Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Rudy's Music Stop


For decades, West 48th Street off Times Square was known as Music Row, a block filled with shops specializing in musical instruments. In the 2000s, we watched the block dwindle, like every other authentic place in this city, until there were two.

Rudy's Music Stop and Alex Music are the last two music shops left on the entire block. And, after years of rumors, soon there will be just one.

Rudy Pensa's original shop, opened in 1978, will be closing in August, employees confirmed.

Over the phone, Rob at the shop told me, "No one buys guitars anymore. This is just one big place for tourists to buy souvenirs."

Rudy's is in a little old building next to another little old building. Every time I see them huddled together, I wonder when they'll be destroyed. The fact that they remain standing feels like a miracle.

I talked to Alex Carozza of Alex Music next door. He will soon be the last of his kind. He told me he has no plans to close. "So far, nobody tells me to get outta here." The rent, however, is "tremendous," and he's not sure how long he'll last.

Alex's building and the empty lot next to it was bought last year for $19 million by Jack Cohen of Comjem Associates, according to The Real Deal. Comjem also acquired the big building on the corner--723 (or 721) 7th Avenue--one of those stalwart old Times Square numbers the color of wet coffee grounds, the kind of building that long held distributors of cowboy movies, film labs, publicists, booking agents, and music studios ("My Boyfriend's Back" and "Hang on Sloopy" were recorded here, and Quad Studios remains).

Comjem also apparently owns Rudy's building, from what I can tell. Alex Carozza expects them to build "something very big," using up all the lots, which total 173,446 square feet.

Back in 2007, Rudy Pensa talked about 48th Street to the Daily News, saying:

"This is a beautiful street, and it should be preserved as it is, a landmark of the city. It has so much history, and it has been like this since the '20s. Somebody should rather pay attention to it before someone comes, buys everything and buries all this beauty to start building glass towers."

Too late. Too late.

Read more:
Music Row
Jon Baltimore
Manny's Music

Monday, July 6, 2015

Washington Heights Gentrification Sale

When the 25-year-old Jesse's Deli got the boot from its landlord in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, local customers Doug Cameron and Tommy Noonan protested with a colorful collection of "artisanal landlord price hike" posters. They created a sensation.

all photos courtesy Doug Cameron

Now they've turned their talents to a block of mom and pops in Washington Heights. The businesses, many of which have been on Broadway and West 162nd for decades, have been evicted by the building's new owners, again with an impossible rent hike. (Read about their story in the Village Voice.)

Doug Cameron explained to Vanishing New York:

"This time an entire block in Washington Heights is throwing a ‘Gentrification In Progress’ Sale. The Punta Cana is officially rebranded as the Casa de Campo, which is the name of an extremely wealthy gated community and resort in the Dominican Republic. Posters in its windows now offer 'small plates for twice the price,' such as a single Hand-Cut Seasonal Summer French Fry for $8.99. The awning displays the new Casa de Campo name, along with the logo of a large wealthy man with a monocle eating a tiny portion plate of food."

"The only other business that has not yet moved in the past couple weeks is the Frutera El Buen Camino. The landlord can’t re-rent the space because of a structural problem. Now, next to the Frutera is a new awning: The Nueva Frutera El Buen Hipster, a yuppie juice bar offering Fresh-Mowed Wheatgrass Shots for $7.99, and Locally-Skimmed Pond Scum Smoothies for $14.99."

Doug and Tommy have included a call to action as well: "Tell Bill De Blasio to support the Bill De Bodega," a.k.a. the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). They've also created a site for the Bill de Bodega.

For more on what you can do to save small businesses in the city, visit #SaveNYC and join the group on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

John's of 12th St.

John's of 12th Street is one of my favorite places. In the East Village since 1908, it's become even more precious today when we are losing all of our authentic red-sauce joints.

Vanessa McDonnell made a documentary about John's, and it is now available for renting and buying online.

Watch the trailer, read Grieve's Q&A with the filmmaker from last year, and go eat at John's. They almost sold the place recently, and you just never know when your last meal will be your last. (Seriously, go soon.)

