Thursday, April 30, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

Ladies waiting in a long line, in heels, to buy Jimmy Choos, the shoes made trendy by SATC. Giant handbag? Check. Compulsive texting? Check. You may enter.

Hell's Angels
are so "cute." Says one in the EV, "I fucking hate the changes that have happened. I’d prefer drug dealers and criminals to the yuppie shit that goes on here now." [EVG]

Does it get any better than The Caveman Car? [SG]

...the morose Psychedelic Bus Dog comes close. [SNY]

This summer, take a dip in the swimmin' holes of Williamsburg, courtesy of Karl Fischer. [Restless]

Thanks to commenter AMGPhoto who sent in a link to this detail-rich story about New York on the verge, back in 1994. [NYT]

Starbucks on the Riviera

The Astor Riviera Cafe closed in 1994, a shuttering that the Times cited as evidence of the de-funkification of Astor Place. The reporter got the scoop about the coming tenant: "Starbucks, the Seattle coffee chain."

That was back when Starbucks still had to be explained. Oh, right, from Seattle. Not long after, a second Starbucks opened at Astor Place (and a third in the now-defunct Barnes & Noble). In a miraculous turn of events, that second Starbucks is closed.

photo from EV Grieve

But, as the sign above attests ("across the way"), a Starbucks yet remains at Astor Place. The big one. The one that replaced the Riviera. When it opened in 1995, it was the largest in Manhattan and maybe the whole country. It represented a tipping point--a point of no return from which we may actually be returning at last.

It's been the site of several Reverend Billy protests--and arrests. It is reviled by many and inexplicably loved by others.

The Riviera diner, on the other hand, is like a ghost. I can't find a single photograph of it. All I could uncover was this screenshot from the film Downtown 81. Here, Jean-Michel Basquiat stands in front of a sign that says: COMING SOON THE REVIERA [sic] RESTAURANT AND COFFEE SHOP.

A deeply distant time. Since then, the Riviera came and went. Astor Place got not just three Starbucks, but a K-Mart, a Walgreens, a David Barton, a Cemusa newsstand, and a luxury glass tower.

Today, two of those Starbucks have vanished. How long do we have to wait before the rest of it goes?

If you have a memory of the Riviera, or a link to a photo, please share.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

Another demolition for once-interesting 8th Ave? This shot comes in from tipster Reed, at the corner of 46th and 8th, an area that's been almost totally clear-cut. The "ghosts of 8th Ave" are wailing:

7th St. to get more crowded with more bars and restaurants. Liquor license apps to come. Keep an eye on your CB3 agenda. The Addukkan space is #80 E. 7th and the outdoor bar/cafe is #83. [EVG]

Who knew: Cobble Hill factory was the birthplace of the Invisible Dog. [NYT]

Boogie goes paparazzo for Jarmusch at the Sunshine. [BB]

Giant, silver Cooper Union "hive" inspires paranoid space-alien graffiti. [FP]

Starbucks haters, enjoy this visual treat. [Eater]

Check out the Brooklyn Blogfest May 7.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

Second week of May--that's D-day for the residents whose windows are inches from the Cooper Square Hotel terrace club. [Grub]

From the master of Avenue A juxtapositions: A fountain of urine and oh boy, french fries! [NMNL]

Hollywood explodes on Chinatown. [Boogie]

Yankees cut ticket prices--but just the primo seats. [Gothamist]

All hail Peter McManus. [GVDP]

Virtual Chelsea

Last week, a post on the insider Chelsea Hotel blog, Living with Legends, sent me in search of the virtual Chelsea Hotel. On a sidestreet of the metaverse Second Life, the virtual Chelsea Hotel stands, looking a lot like the real-life hotel. It's all there: the neon sign, the bricks, the filigreed wrought-iron balconies--over which hang signs saying "Bring Back the Bards."

Last night, I went back and chatted with the hotel's creator, Mykal Skall, a poet and musician. It was a crowded night, a poetry reading was just breaking up and Mykal was on his way to a Second Life music gig.

