Friday, September 28, 2007

Playpen Gutted

Monday night, I went by to check on the Playpen and all was placid. Even a few lights were still glowing in the marquee. This afternoon, however, I found all the lights off and the theater being gutted against the protests of preservationists. The front windows have been sealed with black plastic, but I managed to snap a few inside shots through a tear.

view through the old funny store & into the theater

From the back alley, the open rear door of the theater revealed a Bobcat machine plowing through the space, kicking up plenty of dust.

I spoke to a worker who told me that the original interior cameos have been covered and protected and may eventually be removed for either preservation or sale. But everything else, he said, is just sheetrock, totally stripped. He expects exterior demolition to begin very soon, within the next two weeks. So much for that petition.

Just the other day I spoke to Orlando Lopes, New York Director of the Theater Historical Society of America, and he updated me on the fight to save the Playpen, a.k.a. the Ideal Theater, a.k.a. the Cameo.

He called the theater a significant part of early-twentieth-century moviegoing, “How many 1907 buildings do we still have that were silent filmhouses?” Not many. And this one’s in decent shape. The proscenium, the stud lighting, the details on the exterior, and the original cameos on the interior walls are (were) still intact. But the fact that the Playpen has been a porno theater for the past several years is a strike against it in the city’s heart. “This is no saving the Helen Hayes or Belasco,” Lopes told me.

The preservationists have been trying to act fast. Once the owners catch wind that preservationists are interested, Lopes explained, they often start ripping things apart. And indeed, the ripping has begun.

*Everyday Chatter

Why the city we love is being lost (see above) -- and one woman's plan to save it. [Queens Crap]

It seems like everyone's talking about this vanishing city -- first Time Out and now the Municipal Art Society asks, "Is New York losing its soul?" Find out the answer (as if we have to ask) October 3. [MAS]

After a bit of back-and-forth, Mo Pitkin's decides to close up shop and sell the building, as of October 20. [Gothamist]

Sign the petition to save the Playpen. [Curbed]

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wooden Water Tank Tops NYU

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to see a brand-new Rosenwach water tank perched like a cherry atop the risen NYU tower on 12th Street.

The city's skyline is filled with thousands of these tanks, most of them weathered to a pigeon gray by the passage of time. "You can't draw a New York skyline without water tanks," Wallace Rosenwach said in a New Yorker article on the company, "You look down from the top of a high building and see a sea of tanks. We're stupid enough to insist on manufacturing our own tanks. They last forever, unfortunately."

I like looking at the water tanks of this city's rooftops. They make me think of Edward Hopper's New York, though I can't recall that Hopper ever actually painted the tanks. If he didn't, he should have.

"The tank is an icon of the city. You can almost consider it to be a flag," says current Rosenwach Tank President Andy Rosenwach in this NY1 clip, "It has so much local color in a city of glass and stone."

These days, we could use a little more of that color.
  • View an ode to water tanks here.
  • Listen to an ode to water tanks here.

Bowery Flops


A recent walk down the Bowery had me gawking at the perilous-looking, piled-block, mesh-covered construction of the New Museum of Contemporary Art. It reminds me of a kid's Halloween-costume version of a robot, all clunky foil-covered boxes. Squeezing in between the Sunshine Hotel flophouse, kitchen supply shops, and a homeless shelter, this building is another big-shouldered intruder into the once-filthy Bowery, now a playground for the filthy rich.

I guess they think I'm one of them because they just sent me a fund-raising package asking to send them $1,000 so I can join Bowery Bash, the "glamorous, pre-opening party celebrating downtown and the arts."

This map from New York mag is already out of date, but it shows how complete the transformation of the Bowery has been. For anyone who still believes that the changes here are gradual and natural, take another look. They are driven, they are targeted, and they are relentless.

sunshine in the shadow

What will become of the last remaining flophouses and the men who flop there? Bigger Apple explored that question back in 2004 when the owner of the Sunshine Hotel told the Times that, though he couldn't stand the stink, he would not sell the building and evict its remaining homeless residents. Soon after, City Limits reported that he began offering the men money to leave, a couple hundred bucks according to one resident, barely enough to survive for a week. And this was all three years ago when the giant museum was still a design on paper.

