Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Going Into Black Seed

One year ago, right about this time, DeRobertis' Pasticceria closed after the family opted to sell the building in increasingly hard times for small businesses. It had been on First Avenue in the East Village since 1904. Last week I shared the news that they opened a new shop, way out in Clifton, New Jersey. You can order their pastries online, but it won't bring back the feeling of sitting in their glorious cafe.

Going into Black Seed bagels won't bring it back, either.


Black Seed, photo via Eater


DeRobertis

As I do with all of my favorite places when they've been taken over and partly preserved by new owners, I forced myself to enter DeRobertis' replacement.

Stepping inside Black Seed, I was surprised by a sudden physical dysphoria. My stomach clenched, my head spun, my whole body trembled like a tuning fork. The cognitive dissonance of being in a space so intimately familiar, yet rendered utterly strange, was too much to bear.

The Black Seed people have kept many of DeRobertis' antique features, and I should be glad for that. It still has the tile walls and floor, the pistachio green back wall, the mirrors with their star-burst centers, but everything else is wrong, modernized and hipsterized, crammed with different people--the wrong people, people who never set foot in DeRobertis.

I hurried out, gasping for air, but vowed to get my bearings and go back another day.


Black Seed, photo via Eater


DeRobertis

On my next trip, I steeled myself, only felt slightly woozy, and ordered a bagel sandwich and coffee. The total came to over $15. I sat in a wide wooden booth made of "reclaimed sycamore" and stared at the floor, at the empty spot where a mobster's 1821 half dollar used to be.

I focused on what felt familiar and attempted to mentally exclude the rest. The extant details of the old cafe served as potent memory cues that helped to reconstruct a vision of how the space used to be. I began to relax. But the alien elements kept intruding and unsettled me again. The smells were wrong. The sounds were wrong. My psyche flipped back and forth between the old and the new, unmoored again by a cognitive dissonance, a locational unease. Where was I? Maybe this is like getting into a bed with a lover who's just returned from a Body Snatcher pod. The voice is the same, the face seems right, but you just know you're holding an alien in your arms--and it gives you the chills.

My sandwich, if such things are important to you, was tasty. I might order another. But it's not at all difficult to find a tasty sandwich in foodie-saturated Manhattan today. What is hard to find is authenticity, history, and a haimish environment.

Even when a space is preserved, once the soul has vacated, it won't ever be the same.

20 comments:

Anna Magenta said...

all of this antibiotic replacement also makes me sick.....

John M said...

I empathize with this post overall, and understand that feeling you described. But I have to take issue with your opening line, "DeRobertis' Pasticceria closed after the family opted to sell the building in increasingly hard times for small businesses." This basically says that the Pasticceria wasn't making it in the new reality, much of which has to do with the enormous rent increases small businesses are being faced with. The DeRobertis family didn't have that problem at all. They owned the building. They probably turned a decent profit on the rentals in the upper floors.

It was sad to lose such a landmark bakery, but it was completely the family's own doing. They cashed in. It was their right, but that opening line implies that somehow they're to be pitied or felt bad for, when nothing is farther from the truth. If you feel terrible walking into Black Seed (which personally I will never set foot in), you have only one place to put the blame: the DeRobertis family. They got rich, and then opened a new place in Jersey, no doubt close to where they live. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but in the context of this blog, there's not anything right with it, either. While other old businesses are forced to close by landlord greed and the non-patronage of the suburbanite youth plague, these people simply bailed. I have no use or any interest or sympathy for them. The almighty dollar wins again, one way or another.

Jill said...

Perfectly described. Kind of similar to running into a former lover who is not the person you fell in love with, but looks kind of the same.

Sashi said...

So sad but so true

Jill said...

John I partly agree with you, but if rents and building prices weren't rising so exorbitantly they might not have felt compelled to cash out, and have been satisfied with what they were making on their property.

Jeremiah Moss said...

In my conversations with the owners, and from everything I read, it was clear that the family was not simply cashing in, but struggling with the strain of running a small business in a city that does not support small businesses, as well as the realities of running an older business in a neighborhood with a dramatically changed population, which is in large part due to gentrification.

Donnie Moder said...

I also visited Black Seed recently to see what they did with the place. The bagel and cream cheese was excellent. The service was oddly slow and lacsidaisical. It took ten minutes for the 3 peopke ahead of me to order. The music, loud and boring, which told me they don't want me to hang around in their limited space. The wood tables and seating hard and uncomfortable. The feeling of the old DeRoberts Deroberts was gone. It is merely now a memory. The place is not visually appealing. I will go back for a very good but pricey bagel, they do that very well.

