Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Carnegie Neon Sign

Yesterday, workers removed the gorgeous neon sign of the shuttered Carnegie Deli.


photo by Jonathan Walland

The 79-year-old deli closed at the end of December--for reasons no one fully understands.

Its famous Walls of Fame were recently stripped and its contents auctioned:


photo: Ken Jacowitz


photo: Ken Jacowitz


photo: Ken Jacowitz


Monday, January 30, 2017

On the Queer Waterfront

Tomorrow evening, January 31, the NYPL's Martin Duberman Visiting Scholar, Hugh Ryan, will be presenting on "The Queer Histories of Brooklyn’s Working Waterfront." I asked Hugh a few questions on the topic of his research.

*UPDATE: Watch the streaming video of the talk here.



Q: What are some ways that queer populations and the working class came together in New York of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century?

A: For much of the period I’m researching (from the mid-1800s to World War II), there wasn’t really a “queer population” to speak of. Our modern idea of sexuality as a unique identity, separate from gender, was only just coming into existence (the word “homosexuality” wasn’t even coined until 1868). Of course, there were people who did and felt queer things. But they didn’t “come together” with the working class in the ways that we would imagine. Rather, they were part of the working class (as well as other classes), and in some spaces and at some times, they felt or expressed their queer desires more clearly (or at least, more visibly to a modern eye).

During this period, some of these people (particularly in urban areas) were beginning to have enough economic and social freedom to form small groups of like-minded folks – little proto-queer-communities, if you will. On the waterfront, for instance, there were jobs that queer people could have, less policed streets, lots of same-sex only (particularly male-only) spaces, a dense anonymizing urban fabric, and a global culture that understood that different places have different sexual mores. A few jobs in particular were open to different kinds of queer people: sailor, sex worker, female factory worker (in WWII especially), artist, and freak/entertainer.

So there’s a lot of queer history to be explored in these working-class communities, but it’s not as simple as finding the gay bar in Red Hook they all went to. And because these folks were poor and queer, they rarely had the opportunity to write their own histories, so I often find myself reading "against" an official source, trying to ferret out information about queer life from an arrest record, or a medical report, or an angry jeremiad written for a newspaper by a straight person.

Q: What have you discovered in those sources?

A: New York City had laws against dressing in the clothing of the opposite sex, and you can find lots of working-class folks in Brooklyn being prosecuted under these laws as far back as the mid-1800s -- like Josephine Jarneuse, a "street walker" that ran away from a "good home," who went by the name Johnson and was arrested for "masquerading in boys attire" at an early age. According to a pearl-clutching obituary in the Paterson, New Jersey, Evening News, Jarneuse hung out at Coney Island, where "from bad she went to worse," and eventually died in childbirth. But we have no records from Jarneuse's point of view -- were they trans, or a middle-class girl who ran away from home to earn money and have a free life? Or did they run away because of tensions over their sexuality and gender identity? Something queer is happening in her story, but it's impossible, at this remove, to say exactly what.

Sometimes newspaper articles have more information, but it can be misleading, like in the case of Tina Becrens, who was arrested in Brooklyn in 1898 for wearing women's clothing. To the newspaper, Becrens claimed they wore women's clothes solely to find work, but the more I read, the more that felt like an excuse wrapped in the truth--as an obviously queer person, Becrens probably was unable to get work when dressed like a man, but that wasn't the sole reason they dressed in women's clothing. These stories are always isolated from any kind of queer community, but by looking at them in the aggregate, you can begin to build a picture of the queer population in Brooklyn at this time.

Later, especially around the 1920s/1930s, you start to see some conscious queer community building. For instance, the poet Harold Norse was well aware that Walt Whitman and Hart Crane both lived in Brooklyn Heights, and it's part of what drew him to go to Brooklyn College when it was still near that neighborhood. There, he would meet a number of other gay men, students and teachers, which would propel him into a queer arts circle that included W.H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles, and Allen Ginsberg. Living as a queer artist, however, often meant not making very much money, which both made Norse a member of the working class, and meant that he lived and socialized in places where other working class people went--although his queerness and his literary output also gave him access to more highbrow spaces. That access, really, is a connection to power, and because of his connection to power, Norse's life was deemed interesting enough that he was able to publish a memoir, which means we have much greater access to his thoughts about his own sexuality. But the further back you go, the rarer that kind of information is.



Q: What made working class spaces more welcoming to queer people than middle or upper class spaces? (If you think they were.)

