Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dubrow's Cafeteria

Marcia Bricker Halperin is a veteran street photographer who, years ago, captured the wonders of New York City's Dubrow's Cafeteria. Established in 1929, there were a few locations in the city, and the last one closed in 1985. I asked the photographer some questions, and she answered.

All photos by Marcia Bricker Halperin

How did you first discover Dubrow's?

As an art student in 1970s New York City I discovered photography and got the notion to become a "street photographer." One day in February 1975, while taking pictures of the store windows on Kings Highway in Brooklyn, my fingers froze solid onto my Pentax SLR. That's when I headed through the revolving doors into Dubrow's Cafeteria. I took a ticket from the man at the door and found myself looking out at a tableau of amazing faces between the coffee urns and steam tables teeming with choices and the muraled walls under high ceilings with modernist, space-age lighting. Huge windows and mirrors helped to reflect light onto the people.

How did you get passionate about preserving this lost part of New York City?

The 1970 Taxi Driver & Hackman's Guide lists 3 pages of NYC cafeterias. By the time I was actively photographing I was only able to catch a few besides the 2 Dubrow's--the Governor on Broadway, the Paradise Cafeteria on 23rd Street, the Belmore, the Garden, and the last Horn & Hardart's on 42nd and 57th. I was very lucky to become part of a CETA-funded artist's project as a photographer on the documentary team--a program very much like the WPA for artists. During that time I photographed the changes to the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, Coney Island, the south Bronx, and continued photographing cafeterias.

Dubrow's is often called the "last cafeteria." In one of the articles on the Dubrow's Blog it's described as a place to "kibitz and nosh and argue the fate of the world." What is the value of kibitzing, noshing, and arguing our fate? What allowed it to happen at a place like Dubrow's and where do you think it happens today?

There's a theory about communities called "Third Places." After your home and your workplace comes the need for some social institution. The Irish had bars, the Italians had social clubs, but Jews had cafeterias in New York. They came to eat, but just as importantly to talk. Of course cyberspace is like a "third place" now. The demise of cafeterias was tied to the rise in affluence. People opted for waiter service and felt it was beneath them to carry their own tray. Cafeteria chains prevailed much longer in the South and Midwest where it wasn't until the last decade that many have closed, but they lacked the opulence of the big city ones.

The closest you can come to the feel of an old cafeteria today is at Katz's Deli. The ticket machine, the long counter on one wall, the frenetic feel with people carrying trays laden with Jewish-style foods in search of an empty table. The sound is reminiscent of old cafeterias too--cutlery rattling and lots of conversation. But I don't think you would scour the tables for a familiar face or a comfortable table to share and strike up a conversation with a stranger. By contrast, the dozens of coffee joints around my neighborhood are tomb-like since almost everyone is on their laptop.

What are your personal recollections of time spent in Dubrow's?

I would give away the discard versions of the black-and-white prints I was making in my darkroom. Word got around that I gave out portraits and I was getting invites to join people at their tables. And the managers tolerated me taking photos of patrons and the staff as well.

I met some amazing people during those days--people I ordinarily would never have had a conversation with over a cup of coffee--taxi drivers, "Cappy" the handicapper, widows, the men from the 10 a.m. "over-80 club," a balloon seller, an ex-prize fighter. I do remember that during the day if someone wasn't nursing a Danish and a 25-cent cup of coffee for hours the old joke was “mind my seat, I have to go home to eat.”

Have you thought doing a Dubrow's book from all your work, something like the Scrafft's book?

I have a pretty large collection including my negatives, archival photographs, articles, interviews, ephemera like trays, spoons, postcards and matchbooks, audio and actual film footage shot in cafeterias including Dubrow's. I think I have more than enough material to make a documentary film about this now extinct institution. I made a short documentary blending my photographs and film footage of Hasidim enjoying the now-defunct Astroland in Coney Island. I'm hoping to be able to find support to realize the cafeteria project.


Marcia in Michigan said...

I live in the Metro Detroit area and my favorite cafeteria was the one in the basement of the JL Hudson store on Woodward. It wasn't fancy, but they served the best food ever. The Waldorf salads were marvelous and the employees were totally fantastic. Their customers ranged from employees to executives from the surrounding buildings. It was great fun back then.

Marc Kehoe said...

Dubrow's in the Garment District!
That mural of fashion figures coming down the steps of what looked like a 1939 World's fair pavilion!The curving cafeteria line that matched the biomorphic indentation in the ceiling for the indirect lighting,
that line up of desserts, the cashiers that seemed to remember the patron and said "Hello, Honey," the beautiful patrons such as the ancient man in a tweed suit that I observed slowly savoring a chocolate pudding?
I am thrilled that the are photographs.

Ken Mac said...

gone googie man

T.E. Rinaldi said...

Fascinating! Really beautiful photos, too. I believe some Dubrow's neon survives in a private collection.

James Campbell Taylor said...

For many years I have been somewhat haunted by a vision of a New York cafeteria. It's not particularly decorative, but it has a high ceiling with low hanging lights and gigantic plate-glass windows looking onto the street. It's a sunny afternoon and the entrance is set in a few extra feet from the curb and raised with a couple of steps down to the sidewalk. There are rows and rows of tables; at one point a girl stands up and waves out the window. I don't know if I glimpsed it in a movie late one night or if it's purely a creation of my imagination, but I can picture both the interior and exterior vividly. I've spent entire afternoons walking the streets trying to figure out if it ever really existed.

maximum bob said...