The squalor that once protected neighborhoods like the Bowery from total destruction no longer scares away the affluent and ambitious, who must be well-practiced in the art of denial and turning a blind eye, or else they turn squalor and misfortune into art installations. The museum might be covered in mesh, but its patrons will be sheathed in Teflon. At least until the Sunshine and the rest of the old Bowery can be swept away.

a starbucks may be coming to this corner

*Everyday Chatter

The dealers may no longer stand on our street corners singing "dope, smoke, dope, smoke," but apparently you can still buy drugs "at the phone booth on Stuyvesant Street and 9th Street." [9th Precinct]

Community Board 3 is trying to save the Bowery from further development, but the towers keep coming. Another is set to plunk down near 3rd Street. Says one rent-stabilized resident who's been here since 1980, "My landlord said I should get ready to leave because he's had offers on the building." Words that strike fear in the heart of every long-term renter, myself included. [Villager]

Even the real estate investors are getting sick of the development onslaught. Says one, "Let Manhattan be just one big bullshit skyscraper. Tower of Motherfuckin' Babel. But for douchebags." [Curbed]

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Kids on a Condo

9/30 Update:
This post was featured in Chelsea Now's "Buzz" column and they supplied some more info on the topic.

click image to read

Original Post:
The exterior of the condo building at 18th St. and 8th Ave. is finished, complete with a bank on its first floor where there used to be a popular cafe/restaurant.

Now the spot is most popular with the throngs of thuggy teenagers who spill out of the high school on 18th every day. For weeks they've been flocking to the condo's comfy slate ledge, where they perch, preen, and agitate the afternoon away, smoking cigarettes and spilling sticky cola onto the slate.

my flickr

Recently, a little fence of yellow caution tape went up. I can only assume that the tape is meant to keep these kids off. But these kids are a force to be reckoned with.

*Everyday Chatter

The Flower District loves us, it loves us not. This fragrant and inviting part of town is abandoning pricey Manhattan, petal by petal. [AMNY]

Parts of the Domino Sugar plant have been landmarked. Sadly, the lovely yellow sign was not included. [Gothamist] HDC Voice puts in their two cents.

Tour Queens with an urban geographer. [NYT]

Williamsburg declared Condoburg by graffitists and satirists. [GL]

Out-of-control rents bring the grim reaper to the Upper West Side. [AMNY]

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

San Gennaro Feast


a common plea in this new New York age

The San Gennaro feast, along with summer, has again come to an end. Gawker takes a look at where the carnies will go next and I wonder if the feast will return next year, as the neighborhood changes and the complaints from the locals mount.

This past spring, Community Board 2 voted not to provide the feast with a permit, claiming that nobody in the neighborhood likes the feast anymore. It's hard to tell who "nobody" is. Is it the Italians who've lived there for generations or the newcomers? Some opine for the days when the mob ran the feast like a well-oiled machine. Others just hate the inconvenience and messiness of this traditional cultural festival.

Walking down Mulberry today is to see little trace of Little Italy. It's more like Little Hamptons. I moved through the crowded feast along the sidewalk, walking between two very different worlds: the backs of the carnival tents and fried dough carts and the plate-glass windows of high-end boutiques.

a boutique shopper with her back to the feast

"The people who objected to the feast, they knew about it before they moved in," said local pastor Fabian Grifone in the Villager. "It’s been going on for 80 years. If they didn’t like it, they shouldn’t have moved here."

As our neighborhoods change, so do our community boards. This happened in the Meatpacking District. When people with money began moving in, they pushed out the transgender prostitutes and queer clubs. Now some of them regret that move. Having upset the equilibrium of the neighborhood, they cleared a broad path for the hordes of drunk, conspicuous consumers to swarm right in.

Something similar is happening to Little Italy.

You can read the relevant minutes of the community board meeting here and here.