A: This is a great and complicated question. I hesitate a little around “welcoming,” but I will say that during this period, you had a few conditions that made queer experiences more visible (and possible) among working class New Yorkers. First off, according to historians of sexuality generally, the working class was more open to all kinds of non-marital sex, not just same-sex or gender nonconforming desires. Many of these communities were predominantly immigrant, and the ratios of men to women were all out of whack, making marriage less of an option. Men and women inhabited separate social spheres, and had little access to private spaces where they could meet together – but at places like the municipal baths or aboard ships, men (and to a lesser degree, women) had chances to gather together in semi-private places. Also, new ideas about sexuality-as-an-identity were more common among upper-class people, and those ideas gave an added level of risk to same-sex desires, because now not only were you participating in an activity that might be frowned upon, that activity defined who you were as a person.

Additionally, having obvious same-sex or gender non-conforming desires (or making no effort to hide them) frequently led to trouble securing work or housing, as well as family issues, and the attention of the police – all of which made queer people more likely to be working class than upper or middle class. Almost all of the people I’ve researched – from butch women who worked in factories, to trans men who worked as sailors, to famous gay male artists like Hart Crane – talked about the ways in which their queerness made it hard to get work, or how only certain jobs were open to people “like them,” or how they had to hide who they were for economic reasons.


Q: What were the differences and similarities between lesbian and gay male participation in the working class world?

We don’t really know the answer to that question, because our pool of information is limited to those people who were out (and were recorded, in some way, as being out). Being out isn’t about desire or sexuality, per se, but whether you had the social space to acknowledge and/or enact your queer desires, and then whether that acknowledgment or enactment got recorded. Women, in general, had less access to economic and social freedom, and their lives were less recorded. So the history of all queer people assigned female at birth (whether lesbians or trans men or however else they may identify) are less common, harder to find, and tend to occur in the latter half of the time period I’m researching.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that queer working-class women were less common than queer working-class men. When working-class women suddenly had access to well-paying jobs, mostly with other women, in less-policed and less-gendered spaces, we see a huge uptick in records of queer women – for example, in the factories of the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII.

In a similar way, race and racism really complicate these queer histories. People of color have also been historically kept out of many kinds of employment and many neighborhoods, and this (in part) determined the kinds of queer lives they were able to live (and which we as historians are able to find traces of). So when the Navy Yard suddenly became a source of jobs for queer working-class white women, women of color were kept out of those jobs, which then divided the burgeoning queer community that this work made possible (in fact, of the first 200+ women hired at the Navy Yard in WWII, only twelve were women of color.)


Q: How did transgender and gender non-conforming New Yorkers make their way in blue-collar spaces?

A: This is a tricky question to answer, because there are a lot of folks for whom it’s impossible to say whether they were “transgender” or “gay.” At the time, most people who thought about queerness as a specific sexual identity saw it as an inversion of normal gender. Basically, they collapsed our modern categories into one catchall group. Those who were most likely to be “out” were those who couldn’t hide their queerness – particularly “butch” women, “femme” men, and trans people of all stripes. But how they would have identified if they lived today is an open question.

That said, there are records of people who were obviously what we would today consider transgender. Often, these are arrest or medical records, because these people usually had so little social power that they never got to keep their own histories – and because the simple act of wearing clothes appropriate to their gender could get them arrested. Like all working class people, however, they tried to have jobs that could afford them a modicum of social privacy and stability, from domestic worker to sailor to sex worker.




Q: Why/how did the working class and the queer go their separate ways in the 20th century -- or did they?

A: My research really stops around the fifties, so take all of this with a grain of salt, but my guess is that they didn’t – at least in terms of actual behavior. In fact, research shows that queer people are still more likely to live in poverty than our heterosexual peers. However, as the presidential election showed, our modern concept of the working class is of a white, homogenous, rural (or rural-adjacent), religious, poor, and socially conservative monolith. That idea of the working class is often pitted against an idea of the queer community, which is thought to be urban, non-religious, progressive/liberal, wealthy, and diverse (although we’re usually still thought of as all being white). But while these concepts have parted ways, I don’t know how reflective they are of a real separation between “queer people” and “working class people.”

One tendency I do think is worth looking at, however, is the connection between poverty and religiosity in America. Mainstream American religions are still mostly struggling with queerness, and obviously, the impact of religious homophobia is going to be stronger in communities that are more religious.

