Thursday, June 13, 2019

Chase Takes Coffee Shop

Remember when a tipster told us that Chase Bank would be taking the space of Coffee Shop on Union Square? Now it is confirmed.

Earlier this month, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency approved Chase Bank's application to establish a branch on the southwest corner 16th Street and Union Square West. (There was apparently a public comment period, but we didn't get the invitation.)



The bank is rumored to take over part of what was Coffee Shop, while the rest will go to restaurants and potentially other retail geared to attract the sort of people depicted in the rendering below.



Coffee Shop opened in 1990 and closed in 2018 when the rent went up. According to my tipster, the rent was hiked to $3 million annually. Today, the businesses on Union Square are nothing but chain stores and banks.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

DeRobertis Neon Sign

VANISHED

When DeRobertis Pasticceria closed in 2014, I was bereft. So much had gone with it. At least we had the old neon sign to remind us that it wasn't always Black Seed bagels.

This week, I walked by to find the neon sign is gone.



I don't know where it went or when. I don't know if it will miraculously return. I only know the building looks blank and sanitary, with nothing to catch the eye.

What follows is my account of the pastry shop's last days, from my book "Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul."



One day in 2007, I sat down to chat with Annie DeRobertis, who first went to work for her grandfather at 11 years old, folding cake boxes and filling cannoli. I met her in the café on a quiet Friday afternoon. She was reading about corrupt city politics in the Post and wondering out loud if she should go back to Bari, her grandfather’s hometown. She wore her iron-gray hair short, with lavender eye shadow that matched her top. We talked about the neighborhood of her childhood, when every street was filled with Jewish and Italian businesses. And we talked about the newest people of the East Village.

Annie shook her head as she described impatient young customers who whined about waiting in line, ignored her help as they talked on cell phones, and then wanted service "right away, right away, right away." But worst of all, she said, were the Starbucks people.

“People come in and tell me I don’t know how to make cappuccino," she said, incredulous. She'd been making cappuccino for 50 years. "They tell me, 'Starbucks makes it this way.' I tell them, 'I’m here before Starbucks.' They want flavors. I tell them, 'I got flavors. You want a flavor? I’ll put it in.' Put it in? They look at me," with a look of disbelief. "Do these people really think the coffee bean grows in flavors? Like it comes in hazelnut and mint? These are people with college educations. But they want Starbucks. So I tell them, very nicely I say, ‘So go to Starbucks.’”

At the end of 2012, Starbucks planted itself just two blocks away from DeRobertis on First Avenue, taking the space of what had been Mee Noodle, a Chinese restaurant frequented by Allen Ginsberg, who always ordered the steamed flounder in ginger sauce. Just nine months later, the DeRobertis family put their building up for sale. After 110 years of serving crisp cannoli and perfect cappuccinos, providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere, they announced they would be shuttering. Customers flocked to say goodbye. When I talked to third-generation co-owner, and Annie’s brother, John DeRobertis, he shook his head mournfully and said, “Where was everybody for the last ten years? Maybe we didn’t have to do this.”

Let me hold this moment, my final visit, in present tense. I am sitting inside DeRobertis on the day before the last day in December 2014. It is morning and the café is quietly busy. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. John and his son, also John, are prepping for the day, wrapping black-and-white cookies, folding cake boxes, answering the phone that keeps ringing. “Tomorrow we’re closing. Tomorrow afternoon!” Over the speakers, 106.7 Light FM is playing Christmas carols. Sinatra sings “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” A couple of old guys, the last of the diehard regulars, are talking about hunting. “I still got the two rifles,” says one. “They haven’t been fired in 40 years, but I still got ‘em. And the thing is, I never shot nuttin’. I tried shootin’ deer, but I couldn’t. They looked too nice.”