*Everyday Chatter

Tune in today to find out the winners for the title of Worst Building in New York. [WNYC]

This condo ad is, unfortunately, not a satire. [Curbed]

"there are more than 10.5 million cell phone subscribers in New York City alone, meaning our on-the-go phone chatter makes up 12 percent of the country's overall cell use." [AMNY]

Monday, September 24, 2007

Robo-Hotel in Williamsburg

Is this real or is it a brilliant satire of today's soulless New York culture? It is, thankfully, a joke/art piece. But god it seems so real, they totally had me. I was having one of those Orson-Wellian "War of the Worlds" moments.

The satirical site for the Platinum Empire Cove luxury development in Williamsburg...

DeRobertis Pasticceria & Caffe


*Update November 25: De Robertis will close its doors forever on December 5, 2014

The Times got it right when they said that walking into DeRobertis Pasticceria & Caffe on First Avenue in the East Village "is to enter the Italian immigrant experience of the early 20th Century." The tile floor and pressed-tin ceiling are original and not much has changed here since 1904. The shop is still run by the family, and granddaughter Annie was kind enough to chat with me about its history and future.

Annie's family is a local institution. Her father’s father started DeRobertis and her mother’s father started Lanza’s restaurant down the block. Annie first went to work in the shop when she was 11, folding cake boxes and filling cannoli by hand with a knife. I found her on a quiet Friday afternoon sitting in the cafe, reading about city politics in the Post and wondering aloud if she shouldn't just go back to Bari, where her grandfather came from.

She remembers the East Village when it was still filled with Italian and Jewish businesses, whole shops dedicated to single products: pork, fish, freshly made pasta that hung in the windows. “Eleventh Street was all butchers and chicken markets,” she told me, “I used to go with my mother. I was terrified. My mother would pick out a chicken and, boom, they killed it right there.” She recalls the First Avenue Market as a whole world where you could get everything: cheese, clothes, stationery, fabric, buttons, pickles, hats. And the East Village was a place where no one locked their doors. “I’d go into your apartment and leave a note: I borrowed your sugar. And did you care? Of course not.”

The neighborhood has changed tremendously since those days and especially so in the past few years. I asked about her experiences dealing with the newest immigrants to the East Village, the young and affluent. She told me about impatient customers who whine about waiting in line, ignore her help as they talk on cell phones, then want service "right away, right away, right away." But worst of all are the Starbucks people:

“People come in and tell me I don’t know how to make cappuccino," Annie said, incredulous. (She's only been making the beverage for 50 years.) "They tell me, 'Starbucks makes it this way.' I tell them, 'I’m here before Starbucks.' They want flavors. I tell them, 'I got flavors. You want a flavor? I’ll put it in.' Put it in? They look at me," with a look of disbelief. "Do these people really think the coffee bean grows in flavors? Like it comes in hazelnut and mint? These are people with college educations. But they want Starbucks. So I tell them, very nicely I say," with a wave of her hand, "So go to Starbucks.”

After 9/11 it seemed the older people moved out and the younger ones moved in. The traditional Italian pastries don’t do as well as they used to. Millefoglie and sfogliatelle aren’t as popular as the “fancier stuff” that DeRobertis offers, like their many mousses introduced by head baker, Tony, who came from Ecuador and has been with the store since he was 18. He’s family now.

John & Annie

There’s a lot of La Famiglia in this family business. Annie’s nephew John helps her and her brothers run the shop. He’s fourth generation and counting. The family owns the building and, thankfully, no one’s interested in selling. Every year, 35 members from all 5 generations gather on Thanksgiving for a big dinner in the cafe. They bring food and warm it up in the baker’s ovens down in the basement. I asked Annie if she thought the store would last through the next generation.

“Like my father used to say,” she told me with a shrug, “It’s here if they want it and if they don’t, what can I do?”

