Friday, June 22, 2018

High-Rent Blight Monopoly

You may have seen them popping up on high-rent blight around town. Monopoly cards pasted to the windows and walls of shuttered shops. They list outrageous rents and come with a Jane Jacobs quote.



They're the creation of an artist called Symbol. I asked Symbol to explain the project and what inspired him to do it. He told me:

"Everywhere I walked in Manhattan there were empty storefronts, and it seemed like one big game between landlords and tenants. All these landlords waiting for a pharmacy or bank to sign a 10-year lease. Is there a better analogy for that then the game of Monopoly?

Seems like no one really wins at Monopoly but everyone just tires out. All the little stores just seemed to disappear. There were no replacements and Manhattan lost its juice. Bleecker went from high rent/Sex and the City famous to an empty side street.

The signs on Lexington are Amazon-colored orange. The online shopping has only added to the problem and added to my tipping point. Yeah, I can buy cufflinks on Amazon but where's the fun of wandering into some old lady store and finding a cool pair? Same thing with flea markets. Sure, it was mostly crap, but it was fun crap.

I'm not sure what the answer is and I doubt the politicians can deal with what is essentially a free market issue. Hence the Jane Jacobs quote. I'm an artist in a different medium and I wanted to make a statement instead of crying about what was happening. (And buying a box of Kleenex on Amazon Prime.)

I grew up idolizing the city from nearby and have lived here for some time. Every kid growing up just outside of Manhattan has that same feeling. Let's go to the city are the words that are electrifying. I mean anything could happen on a Friday or Saturday night and usually did. Fell in love, danced, drank, got lost, ate at a now closed diner, ended up at home as the sun came up and before my parents woke up.

I hope kids still feel that way. I don't. You want fun? Move to the boroughs."

You can find more Monopoly cards on Symbol's Instagram page



This is actually not a free market issue, although the politicians and real-estate industry want us to believe that. As I explain in detail in my book, Vanishing New York, the market isn't free. It's rigged heavily in favor of big developers and landlords, giving them tax breaks and other incentives, and it works against small business people. There are many things that can be done to remedy this. One is the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

If you want to stop massive commercial rent hikes that put small businesses out of business, take action:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market" or "all because of the Internet," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Legacy Records and Black Branding

In his Times review of a new Hudson Yards restaurant, Pete Wells writes that Legacy Records has "ginned up a history for itself that brings together sloppy research with a superficial tribute to black culture."

I haven't been inside the place, so I'll leave it to Wells, who describes images of black musicians on the walls, stars like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, who supposedly recorded in a studio on the site. Except they didn't. There was a studio there for a few years in the 2000s, he says, "mostly used by orchestras, Broadway cast recordings and commercials."

There's also a photo by Mickalene Thomas of a black woman with an Afro in a sexy pose.


photo by Gary He

Wells concludes:

"Legacy Records has taken this shred of history and turned it into a fantasy of black American music.

Exhibited in a museum or gallery, Ms. Thomas’s photo might be taken as a comment on the different postures and personas available to black women. Hanging it next to the counter where pastries and coffee are sold by day strips out some of its meaning; it looks like an attempt to buy a personality for a restaurant that doesn’t have one of its own.

If anyone gets to decide who can use black culture for what purposes, it surely isn’t me. But Legacy Records uses it in a gratuitous and offhanded way that made me uncomfortable. Stevie Wonder will always be cool, but a restaurant dreamed up by real estate developers doesn’t automatically become cool by putting him on the wall."


photo: Mo Gelber

What Wells describes is not just cultural appropriation, it is "black branding" for the purposes of commodifying an urban space for the wealthy and mostly white. It is a trend that comes with hyper-gentrifying cities across America.

In his book "Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” Derek S. Hyra writes: “Not long ago, an urban community’s association with blackness was mostly perceived as detrimental. But nowadays...neighborhood-based organizations, real estate developers, restaurant owners and urban planners commodify and appropriate aspects of blackness to promote tourism, homeownership, and community redevelopment.”

We saw it most famously at the Summerhill restaurant in Crown Heights, where locals protested the use of supposed bullet holes and Forty Ounce Rosé.

Black branding is happening in hyper-gentrified cities where actual black people are being removed. With hyper-gentrification, New York City is getting whiter. And, as we've seen in many recent news reports, as middle and upper-class whites move into black and brown neighborhoods, they call the police on black people--for barbecuing, playing music, and just hanging out. These attacks happen simultaneously with the commodification of blackness.

