On 9th Avenue near 24th Street, Les Desirs Patisserie has been a bakery since 1962, when it began as a Cake Masters. It's been owned by a baker named Jean Pauget for the past decade, and every day it is filled with senior citizens from the neighborhood, mostly from the Penn South housing cooperative.
Recently, Mr. Pauget got notice from his Penn South landlords that his lease won't be renewed and he will need to vacate the premises by the end of October. There's a petition on the counter for everyone to sign.
Thanks to a tip from local writer Stacy Torres, I visited Les Desirs and found only one seat available in a packed shop, bustling with talk--and song. A table of women, most in their 80s, were singing "It Had to Be You" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." I sat down with Jeannie and Phil, Hell's Kitchen and Chelsea natives who've been coming to this bakery since the 1960s.
"See how comfortable we all are," said Jeannie, "We can sit, talk, argue. This place is where everybody meets to hear what's happening in the neighborhood. This is where you find out who's sick and who's died."
"It gives you a reason to get out of the house," she continued, "If you don't show up here for a few days--can you believe it?--your phone starts ringing! It's your friends calling up to say: Where are you? Are you okay?"
"This is family."
The Les Desirs chorus
The table of singers consists of neighborhood women: Becky, Emily, Marguerite, Rita, and Betty (who recalled her days of singing at Horn & Hardart's automat). They come to the bakery daily to play Name That Tune and see if they can stump each other. Together we sang a 1935 ukulele tune about a Hawaiian girl, and Becky got up to do a slow, sultry hula dance, conjuring the balmy air of the islands.
"In the winter," said Jeannie, "we look for this place even more. A nice, warm place to be together."
She heard that Les Desirs will be replaced by the Sullivan Street Bakery, a company that supplies artisanal "peasant" bread to places like Jean Georges, The Four Seasons, and Gramercy Tavern. They already have a pizzeria on the same strip as Les Desirs, a business financed, in part, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
I asked the ladies where they will go, once their bakery is gone.
"McDonald's," Betty said, "That's all we can afford around here now."
"McDonald's," echoed Jeannie sadly, "But the atmosphere will be gone."
That's for sure. At Les Desirs, Mr. Pauget lets the senior citizens sit for hours, drinking their coffees and enjoying their pastries. If they forget their money, he tells them to just bring it tomorrow. At the end of the day, if someone needs it, he gives away his leftovers. And, of course, he lets them fill the place with song.
None of that is going to happen at McDonald's.
You can help save Les Desirs:
- Stop into the bakery and sign the petition asking for a new lease
- Call Penn South's management office to complain: 212-675-3200
- Contact the Sullivan St. Bakery and let them know what is in jeopardy
- Pass the word!