Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stingy Lulu's

EV Grieve posted yesterday about the closure of Hop Devil Grill, bringing to mind the site's former occupant, Stingy Lulu's, a 1950s-style luncheonette where the waitresses were drag queens.

I was pretty enamored with the place. The first time I ate there, I saved the paper placemat, which had pictures of retro cocktails on it, something I thought was just incredibly cool and so original. When friends came to town, I couldn't wait to take them to Lulu's.

photo: joannaepley's flickr

In the early 1990s (it opened in 1992), Lulu's felt like a neighborhood place. Owner Karacona Cinar said to the New York Post, "We're not even encouraging tourists to come here... We were serving drag queen customers first, and since we're always busy, there's no reason to change our clientele."

That was back when Marlene "Hot Dog" Bailey was running wild outside Odessa, when the sidewalks at night were a thieves' marketplace, and you could still find Merlin holding court at the corner of the Con Ed substation, his blanket covered in paperback books, young people kneeling at his side.

But the neighborhood was already changing.

Maybe Lulu's helped attract further gentrification to the East Village. The New York Times in 1992 hyped the neighborhood to newcomers as a bastion of multicultural funkiness: "In a Manhattan sobered by recession and social ills, those in search of a counterculture life style may find its last vestiges here." (That's what I was searching for.) They included Lulu's as part of the funky novelty.

By 1996, Lulu's owner credited himself with assisting Avenue A in its transformation away from what the Times called a "drug-infested no man's land, a forlorn strip given over to vagrants, anarchists and punks." Said Cinar, "Because of businessmen like me, things are much better."

Back then, the Save Avenue A Society (are you still out there, Ms. Piorkowska?) were fighting the nightclubization and Disneyfication of the East Village, including Stingy Lulu's for operating "a boisterous sidewalk cafe."

Eventually, I stopped going to Lulu's. It was too crowded. I didn't like the clientele. I moved on to other venues. They opened a cocktail lounge with the same name. Then it vanished.

photo: No Idea's flickr

Some questions remain: What was Lulu's--rebel member of the still-anarchic nabe, or Disneyfied sign of the gentrifying times? Was any of it real--that clock, the coffee shop sign, the chrome doors--leftover from a prior tenant? Or was it all a simulation? And what did it mean to love Lulu's in its early days?

I don't still have that placemat, but I do dimly recall Scotch-taping it to the wall of my crappy, overpriced East Village apartment, probably while thinking: "Here I am." Not for nothing, I'm still here.


Anonymous said...

I remember the placemats--old style cocktails--big and tall glasses full of colored drinks!!!
The waitresses were friendly and nice--I brought my bff there and she flipped--the food was good as well as I remember. It was a relaxed loungy sort of feeling--miss them!!it's nice to go into a place and have the people there be nice and inviting to you. And when they are tall girls in high heels--well--that's a blast too!!

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes...thanks for taking us back. Makes me forget for the moment what may happen to the space; that sign promising a "new concept." I have the fear!

A Kell said...

It's interesting and endearing to see this self-reflection on (perhaps) your own role in changing the city. I hope to read more.

arielariel said...

Some questions remain: What was Lulu's--rebel member of the still-anarchic nabe, or Disneyfied sign of the gentrifying times? Was any of it real--that clock, the coffee shop sign, the chrome doors--leftover from a prior tenant? Or was it all a simulation? And what did it mean to love Lulu's in its early days?

I think about this a lot as a white queer 20something artist who moved here over the romance of NYC (yeah, yeah) -- my existence feeds gentrification and the erasure of historic neighborhoods. I go somewhere and I love it and I shop locally and I try to get to know my neighbors and I do my things.

But if enough of my white queer 20something artist peers join me, eventually we will begin a process that we do not in fact want to participate in. The culture and community we create has become a commodity to draw people further up the gentrification ladder. We are destroyers if we choose to exist somewhere in any number, even if we personally -- and even as a group -- do what we can to stop it. And then people are like "hey wait, I can make my life a little easier if I cooperate with this -- if I make myself a little more marketable, and welcome people, and it's sort of nice that the cops come now when I call them..."