Also, it’s worth remembering that the connection between queerness and the working class that I’m exploring in Brooklyn (and which George Chauncey explored so marvelously in Gay New York) is a very specific one. It occurred in an urban world that was a global nexus for cultural intermingling, at a time when men and women lived very separate lives (and when there were generally way more men around than women). Other working class groups, defined by other sets of conditions, probably had very different ideas or experiences or prevalences of queerness.



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

W. 28th Street View: 2010 - Today

For years, the block of West 28th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues was a quiet one, wide open and low rising. It was auto-body shops, a scrap yard, a place to get a slice of pizza, and the Eagle gay bar. Then the new High Line came.

Immediately, a big chunk of the block was flattened. Small construction businesses moved out. The +ART condo went up across the street in 2010.



The second section of the High Line opened in 2011. Construction began for Avalon Bay's AVA High Line.

In 2012, the one-story nightclub in the bottom right of this photo was demolished.



The scrap yard (left side, with yellow machine) kept scrapping. Life went on. Then residents of the +ART condo started complaining about the Folsom East fetish fair. Christian right-wingers stood on the High Line with signs telling the fairgoers they were sinners. Tourists gawked.

The fair was cancelled and eventually moved.



AVA got bigger and bigger and bigger.



Then the scrap yard went in 2013, sold for millions after doing business since 1927. All of the auto-body shops closed. Digging began immediately for the foundation of Zaha Hadid's ultra-luxe, space-age condo.



As Hadid's building rose (left), so did another directly across the street.



And now another is rising, right behind the Hadid.

On the other side of the High Line, behind this view, a little tenement with a bodega was recently demolished. Something else will be rising there. It will certainly be made of glass and shimmer and money.



This all took just six years.

One little block, sun-lit and wide open, is now as dark and suffocating as a sarcophagus. Walking on it used to be a pleasure. No more.

I've quoted this before, and I'll quote it again. In 2011, Philip Lopate wrote a love letter to the High Line. He concluded:

“Much of the High Line’s present magic stems from its passing though an historic industrial cityscape roughly the same age as the viaduct, supplemented by private tenement backyards and the poetic grunge of taxi garages. It would make a huge difference if High Line walkers were to feel trapped in a canyon of spanking new high-rise condos, providing antlike visual entertainment for one’s financial betters lolling on balconies."

It would. And it did.






Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Greek Corner Comeback?

In despair, I recently reported on the closure of the great and underrated Greek Corner Coffee Shop.

Now there's a new sign in the window: "Under new management: Store will be re-opening after renovations."



This looks like good news.

Let's hope it stays a regular coffee shop. (I would say let's hope they keep the pistachio green lunch counter, but you know that will never happen.)


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Brooklyn Wars

This past fall, the journalist, author, and Village Voice editor Neil deMause published The Brooklyn Wars, the story of 21st-century hyper-gentrification in the borough of kings. I asked him a few questions about what the wars are all about.



What are the Brooklyn Wars? Who are the competing armies and what are they fighting for?

The last 20 to 30 years of this borough — the rise of the “New Brooklyn” and all that — has been portrayed as either a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective, but either way usually as a sort of unavoidable evolution. When you look more closely, though, it’s actually been the result of a series of pitched battles over what the borough would look like, who it would serve, and who would get to live here.

The sides in these battles have been complex and shifting: You have developers, and politicians seeking “redevelopment” in various forms, and residents of all types who either promote or resist change, sometimes both at the same time. (One of the odd things about living in a city like New York in times like these is that it’s totally possible to be simultaneously a gentrifier and gentrified, both a threat to old-timers and threatened by the next wave of newcomers.) And the weapons wielded are varied as well: Brooklyn wouldn’t look the same today if the city wasn’t rezoning everything in sight, but it also would be far different if the housing market weren't governed as it is by a weird amalgam of bare-knuckles market speculation, tax-incentive plans like 421-a, and the tattered remnants of mid-20th-century rent regulations and public housing programs — or, for that matter, if the New York Times real estate section were a normal journalistic enterprise instead of operating as a kind of fifth column for the development industry.

The Brooklyn wars, then, look like residents and shopkeepers and city planners and moneyed investors all tussling over whether areas like the Fulton Mall or the Sunset Park waterfront will keep serving the people they have in recent decades, or whether they'll be remade to fit, and draw, a more upscale clientele; and they look like the shifting allegiances among residents, amusement park operators, developers, and city officials in Coney Island that helped craft that neighborhood's grand bargain that's still playing out. And they look like every single person who has needed to make a decision: Where will I live, and what will the impact be of that decision? Like all wars, they’re hard to sum up easily, which is why I needed to write a whole book to wrap my brain around it.