Outfitted with harmonica and guitar, he stood with me outside the hotel's entrance and explained how he'd always dreamed of staying at the hotel. Some people come to the city to see the Statue of Liberty--he came for the hotel. He created the virtual Chelsea as a gift to the Bards, the ousted former managers of the hotel. He said, "I just want to bring the awareness up about the greed that's killing the Chelsea."

Mykal Skall's avatar, outside entrance

At the virtual Chelsea, as in the real one, artwork lines the stairways. A rickety elevator takes you from floor to floor. The tiled hallways lead to rooms you can rent (with Lindens, the currency in Second Life). And, unlike in the real one, the iconic mailboxes are here, complete in their seeming chaos. On the desk, a photo of the Bards, a copy of Ed Hamilton's book, and poetry by Skall.

Upstairs, the infamous Room 100 is still smeared with blood and littered with dirty needles and cigarette butts.

"The history of the Chelsea isn't the place, like a battlefield," Mykal told me, "It's the residents. Until they kill it. Then we won't have the next Dylan coming out of there. Or the next Look Homeward Angel written."

We chatted a bit about the vanishing city. About places like CBGB--which also used to have a replica in Second Life (that's where my avatar got his souvenir t-shirt), but that vanished, too. "Of course," Mykal said, "we can always go to Vegas to experience New York." Barring that, we can go to Second Life.

my avatar in CBGB t-shirt, Chelsea stairway

Friday, April 24, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

Astor Place Starbucks to shutter! There was a time you could stand on the corner of St. Marks and 3rd and look west upon a trio of Starbucks: 1 to your right, a big 1 dead ahead, and #3 in the Barnes & Noble. Now there will be one. [Eater]

As the Yankees and the city continue to hemorrhage money, what will happen to their plans to wipe out this Bronx neighborhood and replace it with high-rises and upscale shopping? [EVG]

Is the recession making people leave New York? Find out what people had to say about what might be, in one commenter's words "a natural Darwinian process that thins out the wussies from the New York City herd." [CR]

Chelsea Now says goodbye to the Chelsea Court Meat Market, on a 9th Ave that's "becoming fabulously foofy." [CN]

Park Slope, your C-Town was once an RKO theater. [HIPS]

The wrecking ball has come for the Provincetown Playhouse. [Boogie]

Empathy Trend?

Lately, it seems that empathy is being talked about. Over the past decade or so, throughout what felt like a peak in the ongoing Age of Narcissism, empathy was very much left out of the cultural conversation. The ability to step into another's shoes, to feel another's feelings, empathy is lacking in narcissistic and sociopathic personalities. That lack is a hallmark of those disorders.

Economic crisis is a blow to human narcissism--those at the extreme were enjoying the grandiose sides of their dual personalities and are now mired in their depressive sides, in which they feel worthless (leading to a spike in suicides). This may be why empathy is popping up all over.

j-No, LES Garden Heroine, VNY flickr pool

Patricia Sellers at Fortune sees a lack of empathy as the failing of Wall Street and all those "arrogant titans of industry who have stirred populist wrath," and notes that President Obama has helped bring empathy back to America.

The Times had an in-depth piece
on how empathy is now being taught to privileged middle-school kids, "gossip girls and boys" raised in a narcissistic environment.

A team of neuroscientists just released news about a research paper entitled, "Can Twitter Make You Amoral? Rapid-fire Media May Confuse Your Moral Compass." In it, they look at how the quick dissemination of info bits can erode our ability to empathize. (Wired picked up this story and connected it to the MTV-style editing of TV news.) "If things are happening too fast," said one of the researchers, "you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states and that would have implications for your morality."

And in a recent issue of The Believer, video-game journalist Heather Chaplin said, "Video games are good at fostering problem solving, but they're not so good at fostering human empathy or a deeper understanding of the human condition. Novels are about psychological empathy; games simply are not. And if games are telegraphing something about the future, maybe that tells us that psychological empathy, concern with the human condition, is not going to be that important in the twenty-first century."

