Tuesday, January 17, 2017

L.E.S. Is More

Unsurprisingly, the real-estate developers are excited about a Trump presidency. This press release came in over the transom for an event tomorrow at the Sunshine Cinema of all places. It's full of awfulness:

"L.E.S. is MORE" is a vibrant discussion between real estate and financial titans on the changing landscape of the Lower East Side post-election. Additional info can be found below:

Who РModerator: Leonard Steinberg, President of Compass / Panelists: Benjamin Shaoul, Charles Bendit, Arthur Stern, Andres Hoff, Jos̩ Antonio Grabowsky and Nikolai Fedak
Where – Landmark Sunshine Cinema, located at 143 E Houston St
When – Wednesday, January 18 from 9:30 am - 1:00 pm (Breakfast and lunch will be served).

Topics of discussion will include:

-Trump threw out the playbook in politics, fittingly NYC's real estate players are doing the same
-How the LES is ripe for living and ripe for investment
-Green smoothies and Katz's pastrami sandwiches: the collision of old and new in the LES
-Renown developers on bridging the old and new in the Lower East Side
-Lower East Side: Where food porn meets real estate porn
-Why buying an apartment before the building is built is the Answer

Leo Design


Back in 2010, after 15 years on Bleecker Street, Leo Design gifts closed shop. Their goodbye sign at the time said, "We're being turned out." This was in the middle of the luxury blitz that decimated the western end of Bleecker, turning the quiet and eclectic local street into a homogenized suburban shopping mall for the very rich.

Leo Design moved to Hudson Street. And now it's closing again.

Their goodbye sign this time around is longer--and more heartbreaking. The core of the letter gets right to the core of the problem in the new New York. Owner Kimo Jung writes:

"Long-time neighbors in The Village will remember when we opened 22 years ago. What a different place this was! Mom & Pop shops were the rule, not the exception. One-of-a-kind shops lined the streets—and shoppers could find odd and wonderful delights unavailable in any suburban shopping mall. The Internet was something new and Simon & Garfunkel sang that 'thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street.'

What happened? Well, the neighborhood changed—some change for the better, some change for the worse. I miss the Village’s alternative, Bohemian character. And I miss the people who used to be able to afford to live in Greenwich Village—especially the young artists.

Don’t get me wrong: I have had (and continue to have) wonderfully supportive customers. I’m brimming with tears of gratitude as I write this sentence. But as my rent (and every other expense) increases, it’s hard to rely on the same devoted core of supporters to keep spending more and more.

Take a look around: there are very few small shops left. I guess it’s always been just a matter of time."

January 31 will be the last day--and they're having a 25% off sale. Leo Design will keep operating online, according to Jung's note, until a new space somewhere appears.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fong Inn Too


Fong Inn Too is the oldest family-run tofu shop in New York City and, quite possibly, in the United States. Founded on Mott Street in Chinatown in 1933, it closes forever tomorrow--Sunday, January 15.

Paul Eng

Third-generation co-owner Paul Eng showed me around the place. Upstairs, a massive noodle-making machine churns out white sheets of rice noodle, sometimes speckled with shrimp and scallion. Downstairs, a kitchen runs several hours a day with steaming woks and vats of tofu and rice cake batter, including a fragrantly fermenting heirloom blend of living legacy stock that dates back decades.

Eng's family came to New York from Guangzhou in the Guangdong province of China (by way of Cuba), like many of Chinatown's earliest immigrants. His grandfather, Geu Yee Eng, started the business, catering mainly to the neighborhood's restaurants. His father, Wun Hong, and later his mother, Kim Young, took over after World War II and kept it going, branching out from tofu to many other items, including soybean custard, rice noodle, and rice cake.

Brown rice cake waiting to be cut

The rice cake is the shop's specialty. It has nothing to do with the puffed rice cakes you eat when you're on a diet. This cake is fermented, gelatinous, sweet, and sticky like a honeycomb. It comes in traditional white as well as brown, a molasses creation of Geu Yee Eng, and it is an important food item for the community.

A few times each year, the people of Chinatown line up down the block for rice cake to bring to the cemeteries, leaving it as an offering to their departed relatives.

"It's a madhouse," says Paul. "They come early to beat the traffic and fight each other for the rice cake." No one else makes it--Fong Inn Too supplies it to all the neighborhood bakeries. "Once we're gone, it's gone." Customers have been asking Paul where they will get their rice cake for the next cemetery visit. "I tell them I don't know."