Artists Evictions in Gowanus

Why do you think, of the four outer boroughs, Brooklyn became so popular for hyper-gentrification in the 2000s?

The thing about gentrifiers is that everyone wants to be first to be second — being an "urban pioneer" is only satisfying if you're sure that the trail ahead has been laid, and that more wagons will be following you over the horizon. Unlike the other outer boroughs, Brooklyn always retained a certain amount of upper-middle-class housing, particularly in brownstone Brooklyn, which provided a foothold for middle-class types who started fleeing Manhattan after it gentrified rapidly in the '70s and '80s. As a former city in its own right, it also had the densest transit network, which made for easier commutes to lower Manhattan. And it had nice parks and pretty housing and all the rest of the stuff that goes with having been a destination for well-off homeowners in the 19th century.

As I describe in the book, when I was looking to return to New York after college but expressed to a friend that I no longer felt at home in Manhattan, she immediately suggested Park Slope, though she warned me it might be getting “a bit too yuppified.” That was in 1988.

Brooklyn also ended up being the perfect place to play out what I call in the book the ecological succession patterns of gentrification: First the artists seeking out cheap housing where they can make a racket (or stretch out canvases), then the people who want to live near artists, then the people who heard that the neighborhood was "hot," until eventually you work your way down to the hedge fund managers. There's no particular reason it couldn't have happened in the Bronx, except that it didn't, and once that momentum was established in Brooklyn there was no stopping it — especially not once the developers, rezoners, and Times real estate reporters got involved.

We can’t talk about gentrification, perhaps especially in Brooklyn, without talking about race, as you do throughout your book. But some will say, “White people were there first.” How do you respond to that?

Well, the Canarsee Indians were here first. But, sure, Brooklyn was largely white when most of it was first built, so some people might justify the retaking of the borough as, hey, we're just back from a long vacation, right?

It shouldn't be about who got first dibs on the place, though, or even about squatting rights now. The history of Brooklyn neighborhoods is inextricably intertwined with race: You had the bank redlining in the 1930s and realtor-led block-busting in subsequent decades that helped make Bed-Stuy the center of one of the nation's biggest African-American communities and Bushwick the poster child for abandonment by landlords and city services. Then today, you have the marketing tactics that portray residents of color simultaneously as local flavor and as native tribes to be subdued and displaced by more qualified trailblazers — witness the "Colony 1209” that advertised itself to “like-minded settlers” on “Brooklyn’s new frontier,” or the Sunset Park real estate panel that boasted of “dynamic new residents” who “now demand a borough where they can work, shop, eat, and sleep.” (Guess old residents weren’t big on the eating and sleeping?)

The common theme here is that, regardless of whether the more affluent residents were fleeing or returning, it was people of color, and people without money more generally, who got the short end of the stick. Neighborhoods are changing all the time, whether it's Bensonhurst shifting from Italian to Asian or whatever, but that's not necessarily gentrification, which requires one group being displaced by another unwillingly. Gentrification isn't about change; it's about power.


Double Dutch in Bed-Stuy

People like to say that Brooklyn has hyper-gentrified due entirely to “market forces.” What do you think they’re saying when they say that—and what are they not saying?

It's self-evident that the population of Brooklyn is changing as certain areas become more desirable, and as new people arrive to bid up the price of housing. Of course, the other way of describing the same process is that when neighborhoods improve, the right to enjoy them goes to whoever has the deepest pockets. That, to me, is what we should be concerned about — that we're building a city where, essentially, only the wealthy can have nice things.

And anyway, the “market" is constructed in the first place by a melange of policy decisions. What would the city look like if the state hadn't spent decades providing tax breaks to private developers under the 421-a program, and had instead spent the money saved on some sort of public housing? What about if vacancy decontrol had never been passed in the 1990s, and landlords hadn't been provided a huge incentive to boot out tenants in order to reap windfall profits? What if we still had a 70% top income tax rate in the U.S, like we did before Reagan, and the super-wealthy were a rarity instead of the world we have now, where New York City has as many millionaires now as the entire nation did 30 years ago?