Hat Shopper, VNY flickr pool

So, quite suddenly, we're concerned as a culture with our ability, or inability, to empathize with others. Is this a wave of healthy guilt following a decade of destructive greed? Maybe we are in a time of reparation. I've already written about the upside of the downturn, and this may be another aspect.

Empathy drives people with power to help the powerless--or to simply consider the people around them. In concrete terms, for this vanishing city, empathy can do wonders. It can stop a developer from bulldozing a block of homes. It might push an individual to buy prescriptions from a mom-and-pop pharmacy instead of a chain, or just remind people to keep their volume down and not disturb the neighbors. Empathy in politicians can lead to the creation of humanistic policies and urban planning.

In a society built by the human psyche, with all its attendant fears and needs, what will emerge from this shifting moment in time? Empathy may be experiencing a moment of vogue, but malignant narcissism is notoriously intractable to cure. It will be back. But, for now, perhaps, a reprieve.

Alessandro Busà, 125th St., VNY flickr pool

Thursday, April 23, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

In a press release, Thor claims bringing Coney 100% back to life. [KC]

The real Chelsea Hotel lives virtually on Second Life. [LWL]

Abercrombie & Fitch ("every teen lifeguard's go-to outlet for douchebag t-shirts, homoerotic ad campaigns, and casual racism") loses its cool--but the kids still love their labels. [RS]

New Yankee Stadium feels and looks weirdly like a Whole Foods. [EVG]

Donnell destruction finally being discussed as a tragedy. [CR]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

If you thought those SATC fanatics were a nightmare, just wait. The Gossip Girls are about to take over your neighborhood. [Curbed]

An interview with Reverend Billy (for Mayor): "The people we think of as our leaders, the Charlie Parkers and the Allen Ginsbergs and the Zora Neale Hurstons and the people we think of as having created this amazing city... You look at their lives, they were bouyed up by their neighborhoods. And their neighborhoods have been allowed to die. Now we have silent neighborhoods where you can't live for less than $200,000 a year and there's no culture at all." [RS]

Made in New York: bath fixtures. [CR]

The Olympic Restaurant--where the EMTs eat. [EVG]

Letting it all hang out high-end style--put an ASS CHAIR in your condo. [Restless]

Canal Electronics

Back on Canal, there are these odd little electronics shops. They are not the same as the forever going out of business electronics shops of 14th Street or Times Square. You don't come here, as far as I can tell, to buy a new digital camera.

Outside, in cardboard boxes, are weird wares. A box full of busted-looking remote controls for $2.00! A small assortment of fire alarm bells! Broken motherboards and gutted cameras! AM/FM radios! Piles of tangled wires for god-knows-what!

Off in the corner, a box of grungy keyboards separated from their PCs (long-dead dinosaurs leeching chemicals into some far-off landfill), mushroom-colored keyboards sticky with spilled Coca-Cola and sneezes, waiting to be adopted.

How can you not delight in the fact that junk like this perseveres, despite the overwhelming odds against its survival? Not trash, but treasure. With someone, somewhere, it will find a purpose.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

Greased at Loreley biergarten: In response to yesterday's post on noise in the EV/LES, a commenter reports, "i was at loreley on rivington saturday (not by choice), which has an outdoor area in the back. the neighbors in the building threw hot grease down on the patrons." Is this a challenge to Delicatessen's pee guy?

From the Chelsea Court Meat Market, which closed this weekend after 49 years, the most poignant and heartfelt shutter signage ever (click to enlarge):

What does New Yankee Stadium look like in a recession? Dead on the bottom, alive on top. [Breadline]

The City Concealed explores the "Byzantine Romanesque Indo Hindu Sino Moorish Persian Eclectic Rococo Deco" architecture of the United Palace Theater (opened 1930). [13]

Enjoy the vanishing bungalows of Rockaway. [RD via Curbed]

7th Street still turning over and over. [EVG]

Alex picks out the grit that remains on the east side. [FP]

Fishing in the Gowanus? You betcha! [FIB]

P&G Gutted

After 67 years on the Upper West Side, after lingering through the winter months, then closing and losing its iconic signage, the P&G bar has been gutted.