*Everyday Chatter

Gossip Girl continues the Plain-Janeification of our city. [MO]

Starbucks set to clone itself and double in size. [Racked]

This weekend Mosaic Man Jim Power destroyed one of his own East Village mosaics, enraged and disheartened by life in this vanishing neighborhood. [NMNL]

New York State gets a big fat "F" for its failure to reform eminent domain laws, according to this report card from the Castle Coalition. [CC]

Friday, September 21, 2007


The Times reported recently that Italian bakery Morrone & Sons has closed in East Harlem after over 50 years of being part of the neighborhood fabric.

Earlier this summer, the Lower East Side lost Gertel's to an 8-story condo. AMNY has a wonderful slideshow of a place filled with history, where tea was once five cents and hot water was free: "So the old men would bring in their own tea bags, drop them into the free water, and then sit for hours talking about the war."

photo: AMNY

Lost City has some rather heartbreaking photos of the Village's vanished Zito Bakery, which closed in 2004 for a variety of reasons, including rising rent, the high cost of coal, and the war on carbohydrates. Images like this one from Berenice Abbott are only ghosts today:

All these vanishing Italian and Jewish bakeries make me think of two classics in my own neighborhood: Moishe's Kosher Bake Shop and DeRobertis' Pasticceria, both of which haven't changed in years. As the glass towers rise all around them, I worry for these little family businesses. So I stopped recently at Moishe's for a bag of hamentaschen, which comes in apricot, raspberry, and poppyseed. They also have delicious breads -- challahs, pumpernickels, ryes, and more. From the forlorn look of their sign, I think it's time to hurry and taste what Moishe's has to offer.

Today I took a seat in DeRobertis' tile and pressed-tin caffe for a little cannoli and a long, pleasant chat with proprietor Annie. Come back again to read my interview with this vibrant, long-term member of the East Village community as she discusses the changing neighborhood and the future of her century-old shop.

Suburbanization & Anti-semitism?

With further evidence that New York is going suburban, the Observer reports on the rapidly growing car culture of our city and Streetsblog gives their analysis on this process of Californication.

Who are these car-lovers? They're young people from the suburbs who like everything to be easy, convenient, and under their control. And, perhaps most shockingly, they don't want their lives to be too urban. Says one: "I don't think you need a car...but I think it's definitely a plus. And it definitely makes me feel more...well, not like such a city person." Writes the Observer, "For reasons both deep and ineffable, these young transplants just can’t help bringing suburbia with them."

This is clear from their love of not only cars, but Home Depots, Cold Stone Creameries, golf, anti-intellectualism, conservatism, and all the other trappings of suburban life that currently plague our streets. But what I find most baffling is why anyone would move to the city if they explicitly did not want to be a city person. And what exactly does "city person," uttered like a dirty word, really mean to these people?

American Apparel ad: L.A. Curbed

When I think of driving and New Yorkers, I think of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen's character, Alvy Singer, regresses to his bumper-car youth. Real New Yorkers, he was letting us know, are too neurotic to get behind the wheel of a car. Real New Yorkers walk or ride the subway or take cabs. If you want to drive, move to L.A. -- about which he famously said, "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."

The people who drove cars in Annie Hall were WASPs who loved or longed for suburban life. Which brings me back to my burning question: What keeps New York's new masses of suburban transplants from wanting to be city people? If Alvy Singer could speak from that American Apparel billboard, he might answer with these lines from Annie Hall:

the failure of the country to get behind New York City is anti-semitism… Don't you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual, pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Trump, Dump, & Undulate

Protest to dump the new Trump, Wed morning [GVSHP]

Ground breaks on new super-condo One Jackson Square.

This week's Time Out cover asks the big question: Has Manhattan Lost Its Soul? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. [TONY]

Aminova's Barber Shop

Aminova's Barber Shop, along with other merchants in the Essex Street Market, has apparently been targeted by the New York City Economic Development Corporation for vanishment. That's too bad, because you can get a good cheap haircut at Aminova's while you enjoy the unusual decor -- walls covered with dozens of clocks.

From the NY Sun:
"the EDC is looking into ways to convince non-food-related stalls, such as Santa Lucia Religious, which sells a variety of knickknacks and religious objects, and Aminova's Barbershop, which has one barber chair and a barber from Uzbekistan, to leave the market. 'During hard times, a lot of these other stalls moved in,' Mr. Figuereo said. 'Some of them might not get to stay.'"

