Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Small Business in the Village

Beth Salvini is co-owner of Greenwich Letterpress, on Christopher Street since 2005. While the shop is not a classic New York spot, it is an example of a small local business working hard to stay alive in a climate that has become increasingly hostile to the small and the local.

Recently, the shop moved a few blocks away. Business has dropped. This often happens when a mom and pop relocates. While relocation is publicly celebrated as a victory--against a greedy rent hike, for example--or a sign of resilience, it can actually be a death sentence. In my many years writing this blog, I've talked with several small business owners who relocate--even nearby--and then are forced to shutter in just a few years.

I asked Beth a few questions about life as a small business owner in the Village.

in the former location, photo via PrintMag

A: How long have you run a small business in Greenwich Village?

A: My sister Amy and I opened Greenwich Letterpress in 2005 at 39 Christopher Street in the West Village. This past March we re-located up the block to 15 Christopher Street.

Q: How have you seen the neighborhood changing and how has that impacted the small business landscape, for you and your neighbors?

A: We grew up in New Jersey, and as kids sneaking off to the city during the 90s, it wasn't because The GAP in the city was better than The GAP in Willowbrook Mall. It was because the Village/West Village had the most diverse and eclectic mix of stores.

You could start on Broadway and (affordably) shop your way back to the Christopher Street PATH station and wind up with the coolest pair of sneakers, a Smiths t-shirt, a chessboard, vintage salt and pepper shakers, an import CD, and an obscure art book. The Village was the place you visited when you wanted to escape the conventional and familiar of the suburbs. That’s why we opened the kind of shop we did in this neighborhood, to be part of that Village landscape.

Not long after we opened, we realized just how real the "boom" of Bleecker Street was and how it was trickling into the rest of the neighborhood. Where once stood small indie stores were now empty spaces sitting for years, seemingly waiting for a business that could afford $15,000 or more a month for 400 square feet. You could see the spirit of the Village vanishing.

Over the past decade we have seen beloved customers move out of the neighborhood and the city, due to rent increases. Most notably: A friend of ours talking us through the Bleecker Bob’s store closing, that she was tied closely to, and begrudgingly moving uptown. The stores we would send tourists to when they wanted to visit "other places like ours" shutting their doors. Single families (and investors) taking over brownstones that used to house several families, cutting into the actual population living in the West Village. And empty storefronts becoming a normal part of the view because asking rent was 30k+ a month. Even Barnes & Noble, Gray’s Papaya, and most recently Urban Outfitters shuttering on 6th Avenue. If those places can’t afford the Village, who can?

Q: What made you move to a new location? What's been the result of that move, in terms of business?

A: We jumped on the chance to move for several reasons. We had put an obscene amount of work into our old space over the years, even though by looking at the building you would never know it, and we couldn't continue to make improvements that we knew would only increase the value of the space for the landlord. Time and time again, we would renovate only to have our work destroyed by ongoing floods and plumbing issues that were never really addressed, as well as structural and aesthetic blemishes that were out of our reach and control to fix.

Then there is. of course, the rent--that after a decade crept up to a place that we could no longer justify paying as a small business.

We found out about a space becoming available down the street in a building with a landlord that was sympathetic to small businesses and a management company that wasn't gouging its tenants. We jumped on the rare opportunity. The move has been challenging. We sacrificed two large street-level windows into the shop for a first-floor walkup with two small windows. We got a few months out of our "we moved" posters before the listing real estate agent tore them down in the old space. We keep hearing the “sorry you closed," despite our best efforts to post that we only moved.

Q: What challenges have you faced as a small biz in the city?

A: The obvious challenge is the fact that we need to sell a huge number of products in order to simply pay our rent. This necessitates having a large and broad-based clientele visiting us daily.

