Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Birdbath Vesuvio

Recently, after City Bakery's Birdbath moved into the former Vesuvio Bakery space, Eater posed the "Vesuvio Conundrum" in response to an angry reader complaint: "It looks like they're doing business as Vesuvio Bakery to take advantage of tourists whose guidebooks haven't caught up to Vesuvio closing. It doesn't say Birdbath or anything anywhere?"

Photo by Femia, via Eater

It turns out, City Bakery does have its own sign on the facade: In a small frame hanging on the door it says "Birdbath." You could miss it if you're not really looking and, since the door is open in the photo above, it's not visible.

(By the way, is anything more apropos of today's city than a shot of a trendy bakery with a guy pushing a high-tech stroller and a texting lady with a dog in a bag?)

my flickr

Inside, Birdbath is also displaying photos of the original basement ovens (check out these great photos on Lost City), along with text about how "the classic green storefront, familiar to generations, is now an iconic image of the retail city."

All of this brings up the recurring issue of new businesses and entities moving into old, culturally significant spaces, and the question of keeping the old spaces mostly (kind of, sort of) intact, though the original meaning has been removed. Varvatos did it to CBGB, McNally did it to the Minetta Tavern, NYU did it to St. Ann's Church, and then there's the High Line.

my flickr

We're supposed to feel relieved, even grateful, that the newcomers have saved pieces of the city's history, its heirlooms and treasures. And we often do, in fact, feel relieved. I'm grateful that I can walk along Prince Street and still see that "classic green storefront," especially in what has truly become "Retail City."

But we also have to ask what happens when the city becomes a shell of its former self, when its interior is gutted and replaced with something more fashionable and expensive than what came before.

In the end, New York is becoming its own, self-referential museum, a simulacrum complete with wall text to explain where we are--what was here, what remains, what's been altered and revised. We recognize it, while at the same time, it is unfamiliar.

We know that this fate is far better than a bank or a Starbucks. And yet, denied the unadulterated righteous anger that comes when a bank or a Starbucks completely erases our favorite places, in the presence of these preservations and simulations, we're not quite sure what to feel.


ShatteredMonocle said...

There's a tiki bar in the East Village. On the floor when you first walk in is a terrazzo mortar and pestle with an Rx. Apparently it used to be a pharmacy. It also used to be Barmacy. Kitschy as that may be, to me its at least showing some reverence to the history of the space. I appreciate that it was left there. It would be different if it were a Duane Reade pretending to be Block. Soda Bar in Brooklyn does a similar thing. Of course these days everything simply must be a bar.

But these high end places pretending that they have something to do with their more egalitarian predecessors, or in the case of Birdbath, practically usurping the former business' brand, well that's just tacky and capitalistic; totally faux New York.

Bowery Boogie said...

quite a conundrum. it's tough. on the one hand it's nice to have a shrine to look at and remember, but on the other, it will never be the same, so why bother.

kudos, j. great post.

esquared™ said...

you know, based on this post by the nyt, the way i read it was that that vesuvio bakery re-opened under a new management -- the owner of city bakery. i didn't know that the city bakery opened in the former location of vesuvio bakery (and the nyt article/post isn't really clear on this fact). thanks for making that clear

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Hmm, it's a compromise. I'd rather have the old attractive storefronts in place rather than being replaced by a generic glass box. However, it's not right to be masquerading as the former business.

The Chelsea Market is a good example of retaining the original design and purpose of the building while functioning as a modern business. I'd like to see more developments like that rather than this lazy trend of keeping the old parking garage or piano store sign out front to be kitchy.

EV Grieve said...

An inspiring essay, Jeremiah.

How many places can we think of where new owners took over a beloved space and left things the same (or with minor changes)?

Anonymous said...

So funny. Nobody can win with you guys except complete, -273 C stasis. This whole city should be encased in lucite, and then nobody will ever change a thing, and we can all forever marvel and how bakeries used to be cheaper than they are now.

Let's pass some laws that prohibit everything that's older than 20 years from ever going out of business.

Jeremiah Moss said...

the "can't win" dilemma is true, really, which is why these situations present a conundrum. it's not black and white. it's complicated--a fact reflected and explored in the post and the comments.

maybe Birdbath-Vesuvio (and McNally-Minetta, Varvatos-CBGB, etc.) is the right compromise. maybe it's the only possible compromise in the city today. but if that's so, it's certainly worth looking at critically and not simplistically.

