Monday, May 13, 2019

Wholesale District

VANISHING

For the past decade, ever since the Ace Hotel took over the Breslin SRO hotel on Broadway and 29th Street, I've been watching the Wholesale District vanish. It is not dying. It is being murdered, shop by shop, building by building, all to create the fake "neighborhood" known as NoMad.

Hanging by a thread, it recently took a turn for the worse.

A major center of wholesalers on Broadway has just been wiped out in one fell swoop. Along the west side of Broadway in the upper 20s, the sudden mass erasure of so many small businesses is staggering.


1165 Broadway Before (taken in 2016)


1165 Broadway Today, 2019

Between 27th and 28th Streets, 1165 Broadway housed several small wholesale businesses, selling perfume, jewelry, handbags, African-American hair products, clothing, and more. For years, I have walked by it every week, lingering to admire what I cannot fully participate in, but appreciate nonetheless.

The small businesses attracted a diversity of people, many of them immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. With them came gray-market dealers, ice-cream trucks, sidewalk vendors, and lots of Halal food carts. It was a lively, colorful block that always felt like the real New York, unruly, surprising, and rough around the edges.

But this is not allowed in the new New York.

Today, 1165 is scaffolded and shrouded. All of the shops have been shuttered and sealed behind green plywood. The building will be scrubbed clean, disemboweled and sanitized for white capitalist triumphalism, reamed with a luxury glass tower.


1165 Broadway Tomorrow (toasting colonialism's triumph on the rooftop)

It's not just this building. We're in the midst of a mass extinction event.

One block up Broadway, across 28th Street, low-rise buildings full of small businesses were wiped out for another tower. The site sat demolished and empty for a few years. I watched tomato plants grow lush, red fruit along the edge of the lot, presumably from people at the nearby food cart tossing tomatoes and accidentally seeding a wild garden.

Construction has now begun.


Northwest corner of 28th & Broadway, 2015


Northwest corner of 28th & Broadway, 2019

Heading up to 29th Street, the remaining building on that same block, also once full of small businesses, has also been emptied and plywooded.

The sidewalk is now dead.


Southwest corner of 29th & Broadway, Before (Google Maps, 2017)


Southwest corner of 29th & Broadway, Today

Step right across the street at 29th and you'll find the future--another block wiped out, another glass monstrosity like all the other glass monstrosities, soulless and banal, inspiring nothing, inhumane.


Northwest corner of 29th and Broadway, today

When all of this evicting and destroying is done, all we will have are glass towers into which no small businesses will go. A thriving cultural ecosystem is being eradicated, and it's by design.

What we are losing has gone largely uncelebrated in the mainstream conversation. The Wholesale District caters mostly to black and brown working-class people, many of them immigrants. It is scruffy and unfashionable. That makes it easy to kill. And then easy to forget.

But we must remember what happened here. The Wholesale District's death is not a natural one.


vanished

When the neighborhood's destruction began about a decade ago, the name "NoMad" was invented by the CEO of GFI Development, the company that took over the Breslin Hotel. That's where it started.

For many years, the Breslin served as a rent-stabilized haven for artists--along with writers, transgender women, glove makers, people with AIDS, anyone who might not easily find a comfortable and affordable home elsewhere in the city. When it was taken over, tenants reported harassment, got organized, and posted signs on their doors that read: “We will not move.” They went to court and lost. In 2008 the Breslin became Ace Hotel New York. The fights went on. Soon, all of the old ground-floor businesses vanished. That year, I walked around the block and counted 17 small businesses gone from the building. Part of the Wholesale District's hubbub, they were replaced by upscale hipster mini-chains like Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Seattle-born Rudy’s Barber Shop, along with an oyster bar and gastro-pub that took the Breslin name.

The virus spread. Over the years, I've watched the eastern side of Broadway become evermore hip, expensive, and white. A wig shop became a matcha bar. In went places like Want Apothecary, Dig Inn, Black Seed, Opening Ceremony, and Sweetgreen. All cater to a higher class. Many don't take cash.



Often, when I made my weekly visit, I would stand on the median in the middle of Broadway and watch the tale of two cities unfold around me.

