beef, was replaced by an elegant Apple Store. The High Line, that ends as a grassy wasteland on the third floor of Westbeth, was an overhead railway track whose rusty sleeper beams now support a nature preserve and world-renowned walkway. Across the street on Bethune, where an old parking lot and shell of the Superior Ink factory stood for years, rows of multi-million dollar townhouses and sleek condominiums block our river views. Our beloved Bleecker Street, trending towards Rodeo Drive East, that once had charming antique, craft and exotic curio shops is now a tourist drag strip of flagships for Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Coach, Burberry and Michael Kors. Across Sixth Avenue, Little Italy's mom and pop Zito Bread, Murray Cheese and fresh vegetable stores are gone.
Although the current of underworld crime that could have allowed Hoffman to buy heroin in a corner bar still flows, there are the quaint brownstones with ivy covered brick walls and hidden gardens on tree-lined cobblestone streets with plaques commemorating the literary luminaries who once lived there, quiet parks, vintage churches and synagogues, time honored theatre venues and jazz clubs, legendary bars, bookstores and outdoor cafes, that remain. For me, the beauty of living here is being part of a great city in a place where you can really live. I guess Phillip Seymour Hoffman felt the same way.
"Now cracks a noble heart
good night, sweet prince
and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
Shakespeare – "Hamlet"
Phillip Seymour Hoffman
1967 - 2014
Photos - Judy Lawne