Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ray's in Cement

From the Vanishing New York dream blog, a dream from a young New Yorker--and a goodbye to Ray's Candy: "Ray hands me an egg cream and the shop starts to go dark. I look out the window and see huge trucks covering the building with cement. Ray yells at the top of his lungs 'get down here with me' as he opens up a hatch into a cellar."

Read the whole dream here.

And don't forget to send in your (real) Vanishing New York dreams (I'm running low).

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

*Everyday Chatter

H&H Bagels is going to be a Verizon--as Thomas Beller takes on the "new urban blight" of bankification: "nearly everyone in Manhattan has had a similar moment of staring with some mixture of disgust and amazement at a gleaming new bank branch and thinking, 'Why?' It’s like a retail version of invasion of the body snatchers." [NYer]

A review of the new Coney Island: The "Starbucks of Amusement Parks." [NYLF]

A round-up of recently opened Coney businesses. [ATZ]

Check out the Lunch Hour exhibit at the NYPL. [NYT]

Video of people tripping up the subway stairs. [Gothamist]

Before and after photographer Brian Rose on the changing LES. [EVG]

The pleasures of reading a book in a churchyard. [WIC]

Remembering the Stonewall Riots. [NYO]

Filthy message at a pay phone:

Revolution Books

Revolution Books on West 26th Street is fighting for its life. They're trying to raise $40,000 to keep their lease.

erin m's flickr

Opened circa 1979, they moved to W. 26th Street after losing their old spot on W. 19th in 2008. At that time, they signed a 5-year lease for $69 a square foot.

Now, on their Facebook event page, they write: "Revolution Books' lease is up early next year. Major rent increases have already kicked in. We need you to help pull out all the stops to raise the funds, bring more people into the store, get the store out into the public square and parks this summer. Revolution Books is more than a bookstore -- it is a cause and a movement. It needs your generous financial donation now, and your help in building a much larger base of support."

The tipster who let us know about this says, "I live next door and it is the only antidote to the frattiness of the neighborhood. Would be heartbroken if it closes. Perhaps you can get people to go buy if you posted on your blog?"

Go buy some revolutionary books, people! And you can also make a donation here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Caffe Capri

Filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski has made a short documentary about Caffe Capri, a longtime Italian coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that is quickly being surrounded by trendy newcomers and chains. Watch the wonderful little film, and read my Q&A with the director.

Q: Why do you think places like Caffe Capri are important to a neighborhood?

A: I think they're important because they're links to the past. The owners of Caffe Capri had so many great stories about former customers who used to come in, who lived and worked in the neighborhood. I think places where people gather, in particular, can be great records of all the different generations of customers who have come and gone. I think it's important to have unique places in a neighborhood--that are owned by people who live in that neighborhood. Let's face it, most neighborhoods these days are overrun with franchises that kind of blur together. A nice personal establishment like Caffe Capri gives a neighborhood color and character that I think ultimately brightens the community. Plus, every neighborhood should have a place that makes a really killer iced coffee.

Q: How does Caffe Capri compare to the newcomer coffee shops in Williamsburg?

A: Personally, I think the iced coffee is better at Caffe Capri. I also prefer the mellow atmosphere and the curated music-scape there. I don't normally go for Sinatra, but at Caffe Capri it's so appropriate and so clearly music that the owners, Joe and Sarah, enjoy, you can't help but dig it. They don't have wi-fi and that's kind of nice, too. It forces me to really stay off my computer when I go there. I write by hand when I'm there, or if I do bring my laptop to do some writing, it's nice being free of the Internet. All that being said, the newcomer shops definitely have their place. If Caffe Capri is closed, I'll go to Blue Bottle. They make a mean New Orleans (a lightly sweet iced coffee). I think that the newcomers' coffee shops do have a uniformity to them that's sometimes a little troubling. They're shiny, austere, and the music is usually very hip, which is fine but feels like it's not lovingly chosen. The newcomers need to put some love in their decor!

Q: You grew up on the Lower East Side, and you've seen a lot of major changes there and in Williamsburg in recent years. How would you characterize those changes?