"Ways to convince"?

The best thing by far about the Essex Street Market is the diversity of shoppers and merchants, an eclectic and harmonious mix of races, classes, and ages. It actually feels like New York City in there. But the new urban order dictates total uniformity and monoculture. It will not tolerate deviation in any corner of the LES. So get your Uzbeki haircut, religious candles, and other unacceptables before the joint is full of nothing but Big Brother-approved gourmet cheeses and artisanal meats.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ghost Signs & Essex St. Market

Ghost Signs are those old painted advertisements that you see here and there, high up on brick walls across the city. As new buildings rise to fill the available air space, these vestiges of the former city are disappearing behind walls of glass and steel, if the bricks aren't demolished outright.

We lost Seely Shoulder Shapes when the block between 40th and 41st on 8th came down for the Times tower. Griffon Shears has been partially obscured by a condo in Chelsea. The other day I passed this Baby Ruth ghost sign (circa 1930) over a construction site on Delancey. We can predict that by year's end this sign from the past will be concealed from view.

I also "discovered" a couple of vintage signs, right in the Essex Street Market. Schapiro's has been on the LES since 1899 and this little stall is their last remaining toehold in the neighborhood. Their jingle (in Yiddish) proclaims a wine so thick you can cut it with a knife. Ruhalter's has been in the area since the 1920s and great-grandson Jeffrey still cuts the meat.

Finally, a visit to the market's abandoned other half for the eerie funhouse-style installation by artist Mike Nelson revealed an old neon sign high up by the ceiling. This installation was a treat to walk through and it's a good opportunity to visit city-owned Building D before it may be turned into someone else's vision of prosperity.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

10th Street Demise Update

A few weeks ago, Curbed passed on a rumor that the former art gallery and DeKooning studio buildings on 10th Street might be demolished for high-rise construction. Horrified at the thought, I went by and asked some shop employees what they knew about it. I was assured that they checked and double-checked, and buildings number 90, 86, and 84 are safe from demolition. That is excellent news.

However, they also told me that the corner Green East bodega and the building that houses the former St. Marx Music (formerly formerly the Atlas Barber School) are slated to be razed to make way for a high-rise luxe hotel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


They are vanishing, turning into ticky-tacky boxes, according to this article from the Times City Room: "The common city newsstand, a bit of ungainly but plainspoken street furniture largely unchanged from the days of Berenice Abbott, has begun to give way to a sleeker version — arguably far more handsome and certainly far more corporate."

Handsome and corporate. We should ask much, much more from our city. Or else all we will continue to get is this constant attack on our eclectic, vibrant, urban "hodgepodge of unattractive things" (as Bloomberg calls our streets).

Many of these newsstands have stood for years, passed down through generations of vendors. But big business rules and you can't win the fight against City Hall. Or can you?

These words, from Jackie Kennedy Onassis, were spoken in response to a (thankfully defeated) plan to demolish Grand Central years ago. They still hold true today:

"Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters.... this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won't all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes."

McHale's Sign Salvaged

photo from aboutmattlaw

I recently stumbled upon its signage, thanks to this flickr stream. Apparently, the vintage neon sign was up for sale (a couple grand) somewhere on 26th Street. I'm not sure if it's still there. If anyone knows the fate of this sign, please let me know.

As for the former McHale's site, this giant condo rises from the rubble, a 43-story "power residence." The advertising imagery makes me think of Randian heroes, titanic John Galts who view free-market capitalism as the way to individual triumph. This isn't the only place Ayn Rand pops up these days. Are we in a new Randian age? I am thinking here also of Thor Equities, named after the Norse warrior god.

What world is this where power-hungry, hard-muscled men and women stride out of sportscars to ascend into flaming Babelian towers of steel? According to the website, it's a "rarified world etched in water and fire, stone and glass...and power."