Cutting the white rice cake

The Engs have sold their building and Fong Inn Too goes with it. Business has been hard, though Paul's brothers, Monty and David, have done their best. Their father passed away earlier this year. Their eldest brother, Kivin, "the heart of the place," also passed. Their mother tried to keep it going, but "her legs gave out," and she had to stop. The closing, Paul says, has been hardest on her. "This place is like a child to her."

Paul is the youngest of his siblings and, while he worked in the store as a kid, he doesn't know the business anymore. Like many grandchildren of immigrants, his life is elsewhere. As for the fourth generation, there's no one available to take over.

Paul Eng

"I'm in mourning," Paul told me--for the shop, for family, and for his childhood home. Maybe also for the Chinatown he used to know. "The neighborhood has changed a lot. When I was a kid this was all hustle bustle. Now it's so quiet. No one lives here anymore."

"No one" means no Chinese people. "Gentrification," says Paul, is "starting to trickle in. This old section of Chinatown is kind of orphaned off. It doesn't know where it's going to be." He wonders if it will become like the Chinatown of Los Angeles, with no Chinese people, just tourists and souvenir shops for tourists, a theme park of what a neighborhood used to be.

You have only this weekend to visit Fong Inn Too (46 Mott St.) and buy their delicacies. After tomorrow, they'll make no more.

The family will stay around to celebrate one last Chinese New Year on January 28 and February 4. They'll sponsor a few big dragon dances and then say goodbye.

The noodle machine in action--this photo by Paul Eng

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Neptune Diner

A reader from Queens recently wrote in, "There have been reports of the Neptune Diner’s imminent demise over the last few years. However, community gossip is much stronger and multiple people have said the lot on which the Neptune sits was sold and the diner will be closed."

So I went to Astoria for breakfast at the Neptune. It's right at the bottom of the stairs at Astoria Boulevard Station. You can't miss it with its white stone walls and red adobe-style roof, its arched windows and lighted carriage lamps.

The food was good. As the paper placemat informs you, the Daily News has named Neptune the Best Diner in Queens.

The place was busy, too, bustling with a Queensian mix of New Yorkers--working class and middle class, many races and ethnicities. The city.

I don't know how long the Neptune has been in existence. Long enough for David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve to dine there during the filming of The Hunger, and no doubt longer.

Photo by Jean-Claude Deutsch, via Findery

But back to those closing rumors. I asked a man who looked like he knew the score.

"I heard you might be closing," I said. "Is it true?"

"That's the Twitter," he replied, waving away the rumor with his hand. "You know the Twitter?"


"You know Donald Trump on the Twitter? He's gonna build a wall? Ha!"


"It's like that."

Make of that what you will. There is currently no public record of the building being sold. Maybe they're thinking about it, maybe they're not. But when these rumors crop up, they're usually made of something. So go to Neptune, have a good meal, and enjoy the place. Because you just never know.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Le Train Bleu


I'd never been to Le Train Bleu, the quasi-hidden restaurant atop Bloomingdale's, so when the Times reported it was closing at the end of 2016, after 37 years, I went.

Le Train Bleu, as James Barron explained, was "the nickname for a famous French train that carried passengers coming from London and Paris to the Riviera. The engines were blue. The restaurant, in Bloomingdale’s flagship store, mimicked the train’s dark-green interiors, with velvet on the walls, along with mahogany paneling and a Victorian-style ceiling."

Bloomingdale’s will be renovating the sixth floor, and that means no more Le Train Bleu.

You got there by elevator or escalator, winding your way through the housewares department, and climbing a set of carpeted stairs to an odd little corridor. The dining room looked like a dining car, long and narrow, framed with tables.

I sat by the window, with a view of some plastic shrubbery and a bunch of brutal luxury apartment buildings. The view inside was better.

Almost everyone around me was white-haired and definitely local. It is a rare pleasure these days to be surrounded by real New Yorkers in New York. Turns out, they'd been hiding at Le Train Bleu, dressed in tweeds, stylish coats, and--in one case--a pair of purple sequined earmuffs, kept on throughout the entire meal.

Women reapplied their lipstick in snappy compact mirrors. Snippets of conversation came in and out of range.

