Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 Vanishings

From the very old to the very young, New York lost many good things this year. The leading cause of death was greed, though there were a few other causes, such as structural collapse or a family death. The majority just couldn't pay the rent in this city. My choices came from the pages of this blog, and I am sure I've missed many. Please add your own favorites in the Comments section.

Hilly Kristal is the only person I listed, but I think of the many others who've vanished, not only to death, but eviction. Like the residents of the Breslin Hotel and other victims of development, eminent domain, and rising rents. New York is hemhorraging creative people.

I added Chumley's because while they claim to be rebuilding, whatever rises will not be the same, and Chumley's, the original, is surely dead.

That's it for the notes. I think the list, with its links and tally of years, can speak for itself. Combined, we've seen close to 1,000 years of New York history vanish in 2007.

1551 Broadway: 112 years old

Gertel's: 93 years old

The Playpen Theater: 91 years old

Chumley's: 79 years old

Jade Mountain: 76 years old

Hilly Kristal (& the spirit of CBGB's): 75 years old

Gordon Novelty Shop Signage: 73 years old

Moondance Diner: exact age unknown, in its 70s

Kurowycky Meats: 52 years old

The Funny Store: 50 years old

Copeland's: 49 years old

Donuts Coffee Shop: 32 years old

Sucelt: 31 years old

Teresa's: approximately 22 years old

Dick's Bar: age unknown

7th Avenue Books: 6 years old

Donuts Coffee Shop

VANISHED: December 28, 2007

Unable to get to Park Slope on Friday, I sent one of my tipsters to the scene. She arrived in the afternoon and while there were still a handful of donuts in the window (including crullers cinnamon and frosted) and a couple of regulars at the counter, the owners waved her away as they stood counting their last dollars from the register.

She stood across the street and snapped a few pictures of the place, the sign already taken down, as people walked past, many of them waving in through the diner's window, saying goodbye as they headed into the Associated to do their grocery shopping.

The Associated will soon be expanding into the Donuts Coffee Shop space.

Barnes & Noble Astor Place

VANISHED: December 31, 2007

It is with great ambivalence that I report on the last day of the Astor Place Barnes & Noble. Tomorrow, the book behemoth will be gone. In the meantime, they are having the crappiest 50% off sale ever--unless you're in the market for military history pictorials, diet books, and calendars featuring golden retrievers.

I'm supposed to hate chains. For the record, I don't. I hate the chains' proliferation and domination of this city. I hate the way they're turning the city into a mall. A couple here and there would not be a problem.

About Barnes & Noble I am quite conflicted. I resent their awesome power in the book world (their buyers dictate what gets published and what doesn't), but I also love books. And I like them a lot more than gym rats, who will soon flock to the David Barton that is rumored to move in. Also, B&N is a public space of sorts--we can all go inside that beautiful old building and enjoy it. A gym is members-only space.

I admit, I will miss the place. But my hope is that, with B&N gone, the few independents it didn't kill will thrive and more will open.

The folks at St. Mark's Books are already freaking out a little. I'm freaking out a little--because the small shop is packed already with people who don't normally shop there. This means you can forget about a calm, pleasant browsing experience--expect to be pushed and shoved. The cashier told me they've been gearing up for the post-Barnes & Noble flood, pumping up their inventory.

I asked if they'd be changing to appeal to their new customers. Thankfully, he denied any plans to stock up on self-help books and puppy calendars.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Yes! This Is Charlie's

After spotting this sign in the window of a five-and-dime on 14th Street between A & B, I went inside and took a look around. The 41-year-old place is exactly the way it was described in the Voice 7 years ago. Ancient wooden tables hold plastic tubs full of greeting cards, each hand-labeled according to its intended receiver: Niece, Nephew, Mother, Father, etc. Bigger tubs hold a random assortment of books.

There's a toy section on the wall where you can find small bags of plastic dinosaurs or cowboys or zoo animals. There are paper streamers, paper plates, paper cups, and an abbreviated collection of piggy banks, figurines, and coffee mugs. For the season, you can also find foil-paper party hats and noisemakers that say Happy New Year.

I talked a bit with the manager, Danny, who is the grandson of Charlie. He told me they used to have many stores in the area, each with a different theme. "We're a community service more than a regular business," he said, "People come in here and tell me they still have glassware they bought from us years ago, or shoes or furniture. The old people come in from Stuyvesant Town, just to visit and talk. If we weren't here, they wouldn't come out at all. It gives them some exercise."

About 15 years ago, the landlord tried to raise the rent 400%, but protesters, politicians, and newscameras came and Yes! This Is Charlie's stayed. Now they need help again. Protests and politics aren't going to cut it this time. They need financial help. They need a grant. Or an angel investor.

