Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blimpie Base

The Subway sandwich shop that replaced Intervideo in the East Village has been open for a couple of weeks, and First Avenue between 6th and 7th is now a nearly unbroken chain of chains--Dunkin Donuts, McDonald's, Subway, Ricky's.



As Subway continues its juggernaut across the city, let's look back at its predecessor and competitor--Blimpie Base.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, the Hoboken-born Blimpie Base multiplied across the city (here's one on E. 14th), taking over a few bohemian haunts. It replaced a place called the Ham & Eggs on Broadway and 72nd, recalled in Richard Goldstein's 1973 New York essay on the Continental Baths as "a sort of leather Sardi's." He dubbed the replacing Blimpie as "asexual...and onion-y at that."

In 1969, they famously took over the beloved Cafe Figaro at Bleecker and Macdougal. The Times called it "the orange and white chain of hero sandwich shops proliferating through the area." A young man searching the ruins of Figaro for souvenirs said, "A Blimpie’s? They might as well change the name to Pizza Square."



Here's what the Village Voice had to say in 1971 after the Blimpie had opened:

"A symbol of what’s happening to the Village is the Blimpie Base sandwich shop at MacDougal and Bleecker Streets. The Blimpie occupies the spot where the Café Figaro used to be. The Figaro was forced out by high rents in January 1969. It may have been the best of the Village coffee houses. It had the beautiful, easy ambiance about it that flavored the whole area… Walk into Blimpie today and you’ll find that it has carried on the tradition of influencing the neighborhood. But not in the same way. An unnatural silence hangs in the air… A feeling of foreboding seeps out of the Blimpie and spreads like a stain down Bleecker Street."


photo by machine stops, 11th St. & 6th Ave.

We might be hearing echoes of the present day's disdain for chains, but it's not the soul-sucking nature of fast-food chains the author is talking about--it's the fact that this Blimpie was filled with junkies on the nod. Other authors recall this notorious spot as "sordid" and a "harbinger of...decay."

We could use a sordid harbinger or two these days.

16 comments:

Bard Cole said...

Cafe Figaro became a Blimpie? But then it became Cafe Figaro again, for thirty-odd more years. I wish I knew how that story went down.

Carol Gardens said...

Some more info here (especially in the comments): http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/22/the-lost-village-mystique-of-le-figaro-cafe/

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

At the Blimpie on 11th Street always hung out a tough bunch of teens who always tried to pick a fight with another teen walking by. This was in the middle 60s and teens were a threat everywhere, before music came on the scene. I ran a few times from that site with Blimpie hoodlums after me and never went into a Blimpie's anyway. Up to now I still won't go in, hell, you can keep the dump.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks Carol

DeJordy said...

I loved Blimpies. They introduced me to the wonder of oil and vinegar on a sub. I do recall in the '70s that when the Times would list the health violators, there was always a Blimpie on it. Are there any left in NY? When I lived in Iowa a friend ran one out of an Amoco station.

Little Earthquake said...

I don't want to go back to the days of junkies on the nod in a Blimpies in Manhattan. I'm sure those days seem fascinating to some, but personally I've witnessed enough decay from drug addiction that I'd prefer to see it diminished, not returning.

Filmatix said...

Funny how the Blimpie sign itself looks kinda legit, unless it was a very early version of faux-thenticity?

Can anyone of the old school answer whether chains at the time were as soul-crushingly standardized, plastic, and antiseptic as they are these days? And I mean the 60's, 70's, rather than later; I def. remember the Blimpies on 14th near O'Hanlon's from high school. Anyway, the Blimpie's sign made me think that maybe even separate branches of a chain back in the day each had their own character, such as it was. True or false?

Brendan said...

I don't think it's so great to openly say that you want the city to have a backdrop of human suffering, for atmosphere and character.

Of course the suffering is still there, just out of view (often in prison). But surely social conscience compels us to alleviate it, not aestheticize it?

Marty Wombacher said...

I kind of like the old Blimpie signage. It makes me think of Coney Island for some reason. Interesting to read the criticism of it from back then. And I hope the Coal Yard never leaves their spot on that block between 6th and 7th!

lauran said...

people go to these places. that is why they stay in business. who do you think will go to the mc donalds? all this talk about upscaling & yunnie professionals. now i see a working class downwardly mobile chain on first ave. which is it now? chi chi chain? maybe these places are for the delivery people, or from the projects?

DanaWyn said...

I have lived on East 12th Street since 1980. Before that I was a concert goer at the ACademy of Music. It seems that the one contant in my neighborhood is the Blimpie on 4th Avenue at East 13th Street. It was not till a couple of years ago that ANY renovation was done. And then it wa sonly to remove the booths and put in tables (too many blimpies made blimpies oo fat for booths LOL). I loved this shop and some of the same guys have worked there. Forever.

Anonymous said...

I was a customer of the Blimpie on 14th and 1st (now gone) going back to the early 1960's. I don't know if that was the first one in Manhattan, but it seemed like it was.

Grand St. said...

100% with DeJordy re: the oil and vinegar. Kinda what 'made' a Blimpie (that and, for me, the sweet peppers). Now I can't imagine having certain sandwiches without them.

@Filmatix - I agree with the notion that Blimpies varied in character. Less unity of design than a national chain, and some were/are, well, less scary than others (not in the 'hoodlum' sense, but in the 'we actually refrigerate the mayo' sense). I also went to HS around the corner from the Blimpie on 14th and 1st, which I seem to recall was respectable, but I was pretty loyal to DiBella's on 13th, which I continued to visit long after I graduated.

Anonymous said...

There used to be a Blimpie's on 55th and 8th and it had a sign that claimed it was the first one in the city.

Filmatix said...

@Grand St:

DiBella's! Wow, hearing that name is a sound for sore ears, so to speak, because I seldom hear anyone else mention them. I actually think fondly about them often.

For some reason, lunch always took me and friends either north or west, but never south of 14th, though after school we'd walk downtown most days, and grab a sandwich at DiBella's on the way.

Not sure what era you frequented them, but from about '89, when we discovered them, we'd always joke that DiBella was an unusual name for the very kind Korean husband and wife that manned the store around then.

Grand St. said...

Filmatix-

I was a regular there from '82-'86, and continued to visit into the early/mid '90s (can't quite remember when it closed).

Those folks were wonderful shopkeepers, really kind to the SHS teenage 'regulars.' I think they hailed from Queens, because they knew a couple of my classmates from their community. I have no idea when they took over from the prior (original?) owners, but I wish they were still there.