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.