If anyone knows an angel, please send them to Charlie's. And even if you don't know any angels, go to Charlie's anyway and buy some paper hats and noisemakers. They may not be there long after the New Year.

*Everyday Chatter

Is the obnoxious A Building condo-mega-plex ashamed of the fact that their ass-end hangs out on still-gritty East 14th Street? This perplexing signage at that site seems to say so: "Walk to either corner...go to 13th Street...walk to the middle of the block. Why are you still standing here?"

Zips Deli, long on 5th and B, is being gutted. Its quirky outside paintings of sandwiches are covered with stickers and ads. Any ideas about what's coming to this now-precious corner?

Here's an inside look at the current state of Chumley's. It's pretty miserable. I have little hope it will ever be the same again. [Eater]

Today is the final day for Donuts Coffee in Park Slope--was anybody at the sad scene? [Observer]

Vazacs Horseshoe Bar/7B gets into the holiday spirit with faux-snow stencils of angels, reindeer, snowflakes, and...naked mudflap girls? (she's in the middle left-most pane)

Racked racks up the top 5 most depressing retail closings of 2007. I agree with 4 out of the 5 (Gotham Book Mart, Fontana Shoe Repair, Kurowycky Meats, and Gertel's) but Condomania would not have made my list. The Funny Store only got honorable mention? And what about our beloved Playpen? [Racked]

The Cedar Tavern, ersatz as it might be, looks like it may never come back. At least we could go there and pretend--and the upstairs, with its dark wood booths and amber lamps, felt like the real thing. [Curbed]

I love coming across a vintage sign with old telephone exchange letters on it. Here's one on 14th and A. ORegon-3 was designated for the Lower East Side and I assume Permacut's number has been the same for many years. Do they still offer permanent waving?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Trees & Canadians

VANISHED (until 11/08)

After every Christmas, we wake to find the trees have vanished. The Quebecois who brought them have left us after a whole month of filling our streets with impromptu forests and the sweet, sticky fragrance of pine. And, every year, I miss them when they go.

“People in New York have a romantic idea about us,” one tree lady told me, “They come by and say, ‘Oh, you must feel right at home with all these trees, like in a forest.’ Then I tell them I live in Montreal. A big city. They look disappointed.”

That romantic idea might come from French-Canadian folklore, where the coureur-de-bois (literally “runner of the woods”) stands as a vivid heroic figure, a carefree adventurer decked out in fringed buckskin and moccasins, trekking and trading across the great northern wilderness. History tells us that the coureur-de-bois have disappeared and yet, every year, truckloads of their descendants head for New York, bringing a little bit of the Canadian wilderness with them.

Many of us go out of our way just to walk past their trees, to press our faces into the boughs and breathe deep. We can’t resist. “New York people like to smell the trees,” the tree lady told me, “They stop and tell me ‘Thank you for being here.’”

People give the tree lady cups of coffee, magazines to read, even the keys to their apartments so she can have a hot shower once in a while (she's out in the cold 16 hours a day and sleeps in a van). But not everyone loves the tree lady. Some people let their dogs urinate on her trees, and some call her a tree killer. She doesn’t get that.

“The tree is grown in a farm, like the food we eat, like potatoes. If I eat the potato, are you going to say, ‘Hey, potato killer’?"

The tree lady explained, "The tree is like flowers. It’s a simple way to make happiness, to bring some warmness in the house. Plus, it’s good energy. Feng Shui recommends to have real vegetables in the house. Like flowers.

It’s better to buy a tree than to say ‘Oh, I feel sad, I want to buy a sweater or I want to buy shoes.’
We’re consumers, yes, but I think this is a good part of the consummation about Christmas. The tree is something everyone can share.”

Santa deflated

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Inside the Playpen Demolition

On my way to Port Authority last week, I passed the Playpen, or what's left of it. All that is standing, from what I can tell, is the front part's rear wall. The demolition guys let me sneak back and snap a few shots before they waved me away.

In the tangled mess, I recognized a sign that said ROOM, which, if I recall correctly, was the second half of the sign for MALE ROOM, the gay space on the Playpen's second floor. Below, an EXIT sign is visible on the wall. The door opens onto empty space.

Next to those small twin windows, you can see the remains of a filigreed detail, the leafy leitmotif between the cameos seen in the vintage photo below.

The little windows look to me like the portholes of a projectionist's booth. If that's the case, then we are probably looking at the back wall of the original balcony--a space that later became a spot for buddy-booth handjobs. In the MALE ROOM, you could also get up close and personal with those cameos, covered in porn-palace glitter.

vintage photo from photobucket

And from the front, the entire facade is gone, with its columns and cameos. This green wall may have been inside the projectionist's booth. Who knows what went on in there during the Playpen's porno days. If only this crumbling wall could talk.