A hale and hearty fellow bursts into the shop, announcing himself as Murray the Syrup Man. For years he’s kept DeRobertis stocked with Torani flavors—almond, vanilla, hazelnut. He bellows, “I gotta give the whole family a hug goodbye! God almighty!” They hug him, one by one, and then out he goes, saying, “Good luck to your family. You’ve been a great tribute to New York City. I’m not kiddin’ ‘bout that.”

One of the old guys says to his pals, “Everybody’s talking about what’s happening to New York. They all got the same feeling that the city has changed. And not for the better.”

The baker comes up from the basement with trays in his hands. Up comes the last batch of black-and-white cookies. “No mas!” says the baker. Up comes the last batch of sfogliatelle. “Finito!” says the baker. Up comes the last batch of pignoli cookies. “Last one!” he says, waving his hands like an umpire calling safe. A lone European tourist asks how many pignoli cookies in a batch. John the junior tells her, “One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six,” with a grin that says he’s pulling her leg. She marvels at the large number, repeating it softly to herself as she exits, “One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six. One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six,” committing it to heart.

Above the cash register, along the Wall of Fame, the faces of Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese look on. Mike Tyson makes a fist. In the flesh, actor Michael Badalucco, who played David Berkowitz in Summer of Sam and about a million gangster types for TV and movies, walks in and calls out, “I want the last pignoli cookie!” He and the senior John talk about where you can still get real Sicilian food in the city. “Joe of Avenue U,” Badalucco says. “The best. That’s my place. The best, the best! Listen to me. You take the F train, and stay on the back of the train, all the way to Avenue U. They cook with spleen! Everything fresh. Forget it.”

I ask John how the new Starbucks on Thirteenth Street affected his business. He tells me, “One night, there was just one person in here. I left work and I was walking past that Starbucks. I looked inside. The place was packed. And I thought, well, this is what people want now.” He shakes his head. “What can you do? Starbucks took a bite out of us.”

A bite here, a bite there, and soon the entire city is devoured. Death by a thousand bites.

Gem Spa (to Citibank?)

NOT VANISHING YET

You may have heard that the great and beloved Gem Spa on St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue is closing. Concerned about the fate of this landmark shop, I went in and spoke to Parul Patel, the owner's daughter. She assured me there is no plan to close any time soon. However, the shop is struggling.



Recently, the rent went up. Then Gem lost their license to sell cigarettes and lottery tickets due to a former employee's negligence. As Patel explained, those sales are critical. People who come to buy those items also buy newspapers and magazines, which are expensive for the shop to carry. 

At the same time, the landlord told Gem to clean up the historically and happily jumbled front exterior of the store--so away went the newspaper racks and Zoltar the fortune teller. Gone, too, are the magazines, at least for now. Once Gem gets their cigarette and lottery license back, the papers and magazines may return. But that is another four months away.



Patel urges locals, "Instead of buying your coffee at Starbucks, buy it here. It's cheaper and tastes really good." They've also started selling Juul and other vape products, along with candy bars, sodas, and lots of hats.

And egg creams, of course. Excellent egg creams that you can get with a pretzel rod. 



What might happen if Gem Spa vanishes? For one, like many East Villagers, I will be very unhappy. Back in 2013 I had a nightmare that Gem was put out of business by 7-Eleven. They survived and the 7-Eleven vanished instead.

Today, rumor has it that Citibank is interested in taking their space. As one customer said to that, "We don't need another bank. We have enough banks."


Ted Berrigan, 1972

The loss of Gem Spa would be a tragedy that the neighborhood would not tolerate. Any new business would be shunned. When The Stage Restaurant was forced to close across the avenue, a local used spray paint to call for a boycott of whatever business moved in. When one did, the neighborhood rejected it. For several months it sat empty of customers and eventually folded. The space remains empty.

Gem Spa has been here for a long time (though not "since the start of Manhattan"). Since 1957, it's been famously loved by punks, poets, and countless East Villagers. The Patel family has run the place for 35 years. They have good relationships with their customers and three years left on their lease. Help keep them in business. Go to Gem Spa--get an egg cream, a candy bar, a couple of pretzel sticks.