On the east side, in the crowd streaming past, almost everyone was white and middle to upper class, many of them tourists. On the west side, the crowd was mixed, with many black and brown people, immigrants, and members of the working class.

You could see it was only a matter of time before the whole corridor was whitewashed. It's hard to deny the colonization here, and not just as metaphor.


East side of Broadway at 29th


West side of Broadway at 29th

In her book Harlem Is Nowhere, writing about gentrification, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts refers to the “exuberant myopia common to colonists,” people who speak of usually black and brown, working-class neighborhoods as if nothing and no one was there before the upper-class white people came. We hear it all the time when gentrification happens. It appeared in a 2010 story about the birth of NoMad from New York magazine.

"Close your eyes and picture Broadway between 23rd and 30th Streets," it begins. "There’s a good chance you’re either drawing a blank or you’re envisioning a long strip of wholesale perfume retailers, luggage liquidators, and stores that specialize in human-hair wigs. This is not the most picturesque area in the city, nor the most easily romanticized." The area is called nameless, "a nondescript no-man’s-land" dubbed "the Brown Zone" by one critic because it showed up as a brown rectangle on maps. But it also was, and is, brown in its people.



Why is it not picturesque or easily romanticized? Why is it thought of as nondescript, blank, a no-man's land? There was so much here. African women walking down the street in brightly colored dresses and head wraps. Shoppers striding through with armfuls of flowers from the (also vanishing) Flower District. The sidewalks lively with tables full of wares. Windows bright with bottles of body oils with names like Lick Me All Over. In summer, women selling ices in mango and coconut. Men calling out the bargains, barking their deals to passersby.

You could feel the aliveness, the giddy chaos of a street that was not engineered and designed by hyper-capitalists in remote offices. We need places like the Wholesale District. They are good for the soul--and for the city.

Now so much is gone. The shutters are down, the police are on guard. More dead towers are rising. There is more to save--but who with the power is willing?





Monday, April 22, 2019

Whisked Away

In Williamsburg, the Whisk kitchenware shop is being driven out by a massive rent hike. They've only been around for a decade, but even these newer small businesses get the boot by the big hyper-gentrification machine.



Free Williamsburg has the story. In the owner of Whisk's own words:

"It is a story of greed, commercial banking and the distortion of 'fair' market rents.

When we opened Whisk on November 26, 2008, our rent was $8,625/month; it ended at $18,452/month. The thing is, we could sustain that high rent. We are a great, busy store and online retailers have not cut into our sales enough to hurt us. But to renew our lease for just 5 years, our landlords asked for no less than $26,500/month, or a 44% increase. To accept that rent would mean increasing prices and depressing wages. And that’s not the contribution I want to make.

So how did it come to be that it’s $26,500 or leave? I believe the story goes like this:

Developers identify Williamsburg as the cool place to be. Developers seek loans to amass more land ownership. Banks underwriting these mortgages demand to know payments can be met via higher rent rolls. 'We like chain stores for tenants,' they say. Williamsburg businesses shift from independent, unique services to large American and multinational businesses seeking to grow their brand. Can’t actually pay the high rent demand? 'No matter,' say these businesses. 'It’s an advertising investment!' Private equity supported brands want in; food chains want in; heck, all the banks want in! Big landlords are happy and finally so too are the small landlords who can now say “me too!” on high rent demands."

There are solutions--but we have to take control.

Trattoria Spaghetto

VANISHED

About a month ago, Trattoria Spaghetto on Carmine and Bleecker abruptly shuttered. It was a good place.



In 2015, I worried about them. They told me they had 15 more years on their lease. I guess not.

As I wrote at the time, "Trattoria Spaghetto is a good place for lunch in the off hours, on a weekday. It's quiet. There's an old woman who sits by the door in a turban. She knows everyone and everyone knows her. She laughs and talks about the weather. Over the speakers, the music is Queen, nothing but Queen."

I was worried about the restaurant because its building was purchased by Force Capital Management, a Park Avenue hedge-fund that bought the building in 2012. They put out Avignone Chemist, in business since 1832, replacing it with a sweetgreen, one of the salad chains that follows the discriminatory practice of not taking cash. (At the time, DNA reported that Force wanted $60,000 a month for the space.)