A reader sent in photos of the carnage, including this one of the interior being hauled away in a dump truck. Do any of those bricks hold remnants of the Austrian castle scene, painted in 1943 by a patron who couldn't pay his tab?

The P&G must be on people's minds, because another reader sent in the following photos, too. Up the road a bit, the new P&G awaits. Down a set of iron stairs, with no neon sign to light the way.

Only a piece of paper taped inside the window to declare its hopes for the future: "On the corner of 73rd St & Amsterdam Ave for 67 years--Looking forward to the same in our new home."

Monday, April 20, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

Reverend Billy's mayoral campaign message wins over the Wall Street Journal. [via RS]

In case you're feeling sad for Wall Street's fallen masters of the universe, read this eye-opener of an article. Writes the author, "It is difficult to sympathize with these people, their comments laced with snobbery and petulance." [via Gothamist]

Last year, New York brought us the City of Glass slideshow--today, it's the Glass City that never got built. [NYM]

The boutique-ification of Extra Place continues as their second tenant has arrived. Next to Chocolate-War Central, a boutique called Montana Knox has opened, featuring a "one-of-a-kind retail experience"...complete with hipster, downtowny, graffiti-style cartoon bunnies. Which are, admittedly, kind of cute:

Grieve discovers the joys and oddities of old-timey NYC shop Olivo's on Ave C--and it's shuttering. [EVG]

City tries sprucing up Clinton and Grand with a Cemusa. [Boogie]

Bronx not happy with Sliwa's "Underbelly" tours. [RS]

New Yankee Stadium kicks out Bronx little leaguers. [NYT]

Still made in NYC: Mannequins. [NYT]

Loudmouth Weather

Now that it's really spring, I find myself worrying. Because with spring comes not only the temperate weather, the flowers, the birds, but also the flocks of loudmouths. What was once a pleasant season, something to look forward to after the brutality of winter, has become even more brutal. This weekend, we had our first loudmouth weather.

hotel patio & neighboring windows

In the East Village, it begins as early as the late morning, a giddy murmur rising up from the streets. Laughter that sounds not mirthful but performed, deliberate.

In a few hours, after brunch has been eaten and shopping begins, the air is punctuated by cackles and squeals. Cell phone ring-tones that bleat and trill. High-pitched cellular conversations about herpes infections, girls who announce to the world, "He touched me and was like, Do you like this? And I was like, whatever. So he did it again. Can you believe it?"

Before sundown, the drunken sing-songs begin (favorite tunes: the theme from the Love Boat and songs from Grease--"We go together like rama-lama-ding-dong!"). A pack of men in straw fedoras and women in spiky heels gather in a football huddle to bellow and howl like animals for 10 minutes straight, breaking up only because "Mike's gotta take a piss!"

In the dark, everything gets worse. The whole world roars. Young women scream at the sky just to display their copious lung capacity. Young men raise their voices to falsetto to compete. Hee-haa! They hoot and groan, high-five, dancing circles in their khaki pants, chanting and chest-thumping.

from urban etiquette signs

It didn't used to be this way. In the past few years, the noise has gotten unbearably worse. "Manhattan below 14th St. is, in fact, the most audibly offensive area of the city," reported the Villager in 2005. In 2007, the East Village was ranked the second most complained about neighborhood in town.

The proliferation of bars, the changing population, and the smoking ban have all created a fair-weather nightmare for people in the East Village and Lower East Side. People living above bars can't open their windows. Some residents manage to protest the noise or they make endless, pointless calls to 311. Others, with little recourse, dump urine on the offenders below. Curbed calls it the Noise Wars. With spring's arrival, the wars will begin again.

from urban etiquette signs

Sometimes, retreat is the only way to fight. Instead of enjoying spring's breezes, I lower my windows and turn on fans. I sleep with earplugs. I look forward to the real heat when shut windows and air conditioning will seal me in a white-noise hum. I look forward to winter's chilly muffle.