Coming into a historic district over a decade ago, we certainly were aware of the desire to preserve the facade of the old Village. Unfortunately, for many small businesses, it does come at a cost. For instance, the simple act of putting a hanging sign above our business to let customers know we still exist has become a four-month process, with countless back-and-forth emails with the various building commissions (luckily we have our landlord and the building management company on our side with us).

We completely understand the desire to keep the integrity of the neighborhood, but also would like to hope that the various commissions would see the struggle of small businesses. We still are not allowed to put up a sign letting people know we are here, and this does have an impact on the number of customers we get. At the end of the day, we sometimes throw our hands up and wonder who out there do you turn to for help or understanding?

The new plight of the small business owner in New York City is that, more and more, you feel alone in this, because it's a shrinking club and the membership fees are too high.

Beth is right. Small businesses are the neglected underdog in a city that explicitly favors corporations and chains. Currently, there are no protections for small businesses--no commercial rent control, which the city enjoyed for years after World War II, no Small Business Jobs Survival Act, no ordinance to stop the spread of chain stores, no penalties for landlords who evict and then warehouse empty storefronts, creating "high-rent blight."

All of the above are possible solutions--some are being implemented in other cities--yet New York's City Hall and City Council will have none of it.

Tell them what you think.

Go to #SaveNYC and, with just a few clicks, send a letter to City Hall.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Storefront Survivors

I chatted with Mike Owen Benediktsson, an urban and cultural sociologist and professor at Hunter College, about Storefront Survivors, a vital research project and online resource about small, independently owned storefront businesses trying to stay alive in a city that has become increasingly hostile to their presence.

all photos courtesy of Mike Owen Benediktsson

Q: What is the "Storefront Survivors" project?

A: The project is a collaboration between three CUNY urban sociologists – Sharon Zukin of Brooklyn College, Rich Ocejo of John Jay, and me. All of us were teaching this really interesting seminar about the city’s neighborhoods at Macaulay Honors College this spring.

Our students talked to more than 140 business owners in dozens of neighborhoods across all five boroughs, gathering a variety of material – transcripts, audio recordings, images, etc. – a portion of which is gathered at the Storefront Survivors website.

The motive for this was partly pedagogical and partly our own sociological curiosity. Having our students interview small business owners turned out to be a great way to humanize some of the abstract issues that we were talking about in class – topics like gentrification, immigration, ethnic succession, and urban planning. By going out into unfamiliar neighborhoods and talking to people affected by these issues, our students could gain some traction on the themes in the class, and in the process, help to tell stories that need to be told right now, through the website.

Q: What inspired you to do it?

A: In a broader sense, we were inspired by mountains of research that suggests that small, independently owned businesses have important payoffs for urban communities. Some of these spillover effects are easily measurable. For example, the evidence suggests that small businesses are vital for job creation – much more so than chains, or other large corporations. When you narrow the focus to the immigrant labor force in a diverse place like New York, these benefits are magnified. Small storefront concerns often provide a foothold in the economy for immigrant workers who might otherwise be marginalized and excluded.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg famously argued for the importance of “third places” – low key, unassuming cafés, bars, restaurants, and shops. These places can serve a particularly vital role in diverse urban communities, bringing people together on an even playing field, and giving them something to talk about. They have a leveling effect and help to build social networks. This kind of capacity only becomes visible from up close.

To be clear though, not all small, independently owned storefronts serve this romantic role. Some businesses divide people along lines of class, or consolidate interaction within an ethnic group. But many longstanding storefronts do have these positive spillover effects for social cohesion or tolerance in a community. And when the businesses are displaced to rising commercial rent or competition with online retailers, neighborhoods lose these little bastions of stability and civility that are hugely important to the urban fabric. So, beyond the economic and cultural benefits of small businesses, they also do something socially vital, and this inspired us to document their struggles.

Q: Can you address the defense of corporate chains, which I often hear, that goes: "Corporate chains are good for a city because they give poor, unskilled people a place to work"?