"She's a little coo-coo," said one woman to her dining partner. "She was always strange. I always, from the very beginning, thought she was strange."

"I read it in The National Review," said a dapper gentleman to his wife. "He is absolutely the new Hitler."

Many of the diners seemed to be Bloomingdale's employees. They all knew each other. They knew the waitresses and gave their condolences and advice, especially to the two seniors, a pair of women who looked strikingly alike in their weary faces and dyed-red hair. Women who, after what has probably been decades, will now be out of work.

"Have you gone to HR? You must. Go to HR and I'm sure they'll have another position for you. I'm sure of it!"

I sat and waited for the dining room to rumble and jolt, for the whole thing to take off down some invisible train track, up and out over the city. Gone.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Greek Corner Coffee Shop Diner


Late last week, I headed to the Greek Corner Coffee Shop Diner, as I often do, looking forward to a cup of coffee at the pistachio green counter. Instead, I found it gone. I was heartbroken.

A goodbye sign in the window said they'd closed on December 31--"After exactly 36 years, 5 months, and 15 days." They'd been on the corner of 7th Avenue and 28th Street since 1980.

Back in March, I shared the rumor that the place was going to close, but I could not confirm it. I was told: The building has been sold. The building might be sold. There are holdouts who won't budge. The building won't be sold. Everything will be okay. Who knows?

There's no notice of a recent sale in the online building records, but it could be imminent. Was the coffee shop pushed out or did they just decide it's time to go? In their goodbye sign they say they're opening a new place in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, called Blue Door Souvlakia. It looks nice, but nothing like the coffee shop.

I'm going to miss the Greek Corner. It was one of my oases. And another authentic New York coffee shop that has gone.

March 2016

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Evergreen Coffee Shop


Last week we lost another authentic New York coffee shop, that rapidly vanishing part of the city's local fabric. The Evergreen on West 47th, a block east of Times Square, had been in business for 25 years. They'd just celebrated their anniversary. A sign in the window read: "we will go dark" on New Year's Eve.

The building owner would not renew their lease.

“We’re being forced out,” Evergreen's owner Ilias Argenas told DNAInfo. “They want the property vacant. Why? I have no clue.”

To the Post, he said, “We were pleading, we were arguing." But no lease. Not even for one more year.

The building that holds the Evergreen was sold.

When I went in for a farewell meal, a waiter told me it will be demolished for a new hotel. A little deli in the building will also close. Two small local businesses destroyed for yet another tourist hotel? We need that like we need a hole in the head.

According to news outlets and public records, the building sold for just over $101 million to Clarity 47 Parking LLC, which seems to be Icon Parking, the company that currently occupies most of the building. Will they keep it a garage or make it a hotel? An attorney for Clarity 47 told the Wall Street Journal that "the overall parcel is slated for redevelopment."

Hotels are killing our streets. They are currently annihilating the Flower District and the Garment District. Meanwhile, mass tourism has made it nearly impossible for New Yorkers to enjoy the city's cultural sites. When was the last time you tried getting into a museum? It's a nightmare.

City Hall could do something--like placing a moratorium on new hotel construction--but it won't. 

And while the new owners get the permits together for their demolition and construction plans? The Evergreen will sit empty for at least a year, and probably longer, creating more miserable high-rent blight.

An empty storefront is a bigger tax write-off for building owners. Of course, the city and state could fix that by imposing a vacancy tax or taking away the write-off, but they do nothing and the problem continues.

So we continue to watch the city die before our eyes.

The Evergreen was a favorite among Fox News employees, whose building is right around the block, and the walls were decorated with autographed headshots of hosts like Megyn Kelley and Bill O'Reilly.

They also had Conan O'Brien and the cast of The Sopranos, along with the "First Ladies of Football." And, of course, many loyal customers who did not have headshots.

Thinking of losing his customers, Ilias Argenas told the Journal, "It’s going to kill me.” It actually could. Too often, senior citizens die soon after they're evicted from their businesses and homes. I've seen it happen many times, a literal casualty of hyper-gentrification.

A regular old coffee shop, the Evergreen was one of those easy and quiet places, full of New Yorkers, with just a smattering of tourists, stopping in for an affordable meal, a hot cup of coffee, a place to get warm and be comfortable.

It's that atmosphere that matters so much. It helps us to breathe. And we're losing it fast.