JOHN'S OF 12TH STREET - Trailer from Grand Motel on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Broken Angel

Last month, the Times reported on the transformation of Broken Angel, a wildly creative Brooklyn treasure, into high-priced condos.

Wrote Ronda Kaysen: "as Clinton Hill, like so many Brooklyn neighborhoods, reinvents itself as yet another gentrifying enclave, Broken Angel recalls a moment in city history when such a creation could seemingly rise out of thin air."

New York Times

Filmmaker Michael Galinsky of "Battle for Brooklyn" is putting together a documentary about Broken Angel and its creator, Arthur Wood.

He's got a 5-minute short on his site, and hopefully more is to come:

Monday, June 29, 2015

Notes from Neighbors

New Yorkers are really getting tired of watching their local small businesses shutter, forced out by rising rents and demolitions for the construction of condos, hotels, and dorms. They want to do something. Some of us take to the blogosphere. Others get out the Scotch tape. Here are a few notes from neighbors that recently appeared.

1. When Bleecker Street's Mambo Sushi closed some months ago, people were upset, especially by the removal of the blue-green tiled "roof."

photo: NY Magazine

One person put a sign on the window--not to complain about the roof removal, but to make a desperate plea:

"PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't make this space into some useless tourist trap. PLEASE put something good here that people of the neighborhood can enjoy. We need more neighborhood spots. I know tourists bring in revenue but if the place is truly good, everybody will come. Thanks, your neighbor."

photo: Tommy Raiko

Reader Tommy Raiko sent in this photo of the sign and noted that it "crystallized so much of folks' attitudes about such things." Scribbled on the sign was a response: "Get over yourself. #1stworldproblems."

And then another: "It is going to be a Mexican rest." Of course, the way things are going in the Village these days, the place might just sit empty for a couple of years.

2. When 35 Cooper Square, with its deep and fascinating history, was demolished, people were not happy. Now there's a dormitory in its place, and people are not happy. Someone has posted a sign on the dorm.

It says: "The Federal-Style Row House at 35 Cooper Square was Razed for this Crappy Dorm."

photo by Beth Carey

3. The University Place deli was kicked out recently, after decades in business, so that yet more luxury condos can be built.

In response, someone taped a newspaper article to the door of the shuttered deli: "In NY City, debate over saving small shops amid chains' rise." Handwritten beneath the article, it reads: "WE MISS YOU!"

Friday, June 26, 2015

Save the B&H

On Second Avenue in the East Village, the B&H Dairy has been going strong since the 1930s when it was opened by Mr. Bergson and Mr. Heller (hence the B&H). It is now run by Fawzy Abdelwahed and Ola Smigielska. And it is absolutely adored by New Yorkers all over town. Myself included.

Since the Second Avenue gas explosion and collapse, the B&H has been shuttered. Fawzy and Ola have consistently paid the rent and bills while they struggle to reopen, but it has not been easy.

Fawzy and Ola, today's mom and pop of the B&H, photo from GVSHP

I spoke to Fawzy who explained the barriers they're facing. Due to the explosion, safety requirements from the city have intensified. Before the explosion, the B&H passed inspection. But now they must upgrade the fire system at a cost of $28,000. To do so, they also require permission from Landmarks and the Department of Buildings. The papers have been submitted, but nothing is moving.

Andy Reynolds, local East Villager and ad hoc advocate for the B&H, says, "Things keep getting pushed back another week, two weeks, month, months. They were OK for the last couple months, but with no income, it’s getting critical, unsustainable."

In addition, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City promised financial assistance to residents and businesses impacted by the Second Avenue explosion, but no funds have made their way to Fawzy and Ola, and no one from the city has been in touch with them.

Mr. and Mrs. Bergson: The original mom & pop, 1950s, photo courtesy of Florence Bergson Goldberg

If the B&H does not get approval soon, and without much-needed financial assistance from the city, they will be forced to close. We cannot let this happen. The little dairy restaurant has a long history in the neighborhood. It is one of the last of its kind, a heritage business in a New York that is losing its New Yorkiness.

Recently, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilmember Rosie Mendez held a small business crawl, modeled after #SaveNYC's Small Biz Crawl, for the mom and pops impacted by the Second Avenue explosion. Unfortunately, B&H was unable to open and benefit from these events.