A: That’s really an economic question. The research I’ve read in urban economics suggests that an area loses overall retail employment in a given industry when a chain comes in, because mom-and-pops are forced to close or downsize their operations, and they end up laying off more people than the chains hire.

The argument that chains provide jobs seems to arise specifically in order to justify a controversial zoning change, or a big, as-of-right commercial development. The problem with this logic in the case of, say, hardware and home improvement, is that you have to weigh the expected contribution of a new big-box store against the jobs that will be lost when all of the small, independent hardware shops within a five-mile radius close.

There’s a sleight of hand at work when a big chain store promises to create 100 or 200 jobs, and this promise is taken at face value, without looking at what competition will do to local independent retailers.

Big chain stores are profitable for shareholders in part because they capitalize on economies of scale, selling goods for lower prices but also employing fewer people than would be necessary to sell the same goods in a bunch of geographically dispersed mom-and-pop shops. So, although my students’ research did not directly address this question, I’m skeptical of these arguments.

Q: What themes emerged in your students' research?

A: Our students didn’t go looking for stories of hardship. They actually were just looking for businesses that had been around for at least a decade. But it became immediately clear how difficult and also how complex the commercial landscape is for independent storefronts in the city right now. Escalating rent was a constant theme, but so were property taxes, punitive or cumbersome government regulations, the erosion of a customer base in rapidly changing neighborhoods, tooth-and-nail competition against chain stores and online retailers, and so on.

The stories contain pretty clear takeaways in terms of the survival strategies of businesses that had managed to stay in the black for decades.

Q: How are small business coping with the massive rent increases we’re seeing today across the city?

A: Unfortunately, the only way for a small business to survive a massive and abrupt increase in rent is to relocate. Roughly a third of the longstanding storefronts my students studied had been displaced at some point in the last 10 years, but had managed to stay fairly close by. They’ll often fight really hard to stay local, we learned, because they hope to retain at least some of their existing customer base.

Another third or so are currently staring a big rent increase in the face, which is tragic when you’re talking about a business that has been in the same neighborhood for 15 or 20 years or more, that is financially viable, and that people seem to love. Our students were looking for success stories, but there was a bittersweet quality to almost all of them. There’s this Italian café on the LES that is typical – it opened 35 years ago and thrived in the same location until 2008, only to be bounced a few blocks away due to a big rent hike. Now the owner has three years left on her lease and told one of my students, “Realistically when my lease is up, my business is over.”

So, even though my students were actually looking for stories of resilience that could inform and inspire other business owners, a lot of what they ended up documenting is the fragility of small enterprise in the path of gentrification.

Q: Other than an affordable rent, what helps a small business survive in the current urban climate?

A: Expanding and diversifying is one major way a small business might weather tough times. The video store guy in Queens who used to specialize in Bollywood DVDs now sells printing equipment and cell phone accessories. The Jewish deli owner who could formerly count on locals and regulars to walk in the door and fill his cash register now does much of his business catering Bar Mitzvahs, and even ships pastrami sandwiches out of state through his website.

This kind of thing can keep a storefront going and even make it wildly successful. But it entails a changing connection between a business and the community around it. A lot of the business owners we talked to had developed an online presence, either moving part of their business onto the Internet, or relying heavily on Yelp and social media for marketing. This signals a transition from word-of-mouth, which is localized and personal, and serves as the marketing currency of ethnic enclaves, to an approach that is impersonal and targets a broader clientele.

For example, spend half an hour in the waiting room of Repairs On Wheels (in my estimation the best repair shop in Brooklyn) and you will witness this crazy combination of old world and new world – elderly Hasidic men from down the street who have been bringing their car in for decades and have never heard of social media, and young Brooklynites from gentrifying neighborhoods on the other side of the borough who were attracted exclusively by Yelp reviews from people who look and sound like them. The owner and his uncle are really good at what they do, and you can watch them code switching all day--they have one way of dealing with their local customers and another way of dealing with people from outside the neighborhood.