*Everyday Chatter

Sucelt is gone. I had my last meal there last week, but with my freezer stuffed with Jehnny's beef empanadas, the love will go on a little longer. My last Sucelt arepa:

AMNY also visited La Taza de Oro. Without Sucelt, it's a last survivor from Chelsea's days as a center for Latin food. [AMNY]

Here comes the newest erection to rise above the Bowery, overshadowing the Salvation Army, which will probably turn into condos any day now. [Curbed]

Another repair service evicted--this time it's a tailor. In our disposable culture, why bother to stitch and fix the old when you can just buy new? [Pardon Me] [Lost City]

Friday, December 21, 2007

Time Machine

May I suggest a perfect evening: An early dinner at Sucelt, then cross the street for dessert at Donut Pub, then head upstairs (next door and one flight up) for cocktails at Time Machine.

Until Sunday, from 3:00 until closing (about 7:00), Time Machine is having their annual Holiday Open Bar. And if you've never been to the 10-year-old shop, this would be a great time to check it out. It may be the only business in New York that advertises the sale of Nostalgia.

Above the 99-cent-store (closed, for rent), climb the stairs into a cluttered yet orderly collection of cardboard boxes filled with old magazines, most of them 40% off. The owner told me, "We always haggle," so don't be afraid to make a deal. It's worth going up just to look at the walls, a collection of movie stars, cowboys, rock-n-roll idols, beefcake models, pin-up girls, and superheroes.

With free cocktails added to the mix, what could be better?

Julius' Bar

Now that Dick's bar has become the fratty 12th Street Ale House, where can you go for a gay dive-bar experience? The answer is Julius' bar on 10th and Waverly. In fact, go there for the vintage-bar experience, because Julius' is one of the oldest, unchanged bars in town.

No one seems to know when exactly it opened, but the best guess is 1867 -- the same year that the Jacob Ruppert Brewery opened in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side. Julius' tables, chairs, and bar are made from the brewery's wooden barrels and they're stamped "Jacob Ruppert." (The brewery was replaced by Ruppert Towers, an example of architectural "brutalism.") The footrail at Julius' bar is a string of beagles standing nose to tail and cast in brass. "We think the original owner liked beagles," the bartender told me. (Though the breed is debatable--some say those dogs are Bassett hounds).

One wall is covered with framed photographs of the once-famous. None of them were recognizable to me. They are slick-haired men and women in furs, a few naked burly-Q girls, a couple of boxers. The bar may have come out of the Civil War and gone through days as a speakeasy, but the feeling you get is very 1950s. On another wall, Walter Winchell tells you why he loves Julius' and Eddie Condon poses with '50s burlesque queen Lois DeFee.

There is little in Julius' that marks it as a gay men's bar. A softball trophy reads, "It's not easy being the queen," and the straw I got in my mug of Coke happened to be pink. If you go on a weekday morning (Julius' opens at 11:00), you'll encounter a few regulars, older men in Yankees caps who sit and talk about the weather. In the evenings, it's livelier and gayer, but no less gray. The kitchen, a grill in the corner, is cooking delicious burgers and fries, and the TV is tuned to Jeopardy.

Unlike other old bars, like McSorley's, Corner Bistro, and Chumley's, where you can only go during the day because the nights have been overtaken by frat boys, tourists, and girls with pointy shoes, Julius' has stayed authentic. I am sure that's due to the gay factor, which protects Julius' as one of New York's best-kept secrets. The patrons will not tolerate idiotic, yuppie behavior. These guys went through Stonewall -- they are not afraid to kick some hetero ass.

The bar is quiet enough and friendly enough that, if you're chatty, you can have fantastic conversations with men who knew the Village way back when. And who knows how long this will last? Julius' has survived building collapse and seizures, and the landlord seems to support the bar. Said the bartender, "As long as the owner of the building stays alive, Julius' will stay alive." He figures at least another decade.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

*Everyday Chatter

I am still in shock from this sudden news: Beloved East Village dives Sophie's and Mona's are up for sale! Says the owner of both, "The neighborhood has changed so much...I love both bars, but they're dinosaurs now." [Page 6 via Gothamist]

Speaking of dinosaurs, more news from our disposable culture: Check out the TV repair shop carnage. [Pardon Me via Gowanus L]

Regarding Bloomberg's assault on small businesses, a recent commenter here noted, "it amazes me that there's no large shirts or buttons with bloomberg's face with an x through it." Good question. In the 1990s, we had images like the one below all over the city. Why not now?

painting by Robert Lederman

Streit's is leaving the Lower East Side and taking their matzos with them. And so the Jewish Lower East Side fades further into history. [Curbed]

Rockaway in Winter

Is no place safe from the yunnies? Here they are, stepping out of their new, butter-yellow, luxury oceanfront condo for a walk down Rockaway Beach. The gals hold on to their jaunty straw hats while the fellas look forward to shedding their Dockers and enjoying some fellatio under the boardwalk. Ah, dreams of summer in the midst of winter's grip.