People act like "the market" is a natural thing like gravity, but it's a construct determined by whoever's making the rules it operates under. That doesn't make it inherently good or bad — but it does mean that the rules can reasonably be changed without it being some sort of abomination against nature.

You write about the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and how wealth has been flooding into Brooklyn. What do you think is lost—or gained--when big money moves in to a neighborhood?

What's lost is affordable housing and stores and churches and everything else that serves the existing population. That's a huge thing not just for residents, but for shopkeepers as well — a recent Hunter College study found that more than half of Latino-owned stores in Williamsburg closed up shop in the first decade of the 21st century.

What's gained is some renovated apartments, since under our current housing system there's very little incentive to provide upkeep and upgrades unless somebody is willing to pay more in rent for it. Plus a hell of a lot of Asian fusion cuisine, which isn't entirely a bad thing — everybody should have a right to pad thai — but also ends up being a poor substitute for what’s lost, even in the eyes of some of the newcomers. (I still complain about missing the terrific, cheap Mexican diner in Park Slope that ended up closing as a result of the neighborhood change that I was an unwitting part of.) One of the ironies of gentrification is it often ends up killing off the very thing that made the place attractive to gentrifiers in the first place.

I could probably go on about European colonists in America and passenger pigeons, but make your own extended metaphor here.


Italian Easter bread in Carroll Gardens

What do you see as the future of Brooklyn?

Right now the future certainly looks a lot like the recent past — the wave front of gentrification that's sweeping rapidly eastward across Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights and Flatbush shows little sign of slowing. And a Trump administration is only likely to accelerate the process, both through tax policies that promise to massively increase income inequality, and by decimating any programs that might fund public housing or empower immigrants or provide any other bulwarks against the raw power of cash.

That said, there's certainly more talk now about ways to resist the wholesale remaking of New York than there's been before in my lifetime, and an awful lot of activists who are doing everything in their power to put forward other visions of a sustainable city, like UPROSE in Sunset Park or the Queens groups like Woodside on the Move that are fighting back against that borough becoming the new Brooklyn. Systemic change is always hard and tiring and bloody, but every once in a while it actually succeeds, and usually in the least expected of ways — don’t forget that New York’s rent control laws were passed in response to temporary wartime housing shortages after World War II. The most that we can do is learn the lessons of the recent past, speak out, and push the powers that be, then see what happens.


  • Get your copy of The Brooklyn Wars.
  • Follow on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Save the date: Neil deMause and Tom Angotti, editor of Zoned Out!, will be giving a presentation on Brooklyn redevelopment at the Brooklyn Public Library Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza at 7pm on Monday, February 27.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

L.E.S. Is More

Unsurprisingly, the real-estate developers are excited about a Trump presidency. This press release came in over the transom for an event tomorrow at the Sunshine Cinema of all places. It's full of awfulness:

"L.E.S. is MORE" is a vibrant discussion between real estate and financial titans on the changing landscape of the Lower East Side post-election. Additional info can be found below:

Who РModerator: Leonard Steinberg, President of Compass / Panelists: Benjamin Shaoul, Charles Bendit, Arthur Stern, Andres Hoff, Jos̩ Antonio Grabowsky and Nikolai Fedak
Where – Landmark Sunshine Cinema, located at 143 E Houston St
When – Wednesday, January 18 from 9:30 am - 1:00 pm (Breakfast and lunch will be served).

Topics of discussion will include:

-Trump threw out the playbook in politics, fittingly NYC's real estate players are doing the same
-How the LES is ripe for living and ripe for investment
-Green smoothies and Katz's pastrami sandwiches: the collision of old and new in the LES
-Renown developers on bridging the old and new in the Lower East Side
-Lower East Side: Where food porn meets real estate porn
-Why buying an apartment before the building is built is the Answer



Leo Design

VANISHING

Back in 2010, after 15 years on Bleecker Street, Leo Design gifts closed shop. Their goodbye sign at the time said, "We're being turned out." This was in the middle of the luxury blitz that decimated the western end of Bleecker, turning the quiet and eclectic local street into a homogenized suburban shopping mall for the very rich.

Leo Design moved to Hudson Street. And now it's closing again.



Their goodbye sign this time around is longer--and more heartbreaking. The core of the letter gets right to the core of the problem in the new New York. Owner Kimo Jung writes:

"Long-time neighbors in The Village will remember when we opened 22 years ago. What a different place this was! Mom & Pop shops were the rule, not the exception. One-of-a-kind shops lined the streets—and shoppers could find odd and wonderful delights unavailable in any suburban shopping mall. The Internet was something new and Simon & Garfunkel sang that 'thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street.'