Anonymous said...

I think where you go wrong is just classic "nirvana fallacy." The best case scenario is not for Vesuvio, CBGB to stay open. They are done, closed, no longer profitable, whatever. These were privately run businesses that are no longer in existence. So your baseline is not for things to stay just the same. It's for these places to stay empty or worse (BoA, Starbucks.) From that perspective, I would think that a new bakery, keeping the original sign, would be total home run. That's why the word "compromise" sounds so misguided to me. It's like you're negotiating with someone, saying, okay, well, we reject that you have to close Vesuvio, but we will compromise if you leave the original sign up. Except there is nobody at the other end of the table. There's just the neverending, churning creative destruction of this city. Good places close. Bad places close. Good/bad places open. Who are you "compromising" with? Taking the "this is the best thing we are gonna get" approach assumes there someone out there who can give you something better.

Jeremiah Moss said...

FYI: "Nirvana Fallacy," from Wikipedia:

The Nirvana fallacy is the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. It can also refer to the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem.

Example: "If we go on the Highway 95 at four in the morning we will get to our destination exactly on time because there will be NO traffic whatsoever."

By creating a false dichotomy that presents one choice which is obviously advantageous—while at the same time being completely implausible—a person using the nirvana fallacy can attack any opposing idea because it is imperfect. The choice is not between real world solutions and utopia; it is, rather, a choice between one realistic possibility and another which is merely better.

JaneDoe said...

I knew Tony D'Apolito very well and spent hours inside over the years BSing with him.

He inherited the store from his mother. Then he died at 82. He sold the bread biz to a Genovese, who went out of business. None of Tony's children wanted to put in the grueling hours that Tony spent there.

Tony's bread was only so-so. So we are not mourning that. He couldn't live forever, so we are not mourning an untimely death.

So what are we mourning? The loss of interior space? The changing of a bread recipe?

When the D'Apolitos sold the business name to Mr Genovese, I believe there was a requirement that the new owner maintain that fa├žade.

As long as the original facade remains, and as long as it maintains the look that was there for almost a hundred years, so what?

Who cares what is inside? The quaintness remains, the storefront is still intact. Count your blessings.

I am as much a preservationist as anyone, and know that the LPC landmarks only the outside facade. Few interiors are landmarked. LPC and the Landmarks Law have no jurisdiction on the use of the space.

Tony was very easy going. I don't think Tony would have a problem as long as that unique storefront front remians. So we shouldn't.

John said...

It's not that we will never be satisfied unless "everything that's older than 20 years" remains frozen in time and unchanged. I am interested in this whole "vanishing new york" topic not as necessarily a resistance movement opposed to change, but as the acknowledgment of memory. There is nothing, in absolute terms, wrong with progress and tearing down old buildings and putting up new ones, but neither is there anything wrong with paying attention to the fact that the old buildings or shops are gone and that they are missed. And somehow this maintaining of the old structures almost exactly as there were under the previous occupants, interferes with our ability to acknowledge the loss, even to mourn.

Anonymous said...

John, well put. I appreciate the effort to explain. Myself, I've always seen NYC as something that is constantly evolving, and my baseline for appreciating the city is necessarily founded on change. If something changes so much that you don't like it anymore, there is a mindboggling number of other places to explore here. Therefore, from my perspective, keeping an existing storefront (one that we agree has history and is aesthetically pleasing) seems like an unqualified win. The preservationists win, the city wins (b/c if the city doesn't revive itself, it dies) etc etc.

I guess my knee jerk reaction to things on this blog (which I can't help but read because although I am not opposed to change, I also like history) is often negative because the tone here IS one of a resistance movement oftentimes, what with all the bile being launched at "yunnies," fro-yo or anything in general that is new and costs more that $10. This is not just a mourning blog. This is also a blog that celebrates the recession because it means the change that is so "mourned" can happen slower. This goes beyond what you are describing.

I do get the sentiment. But because it is not my *defining* sentiment, it often rubs me the wrong way. I would never suggest that people losing their jobs is an acceptable price to pay for fewer fro-yo shops.

John said...

I share some of the same frustrations Anonymous expresses above. My own site has always leaned more toward memory and less toward resistance, but we inhabit a city that itself resists memory, and this trend of maintaining the exterior facades of spaces that otherwise bear no resemblance to what they really used to be -- just look at the Meatpacking District for example -- is only the most recent, if pernicious, manifestation of this.

