Friday, August 14, 2009

In the Popper

After visiting the Shore Theater, Mermaid Avenue, the Shore Hotel, and Henderson's Dance Hall building, let's wrap up the tour of doomed Coney Island (though that's not an exhaustive list) with a property not owned by Thor: the Herman Popper Building.

It was built by brewer Herman Popper and his brother sometime between 1890 and 1906, first as a distillery and then as a tavern, says Forgotten NY. According to historian John Manbeck, via the Brooklyn Eagle, Popper opened the tavern on Surf Avenue "to better serve the Irish bars that sprang up on Coney Island’s Bowery, joining the German restaurants. Victorians crowded the streets, lubricated by a 'growler' or 'bucket of suds.' Irish waiters, who doubled as tenors, served a brew with a 'Coney Island head' on the beer—more suds than liquid—to unsuspecting rubes.'"

1932, NYPL

Today, on the first floor where there was once a tavern, then a penny arcade, and more recently a Carvel ice-cream shop, there's a jumbled, cluttered flea market that looks like it's been there forever.

You walk down a narrow passageway, past stalls packed with used electronics--stereos and computers piled perilously atop each other; glass cases full of wristwatches; stacks of videotapes, books, clothes, and stuffed animals. A sign says "Bike Repair Shop," but I didn't see any bikes.

Since 1998, the Popper building has been owned by a Ukrainian art dealer who runs a gallery on the second floor called "Surf Art Exchange." (I heard someone lives on the third floor.)

Walking up the staircase, you'll find one wall covered in graffitied messages from around the world, in many languages. "This place is absolutely wonderful!" says one.

On the opposite wall, there's a drawing of a bearded man sitting in a chair, surrounded by Russian words. It might be a portrait of the building's owner.

I encountered the owner in the gallery. A big, gray-bearded bear of a man, he was shirtless, dressed in only a pair of red swim trunks, bending over a bright red-felt pool table in a room packed from floor to ceiling with dark, Eastern European oil paintings in gilded frames. It was one of those odd, New York moments--and a photo I wish I could have taken.

His billiards companion, another big-bellied Ukrainian man, was also stripped to the waist and barefoot in swim trunks. The owner took his shot, handed me his business card, then went back to the game. I stood and stared for a few minutes, awe-struck by the scene, before heading back down the stairs.

The Columbia Journalist has an excellent article about the owner. "One needs to be a kamikaze to open up an art store in this neighborhood," he said.

Will he ever sell the Popper building? He told the Journalist that "he would be delighted to sell the entire Surf Avenue building if he got a reasonable price for it. What would he do then? 'I don’t know. Maybe I would go to Saint-Petersburg and buy The Hermitage,' he answered.

In the City's Plan for Coney, a disastrous vision just approved by the City Council, the Popper Building has totally vanished.


Ken Mac said...

the sad end of another sad NYC episode. We need to get angry

Barbara L. Hanson said...

I love that flea market! Always my first stop in Coney.

Anonymous said...

Nobody cares that's why this was approved. If there were enough lobbyist sending letters and working a little harder this would never of happened. I don't think these Save Coney Island people worked hard enough. There were about 100 people at the protest, that's PATHETIC.

There should have been THOUSANDS of protesters, but again, nobody was aware of it.

Anonymous said...

By the way, every time I go to these protest, I see about 40-50 people max, it's PATHETIC. Go ahead and attack me "I did this, I did that" I don't give a damn! Your organization is LAZY. I bet more than a 3rd of NY'ers didn't know what the hell was going to happen to Coney Island of when. There is power in numbers, and organization. We need to hit the streets in the HUNDREDS, WEEKLY. Not these once year protest you people have where nobody shows up. It looks pathetic and weak.

If thousands of people rallied against this damn plan, I PROMISE the plan would have been WAAAY different. Instead, corporate monsters are taking it over and will DESTROY IT FOREVER, WATCH IT HAPPEN!!!! JUST LIKE THEY ARE DOING TO EVERY THING ELSE IN NYC, THAT IS THEIR PLAN! AND THE COUNTRY!!! AND THE WORLD!!!! Look at Shanghai China, It's Applebees, Apple Store, Chains, and more chains.

JakeGould said...

Well, Anonymous is angry but right to an extent. I'm not going to bore people with minutiae, but I've tried to work with various folks from various Coney Island related groups and the experience has been dysfunctional at best and frustrating at worst.

No group—and I mean literally no group—works together at all and it is indeed the same group of folks at each protest and not much else.

It's so screwy that to me it feels as if there might be a few groups who are colluding with the city or even private developers to make sure that the groups stay splintered and ineffective.

I personally think when the dust settles on this mess a few folks might be revealed to be not so pure in their intents.

So to me, Coney Island is dead barring a financial scandal taking out Thor Equities or other such financial disaster.

R.I.P. Coney.