What happened? Well, the neighborhood changed—some change for the better, some change for the worse. I miss the Village’s alternative, Bohemian character. And I miss the people who used to be able to afford to live in Greenwich Village—especially the young artists.

Don’t get me wrong: I have had (and continue to have) wonderfully supportive customers. I’m brimming with tears of gratitude as I write this sentence. But as my rent (and every other expense) increases, it’s hard to rely on the same devoted core of supporters to keep spending more and more.

Take a look around: there are very few small shops left. I guess it’s always been just a matter of time."



January 31 will be the last day--and they're having a 25% off sale. Leo Design will keep operating online, according to Jung's note, until a new space somewhere appears.






Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fong Inn Too

VANISHING

Fong Inn Too is the oldest family-run tofu shop in New York City and, quite possibly, in the United States. Founded on Mott Street in Chinatown in 1933, it closes forever tomorrow--Sunday, January 15.


Paul Eng

Third-generation co-owner Paul Eng showed me around the place. Upstairs, a massive noodle-making machine churns out white sheets of rice noodle, sometimes speckled with shrimp and scallion. Downstairs, a kitchen runs several hours a day with steaming woks and vats of tofu and rice cake batter, including a fragrantly fermenting heirloom blend of living legacy stock that dates back decades.

Eng's family came to New York from Guangzhou in the Guangdong province of China (by way of Cuba), like many of Chinatown's earliest immigrants. His grandfather, Geu Yee Eng, started the business, catering mainly to the neighborhood's restaurants. His father, Wun Hong, and later his mother, Kim Young, took over after World War II and kept it going, branching out from tofu to many other items, including soybean custard, rice noodle, and rice cake.


Brown rice cake waiting to be cut

The rice cake is the shop's specialty. It has nothing to do with the puffed rice cakes you eat when you're on a diet. This cake is fermented, gelatinous, sweet, and sticky like a honeycomb. It comes in traditional white as well as brown, a molasses creation of Geu Yee Eng, and it is an important food item for the community.

A few times each year, the people of Chinatown line up down the block for rice cake to bring to the cemeteries, leaving it as an offering to their departed relatives.

"It's a madhouse," says Paul. "They come early to beat the traffic and fight each other for the rice cake." No one else makes it--Fong Inn Too supplies it to all the neighborhood bakeries. "Once we're gone, it's gone." Customers have been asking Paul where they will get their rice cake for the next cemetery visit. "I tell them I don't know."


Cutting the white rice cake

The Engs have sold their building and Fong Inn Too goes with it. Business has been hard, though Paul's brothers, Monty and David, have done their best. Their father passed away earlier this year. Their eldest brother, Kivin, "the heart of the place," also passed. Their mother tried to keep it going, but "her legs gave out," and she had to stop. The closing, Paul says, has been hardest on her. "This place is like a child to her."

Paul is the youngest of his siblings and, while he worked in the store as a kid, he doesn't know the business anymore. Like many grandchildren of immigrants, his life is elsewhere. As for the fourth generation, there's no one available to take over.


Paul Eng

"I'm in mourning," Paul told me--for the shop, for family, and for his childhood home. Maybe also for the Chinatown he used to know. "The neighborhood has changed a lot. When I was a kid this was all hustle bustle. Now it's so quiet. No one lives here anymore."

"No one" means no Chinese people. "Gentrification," says Paul, is "starting to trickle in. This old section of Chinatown is kind of orphaned off. It doesn't know where it's going to be." He wonders if it will become like the Chinatown of Los Angeles, with no Chinese people, just tourists and souvenir shops for tourists, a theme park of what a neighborhood used to be.



You have only this weekend to visit Fong Inn Too (46 Mott St.) and buy their delicacies. After tomorrow, they'll make no more.

The family will stay around to celebrate one last Chinese New Year on January 28 and February 4. They'll sponsor a few big dragon dances and then say goodbye.


The noodle machine in action--this photo by Paul Eng



Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Neptune Diner

A reader from Queens recently wrote in, "There have been reports of the Neptune Diner’s imminent demise over the last few years. However, community gossip is much stronger and multiple people have said the lot on which the Neptune sits was sold and the diner will be closed."