Friday, April 17, 2009

*Everyday Chatter

Something's coming to the former Addukkan space on a block of 7th Street that has been turning fast--these baskets were dumped, the windows are papered, and the permit says a kitchen is coming. Also, um, it's in the name of the same architects who designed Jamba Juice:

Le Figaro Cafe has risen from the dead? A tipster sent in this shot of the reincarnated 50-something years-old cafe after it was crushed by Qdoba. Anyone know the story--same owners?

Photographer Paul Sahner answers his grandfather's 1961 New York with shots from today. [NYCG]

Jim Knipfel walks in Brooklyn and talks about his new novel, Unplugging Philco. [WWIB]

One mom-and-pop responds to the recession: Care for some fresh-baked bread with your gravestone? [NYS]

A look at the TV repair shops of Park Slope. [HIPS]

Streit's matzoh not so kosher to the Jews of Queens and Far Rockaway? [TJS]

Artists pushed out of NYC move to Cleveland, plant seeds for the next SoHo? [EVG]

Is the city really tearing down one of its showpiece newsstands for a metal box? [BBoogie]

At junior-high S/M garden parties outfitted by Juicy Couture, the Queen of Stuff rules. [Restless]

Mystery Window

There is a window on 11th Street in Greenwich Village that you might not notice unless you look down. Once noticed, it is hard to ignore. The window draws you in, filled as it is with an odd collection of random things: glass eyes, marionettes, human teeth, stuffed chickens and ducks. Is it a store? An art gallery? A sign taped to the glass reads, "Items in window just for viewing pleasure (tip of a collected iceberg)."

The man behind the window, as I discovered by venturing down the stairs one day, is an architect named Rick Share. In his studio here, among the jars of drafting pencils and tools, in piles and stacks and wooden boxes, he keeps the rest of the iceberg.

Hanging from a network of dusty water pipes along the ceiling is a collection of marionettes, all hand-made and secured beneath hoods of fabric. There is Greta Garbo, Laurel and Hardy, a turbaned snake charmer complete with snake, and a hobo with a gimp made by the man who made Topo Gigio, the mouse turned famous by Ed Sullivan.

Rick once tried his hand at making his own marionettes, and they're here, too. Heads carved from wood and molded from papier mache. Bodies abandoned with only one leg completed.

Rick told me he has neither rhyme nor reason to his collecting, but there are themes that stand out. He likes things having to do with the human body. And so there are the glass eyes, ancient measuring tools for prostheses, and a stunning collection of tooth mold guides used by long-dead dentists.

He likes amateur architectural sketches, too. Bits of ephemera made by artists who never were discovered by the world. "People sketching their house--some of them had fantastic hands! And you know they died on the farm, never getting past the chickens and hens."

People often peer in the window from the sidewalk above. A few leave notes. Fewer venture down the stairs. Rick has a file on them, collections of notes and photos that people send. One woman sends postcards that say, "I hope we can finally meet." Another note says, "Hello, I would like to work with the duck. Please call me."

For the most part, Rick never sees the faces of passersby. Sitting at his desk, looking up, he sees only their legs from the knees down. And their dogs.

"I know all the dogs in the neighborhood," he says. "When I recognize a dog, I think: I know which legs you belong to."

He overhears people's responses to his window. They don't know he's listening. "They'll say: 'It's a doll hospital.' Or: 'No, it's a puppet maker. Oh, God,' they say, 'It's too scary! I can't look. I gotta get out of here!' Sometimes a group goes by and one person stops and says: 'Come back and look at this.' Then the legs return, they gather awhile, and move on again."

Now and then, someone dares to walk down the steps. Said Rick, "People who come down are the interesting people, the ones with the chutzpah. Nobody's boring that comes down."

I told Rick that I came down to talk with him because his window reminded me of the lost mystery of New York and how that mystery is being bleached out of the city. It's a thrill to stumble upon it in the few places where it yet remains.

"That's why I do the window," he said, "For the fun of not knowing what the hell it is. And just for the wonder of it."