Belle Shores: Live in a tacky wedding cake for $439,900!

But what's this? Is it possible Rockaway's glut of condos isn't selling? Here they're offering tax abatements and free common charges. Maybe there is hope.

Maybe it's Rockaway's resistance to glamor that keeps the yunnies from flocking en masse. It's way, way out there. And in winter it's a rough place to be. The streets are desolate except for a few schizophrenics muttering on the corners and drunks wobbling their way down Beach 116th. The bars are rough, too.

Remnants from the Irish Riviera days, there's the Tap & Grill clam bar, PJ Curran's, and Rogers Irish Tavern, which was established in 1919. Of course, like most Irish bars, they only look mean from the outside. But don't tell the yunnies that, they might take Curran's "Chardonnay Way" sign seriously.

And we wouldn't want this melancholy little tobacconist/ice cream counter, that still has the swivel stools but may or may not have actual fountain service, to turn into a Cold Stone Creamery.

Here's to Rockaway--keeping it real.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

*Everyday Chatter

Shit laced with gold. [Gothamist]

Cooper Hotel developer says "cities should not be museums." [Observer via Curbed]

A grim round-up of 2007's vanished greats. What will take their places? [Lost City]

A. Fontana will be gone soon, but there are still a few good shoe repair shops left in town. At least in Brooklyn.  [Bklynometry]

Last week I posted about the anonymous protest against the BBQ-turned-North-Fork bank. Since then, passersby have added their own notes to the taped-on signs, mostly polite stuff like "I agree" and "Me too." Now Alex in NYC reveals the protesters are skipping Scotch tape and going straight for good old Magic Marker. [Flaming P]

The Donut Pub

After yesterday's depressing news about A. Fontana Shoe Repair's imminent closing (not to mention the shuttering of Park Slope's gorgeous Donuts Coffee Shop), I thought we needed a little life preserver thrown our way and donuts are just the right shape for the job.

Since 1964, The Donut Pub has been going strong at 14th St. and 7th Ave. Not long ago, Dunkin Donuts moved in a few doors down, no doubt in hopes of viciously knocking out the competition. But even in Goliath's shadow, The Donut Pub has stayed afloat.

When you go there, you are recognized. You are greeted. It feels good. After a couple of visits, the Pub employees will know you. Once you become a regular, they'll inquire about your vacation, your kids, your dog. And if you're sleepy, they'll even let you take a nap.

The last time I went in, a homeless woman was fast asleep, her head resting on the counter. A guy ordering coffee to go asked, "Is she okay?" The counterman looked at him and smiled, "Oh yeah, she's fine. She's just tired." Try that at Dunkie's.

P.S. The Donut Pub is right across the street from doomed little Sucelt. Make a trip to each-- dinner at Sucelt and dessert at the Pub--before it's too late, which will be next week for Sucelt.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A. Fontana Shoe Repair

VANISHING: Spring 2008

After 45 years in its East Village location on 10th across from Saint Mark's Church, A. Fontana Shoe Repair is closing down for good. I went in this morning to buy a can of weatherproofing spray and the owner, Mr. Angelo Fontana, told me he'll be gone in about three months. The rent is going too high.

"Soon," he said of the city, throwing up his hands in futility, "there will be no more barbershop, no more shoe repair, no more tailor." That's the new New York. Now there is no place left for what The Washington Post called "one of the world's best shoe repair shops."

I asked Angelo if I could take some pictures of his wonderful shop. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Everyone else is, why not?" He explained that The New York Times and a neighborhood paper, perhaps The Villager, will be visiting him this weekend to get their take on the story. Maybe they can coax more out of Angelo than I did -- he is a man of few words. But he did let me take plenty of pictures.

The shop is a time capsule, filled with wooden shoe lasts, fragrant jars of gooey glue, ancient machines outfitted with spinning brushes and buffers, and an assortment of tools that look like they came over from Mr. Fontana's native Italy sometime in the early 20th century. Posters and calendars of Italia cover the walls. A rabbit-eared television plays silently on the counter.

And the place smells wonderful--like leather and glue and rubber. It's an old smell, a vanishing smell.

In his poem "Walking Around," a longtime favorite of mine, Pablo Neruda says that the smell of barbershops makes him break into hoarse sobs. Today, I would add that the smell of A. Fontana's cobbler shop gives me the same, sad, desperate feeling.