So I went to Astoria for breakfast at the Neptune. It's right at the bottom of the stairs at Astoria Boulevard Station. You can't miss it with its white stone walls and red adobe-style roof, its arched windows and lighted carriage lamps.



The food was good. As the paper placemat informs you, the Daily News has named Neptune the Best Diner in Queens.

The place was busy, too, bustling with a Queensian mix of New Yorkers--working class and middle class, many races and ethnicities. The city.



I don't know how long the Neptune has been in existence. Long enough for David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve to dine there during the filming of The Hunger, and no doubt longer.


Photo by Jean-Claude Deutsch, via Findery

But back to those closing rumors. I asked a man who looked like he knew the score.

"I heard you might be closing," I said. "Is it true?"

"That's the Twitter," he replied, waving away the rumor with his hand. "You know the Twitter?"

"Yes."

"You know Donald Trump on the Twitter? He's gonna build a wall? Ha!"

"Yes."

"It's like that."

Make of that what you will. There is currently no public record of the building being sold. Maybe they're thinking about it, maybe they're not. But when these rumors crop up, they're usually made of something. So go to Neptune, have a good meal, and enjoy the place. Because you just never know.





Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Le Train Bleu

VANISHED

I'd never been to Le Train Bleu, the quasi-hidden restaurant atop Bloomingdale's, so when the Times reported it was closing at the end of 2016, after 37 years, I went.



Le Train Bleu, as James Barron explained, was "the nickname for a famous French train that carried passengers coming from London and Paris to the Riviera. The engines were blue. The restaurant, in Bloomingdale’s flagship store, mimicked the train’s dark-green interiors, with velvet on the walls, along with mahogany paneling and a Victorian-style ceiling."

Bloomingdale’s will be renovating the sixth floor, and that means no more Le Train Bleu.

You got there by elevator or escalator, winding your way through the housewares department, and climbing a set of carpeted stairs to an odd little corridor. The dining room looked like a dining car, long and narrow, framed with tables.



I sat by the window, with a view of some plastic shrubbery and a bunch of brutal luxury apartment buildings. The view inside was better.

Almost everyone around me was white-haired and definitely local. It is a rare pleasure these days to be surrounded by real New Yorkers in New York. Turns out, they'd been hiding at Le Train Bleu, dressed in tweeds, stylish coats, and--in one case--a pair of purple sequined earmuffs, kept on throughout the entire meal.



Women reapplied their lipstick in snappy compact mirrors. Snippets of conversation came in and out of range.

"She's a little coo-coo," said one woman to her dining partner. "She was always strange. I always, from the very beginning, thought she was strange."

"I read it in The National Review," said a dapper gentleman to his wife. "He is absolutely the new Hitler."

Many of the diners seemed to be Bloomingdale's employees. They all knew each other. They knew the waitresses and gave their condolences and advice, especially to the two seniors, a pair of women who looked strikingly alike in their weary faces and dyed-red hair. Women who, after what has probably been decades, will now be out of work.

"Have you gone to HR? You must. Go to HR and I'm sure they'll have another position for you. I'm sure of it!"

I sat and waited for the dining room to rumble and jolt, for the whole thing to take off down some invisible train track, up and out over the city. Gone.






Monday, January 9, 2017

Greek Corner Coffee Shop Diner

VANISHED

Late last week, I headed to the Greek Corner Coffee Shop Diner, as I often do, looking forward to a cup of coffee at the pistachio green counter. Instead, I found it gone. I was heartbroken.



A goodbye sign in the window said they'd closed on December 31--"After exactly 36 years, 5 months, and 15 days." They'd been on the corner of 7th Avenue and 28th Street since 1980.



Back in March, I shared the rumor that the place was going to close, but I could not confirm it. I was told: The building has been sold. The building might be sold. There are holdouts who won't budge. The building won't be sold. Everything will be okay. Who knows?

There's no notice of a recent sale in the online building records, but it could be imminent. Was the coffee shop pushed out or did they just decide it's time to go? In their goodbye sign they say they're opening a new place in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, called Blue Door Souvlakia. It looks nice, but nothing like the coffee shop.

I'm going to miss the Greek Corner. It was one of my oases. And another authentic New York coffee shop that has gone.


March 2016




Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Evergreen Coffee Shop

VANISHED

Last week we lost another authentic New York coffee shop, that rapidly vanishing part of the city's local fabric. The Evergreen on West 47th, a block east of Times Square, had been in business for 25 years. They'd just celebrated their anniversary. A sign in the window read: "we will go dark" on New Year's Eve.