Faneul H. Peabody said...

I agree that the larger question is, how do we maintain the dignity of the city as it changes (inevitably) with time. Whether we like it or not, there will be monstrously short-sighted developers who will make terrible decisions.
In this particular case, Birdbath is operating with significant respect to the historical (there is zero culinary importance here- the previous commenter made that point quite well). At least it's still a bakery (after a fashion)! This one is really an example of what SHOULD be happening, if it must happen.
Let's say Gino's closes, but someone clever comes in, spruces it up a bit, keeps the wallpaper, payphone booth, etc., but gets a fancy chef and menu...I'd be happy knowing that room still existed.
I'll put it this way: I'd much prefer that Cedar Tavern were still open today, even if it were a cocktail bar with a line around the block.

In the end it's much more heartbreaking for them to rip away the look and feel of what makes these places landmarks which are dear to our hearts. I'd rather Tavern on the Green become a Houston's than see it leveled. Wouldn't you?

Jeremiah Moss said...

many good points here. i think, if i were Mr. Rubin, the owner of Birdbath, i would probably do exactly the same thing with the Vesuvio space. and i would feel very conflicted and anxious about it, hoping i was doing it "right."

the larger issue is how it seems we get one of two outcomes: the old place is destroyed and replaced with something mass market (a bank, Starbucks, Duane Reade) or it is preserved with alterations and turned into something more upscale, many times less accessible.

this is not just "the city always changes." this is a specific, driven, consistent, city-wide phenomenon that has operated at extremely high levels for the past decade. Birdbath is probably the least worrisome of the bunch, but it is part of this larger phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

...Tony's bread was only so-so. So we are not mourning that...

Agreed. However, his biscotti, well, his savory biscotti, were a very fine thing. IIRC, you could buy huge bags of them at the end of the week for a few dollars. The pepper ones were my favorite but the plain and, IIRC, rosemary and cheese ones were also pretty good. And back before he had various health problems, the bread wasn't all bad if it was fresh. A tub of chicken salad from M&O and a couple of sesame rolls made a nice enough lunch picnic at the Thomson St. playground. Also, IIRC, he made some kinda of focaccia with tomatoes and onions that wasn't bad fresh. Oh, and the bread sticks weren't bad.

Oddly, still has a page and an e-mail link.

Anonymous said...

Richard Price's Lush Life has some perfect passages about this issue. From the LES restaurant where the protagonist works, to the converted synagogue where his boss lives, and up to the end where a simulacrum the LES is erected in Atlantic City.    

enodo said...

If it makes anyone feel any better, that is not an expensive, yuppy stroller the guy is pushing. It's a snap 'n' go, which is a wheeled contraption for putting a car seat on wheels and pushing it around. It sells for about $70. The car seat itself is more expensive, but there's nothing yuppy about that either.

The Muttropolitan Diarist said...

Don't know if you saw this piece about Starbucks styling their stores to look local -- it seems a sidecar (or maybe a caramel shot?) to this story on Vesuvio/CBGB etc.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks for the reminder, Mutt. those Stealthbucks are crazy.

Anonymous said...

I live in Toronto, a city that has so little visual history left I think it honestly undermines civic pride. When a city has no visual connection to the past, its soul is erased. I wince every time I see another old store front get refaced with a sheet of glass and cheap signage. Or an old building making way for an uninspiring condo. It's completely disheartening. That's something I love about NYC: there's a collective pride in its history, and its residents understand the importance of preserving it. People like Maury Rubin get that the iconic stature of something like Vesuvio Bakery is much bigger than them, and choose not to emblazon their name and 'vision' all over an old storefront for the greater good. They understand that the city comes first, their ego second. Feel lucky that you have a great city with so many gems, big and small, worth preserving, and people like Maury Rubin who follow suit.

Matt said...

Nostalgic sights are nice, but really, the shame of what's happening to this city is not that the quaint and old is being plowed under by the relentless and rapacious forces of capitalism. That's been happening here -- and in many other great cities -- from the get-go. What sucks is that economic diversity is a thing of the past, and even the upper middle class is scarcely hanging on in a city whose economy is now and most likely forever will be about servicing the ultrarich. Landmarks, schmandmarks.