Like Patel said, "Every dollar counts."

Want to save what's left of New York? Put your money where your mouth is. Don't let the history of Gem Spa stop here.


New York Times, 1969


New York Dolls, 1973


photo by Roy Colmer, 1976


photo by Michael Sean Edwards, 1979


photo by Hank O'Neal, 1980s






Monday, June 10, 2019

Three Lives on the Sidewalk

The great and glorious Three Lives & Company bookstore in Greenwich Village has been buried behind scaffolding for weeks. They've had to close--since Memorial Day weekend--for some structural work on the building.

The work has been completed, but the shop remains shuttered as they wait for the Department of Buildings to release the building and give the bookstore the go-ahead to reopen.



This is rough news for any small business, where every sale counts. So, until the DOB says the word, the Three Lives crew is taking their books to the sidewalk.



They write: "we are excited to announce the opening of the Three Lives Sidewalk Shop! Since we cannot invite you into the shop at the moment, we are taking the shop out onto the corner of West 10th and Waverly. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday), we will be selling a selection of the latest titles, shop bestsellers, and staff favorites. If we do not have what you are looking for, we are taking special orders as usual. Please stop by and talk books with us."



You may recall that Three Lives had a near-death experience back in 2016 when their building was sold. To my (and many others') great relief, the bookstore got another lease on life. Now I'm worried again.

Keep Three Lives alive and thriving. Go by their sidewalk sale and buy something. You can also contact them by email and place a special order. Books typically arrive within a day or two and you can pick them up on the sidewalk outside the shop.

Easy!

Why bear the horrible shame and guilt of buying books from Amazon when you can enjoy the good feelings of being a virtuous human who supports a beloved local spot?



Monday, June 3, 2019

White Horse "Elevated"

When I first broke the news that the White Horse Tavern would be taken over by Eytan Sugarman, restaurateur to hedgefunders, I predicted that "we'll see a high-end re-do, like the ones that destroyed and/or exclusified Bill's Gay 90s, Minetta Tavern, Rocco's, Fedora, and so many other beloved--and once democratic--classic spots."

Sugarman went before the Community Board 2 State Liquor Authority Committee and, addressing New Yorkers' concerns, promised not to change the spirit of the historic bar. “I have every intention of keeping this amazing institution the way it is,” he said. “I have no intention of making any dramatic changes.” But he also said he would raise prices and make "a little bit of a better burger."

Now the Post reveals what the new White Horse will be when it reopens this week after a renovation. “We are keeping prices accessible," Sugarman told the paper, "but the dishes will be elevated... We are going to turn it into a first-class gastro pub."


New York Post

That sounds like an oxymoron. Somehow "accessible" means grilled lobster and fries “with ramp butter and aioli” for $32, and Arctic char “with whipped potatoes & bone marrow” for $29. There will also be that "better burger" for $16, a pretty standard price for much of Manhattan, and mugs of beer will remain at $8. Other prices will rise. Croman is the new landlord, after all. The chef is Ed Szymanski "who made his name at Beatrice Inn."

The Beatrice was one of the first places that fell victim to the fauxstalgia trend--the one that, according to the Times, has turned the Village into "a theme park of the past, as these restored standards offer a vision of a lost bohemian New York— albeit with a well-heeled clientele and prices to match." When the Beatrice was first taken over by Paul Sevigny, he said there would be a mix of old and new, high and low -- Monday nights would be for the old regulars, featuring red-sauce specials and Scrabble, while Saturday nights would go upscale. "The whole idea behind the bar-restaurant," he told Grub Street in 2006, "is bringing things back to NYC, like American and New York things." A mix of high and low doesn't sound like the worst thing, but the plan didn't stick and the Beatrice was, in a word coined by David Kamp, Vongerichtified.

The Beatrice changed hands over the years, ever elevating. Szymanski came later. The Post says he's bringing history to the historic White Horse, "researching pub fare from the 1920s and 1930s for inspiration." There will be a Waldorf salad.