The building owner would not renew their lease.



“We’re being forced out,” Evergreen's owner Ilias Argenas told DNAInfo. “They want the property vacant. Why? I have no clue.”

To the Post, he said, “We were pleading, we were arguing." But no lease. Not even for one more year.



The building that holds the Evergreen was sold.

When I went in for a farewell meal, a waiter told me it will be demolished for a new hotel. A little deli in the building will also close. Two small local businesses destroyed for yet another tourist hotel? We need that like we need a hole in the head.

According to news outlets and public records, the building sold for just over $101 million to Clarity 47 Parking LLC, which seems to be Icon Parking, the company that currently occupies most of the building. Will they keep it a garage or make it a hotel? An attorney for Clarity 47 told the Wall Street Journal that "the overall parcel is slated for redevelopment."

Hotels are killing our streets. They are currently annihilating the Flower District and the Garment District. Meanwhile, mass tourism has made it nearly impossible for New Yorkers to enjoy the city's cultural sites. When was the last time you tried getting into a museum? It's a nightmare.

City Hall could do something--like placing a moratorium on new hotel construction--but it won't. 



And while the new owners get the permits together for their demolition and construction plans? The Evergreen will sit empty for at least a year, and probably longer, creating more miserable high-rent blight.

An empty storefront is a bigger tax write-off for building owners. Of course, the city and state could fix that by imposing a vacancy tax or taking away the write-off, but they do nothing and the problem continues.

So we continue to watch the city die before our eyes.



The Evergreen was a favorite among Fox News employees, whose building is right around the block, and the walls were decorated with autographed headshots of hosts like Megyn Kelley and Bill O'Reilly.

They also had Conan O'Brien and the cast of The Sopranos, along with the "First Ladies of Football." And, of course, many loyal customers who did not have headshots.

Thinking of losing his customers, Ilias Argenas told the Journal, "It’s going to kill me.” It actually could. Too often, senior citizens die soon after they're evicted from their businesses and homes. I've seen it happen many times, a literal casualty of hyper-gentrification.



A regular old coffee shop, the Evergreen was one of those easy and quiet places, full of New Yorkers, with just a smattering of tourists, stopping in for an affordable meal, a hot cup of coffee, a place to get warm and be comfortable.

It's that atmosphere that matters so much. It helps us to breathe. And we're losing it fast.








Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Vanishing Sign

If you've recently walked by Cake Shop, which played its last song on New Year's Eve, you may have noticed a flickering neon sign in the window. It says one word: VANISHING.



The sign is the brainchild of artists Troy Kreiner and Brian Broker of Shameless Enterprise, in collaboration with "Vanishing New York" and built by neon artist Patrick Nash. The 20-something offspring of native New Yorkers, raised nearby in Nassau County, Troy and Brian created the sign to bring attention to the plight of vanishing small businesses in the city they love.

"Neon is poetic," says Troy. "The singular word, VANISHING, echoes the OPEN signs you see in store windows." Only this sign communicates the opposite, announcing closure and finality with its irregular rhythm, like a heartbeat fading out. "The light was engineered to flicker," Troy explains, "like it's on its last legs. And neon is a fragile material, hand-crafted, ingrained in the cultural history of the city."

The sign commemorates what's being lost. Its creators also hope to inspire resistance.

"Hearing about the closures on social media is one thing," says Brian, "but seeing it in the context of the neighborhood is another."

The sign is a physical representation of loss, and the artists want the people walking by to have an emotional experience when they see it. "There's a lot of hopelessness and defeatism about this issue," says Troy, "but this could be a small gesture to inspire people to fight for change. It's hopeful, even in its sadness."

What future plans are in store for the sign? Brian says, "Hopefully, businesses will stop closing so we can throw the sign out." Since that's unlikely to happen anytime soon, the guys and I would love to see the sign displayed in more windows, to bring more attention to what has become an epidemic of vanishing.

If you manage a small business on the verge of vanishing, or you know someone who does, and you'd like to host the sign in your window, please get in touch with Brian and Troy at: nothing000matters@gmail.com. You can also contact them through their site -- and follow them on Instagram.

For the next couple of weeks, at least, you can see the sign at Cake Shop, located at 152 Ludlow Street. Watch it in action right here:

video

P.S. As for Cake Shop, the owners plan to return with a new name and no music. So, maybe only sort of partially vanishing.