Another thing is that a number of the longstanding business owners, it turned out, had at some point scraped together the resources to buy the space they occupied. Again, not too surprising. Advocates for small business have pointed to this as an important factor – it insulates business owners against rent increases and provides equity and collateral. But what we saw is that it also introduces an interesting dynamic. Commercial landlords who are also small business owners can have a different outlook than property owners who are in it strictly for the real estate. They are more invested in the character of the place, and the characters in the place.

But this can work in either direction, depending on how business owners view their role as property owners. In some cases, they act to insulate other independent businesses against gentrification. There’s an independent hardware store owner in Queens whose own business is in jeopardy because he refuses to raise the rents on the other commercial tenants. On the other hand, the Pintchik family in Park Slope, as independent business owners, run one of the quirkiest, most endearing hardware stores you can imagine. But as owners of a massive swath of Fulton Avenue, they ended up embracing upscale boutiques and chains.

The last strategy, and I think in many ways the most important, is getting political and getting organized. Dozens of the storefront survivors that our students talked to had become involved in civic organizations and campaigns, and were able to protect themselves through advocacy and activism. Our students interviewed a florist in Queens who led the fight against a new Home Depot, a barber in Flatbush who faced off against the mayor over excessive fines leveled by city inspectors, and a discount store owner who created a Bangladeshi local business association.

It’s important to realize that merchants’ associations, unlike business improvement districts, which are run by property owners, specifically represent local storefronts. There is strength in numbers, and they can organize against landlords or city agencies that are causing trouble for their members. Two of the Manhattan business owners interviewed by our students are members of the three or four-year-old East Village Independent Merchants Association (EVIMA). If successful, an organization like this could do a lot to stabilize the commercial identity of an area and preserve local character, simply by helping independent business owners pool their resources and provide a strong collective counterweight to the state and market forces that uproot independent storefronts in this city at an alarming rate.

But, again, the reality is that none of these strategies can help a business respond to a quintupling or a 10-fold increase in rent. That is pretty much a guaranteed deal breaker no matter how well you’ve been running your business over the decades, and is probably an indication that the landlord simply wants you gone.

Visit Storefront Survivors to learn more about small businesses around the city. 

And join #SaveNYC. Help fight City Hall and their unwillingness to stand up for the little guys.

Monday, July 25, 2016

R & L Signage

Madewell, a clothing chain store owned by J. Crew, is moving into 69 Gansevoort in the Meatpacking District--the former address of Florent and, prior to that, the R & L Restaurant.

At the moment, Madewell/J. Crew is gutting the space. In the process, the antique chrome R & L signage has been removed from the facade. Will it be back? (See updates below.)



It also appears the "R&L" has been ripped from the floor by the entrance, and they've stripped off all the vintage chrome from the facade.



This space opened as the R&L luncheonette in 1938. In 1955, it became the R&L Restaurant, with the lovely chrome sign.

Owned by Ari Lucas, the R&L was a place where longshoremen and meatpackers would dine at night--they called it "Eatem and Beatem," according to the Chicago Sun, "because they would zip in and out around 3 in the morning."

Sol Libsohn, MCNY

In 1985, Lucas' daughter took over the R&L and rented it to Florent Morellet, who opened one of the first businesses to bring gentrification to the Meatpacking District--and one much beloved by a wide array of people, from uptown rich to downtown artists to leather daddies and drag queens.

On Gay Pride Day in 2008, restaurant Florent closed its doors, forced to shutter after 23 years when the landlord raised the rent from $6,000 to $50,000 per month. On his famous menu board, Morellet spelled out an optimistic thought in white plastic letters, “REAL ESTATE GOES DOWN / NYC SURVIVES.”

At the restaurant’s closing party, customers wept for the end of an era, for a place that provided a space to “political drag queens, suicidal libertines, secular surgeons, transvestal virgins, lunatic ravers, steroidal saviors, twelve-stepping two-steppers, infidel lepers, sadistic humanists, lunatic sensualists, wondering Jews, multicultural views, leftist rituals, and delectable victuals.”