I always wonder what would happen if all the drag queens and artists and weirdos picked, say, the middle of Westchester and all showed up for a year and made diners and nightclubs and art happenings and public sculpture installations. Time Out NY could run a cover on CHAPPAQUA IS THE NEW COOL and maybe we could trick everyone into moving there and then sneak back into the city.

cole said...

i remember going here when i was about fifteen and ordering a cocktail. i didn't have a fake id yet (who needed an id when one had the bartenders at odessa?!) and when the waitress carded me i must've looked crestfallen. "it's ok, hon," she told me, "just show me your metrocard and we'll pretend it says you're twenty-one." i pulled my (student!) subway pass from my wallet and she nodded approvingly. "i know you won't drink too much and get me in trouble," she added, winking. and i didn't. i ate my food and drank my beer and felt all growed up. thanks for my womanhood, lulu's, you are dearly missed.

Mark said...

yes, file it under Disneyfied sign of the gentrifying times.

This was a poor working class neighborhood, with a smattering of art students scattered about 35 some odd years ago. After the hippies decamped it was a quiet neighborhood of shops catering to the people who lived here...small restaurants like Odessa (it was once 1/2 the size it is now) fed dozens of young students and workers for a couple of bucks.

There were no overpriced east village apartments. my 1-bedroom with working fireplace rented at 308 East 6th Street rented for $135.00 back in 1975.

ArielAriel above has it exactly correct, and perhaps even I am guilty of being part of the gentrification of the area, when I moved in all those years ago, drawn by cheap rent and fellow art students.

Colonnade Row said...

I always considered Lulu's part of the gentrification of the EV, sort of like a slightly dirtier version of Johnny Rockets on 8th Street. Very retro theme-y "Happy Days"-ish. So to me, it was just an early wave of what is now consuming the whole neighborhood/city. I never went there because I considered them the 'new' people and it's where all the tourists and visitors seem to congregate. It's all perspective, age, and when you arrived, I suppose.

Jeremiah Moss said...

as an "anti-gentrite," it's difficult to see oneself as part of the process. i think broke, queer, artists are in a difficult position--no matter where you go, if you go in a group, you're sure to bring a wave of culture killers with you, and yet that's exactly what you don't want.

and broke, queer, artists (outsiders) do tend to seek groups of similar people, often making up for the alienation they experience in their families of origin.

it would be easier to be an oblivious "yunnie," in the second wave, one of the super-gentrifiers who exploit (and replace) the first wave.

i'm with arielariel--let's go to westchester and see if they follow.

Anonymous said...

oh man, i was just thinking about Stingy Lulu's the other day. I used to always eat there, Penne Ala Vodka on the cheap & it was good! I stopped when you did, the expansion & bar changed it all.

Remember that Angel that used to ride around on that gigantic bike? I always ran into the Angel down there.
There was also an awesome vintage store next door. The owner was amazing & would keep things for me until I could scrape up money & there was a great big white dog there, who I think was named, "Rose."

/me hums "memories"

Anonymous said...

also, I should add that it's way different to arrive now & feel apart of the problem then it used to. In the early 90s, people were still in the neighborhood for all the right reasons. you needed the Pink Panther Patrol around to prevent gay bashing, because it was still a bit dangerous around Manhattan. you have to remember, you were sharing a neighborhood with a rough bunch & kinda earned your wings. Now gay people have girls move to the city just to gain a token gay friend, just like they saw on Sex & The City.

Jim Lesses said...

I've just finished re-watching one of my favorite New York movies, 'Sidewalks of New York'. Several scenes in the film were set in Stingy Lulu's. The film was released in 2001, and features a great ensemble cast. Highly recommended for readers still missing this New York diner.

Beth said...

It was real. The clocks. The furniture. Lovingly bought from flea markets all over the country when flea markets still had real antiques.

And it was East Village at its best. 3 cousins, starting from nothing, built it themselves. They loved NYC, Americana, night life, drag queens, and it all worked together. Beautifully.

Michelle Xavier said...

I was one of the queens who worked there as a hostess from 1999 until it closed. It was a fun, lively place with fantastic food that was relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, since Stingy's closure more than a decade ago, this city of diversity has eroded into a playground for the rich and elite. Now, New York City sucks!

stubing said...

I went there and everywhere a lot 1992-96.
It did seem out of place and contrived but the food was consistently good quality
great milkshakes and cocktails
....and I had a huge crush on the bartender Lucy, she ruled.

avantard said...

I worked there until 2003 when I abandoned the EV for Detroit because it’s way cheaper. I loved working for these guys and I loved holding the spotlight for the drag shows. NYC is so different now. I will probably never move back.

Rattus said...

Lulu's was featured in this 1992 video, I'm glad to find it.