What's coming to Spaghetto's spot? A tipster points us to a document that says it will be Dig Inn, another chain that's all about green things. Except cash. Like sweetgreen, they're (mostly) cashless.

New York is currently considering a move to ban cashlessness. Councilmember Ritchie Torres introduced the legislation in February and it is supported by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Cashless businesses are discriminatory, shutting out the poor. Of course, that's exactly what the New New York aims to do, building by building, business by business.





Smashed Links

Not happy with those intrusive and distracting LinkNYC kiosks? You're not alone. Along 8th Avenue in Chelsea, someone has been smashing LinkNYC screens with a cobble stone.



The apparent rage is understandable. With their video advertisements, dumb cartoons, and repetitive quotations, the digital pylons continually rob our attention. Walking down the street, on every block, your thoughts are interrupted by the flashing screens, violating your right to keep your attention where you want it.

Do we have a right to our attention? Jasper L. Tran has written, "We own and are entitled to our attention because attention is a property right and part of our individual dignity. Yet advertisement companies and scam artists freely bombard us with their 'products' daily, resulting in our own time and monetary loss." Jon Danaher at Philsophical Disquisitions calls it a "right to attentional protection."

LinkNYC violates that right. As we all know, it's hard to keep your eyes from flicking to a screen. (Clay Shirky once compared the contagious mental distraction of screens to second-hand smoke.)

The intrusion potentially goes deeper. With their microphones, bluetooth beacons, and cameras, the kiosks may "represent a troubling expansion of the city’s surveillance network," collecting information as New Yorkers pass by.



And who owns LinkNYC? As RethinkLink points out, it's basically Google -- via consortiums and companies like Titan and Control (real names), and something called Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google and headed by Dan Doctoroff, former deputy mayor of New York City for economic development under Bloomberg. This guy. The one who helped bring us Hudson Yards.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the smashed Links are in Google's neighborhood, clustered around its Chelsea location.



So who is our LinkNYC smasher? Is the smashing politically motivated? Is it a cry for our attentional rights? Or just a random act of vandalism?


Friday, April 12, 2019

St. Denis Down

In Jonathan Richman's song "Springtime in New York," there's a line that goes "When demolishing a building brings the smell of 1890 to the breeze." That's the smell you catch as you approach the destroyed St. Denis on Broadway and 11th Street. Only, in this case, it's the smell of 1853, the musty death of a great New York building.



I was fortunate to occupy the St. Denis, if only for a little while. It gave me peace and stability, and connected me to a deep and illustrious history. (I wrote about that extensively for the New York Review of Books.)

Now it's gone. Killed by greed.



Through the dirty plastic windows in the plywood wall, you can see the pile. The sturdy timbers that once held the place together. A pair of elevator doors suspended in open space. Bricks shaped and fired at the Hutton Brick Company up in Kingston.

(Though Hutton is often dated to 1865, 12 years after the St. Denis was built. Mr. Hutton once told a reader of the New York Times to keep the bricks for sentimental value. "They make lovely doorstops," he added.)



A few walls still stand, back toward the rear. This is where you can feel the ghosts, lingering in the murky shadows by peeling Ionic columns that might once have held up the ceiling of the fancy dining room.

They will also fall. The new owners want money and that means a glass coffin on top of this land, a miserable place to go and die.



I looked through every window, searching for remnants of the winding grand staircase, the mahogany banister gripped by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, Buffalo Bill Cody, P.T. Barnum, Susan B. Anthony, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcel Duchamp -- and all of these people, and many more, and me. But there was no sign of the banister, no sign of the wrought-iron dragons that held it.

They must have sold it for salvage.

When I turned to go, I beheld my old view, the one I felt blessed to see each night when I walked out of the St. Denis. Grace Church in all its beauty. In April, a magnolia tree in full flower, like a snow-covered mountain touched by pink.

It will be someone else's view now.



Read all my coverage on the life and death of the St. Denis building here



Wednesday, April 10, 2019

bookbook

VANISHING

After 35 years in the Village, formerly as Biography Bookshop, bookbook on Bleecker Street will be closing.



I spoke to co-owner Carolyn Epstein who told me, "It started with the rent, but then we decided it's just time for us to stop." The rent is going up, and while the landlord is willing to negotiate, in order to run the bookstore, they'd need a rent reduction and that's not going to happen.