As for the interior, "Sugarman says he is keeping the tavern’s interior mostly the same despite plans to bring contemporary artist Roy Nachum, known for creating the cover art for Rihanna’s 'Anti' album, into the mix this fall."

Let's hope this is not a slippery slope, ever elevating over time.







Monday, May 13, 2019

Wholesale District

VANISHING

For the past decade, ever since the Ace Hotel took over the Breslin SRO hotel on Broadway and 29th Street, I've been watching the Wholesale District vanish. It is not dying. It is being murdered, shop by shop, building by building, all to create the fake "neighborhood" known as NoMad.

Hanging by a thread, it recently took a turn for the worse.

A major center of wholesalers on Broadway has just been wiped out in one fell swoop. Along the west side of Broadway in the upper 20s, the sudden mass erasure of so many small businesses is staggering.


1165 Broadway Before (taken in 2016)


1165 Broadway Today, 2019

Between 27th and 28th Streets, 1165 Broadway housed several small wholesale businesses, selling perfume, jewelry, handbags, African-American hair products, clothing, and more. For years, I have walked by it every week, lingering to admire what I cannot fully participate in, but appreciate nonetheless.

The small businesses attracted a diversity of people, many of them immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. With them came gray-market dealers, ice-cream trucks, sidewalk vendors, and lots of Halal food carts. It was a lively, colorful block that always felt like the real New York, unruly, surprising, and rough around the edges.

But this is not allowed in the new New York.

Today, 1165 is scaffolded and shrouded. All of the shops have been shuttered and sealed behind green plywood. The building will be scrubbed clean, disemboweled and sanitized for white capitalist triumphalism, reamed with a luxury glass tower.


1165 Broadway Tomorrow (toasting colonialism's triumph on the rooftop)

It's not just this building. We're in the midst of a mass extinction event.

One block up Broadway, across 28th Street, low-rise buildings full of small businesses were wiped out for another tower. The site sat demolished and empty for a few years. I watched tomato plants grow lush, red fruit along the edge of the lot, presumably from people at the nearby food cart tossing tomatoes and accidentally seeding a wild garden.

Construction has now begun.


Northwest corner of 28th & Broadway, 2015


Northwest corner of 28th & Broadway, 2019

Heading up to 29th Street, the remaining building on that same block, also once full of small businesses, has also been emptied and plywooded.

The sidewalk is now dead.


Southwest corner of 29th & Broadway, Before (Google Maps, 2017)


Southwest corner of 29th & Broadway, Today

Step right across the street at 29th and you'll find the future--another block wiped out, another glass monstrosity like all the other glass monstrosities, soulless and banal, inspiring nothing, inhumane.


Northwest corner of 29th and Broadway, today

When all of this evicting and destroying is done, all we will have are glass towers into which no small businesses will go. A thriving cultural ecosystem is being eradicated, and it's by design.

What we are losing has gone largely uncelebrated in the mainstream conversation. The Wholesale District caters mostly to black and brown working-class people, many of them immigrants. It is scruffy and unfashionable. That makes it easy to kill. And then easy to forget.

But we must remember what happened here. The Wholesale District's death is not a natural one.


vanished

When the neighborhood's destruction began about a decade ago, the name "NoMad" was invented by the CEO of GFI Development, the company that took over the Breslin Hotel. That's where it started.

For many years, the Breslin served as a rent-stabilized haven for artists--along with writers, transgender women, glove makers, people with AIDS, anyone who might not easily find a comfortable and affordable home elsewhere in the city. When it was taken over, tenants reported harassment, got organized, and posted signs on their doors that read: “We will not move.” They went to court and lost. In 2008 the Breslin became Ace Hotel New York. The fights went on. Soon, all of the old ground-floor businesses vanished. That year, I walked around the block and counted 17 small businesses gone from the building. Part of the Wholesale District's hubbub, they were replaced by upscale hipster mini-chains like Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Seattle-born Rudy’s Barber Shop, along with an oyster bar and gastro-pub that took the Breslin name.