See all my pics of the "Mystery Window" here

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chelsea Court Meat Market

After 49 years in business, the Chelsea Court Meat Market will be closing its doors on Saturday, April 18.

Just one year ago, Chelsea Now reported that the butcher shop, run by Anthony Sigismondi on 9th Ave. and 20th St., was doing well, "still making cut in changing 'hood."

Reporter Charlotte Cowles described the shop aptly, writing that it "appears out of place, like a black-and-white photograph in a Technicolor movie." Inside, like many of the old butcher shops still surviving, there is sawdust on the floor, a collection of shiny knives hanging from a rack, and it smells like a real meat shop--refrigerated and a bit bloody. The affable butcher, in his blood-smeared coat, sports a thick mustache and Brooklyn accent. He knows his regulars by name and by the cut of their meat.

In the Chelsea Now article, long-time patrons describe the shop as "Much better than Whole Foods" and "one of the last bastions of decency in Chelsea." But the neighborhood has continued to change dramatically. The Meat Market is directly across the avenue from the fast-climbing Chelsea Enclave, a condo marketed for its luxury and exclusivity. Many of the stores along this stretch are closing--an antiques shop just shuttered here and the former laundromat is about to become a restaurant called Tipsy Parson.

Said one Chelsea native and Meat Market customer, "I feel like we’ve been invaded by the outer-space people... I feel like a stranger here. On 14th St. they’ve put flowerpots in the middle of the street. This isn’t Paris!"

Sigismondi's lease is up and he's decided to leave the neighborhood. As he says in his goodbye signage, while butchering has been his "way of life, the time has come for me to thank everyone and move on!"

The loss of the Chelsea Court Meat Market will be a blow to its neighbors who find familiarity there, and a disappointment to anyone who values mom-and-pops in the city.

More NYC Butcher Shops:
Pino's Meat Market
Albanese Meats & Poultry
Schaller & Weber
Kurowycky Meats

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nusraty Reopens

When, after three decades, the Bleecker Street shop closed down last summer due to an insane rent hike typical of that time and place, it seemed unlikely that Nusraty Afghan Imports would ever reopen in the city--and certainly not in Greenwich Village.

But luck has changed. Maybe the Village's landlords are getting tired of hanging on to empty storefronts. Maybe rents have really become more affordable again. Because Nusraty Afghan Imports celebrates its Grand Re-Opening today.

Welcome Mr. Nusraty back to the neighborhood. Located at 113 West 10th Street, between Greenwich Ave. & 6th Ave., you can also find the shop at their website.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Church Street Surplus

This thrift shop has been around for 47 years. At least that's what the proprietor told me when I stopped by recently to discover, to my surprise, the place is still there. Long ago, in an earlier phase, I used to buy vintage skinny ties here.

Just off Canal, in the chaos of hawkers calling "Rolex, Rolex, Rolex," and tourists grabbing for counterfeit handbags, you'll find this little shop packed with second-hand military wear, hats and vests, a wondrous array of wool Pendleton shirts circa 1950s, and a stash of vintage fabrics and draperies.

As for the proprietor--I'd love to know his story. He looks like an aged Hell's Angel in a black leather biker cap, black t-shirt, black jeans, black boots. He's probably been there for 47 years, too.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Canal Plastics & Rubber

Canal Street is not for the faint of heart. Mostly, it is to be avoided at all costs. The crush of counterfeiters hauling suitcases packed with knock-off handbags and the swarms of tourists who follow them like sharks in a feeding frenzy are enough to make you homicidal.

But there are a few gems here worth checking out if you can brave the throng. My two favorites are Canal Plastics and Canal Rubber. Their signage, more than anything, enthralls. Especially with their anachronistic-sounding catch phrases.



I went inside, trying to think of what my plastic needs might be. I nearly convinced myself that those needs included a handful of solid lucite spheres or a couple of plastic ice cubes, or a sheet of psychedelic corrugated poster paper.

