Taking a break from transforming a vacant storefront into a waxing and color room for the neighboring salon, the birdman of the West Village is absolutely covered in white paint, stray strokes smeared upon his neck, jeans, and Timberlands. White powder is caked on his round glasses and the leathery skin of his tattooed forearms, clear evidence of his relationship with drywall and plaster. The master carpenter motions towards the window, pointing at a three story, log-cabin birdhouse, the most recent of his contributions to the neighborhood.
For about nine years, Vincent Mele, 66, has been handcrafting whimsical birdhouses to decorate McCarthy Square, the triangular park at the intersection of Seventh Avenue, Charles Street, and Waverly Place. “Whatever is in my head, I build it,” he said.
Frank Crapanzano, 83, a close friend and neighbor of Mele’s, maintains McCarthy Square. Crapanzano began adding shrubbery and benches to spruce up the barren ground surrounding the historic World War II monument, a square flagstaff base with an inscription that reads “Brave Men and Worth, Patriots Dear to God, And Famous to All Ages.” Soon, Mele wanted to contribute too. “It’s like our backyard,” Crapanzano said.
One of Mele’s first installations was an exact replica of the adjacent red apartment complex where he lives. Meticulous, Mele left nothing out, from the corner stop sign to the olive awning. “Everybody in the neighborhood went crazy!” Crapanzano recalls. “I was awed. I didn’t know he could do this!” People began taking pictures and asking questions as speculation grew about the birdhouse’s masterful creator.
Within hours of its installation, the masterpiece was stolen, then found, and then stolen again last year — that time for good (or until Mele finishes the new replica he’s been painstakingly working on).
Just like his birdhouses, Mele himself is a West Village staple. Every morning he wakes up at 5:30, drinks a Budweiser (he corrects himself, “Just kidding … coffee!”) and roams the neighborhood with his four Siberian huskies. His four cats have to stay at home.
“Everyone here knows me, they say hi to me, and that’s it!” he says with a thick, New York accent. In testimony to his straightforward attitude, Mele has a habit of ending sentences with “that’s it” or “that’s what it is.”
A native New Yorker, Mele (whose last name at birth was Baley) took his first breath in the former St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center in 1951. “Everything in life goes around full circle. You wind up exactly where you were born, and it’s exactly where you’re going to die,” he jokes. He has lived in the West Village for 29 years.
“I didn’t grow up like a normal kid would,” he recalled. While most kids would get a job “delivering newspapers or cutting lawns,” he said, “I went out and I had to be a big shot.” At the age of 15, Mele secured a job as a commercial fisherman in Montauk.
Shortly after, Mele joined the Marine Corps, a 17-year experience he prefers not to discuss. He soon returned to his work as a commercial fisherman, spending his workdays on the waters in Montauk and his free time dabbling in oil paints and carpentry work.
He continued his work as a commercial fisherman until the audacious Marian Mele waltzed into his life. “Some woman from Greenwich Village came to Montauk and decided that she was going to make me her husband and that was the end of it,” he says. “I never went back to fishing. I left everything on the boat.” Within six months of their encounter, the two were married — and he took her last name.
After Mele moved back to the West Village, his ingenuity for carpentry took center stage. He nonchalantly rattles off a few of his gigs — stagehand at NY1, carpenter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and head carpenter at Radio City Music Hall for the iconic Christmas show.
Now retired, Mele still finds himself doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. From designing a CD wall for Nobu Downtown to his current renovation of the Salon Limitone, he still finds time to tend to his birdhouses. “When they start to look a little shabby, I’ll just telephone Frank and a build a new one,” he casually explains. “That’s it.”
Mele prefers to use whatever he has on hand to ensure the birdhouses are kept interesting. To make it even more challenging, he very rarely uses metallics, which includes screws and nails. For many, building a three-story log cabin birdhouse out of an old beer skid seems unconventional. For Mele, “that’s just what it is.” Given the right time and equipment, Mele can build a birdhouse of this size in a mere two days.
The birdhouses range from a Grecian temple to a water mill to the beloved Charles Street apartment replica. “Anything he does with his hands is incredible,” Crapanzano raved. “His hands are blessed.”
Unplanned and unpredictable, the birdhouse man’s spontaneous creations continue to excite, and confuse, neighbors. “They’re very cute,” Andrew Drushilowsky said. Leslie Heimlich referred to the houses as “a little strange” because there are “just so many of them.”
“It gives other people a little bit of enjoyment,” Mele said about his park contributions. “Make ‘em a little happy. It don’t hurt.”
What is next for Mele? “Death!” he snickers under his breath. “Being peaceful, that’s about it. Maybe one day I’ll get a little recognition, and somebody will know who I am.”