Lower-income black people are pushed out. Their images and symbols are kept by the race/class victors as trophies and marketing opportunities. It can be seen as a form of revenge.


Barbecue Becky, Oakland, CA

“The rallying cry of the revanchist city,” wrote urbanist and gentrification expert Neil Smith, “might well be: ‘Who lost the city? And on whom is revenge to be exacted?’”

The notion of the lost city, the stolen city, goes back to white flight, a phenomenon engineered by the federal government beginning in the 1930s. Without Jim Crow in the northern United States, the government had to use stealthier methods of segregation. They developed the racist housing practice of redlining to confine black and brown people in disinvested cities, while luring whites away with good deals on houses in whites-only suburbs. This drain of the city’s tax base played a major role in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which provided the economic excuse for New York’s reorientation away from social democracy and towards neoliberalism, the radical free market, aka "trickle-down economics." And it is from there that hyper-gentrification, as a top-down tactic of state and city government, began.

We cannot talk about hyper-gentrification without also talking about racism. The story of American capital cannot be disentangled from the story of slavery in America. Neoliberalism, while it is an economic approach, was a white supremacist solution. It was, and continues to be, a powerful method to “take back” the city -- and, ultimately, the country—from black and brown people and to re-establish the power of the wealthy white elite. 


Inside Legacy Records, photo: Gary He, via Eater

So it seems appropriate that this restaurant is part of Hudson Yards, the fake city within a city, a curated space for the ultra-elite, and the perfect product of neoliberalized New York -- with all its corporate welfare, Hudson Yards has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

As I noted in my book Vanishing New York, Hudson Yards is a "dreamworld of exclusion," one of those places Mike Davis describes in Evil Paradises: “where the rich can walk like gods in the nightmare gardens of their deepest and most secret desires.”






Monday, June 18, 2018

Cafe Espanol

VANISHED

On Bleecker Street since 1976, Cafe Español has shuttered.



There's no note to say why the sudden closing, only a sign that reads: "This restaurant is closed. Trespassers will be prosecuted."

On their website, they write, "Thank you for all of these years by our side, the Cafe Español family."



This is the latest in a string of closures for Manhattan's old-school Spanish restaurants, including El Quijote, El Faro, Francisco's Centro Vasco, and El Paso.

What remains? There is Spain on 13th St., an absolute treasure, and Sevilla on Charles.

Go while you still can.



Sylvia Pines Uniquities

VANISHING

Since 1981 there’s been a little vintage jewelry shop on the corner of 77th and Lexington called Sylvia Pines Uniquities. By the end of June, it will be gone. It won’t be vanishing because the Internet killed it. It won’t be vanishing because no one buys Victorian handbags or Art Deco necklaces anymore. It will vanish for just one reason: The rent has more than tripled.



On a warm evening, Sylvia Pines’ daughter, Judy Freedman, is behind the counter, taking care of a customer who has been shopping for three hours straight. The customer, a local doctor with a passion for antique beads and opera glasses, points to rings, necklaces, and handbags, wanting to see it all.

“Is that real coral?” she asks.
“No,” Judy replies. “That’s fake.”
“Good,” says the customer. “I don’t want it. How about that handbag?”
Judy gets on a step-stool and pulls down a pink and white beaded bag. The customer runs her fingers over the beads and the two women talk bags.

“Judith Lieber,” Judy says, “was one of the most famous pocketbook makers in the city. She’d come in to this shop to buy vintage bags and then reproduce them.”
“She did,” says the customer. “And now her bags sell at Sotheby’s. On the Upper East Side, when all the old broads die, their Judith Liebers go to Sotheby’s. I want to see one more thing. Are those glass beads Murano? As opposed to moronic.”

Judy reaches into the window, pulls out a string of beads, and hands it to the customer, who holds it up to her throat, letting it dangle down the front of her t-shirt.

“Those are not for you,” Judy says confidently. “They’re gorgeous, but they’re not your colors.”



After the customer completes her purchases and leaves, Judy tells me that a new owner bought the building a couple of years ago and renovated the apartments, turning one-bedrooms into two and hiking the rents.

“I’ve been paying $6,200 a month,” Judy says, “and it’s going to $20,000. What can you sell in a store this size? Drugs. Or Cartier. You can’t sell enough to make that rent. I’d have to sell three $3,000 bags a day. You can’t do it.”