The virus spread. Over the years, I've watched the eastern side of Broadway become evermore hip, expensive, and white. A wig shop became a matcha bar. In went places like Want Apothecary, Dig Inn, Black Seed, Opening Ceremony, and Sweetgreen. All cater to a higher class. Many don't take cash.



Often, when I made my weekly visit, I would stand on the median in the middle of Broadway and watch the tale of two cities unfold around me.

On the east side, in the crowd streaming past, almost everyone was white and middle to upper class, many of them tourists. On the west side, the crowd was mixed, with many black and brown people, immigrants, and members of the working class.

You could see it was only a matter of time before the whole corridor was whitewashed. It's hard to deny the colonization here, and not just as metaphor.


East side of Broadway at 29th


West side of Broadway at 29th

In her book Harlem Is Nowhere, writing about gentrification, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts refers to the “exuberant myopia common to colonists,” people who speak of usually black and brown, working-class neighborhoods as if nothing and no one was there before the upper-class white people came. We hear it all the time when gentrification happens. It appeared in a 2010 story about the birth of NoMad from New York magazine.

"Close your eyes and picture Broadway between 23rd and 30th Streets," it begins. "There’s a good chance you’re either drawing a blank or you’re envisioning a long strip of wholesale perfume retailers, luggage liquidators, and stores that specialize in human-hair wigs. This is not the most picturesque area in the city, nor the most easily romanticized." The area is called nameless, "a nondescript no-man’s-land" dubbed "the Brown Zone" by one critic because it showed up as a brown rectangle on maps. But it also was, and is, brown in its people.



Why is it not picturesque or easily romanticized? Why is it thought of as nondescript, blank, a no-man's land? There was so much here. African women walking down the street in brightly colored dresses and head wraps. Shoppers striding through with armfuls of flowers from the (also vanishing) Flower District. The sidewalks lively with tables full of wares. Windows bright with bottles of body oils with names like Lick Me All Over. In summer, women selling ices in mango and coconut. Men calling out the bargains, barking their deals to passersby.

You could feel the aliveness, the giddy chaos of a street that was not engineered and designed by hyper-capitalists in remote offices. We need places like the Wholesale District. They are good for the soul--and for the city.

Now so much is gone. The shutters are down, the police are on guard. More dead towers are rising. There is more to save--but who with the power is willing?





Monday, April 22, 2019

Whisked Away

In Williamsburg, the Whisk kitchenware shop is being driven out by a massive rent hike. They've only been around for a decade, but even these newer small businesses get the boot by the big hyper-gentrification machine.



Free Williamsburg has the story. In the owner of Whisk's own words:

"It is a story of greed, commercial banking and the distortion of 'fair' market rents.

When we opened Whisk on November 26, 2008, our rent was $8,625/month; it ended at $18,452/month. The thing is, we could sustain that high rent. We are a great, busy store and online retailers have not cut into our sales enough to hurt us. But to renew our lease for just 5 years, our landlords asked for no less than $26,500/month, or a 44% increase. To accept that rent would mean increasing prices and depressing wages. And that’s not the contribution I want to make.

So how did it come to be that it’s $26,500 or leave? I believe the story goes like this:

Developers identify Williamsburg as the cool place to be. Developers seek loans to amass more land ownership. Banks underwriting these mortgages demand to know payments can be met via higher rent rolls. 'We like chain stores for tenants,' they say. Williamsburg businesses shift from independent, unique services to large American and multinational businesses seeking to grow their brand. Can’t actually pay the high rent demand? 'No matter,' say these businesses. 'It’s an advertising investment!' Private equity supported brands want in; food chains want in; heck, all the banks want in! Big landlords are happy and finally so too are the small landlords who can now say “me too!” on high rent demands."

There are solutions--but we have to take control.