Please write to Speaker Mark-Viverito, Councilmember Mendez, and Mayor de Blasio, and ask that they take action now to expedite permits and funds to keep the B&H alive. We cannot afford to lose this one.

Here's a quick and easy way to do it. Copy, paste, and tweet the following message:

Please save B&H Dairy! @RosieMendez @MMViverito @BilldeBlasio Expedite permits & funds to this EV classic. #SaveNYC http://bit.ly/1BSu4UE

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Romy Ashby writes the blog Walkers in the City, which you should know about if you don't already. She has just published a novel called Stink. The book tells the story of a young person who flees to a mysterious New York-like city for a series of occult adventures. I asked Romy some questions--about dreams, books, farts, and gentrification.

JM: Your book starts with a dream. Do you remember your dreams? Do you write them down?

RA: Usually I don't dream and/or don't remember. I never write them down. I had a wonderful series of dreams once over several years about a beautiful cast-iron train. I'd see it in the distance and marvel, and whenever I would have a new dream about the train, I'd think, oh, it's this dream! Then I finally had a dream of a funeral procession with old men in uniforms carrying a large framed portrait through the streets. I asked what the procession was, and one of the old men said: “This was the conductor of the train you always dreamed about.” And after that, nothing.

JM: You don't remember your dreams and yet the whole of Stink feels dreamlike, vaguely unreal. Did you set out to create a dream city of sorts?

RA: No, I didn't set out to make it so. Writing it felt more like decorating an old department store window. And I should add that life to me always feels vaguely unreal. Sometimes not so vaguely.

JM: What does it feel like to decorate an old department store window?

RA: You have the empty window, framed from the street, and you can do anything you want with it. I put in all the things I found interesting from the nabe and whatever else I knew and liked. And then the window looked like a funny junk shop, I suppose.

JM: Like Ad Astra in the book. What was your inspiration for the occult shop?

RA: There were two actual occult shops that inspired it in part. One was the Magickal Childe on West 19th Street, and the other was the original Enchantments on East 9th Street. Both sold books and other odds and ends, and I would go in now and then and buy something. The vibe of the places would linger for the rest of the day. And Enchantments had a big kitty who wore a pentagram. He was the inspiration for my occult shop kitty, Aleister.

JM: How much of New York is in the unnamed city of Stink?

RA: Oh, lots. The diner was modeled after diners in general, but particularly on the doughnut shop that sat on 8th Avenue and 23rd Street. That's where the "real" Violet Rae character would stand by the register and complain. The "amusement park" was definitely inspired by Coney Island in all its ruined splendor, the wharf was largely based on the stinky fish market and seaport and the old winding streets of Lower Manhattan at the bottom of the island in the 1980s. Also, the waitress and counterman in my story are modeled after Charlie and Regina, who had their portraits recently in EV Grieve's blog.

JM: It certainly feels like a vanished urban atmosphere. The people, too, feel like the sorts of characters you don't run into much anymore. Or do you?

RA: No, you don't run into many like them, at least not as often as you used to. There were many more distinctive characters to be seen on the streets of New York twenty years ago than there are today. Most of the old ones have died out. I sort of cast the playwright and actor Harry Koutoukas, of Ridiculous Theatrical Company fame, as Harry the owner of the Occult shop in Stink. Harry Koutoukas died a few years ago, but I can remember so well how the mere sight of him walking along Christopher Street with his colorful scarves blowing behind him had a way of making the whole city feel more magical and interesting. Also, I should add that in Chinatown and Little Italy, and elsewhere, too, there still really were funny little shops that sold things like rubber gaskets.

JM: Did you buy a lot of rubber gaskets?

RA: Yes.

JM: To what end?

RA: For my stovetop espresso maker. When a gasket wears out the coffee tastes yuck.

JM: Of course. Tell me the story about farting in the bookshop.

RA: Years ago I worked at Three Lives bookshop, which is on West 10th Street. It's still exactly the same as it was 25 years ago, which is miraculous. Anyway, people used to come in and go to the back of the shop, the far rear corner where the literature ends and the travel books begin, and fart. I remember the two bosses complaining about how often this happened. And, they said, it was always men. It was never women doing the farting.