Morellet later told Channel 13, “I’m all for change done the right way. But they have completely destroyed the Meat Market, the Village, and the New York I loved so much when I moved here.”

(He has since moved on to Bushwick. “Cities change,” Morellet told the Times in 2013. “Young people are going to be pioneers in neighborhoods and make them livable. Wealthy people are going to move in and young people are going to move to the next neighborhood, and the next neighborhood. We have tons of neighborhoods to rebuild. Yes, the prices are going up. That’s great.”)


After Florent, the R&L space cycled through various unimpressive, upscale restaurants and wine bars, all of them closing quickly, apparently unable to make the insanely high rent.

And now it will be a shopping mall chain. This is the way the entire city is going.

Without commercial rent control (as New York had after World War II, from 1945 - 1963), without the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, without a rezoning to control the spread of chain stores, without any protections whatsoever for small businesses in this city, New York will continue to turn, block by block, into the Mall of America, taking every last remnant of our history and local character with it.

Hopefully, J. Crew and Madewell will put back the R & L sign. It's the least they can do. But whatever they do, how about telling the mayor and City Council to #SaveNYC?

*UPDATE: A reader sent in a permit from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (PDF). It mentions the R&L sign while giving permission to the building owner to remove it--along with other historic details.

"The approved work," reads the permit, "consists of exterior alterations at the storefront, including the removal of the existing stainless steel storefront, and installation of a new stainless steel storefront ...removal of the projecting stainless steel signage." But it also mentions "reinstallation of the existing signage."

Does that mean "R&L" will return?

Another reader says, "The sign has temporarily been removed and resting on top of the sidewalk shed. I am told the plan is to reinstall once the facade repairs are complete. Thank goodness for LPC in this case."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Price on Harlem Gentrification

Author Richard Price spoke at the New York Times' "Cities for Tomorrow" conference earlier this week. He talked a bit about gentrification in Harlem and "that eternal argument: Is this good for Harlem or bad for Harlem?"

NY Times photo

He said: "The big picture is: Everything that's happening now in Harlem, everything that's being built in Harlem is with someone like me in mind, preferably 30 years younger than me. The born-heres? They're looking around and seeing new restaurants, and high rises going up, and new trees planted, and they know it's not for them. It's like: You're in the way..."

"It's like white people discovered Harlem like Europeans discovered America, and the Indians are going, 'Really? What are we standing on, cream cheese?' ... So whatever's exciting and new is a little bit of a death knell."

He talked about the recent closure of Pathmark and the opening of Whole Foods on 125th Street: "The minute that Whole Foods went up--game over."

And he had some sound advice on how to be a decent neighbor in a gentrifying part of town, including "learn manners" and "patronize businesses that were there a hell of a lot longer than you were." Also: "Be a good guy. Have a heart."

Watch here at minute mark 16:15.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Da'Vinci Shoes


Da'Vinci Shoes has been on West 8th Street since 1980, opened by Israeli immigrant Evette Mansoor. Now we hear they will be vanishing.

A regular reader and long-time Villager writes in:

"My girlfriend was in there the other day and was chatting with owner. Rent going from $6K to nearly $40K. So they are looking for new digs. Or just may abandon ship altogether."

Da'Vinci's inventory clearance sale sign hangs below a "for lease" notice from Winick, where the listing--as they all do--celebrates the nearness of chain stores.

Our reader adds: "Same folks--Rudin family--who built the condos on St. Vincent's are raising the rent here."

I can't confirm the ownership, but I can make a prediction. The address 37 West 8th is shared by both Da'Vinci shoes and Uncle Sam's Army Navy, in business since 1969. If the owner is kicking out Da'Vinci, we should expect they will also be kicking out Uncle Sam's. That's just how they do it.