In Canal Rubber, I was fiercely tempted to purchase a lengthy coil of pink rubber tubing that looked, when held just so, like a human large intestine. I also considered getting a piece of rubber flooring cut to size to create an industrial-design bathmat.

Instead, I walked out of both places empty-handed, wondering who shops there and for what. And feeling grateful that people with truer plastic and rubber needs than mine continue to exist.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Still For Rent

The city is covered with For Rent signs. Many are in the windows of places long loved--or just well-liked--places that were meaningful to many people in the immediate neighborhood or all over the city. Here is a small selection. Can you think of more? Meanwhile, Grieve wonders why so many storefronts empty for so long.

Zito's Bakery
Closed: 2004

Tower Records
Closed: 8/07

Chez Brigitte
Closed: 6/08

Vesuvio Bakery
Closed: 6/08

Strand Books Annex
Closed: 9/08

Closed: 10/08

Chelsea Liquors
Closed: 11/08

Five Roses
Closed: 11/08

The Hog Pit
Closed: 11/08

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dapper Dan

This sign was hidden underneath a 1970s-era discount store sign, which was in turn hidden under a recent 99-cent store sign on 14th Street near 7th Avenue.

The space is for rent.

Maybe, with the economy still in downswing, we'll be able to enjoy Dapper Dan a little while longer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

D&T Shmura Matzoh

Last year I had the pleasure of touring inside Streit's Matzoh factory on the Lower East Side. More recently, as part of the Chassidic Jewish Tours, I visited my second matzoh bakery in a small, non-descript brick building in Crown Heights.

Unlike Streit's, which operates year-round, the Dubrowsky and Tannenbaum (D&T) Matzoh Bakery only makes matzoh from November until the day before Passover. Also unlike Streit's, D&T's matzoh are all hand-made "shmura" matzoh, which means they've been watched and guarded from beginning to end.

You want artisanal? This is artisanal.

Flour is kneaded with water by a young Israeli man whose arms have been strengthened by years of playing the drums. "To the Lubavitch," writes Craig Rosa in a thesis on the subject, "water is commonly seen as a metaphor for passion, desire, and the bodily humors. It is free-flowing, messy, and when it is loose it has an unpredictable will of its own... In order to be worthy of guarded matzoh, the water must be brought under control."

After being so controlled, pieces of the dough go onto a long table covered with brown paper where they are rolled flat by Russian women wielding wooden dowels.

While photographs were permitted, we had been instructed prior not to photograph the women, as they recall a lifetime under KGB rule, where soldiers with machine guns might burst in and shoot them just for making matzoh. Although they understand life is different in Russia today, their fear of a photograph falling into the wrong hands is still compelling.

After being rolled out, the matzoh is punched with holes to keep it from rising and becoming leavened, or Hametz. At Streit's, this is done automatically on a long conveyor belt, but at D&T it is a task performed by a single man with a handheld device. One man also bakes the matzoh, feeding it by hand into a wood- and coal-fueled oven.

The whole bakery is essentially a single room and it smells deliciously of burning wood and baking bread. A tabby cat steps among the scraps that fall to the floor, hunting for mice. On the mostly bare, khaki-colored walls, photos of the Rebbe smile down on the bakers.

The entire process of making matzoh must be completed in 18 minutes, after which it ceases to be unleavened. In addition, every 18 minutes everything the matzoh touches must be cleansed or replaced--including the wooden rolling pins, which are sanded and inspected to ensure they are free of stray bits of 19-minutes-old matzoh.

the sandbox

At the end, the round matzoh comes out burned at the edges and brittle. It's thinner than the matzoh you get from Streit's. Being hand-made, it's uneven. Some are broken. It's loaded into a wooden cart and rolled out to a rabbi in a gray beard. He weighs it out, wraps it in paper, and ties it with string.

Tonight, all that matzoh will vanish at Seder tables around the city and around the world. The bakery will be quiet and still, left to the mice to forage for stray bits of Hametz left unswept by the painstaking clean-up crew. Then, in November, the kneaders and rollers, hole-punchers and bakers will return, and the cycle begins all over again.