JM: I ask this, of course, because it happens in Stink. A lot of stinky things happen in Stink.

RA: Yes. It is a stinky story.

JM: So, because this interview is for Vanishing New York, how do you see Stink speaking to that--to the vanished city?

RA: What comes to mind first is the fact that I wrote Stink 20 years ago, and most of what I took as inspiration for it is gone now. The two big Sixth Avenue flea markets, every single bookshop in Chelsea, every junk shop, the doughnut shop on 8th Avenue, most of the diners I frequented, the fish market, the Magickal Childe, CBGBs, Jackie 60, Don Hill's, much of Coney Island that was there when I wrote Stink—including the old luncheonette in the subway station and the beautiful ruined Thunderbolt rollercoaster that had become a bird sanctuary—has all vanished.

JM: I'm going to ask you the question that people like to ask me, and that always irks me. Maybe you can answer it better than I can. New York is always changing. So how is this any different?

RA: I agree that New York is always changing, and a lot of the change is sad but natural, such as shops closing when someone retires or dies. And there are have been terrible instances of forced change in decades past. Just look at Robert Moses. But the change that has been happening in the last decade or so, as I've noticed it, has been different in that everything seems to be being razed for one replacement, which is “luxury residential.” And some of it defies logic, such as the demolishing of the huge St. Vincent’s Hospital, for yet more "luxury" residences, leaving a huge part of the city without a hospital. Twenty years ago if I had been asked whether or not such a thing could happen I would have said no.

I remember first hearing about gentrification in the 1980s, and it was definitely happening then, but not in earnest the way it is now. And to me, that word, gentrify, always meant what it means, which is literally "Make way for the gentry." It doesn't mean “improve for all,” the way some people seem to want to imply.

JM: Aren't you just being nostalgic? Don't you know that no one goes to doughnut shops anymore? (I’m being facetious.)

RA: Well, apparently people actually love doughnut shops because there are Dunkin Donuts stores all over town. But at the old doughnut shop on 8th Avenue you could also get all kinds of other things--it was a real diner as most doughnut shops actually were, and the best part of those places in my opinion (along with the friendly, funny regulars) was that I could afford it.

I also don't think it's nostalgic to miss the laundromat I liked to use or the corner grocery that I shopped in, because what I like about them is that I could wash my clothes and buy milk conveniently. Those things are getting harder to do. The new luxury buildings have laundry rooms for the people who live there, but at the rate things are going I'll be doing my laundry in the bathtub the way I used to do it in the 80s when I lived surrounded by ruins down in the Alphabets. I didn't like doing my laundry that way then, and I don't think I'll like doing it that way again. So, you tell me, is that nostalgia?

I will confess, though. Sometimes I get a pleasant nostalgic feeling when I listen to a nice record by Jack Teagarden. The words to “A Hundred Years from Today” can be a good reminder for how to prioritize one's ideas.

JM: What's on your record player right now?

RA: Well, just before you called I was listening to Trummy Young and Louis Armstrong.

JM: And what's on your current book pile?

RA: Currently I've been laughing my way through Mary Norris's wonderful book called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (she's been copy editor at the New Yorker forever, and she's the sister of the marvelous musician Baby Dee). Simultaneously, I'm reading February House by Sherill Tippins, the stories in White Girls by Hilton Als, and The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. That's what's piled by the bed. Also Ask Dr. Mueller: The Writings of Cookie Mueller. And in my subway-riding bag is A Superintendent’s Eyes by Steve Dalachinksy and a wonderful book of poems by Yuko Otomo called Study. I never tire of Yuko’s poems, no matter how many times I read them.

You can find Stink at St. Marks Bookshop, or buy it through Romy’s website. The book launch is tomorrow night,  Friday, June 26, 6:30 p.m. At 292 Gallery, 292 E. 3rd.

More Romy on JVNY:
At La Taza de Oro
A story about Debbie Harry on the High Line
On Joey Arias
On Kasoundra Kasoundra