"I'm 70 years old," Carolyn said. "I'm just tired." She and her husband, Chuck, opened the original shop in 1984. They were pushed out of their former space by a rent hike 10 years ago--and the spot went to Marc Jacobs.

It's always a sad day when the city loses another bookstore. In their email announcement of the closing, Carolyn and Chuck write, "Keep supporting our independent bookstore friends in Greenwich Village at Unoppressive Non-imperialist Bargain Books, Three Lives & Company, Mercer Street Books, and Idlewild."

Bookbook will continue to sell books on the street, on 12th and Hudson by Abingdon Square during the Saturday Farmer's Market and possibly on Carmine by the pickle stand. Of course, Carolyn added, "If there's a cheap flight to Paris, I'm not selling books on the street." In her semi-retirement, she hopes to catch up on travel and Tai Chi.

Bookbook closes May 15. Beginning April 15, they will begin discounting everything in the store at 20%-30% off. After that, follow them on Facebook, Instagram @bookbooknyc, and their email list to find out where they will be.




Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Rally & Wake for White Horse

Earlier this month I shared the news that the famed White Horse Tavern would be changing hands, to be run by upscale restaurateur Eytan Sugarman, its building sold to notorious landlord Steve Croman.



Last week, Sugarman went before the Community Board 2 State Liquor Authority Committee and promised not to change the spirit of the historic bar. “I have every intention of keeping this amazing institution the way it is,” he said. “I have no intention of making any dramatic changes.” But he also said he would raise prices and make "a little bit of a better burger."

Locals are worried this means a very different White Horse that might look the same and have the same name, but won't be welcoming or accessible to the current clientele.

Now the Stop Croman Coalition is hosting a rally for the bar, this Thursday, March 21, at 3:00. After the rally, author Malachy McCourt will hold a traditional Irish wake for the White Horse.



Is this the death of the White Horse as we know it? Locals have had plenty of reason to worry.

As I wrote in my book Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, "A virulent trend has been sweeping the Village, and the city, in which upscale restaurateurs take over vintage spots, refurbish them, and turn them into exclusive locales, keeping their names and capitalizing on their history. It’s an invasion of the body snatchers. The old places look like themselves, sort of, but there’s no soul inside. The blog Grub Street called the trend 'fauxstalgia.' It first happened to the Waverly Inn and the Beatrice Inn, prompting the Times to write about the practice in 2010. The Village, they said, 'has become like a theme park of the past, as these restored standards offer a vision of a lost bohemian New York— albeit with a well-heeled clientele and prices to match.'" New York later wrote about how trendy, monied restaurateurs "seem to be in a race to acquire New York’s oldest, most storied properties."

The people who take over often speak about preserving some aspect of the places. It happened to the Minetta Tavern when its new owner told Zagat, "No one familiar with the Tavern from the past will know exactly what's changed," but it changed dramatically, with a whole new clientele. It happened to Fedora when the new owner went before CB2 and promised, according to Eater, to "keep most of the cherished design details," but the place was completely transformed. It happened to Bill's Gay 90s, almost happened to John's of 12th Street, and after it happened to Rocco's, the new owners said they were paying tribute to the old place.



We only have the past to go by and we certainly can't see the future.

Maybe Sugarman plans to approach the White Horse with a light touch. Maybe he won't close it for renovations, upscale the menu, require reservations, and hype the place to a monied clientele of foodie Instagrammers and celebs. Maybe we won't lose the White Horse as a democratic and accessible place where anyone can sit at the bar for hours, shooting the shit and getting soused (including that grizzled raconteur in the beret and camo pants with a knife hooked to his belt).

Or maybe we really do need a wake.

It looks like it'll be a wild one. Musician and composer David Amram told the Irish Central: “I will leave my composing dungeon and celebrate the White Horse of the 1950s with Malachy at 4 p.m., and we will all have a toast to Ernie’s succulent overcooked knockwursts, non-stop schmoozing between Jimmy Baldwin and Dan Wakefield, the Zola Sisters charming us all, weekends crowded with C. Wright Mills fans, moving men, ex-boxers, crazy poets and neighborhood cats and kitties, filmmakers, homemakers, and stay-awakers!!”