When these two long-time local businesses shutter, it won't be because of trends. It won't be because people don't buy shoes or Army/Navy gear. It won't be because people are shopping online. It won't be due to the "invisible hand" of "market forces." And it won't be because "New York is always changing."

It will be because the elite power brokers of this city made it so.


A few years ago, I wrote on the intentional hyper-gentrification of West 8th Street. At the time, the Marlton SRO was being turned into the boutique Marlton hotel by the BD Hotels chain, with hopes that it would eventually upscale the entire street. It was celebrated by the local Business Improvement District known as Village Alliance.

BD Hotels co-founder Richard Born told the Daily News: "We’ve had the experience of changing neighborhoods like with the Bowery Hotel, where we saw the area take off. We think that will happen here. I bet we raise square-footage prices by $100 across the street when we open... The beats hung out here, and in a way, hipsters of today are the beatniks of yesterday. I think Eighth St. will be as cool as Prince St. in SoHo."

At the time, the Village Alliance was also "talking with the city’s Department of Transportation about possibly putting in the kind of pedestrian plazas found in Times Square," according to the Times. Pedestrian plazas spike rents. In Times Square, they helped raise retail rents by 71 percent in just six months, according to then transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. It was, she said, “the largest increase in the city’s history.” No wonder the BID wants them.

In the end, local small business, the character and history of New York's streets, will be the victim of West 8th Street's enforced redevelopment. And so will all of us who want to live in an open, diverse, and affordable city that has not been curated by the 1%.


P.S. Take a walk on West 8th Street back in the day.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Mr. Cumming, Take Down That Wall

Sarah Schulman is not happy with Alan Cumming. The long-time East Village author and activist recently posted on her Facebook page about the actor's construction of a den atop his East 9th Street townhouse, right next to Sarah's building:

I talked to Sarah about the situation.

"When we all heard that Alan Cumming and his husband, Grant Shaffer, were moving next door we were glad because they had reputations as good guys. We heard on the street that they were planning to remodel within the framework of the building's structure."

But that's not what they're doing.

"They just bricked up our hallway windows. This is an old tenement building and these hallway windows provided light and air for 22 small apartments. They created a breeze."

photo via No 7-Eleven

Sarah doesn't understand how a guy who shows up for East Village rallies, like the ones against 7-Eleven, could do something like this to his neighbors. "Why would you want to hurt the people you're going to be living next to?" she wonders. It's the kind of question she astutely grapples with in her book The Gentrification of the Mind.

To Mr. Cumming, Sarah says, "Take down the wall. Take down the den. Sit in a chair on the roof like everybody else and be a part of the community. If you want to live in a gated community, move to Rodeo Drive."

Astor Place Farce

As I've written about here before, the redesigned Astor Place is shaping up to be a neoliberalized theme park disguised as an open public space. We've watched the process develop over the past few years, and now it's about to reach its hideous completion.

design rendering

Here's the latest scuttlebutt on the project from long-time reader Liberation:

"I was told by someone who works for Village Alliance that, when eventually complete, the new Astor Place will have a variety of food vendors, outdoor tables and chairs, and some type of lighting scheme. There's a large electrical box on the north east corner of Chase that will power all of this. The Village Alliance and some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building decide who these food vendors are and, in general, decide what takes place in the area.

One bit of news I found shocking is that they have allegedly altered The Alamo sculpture so it will now include some type of lighting. According to the Village Alliance employee the sculpture will also rotate on its own now, as he said people have hurt their backs trying to spin it. Personally, I find it unethical to alter an artist's work to make it appear more like a theme park attraction."

Astor Place, 1998, photo by Alex at Flaming Pablum

It sounds like a joke. It has to be a joke, right?