Gordon Novelty Shop


Opened in 1934, it has been closed for years, and while we could not step inside to shop for X-ray Spex and whoopie cushions, we could still walk down Broadway and enjoy the wonderful old facade of the Gordon Novelty shop. I took these photos in 2003. Now this nostalgic signage from another age has vanished. Today a tipster let me know that the building has been covered with a big Thor Equities sign. I went by to take some new pictures.

The front has been totally stripped. No more golden-lettered Bazaar Items, Chinese Lanterns, Noise Makers, and Joke Items. The building is for lease.

If you'd like to buy a letter from the sign, Thor will sell it to you for $200.

this photo by jschumacher

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Radio Row


"Who's afraid of the big, bad buildings?" Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of the World Trade Center in 1966, "Everyone, because there are so many things about giantism that we just don't know.... The Trade Center towers could be the start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world."

It sounds like an eerily prescient metaphor, but in 1966 the grave those towers marked was of a 13-block area known as Radio Row. "They were not killed, but they were the first victims of the World Trade Center," writes Syd Steinhardt in this article on the death of a once-vibrant mom-and-pop neighborhood. The article is filled with details about the shops and the merchants, many of whom died as "broken men" after having their livelihoods snatched away by eminent domain.

photo from flickr

Radio Row's plight brings to mind current struggles in Willets Point, Atlantic Yards, and elsewhere. And while today is a day to remember the victims of 9/11, it's also a time to think about the state of our city. New York is not threatened with destruction only by outside terrorists, but also by attacks from within, from politicians and businessmen who seek to wipe out a way of life.

Many people call for a replacement of the towers. They want to put things back "the way they were." What if we really put things back the way they were? What if, instead of erecting more "big, bad buildings" our city created a viable space for small businesses like those that were destroyed in the 1960s -- and continue to be destroyed today?

This, of course, will never happen. Memory is short, money is king, and big always wins out over small. But sometimes it's good to remember that New York was once more humble and no less great for being so.

For more information on Radio Row, check out NPR and the Sonic Memorial. For new information on digital memorials to 9/11, go to NYT.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Astroland, 9/11 Art, Death of a Great American City

Coney's Astroland saw its last day yesterday [Gowanus Lounge]. Or did it? Thor just received an ultimatum. Check out the overheard inside scoop. [Kinetic Carnival]

It's official: Bloomberg despises all that is good about New York City. [NY Sun] [Lost City]

art from howl fest

The Mosaic Man's 9/11 memorial may be smashed by the city. I guess street art in the New East Village is only acceptable if it's part of a controlled festival like Howl. [NMNL]

Where are you, Jane Jacobs? We need you! First she fled to Canada, then she died. But her memory lives on in a Municipal Art Society exhibit opening 9/25. [MAS]

The plight of the Breslin Hotel residents makes it to the pages of the Gray Lady. Is anybody listening? [NYT]

Vanity Fair redefines "Boho" -- now that the bohemians of New York have been pushed out, Boho stands for the luxury Bowery Hotel, natch! [Vanity Fair]

Old buildings lengthen your life. [HDC]

Monday, September 3, 2007

Yankee Stadium


Admittedly, I am not a Yankee fan, but even the most apopleptic Yankee hater has to love the House that Ruth Built. Born in 1923, it's the third oldest park, after Fenway and Wrigley. But New York despises the old and celebrates all that is young and new. Like Shea Stadium, and like the elegant and elegiac Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium is coming down. Already, the cranes are raising its replacement.

photo from urch

At least New Yankee Stadium will still be called Yankee Stadium, instead of something inhuman like Virgin Mega-Field or Starbucks Park. However, they'll sell naming rights so a company with deep pockets can dub the joint "Yankee Stadium at (corporate name) Plaza."

The local residents are not happy about the new stadium, but I can't tell how fans feel about it. Other than one polite New Yorker and this baseball fan, I haven't come across many complaints. What's that about?

Still, in this essay, writer and Dodger fan Pete Hamill makes a strong plea, arguing that "places contain memory, too" and we "shouldn't have to remember what used to be, as limousines deposit sleek strangers on their journeys to the skyboxes."