In the early 80's I was living on 26th st btwn second and third.
There was a cafeteria in the area that used to be really popular with
cabbies. It was featured in the movie Taxi Driver in the scene where
DeNiro is talking to Peter Boyle on
the sidewalk outside.
Anybody remember this joint?

Marty Wombacher said...

Great interview and wonderful photos! I loved her "tomblike" observation about modern-day crowds in coffee shops with laptops (and phones) as well.

Carol Gardens said...

(The Belmore was the cafeteria in Taxi Driver.) I spent a lot of time in the Garment District Dubrows. I can still picture the soup, challah bread, mural and old timers. There were so many characters. My favorite eccentric was the guy who used to paint his hair on with what looked like shoe polish. It was jet black and had an exaggerated widow's peak...

BaHa said...

I used to get one of the guysat Dubrow's to place my bets at the OTB next door. Couldn't go in there myself, what with the Catholic school uniform and all.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Mr. Taylor, now i am haunted by that vision. very evocative. @ Marc, the man in the tweed suit. @ Baha, the Catholic girl placing bets. what, is there something about Dubrow's that brings out the poetic and cinematic in memory of it?

laura said...

dubrows: we had one on flatbush avenue in brooklyn. or i may be getting confused w/kings highway. maybe there were not 2. this was the early 60s. it was a hangout @night for the neighborhood kids, also a pickup place. we didnt go in, just stood outside on the street. the action types were there, the cool people. i could tell you stories. there were other street hangouts i brooklyn, & all were out side of a cafeteria.

Mitch Broder said...

As Marcia Halperin suggests, the decline of these places is tied directly to the decline of humanity. She is right about the "third place" (a term I first encountered in a book called "The Great Good Place," by Ray Oldenburg). But for me, "cyberspace" is no substitute, nor is the precious "communal table." We pay a lot more than we think for upscale service. Thanks for sharing this, Jeremiah, even though it made me even more depressed.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Beautiful piece & photographs - I hope the documentary gets made. When I was a kid in England the big excitement was going to a Kardomah cafe. They were in existence from 1900 or so until the 1960s - part of a coffee company founded in the 1840s. Dylan Thomas & fellow artists hung out in one in Swansea & were known as the Kardomah Gang. In the land of bad coffee the coffee was actually good, & they were kind of arty, with string quartets sometimes. Later (when I was little) they were often Beat or Mod hangouts. Cheap, self-service, high street chain. Very nice. I can still remember going there with my mum, the smell of the coffee, & the feeling of six year-old sophistication!

laura said...

additional comment: those days there were no malls. kids were out on the street @night. meeting each other etc. (adults were in dubrow's sitting, but mostly that was in the daytime). i dont want to stray off topic, but walking up & down the street & hanging on the corner was the way to meet cute boys. those days we liked to see what we were getting. no bs, no facebook no shit. up close & personal. these days the kids are on laptops writing to strangers. how may people meet @ starbucks?? while they are texting someone? also the trend in early 60s brooklyn was we went to pizza places, & coffee shops. of cause a few years later we were walking up & down macdougal street. & going in & out of cafes. i dont get this lap top cell phone text life.

laura said...

another cafeteria! the "waldorf" it was near rockerfeller center. i went there in 1958 ish. it was my first trip to manhattan alone w/another girl on the subway. we went skating & dined afterwards. my mother thought i went to the "waldorf astoria hotel", & was relived it was a budget place. i was 10 yrs old, it was very glamourous for me. could you imagine a modern middle class mother letting her child ride the subways @ 10yrs old? it would never happen in yr 2011.

Fifi Cimino said...

I'm a Brooklyn girl, my grandma used to take me to Dubrows on Eastern Parkway, which btw, was right across the street from The Famous, which was strictly dairy.

I went to all the cafeterias, and the automats which had the best baked beans with a frank in the middle, mac and cheese, hot chocolate and apple pie with vanilla sauce and their pies were to die for. You could buy them at their stores. The Dubrows on Kings Highway I didn't go to until I was a grown woman. It wasn't as good, or as large. The one of Eastern Parkway was enormous.

I was thinking of Dubrows tonight because I wanted to make their steamed bread pudding with fruit sauce, and I did a search.

But all that's left of Dubrows are the memories. There isn't a cookbook or a series of recipes anywhere. Just some of us who remember.......

I'm glad I'm not alone.

Lance A. Lewin said...

Garment Center Dubrow's! Wonderful memories: while working my first job/s in the garment industry I would buy dessert at Dubrow's almost every day: walking in at their side-entrance, (like another person already commented) the lady behind the counter would greet me "hey honey" and after a few visits, remembered me (and always giving me a little bit more) for the regular price! I was 28 at the time.

Kind regards,
Lance A. Lewin

Linda Creash said...

When I was a young teen, my mom would take me once a year to the garment center to the coat houses on 7th ave. we would start on the top floor and work our way down. The racks of coats were amazing. I'd always wind up with a nice one, and then we'd make our way to DuBrows across the street for lunch. Who could forget it? That amazing mural is etched in my memory. And the fun going down the counter with my tray. I'm so happy to have experienced those wonderful days. It was magical. A city that no longer exists.