The Alamo, the famous Cube, turned by skate punks and college students from the beginning of time, will now rotate robotically so the new East Villagers don't throw their backs out? A scrappy piece of public art that has been loved into realness by the rough hands of city kids, covered in graffiti, kicked, climbed upon, and even yarn bombed, will now be floodlit and mechanized, like a plastic ballerina turning in a music box? It is almost impossible to believe. Could it be true?

More egregious, however, is the report that "some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building" will be making the decisions about who is allowed to occupy and profit from this supposedly public space.

The Sculpture for Living is the 21-story "green monster" luxury condo tower on Astor Place, the first in a set of massive, out-of-context new construction here. It contains a "limited collection of 39 museum-quality loft residences," originally priced between $1,995,000 to over $6,500,000. "It doesn’t belong in the neighborhood,” critic Paul Goldberger wrote at its opening. “...the architect has destroyed the illusion that this neighborhood, which underwent gentrification long ago, is now anything other than a place for the rich.”

And now those rich residents will dictate how the public will use Astor Place, historic site of riots and protests, over a century of dissent? If the report is true, it would represent a massive betrayal of the people by City Hall.

The betrayal began some 15 years ago, when the city and Cooper Union colluded to rezone and redesign Astor Place for the purpose of upscaling it and making it profitable for a very few. East Villagers fought back. Many said "the large-scale development would turn their eclectic, artistic neighborhood into a sterile business campus."

That's exactly what has happened. Now we have the 400,000-square-foot 51 Astor Place, known locally as The Death Star, full of chain stores and featuring a bland corporate plaza. Now we have real-estate brokers and developers calling Astor Place "Midtown South."

The Marxist urban theorist Henri Lefebvre wrote that a city is a “place of desire, permanent disequilibrium, seat of the dissolution of normalities and constraints, the moment of play and of the unpredictable.”

This is exactly what is being destroyed in New York today--and especially during the years of Bloomberg and Burden. From one end of town to the other, unpredictability has been steamrolled by the tight constraints of design. Our public spaces are being privatized in stealth--they may look open, but look closer and you'll see the mechanisms of closure and control. Security guards, surveillance cameras, corporate events, the uniformity of design elements; and, of course, the private committees of wealthy property owners that quasi-secretly dictate so-called public use of our space (see Washington Square Park, the High Line, etc.).

What have we allowed to happen to our city? Why are we not taking up cudgels and storming Astor Place? Oh, just eat another cupcake. I'll have another latte. Any feelings of injustice will soon fade.

The Alamo cube is due to return to Astor Place any day now. Will it really be plugged in and controlled? Like a loved one kidnapped by the villains of Stepford, will it return to us as a robot, docile and compliant, not quite recognizable?

Imagine the rumor is true. To spin the Alamo cube was to play, to participate, to get your hands dirty and feel your body work in concert with the urban object. You pushed against it with your friends and with strangers. It was, very often, a communal effort.

If we are forced to stand by and watch the cube spin on its own, we will be nothing more than passive observers of a Disney-style spectacle. "Look, but don't touch," the invisible sign will say. This sums up what our entire city has become--and is still becoming.

Let's hope it's all a farce. Recent history, however, doesn't support satire in this case. To quote Luc Sante:

“The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats—as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions—have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds… As a consequence of these and other changes, we have forgotten what a city was.”

Astor Place Redesign
Battle for Astor Place

UPDATE: William Kelley, executive director of the Village Alliance, writes to EV Grieve:

"The Alamo sculpture should return in August, and it is exactly the same as it was before. There are no lights and the spinning mechanism is human powered, just like before. It received a thorough cleaning and coating to protect it from the weather and will return in good shape. Also coming in August, there will be bistro tables, chairs and umbrellas for use by the public, much like you see in other plazas around the city.

Finally, there will be a single food concession in the north and south plaza spaces at Astor Place (not around Cooper Square or points south) pursuant to the license agreement with NYCDOT. No other vending will be allowed on the plazas."

Mr. Kelley, what decision-making powers will come from the Sculpture for Living residents?