The building, 1104 Lexington, was purchased in 2016 by Friedland Properties. According to The Real Deal, "Friedland acquired the properties from the estate of Marie Cowing, with property records indicating the buildings last changed hands in 1971."

Judy figures the place will sit empty, like other shops on the street, blighted by high rent. This emptying out troubles her, along with the homogenization from chains. “Part of the beauty of New York is the nitty gritty,” she says. “This is a damn great city.” But it’s just not the same. “We’re all feeling it,” she says. “We’re losing the character.”



Sylvia Pines, who started the family business 38 years ago, still works the shop, providing a good portion of its character.

“My mother is 97 years old,” Judy says. “She smokes cigarettes and drinks vodka. She comes in every day from the Bronx. She sits on that fire hydrant out there and smokes. And she’s tough. When she saw a guy sitting on her fire hydrant, she kicked him off. She told him, ‘That’s my fire hydrant.’ You don't mess with her.”

And Sylvia is not a patient shopkeeper either. If a customer takes too long to make a decision, Sylvia will say, “I helped you enough. I’m not spending anymore time with you,” and that’s that. Judy is much more patient, a fact that sometimes irritates Sylvia, who says, “That’s aroisgevorfene gelt,” Yiddish for a waste of money.

Still, for all her toughness, Sylvia takes care of people. One morning, she watched a woman park her car in front of the shop and run with her young son to Lenox Hill Hospital around the corner. All day, Sylvia fed coins into the parking meter so the woman wouldn't get a ticket. Later, the woman sent flowers to the shop with a thank-you note explaining that her son, with a burst appendix, had made it out okay.



Like her mother, Judy takes care of people, too, embodying the ways small shopkeepers contribute to the emotional health of the city.

She gives food and clothing to Carlos, the homeless man who sits on a stool by the shop. She sometimes gives away inexpensive pieces, just to make people happy. Recently she gave away a trio of “Speak No Evil” monkeys to three young men who’d come in covered in tattoos. They looked intimidating, but they appreciated the jewelry and other antiques, and Judy could see they were “old souls,” so they deserved a gift, because “everyone needs a little gift sometimes.”

As we talk, an elderly woman walks in, dressed in linen and a broad-brimmed straw hat. She opens a box and tells Judy, “I want to show you something.” From the box she takes out a pair of large pearl earrings. Judy tells her, “These are stunning. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. And you can wear them with anything.” The woman is having trouble securing the earrings in her ears, so Judy tells her what to do, explaining that the backs are tight, but they’ll loosen up. “It’ll get easier,” Judy says.

Slowly, the woman goes on pulling items from her box. A bracelet that belonged to her grandmother. A gold necklace from an aunt. A watch chain from her father. She holds it up for Judy to see.

“Don’t sell these,” Judy says. “Give them to someone who’s special to you.” The woman explains that she’d like to make a bracelet from her father’s chain, but the clasp is broken. “Come back tomorrow,” Judy says, “and I’ll take care of it.” She refuses to charge any money for the repair. The woman, who doesn't like taking things for free, leans over the counter and whispers, “I'm a therapist. I’ll give you therapy in exchange.”



When the woman leaves, Judy and I talk about the shop’s customers, how they come looking for connection and conversation, along with the wares. What will they do when Judy and Sylvia are gone?

She tells me about the goodbyes, the customers who lean over the counter to kiss her cheek, who promise to have her over for dinner, and who bring gifts, like the woman who made a memory box for Judy and told her, “Put your memories in here.”

By now, we’re both fighting back tears.

“In order to pacify my sadness,” Judy says, “I’m going to cultivate the other part of me.” She plans to spend more time painting and playing classical piano. She wants to learn Spanish. The shop will be gone in another week and Judy needs to fill the days. A part of her is looking forward to the time. It's been many years behind that counter.

“I’m gonna miss the clowns,” she says, “but not the circus. I’ll miss my people. What is beautiful about this place is that I have relationships here.”

She wonders if, in another life, she would have been a therapist. I tell her, “You are one,” and then we’re fighting tears again.

Judy says, “The city used to be full of little stores like this, where you could go in and talk, and people cared. It was like talking to your local bartender. In this shop, I was like a bartender of jewelry.”



If you want to stop massive commercial rent hikes that put small businesses out of business, take action:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market" or "all because of the Internet," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.

Friday, June 15, 2018

St. Denis' Last Days

Earlier this year I wrote about the death of the great St. Denis building on 11th and Broadway, a building that should be landmarked but isn't, a building full of vital history.