BrooksNYC said...

"The cognitive dissonance of being in a space so intimately familiar, yet rendered utterly strange, was too much to bear."

Now in my 46th year as a Manhattan resident, you've precisely described how I feel about the whole goddamned island.

Barbara L. Hanson said...

You want baked goods? You want local? Go to the St. N8cholas cookie walk this weekend.

laura rubin said...

the blck seed looks cold & empty in spite of all the wood.

zuzuzpetals said...

The old place was great. This new thing looks like it was designed by an App.

Trixie said...

I had coffee there recently with an out of town cousin that I hadn't seen in 30 or 40 years. We sat in the back and talked and had regular coffee, and I was kind of surprised to realize later that it wasn't that bad. It wasn't awkward to talk to my cousin after all those years, it was great, and that vibe in that back corner wasn't bad at all. It was still familiar. Our server came over and asked us if we wanted a free cookie because they were closing, and I guess she didn't want any leftovers. I thought that was nice. Will I be a regular and hang out there? No, but I'll be back for a bagel one day. I wish them well.

Jerry said...

Having been in the same situation myself, it is not as much an issue of cashing in but the frustration of trying to run a small business in NYC. My family business was open from1955 to 2007. What used to be a staple on the dinner table turns into a holiday item. I closed in June of 2007 and people were just finding that out 6 months later. You can't run a business where people only shop two or three times a year. We had a good run and one of the most important things in life is to know when it is time to walk away from something, My family did try to keep from letting the space be just another bar though as we have had two local merchants in the space.

Jerry

East Village Today said...

It's hell getting old.

Pat said...

Barbara, Thank you, I did go to the St. Nicholas Cookie walk today, I am eating the cookies now - outstanding! Also, a great community vibe in the church, lots of friends and family although I went solo I felt right at home. Decorations were nice too, cheered me up. It is great there are still these little pockets of warmth and humanity to be found in the city. I did not know about this event, now it will become one of my holiday "rituals." Tried Black Seed recently, the salmon & bagel sandwich was very good, but pricey. That place is no bargain but what is these days. Music too loud and wooden furniture uncomfortable for this older person. They want you in and out fast and spend your money$$$$. The old days of lingering over the little cup of espresso is long gone.

Donnie Moder said...

It is proper to mourn the loss of DeRobertis and to have sympathy for the owners. Yes, they may have come out financially better off by closing and selling the real estate. But the fact was that circumstances beyond their control had made them give up a way of life and livelihood in the city and neighborhood they loved and identified with. For us, there is pain, this closing marks another step in the progressively painful process of the passing of the type of neighborhood we would like to live in. Jeramiah captures how hard it is for those of us that remain behind and try to adjust.

ruthnyc15 said...

Thank you, Jeremiah. I looked for DeRobertis, last week, and was very disappointed to find it closed. Yet another classic bites the dust.

Jen said...

This is exactly how I feel anytime I have to go to the west side at/below Chambers. I used to go to high school there, and it was a great neighborhood. Now I feel nauseated when I walk through there. A group of friends of mine who went to the same school all went to the movie theater over there about two years ago... as soon as we exited the theater, we all looked around, then looked at each other, and one of my friends said "let's get the hell out of here". None of us could bear to stand there watching the yuppies eating in their overpriced cafes. And more recently I walked up Chambers to find that everything I had known was gone - okay, that happens; change is inevitable - but it was replaced by, among other things, a luxury Swedish children's clothing store. Yet again, I was sickened. I will never go there again unless I have to, and that makes me sad.

Trixie said...

For those willing to cross the Hudson river, DiRobertis' does live on in Clifton, N.J. It's called DeRolicious Delights now but it's run by the DiRobertis family and all baking is done in-house by their longtime baker. So check it out, it's not quite over yet.

Editor said...

De Roberti's had awful fluorescent lighting from the mid-20th Century that marred their interior and probably kept most patrons away. I'm not a pastry person, but it seems that Veniero's was edging them out for decades, at least popularly.

From the pictures it seems that Black Seed has rectified the awful lighting.

I've enjoyed Black Seed at Hudson Eats; they offer good quality by a local city business. You mentioned that getting a good sandwich is typical in NYC; I disagree.

I have to check out it, but from this article it seems that the interior and the food quality has improved. There's much worse that could have happened to the building and the space.