Thursday, March 24, 2011

JOE ZITO: Walking The Beat With The Clinton/Hell's Kitchen Historian

Walk Ninth Avenue with Joe Zito and let him transport you back in time. How far back he takes you depends on the blocks and the buildings you pass. He can whisk you seventy, ninety, one hundred fifty years back in time. Mr. Zito is not a time traveler nor is he a magician but he is a master at unraveling the history of old buildings. When you see a dilapidated tenement built in the mid-eighteen hundreds, he sees craftsmanship and beauty underneath years of neglect.

Zito, a "lover of cities has studied architectural history almost forty years. Known as  "Clinton's Historian" after the New York City neighborhood where he resides, Zito has written a column for the local community newspaper The Clinton Chronicle since 1999. Clinton or Hell's Kitchen is a one-time rough neighborhood stretching from 34th to 59th Streets. When Zito first started researching the area's buildings and history few visitors ventured west of Eight Avenue.

He has conducted walking tours, lectures and slide shows at the Brooklyn Museum, The Municipal Arts Society, NYU, community centers, and The New York Public Library branches at the Science, Industry and Business on West 34th at Madison Avenue, and at Columbus near 51st street on Tenth Avenue. He often lectured at the old Donnell branch and once gave an excellent lecture comparing London and New York architecture.

He has led tours in downtown Brooklyn and in Manhattan from the Financial District to Harlem. "I have taken groups to Kleindeutschland. Few people know where that is," Zito, laughed referring to what was once the third largest German speaking community in the world, located from 14th to Houston, to the East River.

Three years ago I stood along traffic clogged Ninth Avenue with Zito, then 95 years old. Unfazed by the sweltering heat of this late August afternoon, layered with exhaust fumes from vans and buses blocking the intersection in front of us Zito, who packs more energy and enthusiasm than people half his age walked over two miles that day, and unveiled his secret world of sculptured faces, angels, winged-lions, nymphs, arched serpents, renaissance arches, Victorian turrets all of which decorate buildings in Clinton. He also offered answers to buildings I often stopped to admire but knew nothing about. He praised the beauty of two buildings he saw for the first time while taking a mental snapshot of their location and architectural details. Within a week Zito would know everything about these buildings.

He rhapsodizes poetically on these forgotten gems. The wail of emergency vehicle sirens and the deafening sounds generated by the construction sites we passed did not distract him from talking about Florentine palazzos, and Greek mythology, images he uses to describe his buildings.

Zito became interested in architecture near the end of his thirty-year NYPD career. Vacations to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Washington with Joan, his late wife of 55 years, spurred his interest. "We planned trips as vacation/learning experiences. We studied architecture and cultural history," he said. "I learned how style connects with history."

Walking and his keen attention to detail harken back to his days as a beat patrolman in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He also worked in the police commissioner's office and the detective's division. Rising to the rank of Captain, he served briefly at the 16th Precinct on West 47th, now Ramon Aponte Playground. A modest man he downplayed his last post as commander of 200 personnel at a Staten Island precinct. "We rescued a lot of cats from trees," he said. "I felt like a sheriff in a small town."

He grew up in Brooklyn and attended New Utrecht High, then graduated from Fordham University during the depression. "There were no jobs. Times were tough," he said. He got a job as a rewrite man and copyreader for a racing newspaper. "I read for mistakes,” he said. "And The Encyclopedia of New York has plenty."

When the paper he worked for in Boston folded Zito joined the NYPD. After retiring in 1972 he took art and literature classes at NYU and assisted his professors with class tours. He has lectured ever since. When he moved to Clinton 23 years ago Napoleon LeBrun's Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church on 51st street just off Tenth Avenue street first captured his attention. "The deep red brick blends beautifully with the terra cotta and light-colored stone arches," he said.
His late daughter, Donna, a nurse at Roosevelt Hospital, told him about St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church on West 46th east of Seventh Avenue. Designed by Pierre LeBrun, Napoleon’s son, Zito applauds the use of ornamental brick and terra cotta figures on the facade.

Zito specialty is pre-law tenements. Two of his favorites are the 1886 Werner building, #787 Ninth Avenue, home of the  "Green Men" - the four stone masks of Greek mythology that adorn the building’s second floor. Years of neglect have tarnished its grandeur. "It is as beautiful a building as you will find on Fifth or Park Avenues." Zito said. The second is Stanford White's elegant 1887 Wanaque (photo r), a French Flat, and forerunner to the apartment house,  a residence used 
by Fountain House.

When asked how he prepares, Zito replied, "I visit the sight, I read extensively and I research.  He added, "I remember what a brilliant policewoman once said  'review, review, review.'" 
I never skim the surface. I enjoy digging deep. It helps to have a
passion for what you do."

Please visit Joe Zito’s blog:

Photo top: Joe Zito standing in front of the site of  Stillman's  gym - 300 West 55th St. - where Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and others trained.
Photo bottom: Wanaque - 359 West 47th St.  Photos by Rudi Papiri