The building was bought by Normandy Partners in 2016 and all of the tenants were removed--hundreds of small businesspeople, myself included, put out. Today, a few remain, but they will soon be gone.


photo: Phil Penman

Now we hear that Normandy is "hungry for a refinancing," as The Real Deal reports. They want $187 million for the St. Denis.

Writes TRD:

"At 799 Broadway, the funding would in part go toward the construction of a new, nearly 190,000-square-foot office building replacing the existing office property... The existing building, formerly known as the St. Denis Hotel, will be completely vacated this month and readied for demolition this fall."

And there's a new rendering of the soulless, dead-eyed nothing pile of glass to come:



What was here before? What will they be murdering? Something more alive, more haunted, more storied than most buildings -- and certainly more than this zombie stack of hollow boxes.

Beyond the St. Denis, the entire neighborhood is under threat. Send these quick and easy pre-written letters to the Mayor, the Borough President, and Councilmember Carlina Rivera. Add a note to say that the St. Denis should be protected from total demolition. You can include this history to argue for protection.






Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Lincoln Plaza Cinema Reboot

As I first reported in April, the shuttered Lincoln Plaza Cinemas has attracted a band of angels working to bring it back to life, including Norma Levy, who told me at the time, "I decided there has to be a way to recreate the cinema. It's too tragic to lose."

Now, with New Plaza Cinema Inc., we're getting a new version of the cinema. Through a press release today they announce a partnership with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan "to host first run and independent films in its 250-seat auditorium throughout the summer."



“We’re excited that the JCC has graciously agreed to screen our films this summer,” said Levy. “We’re working to find a more permanent venue which will offer first run and independent films.”

Toby Talbot, who co-founded Lincoln Plaza Cinema with her late husband, Dan Talbot, supports the New Plaza Cinema’s goals. She says, “Although Dan is no longer with us, I’m sure he would have been heartened—as am I—that a band of devoted theater goers have taken upon themselves the arduous task of creating similar cinema anew. I fully support their effort and look forward to their ultimate success.”

According to the press release: "The series will have a soft kick off with an uptown run of the IFC release The Catcher is a Spy by Ben Lewin with multiple screenings on June 24, 25 and 26. The following week, the series will honor the passing of Philip Roth with a marathon of films based on his books."

For more information visit:
www.newplazacinema.com
www.JCCFilm.org

Read more on the fight to save the Cinema.


Click to enlarge schedule

Monday, June 11, 2018

Searching for Soul

On Thursday, June 28, from 6:30pm – 8:30pm, I'll be at the Museum of the City of New York talking with author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, cartoonist Julia Wertz, and New Yorker staff writer Vinson Cunningham about what it means to capture the “soul” of the city, even as many longtime New Yorkers question its survival.

Get your tickets and more info here. Use the code SOUL1 for a discount.



In other news, my book Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul will be out in paperback July 24. You can pre-order it now from any bookshop.



From the reviews:

“Essential reading for fans of Jane Jacobs, Joseph Mitchell, Patti Smith, Luc Sante, and cheap pierogi.” —Vanity Fair

“A full-throated lament for the city’s bygone charms.”—Wall Street Journal

“A cri de coeur that is essential reading for anyone who loves this city.” --The Village Voice

“The pleasure of reading Moss is his purity.” –The New York Times Book Review

“A remarkable atlas charting where New York has gone, and why.” –The New Republic

“Passionate, sprawling.” --Slate

"Moss, a cantankerous defender of the city he loves, chronicles its disconcerting metamorphosis from cosmopolitan melting pot to bland corporate lounge with passion and vigor; New York is lucky to have him on its side." – NewYorker.com

"a vigorous, righteously indignant book that would do Jane Jacobs proud." --Kirkus

“This is a very good, angrily passionate, and ultimately saddening book.... a brilliantly written and well-informed account.” –Booklist

“Every page is charged with Moss’s deep love of New York. It is both a vital and unequivocally depressing read.” – Village Voice

“an impassioned work of advocacy on behalf of a city that’s slipping away…a brawny book…a full-throated argument for New York City as a particular kind of place, and for a certain kind of life lived within it.” –Guernica

“a compelling and often necessary read.... One of the great accomplishments of this nearly 500-page polemic, is that even as I read through in a state of outrage and sadness, I was also reassured: I am not crazy. The city really has vanished…” – Daily Beast