A: Short answer: troubling. Longer answer: I think that all neighborhoods change and if they've got something good about them, there's usually an influx of people, so you're kind of forced to make room for new people. I was definitely one of those new people who moved to Williamsburg in the late '90s. So there's going to be development and there's going to be changes. I think the hope is that whatever decisions get made, maintaining and enriching the community as a whole is the priority. But the troubling part is that development in the burg and on the LES is so accelerated--it just results in giant glass condos and big hotels and big buildings kind of plunking down and trying to sell as many cookie-cutter luxury apartments--that many people who've lived in these communities all their lives can't afford it. I think Williamsburg has changed faster than the LES. But the LES is definitely on its way now.

Q: What other old Williamsburg places are you hoping will survive?

A: The Garden Grill diner on Graham Ave. has always been good to me and feels like a relic now in the neighborhood. The pizza places on Graham Ave. (Tony's and Carmine's) have to stay. Every neighborhood needs solid pizza. Same goes for Sal's on Lorimer. Incidentally, they make a great espresso, too. I also kind of approve of places like Union Pool, a bar that took over an old space and repurposed it, but kind of did it with real affection I think. I'm more worried about the Lower East Side. Gertel's Bakery, Guss' Pickles, the fabric stores and wholesalers--they're all gone. I like the new art galleries that are showing up there and Doughnut Plant, and I'm glad Kossar's bialys and Russ & Daughters is still in effect. But I'm scared they'll just disappear any minute. Defend the LES!

Monday, June 25, 2012

West 28th Lot

There was a little empty lot on West 28th, just past 10th Avenue, between the back of a bodega and a scrap metal yard. It was just a slender slip of a thing, filled with green weeds. Nothing special, but kind of mysterious in its jungly way. I've had my eye on it for some time, waiting for it to be filled with an inevitable wedge of sleek modern architecture.

last year

A couple of months ago, a realtor's banner appeared, fixed to the lot's chain-link fence. It featured a sketch of the realtor's dream--a Frank Lloyd Wrightish house, a mini-mansion pressed against the High Line's flank.

a couple months ago

Today, the lot has been completely cleaned out, the weeds plucked and chucked, and the ground covered with gravel. Big, metal flowers stand there now. A sign says the installation is called "Bel Fiore" by Loren Costantini of the Brenda Taylor gallery across the street.

I guess the lot is their sculpture garden--for now.


Maybe you prefer metal flowers to wild and weedy things, but I'm sad to see the lot go. Mostly because of what it means.

It's one more sign of change on this block where the massive Avalon West Chelsea is rising fast and another 14-story tower is moving in. We all know what's happening here:

Folsom Fights On
Folsom East and The Eagle
Folsom East Responds
Folsom Under High Line
Eagle Under Siege

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Some Ghost Signs

It's always an exciting urban archaeological moment when a sign comes down from a facade to reveal an older sign underneath. It feels like a wrinkle in time, a stepping back into the old city.

Andrew Fine at a Fine Blog sent in this shot from 71st and Lexington, where Staub the Chemist has been revealed, complete with a bonus phone exchange. Who was RH-4?

Downtown, the former cafe The Adore has been stripped to reveal a sign for a children's barber shop. Greenwich Village Daily Photo also snapped shots of it, wondering if it dates to the 1940s.

Let's hope the newcomers save this one, along with good old Erskine Press (read all about that here). If any knows these old businesses, please let us know.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sweet Banana

Originally published for Eater's "Bodega Week" in March (hence the bodega questions), my profile of the Sweet Banana Candy Store, which is slated to be shuttered by the Stonehenge Group by the end of this month, along with several other long-time small businesses on the block.

The Sweet Banana Candy Store has been run by "Candy Lady" Patricia on 9th Avenue and 17th Street in Chelsea for the past 15 years. Wearing its age proudly, without a hint of vanity, it sits on a ragtag block that has somehow managed to stay frozen in time, almost untouched by the hyper-gentrifying waves that push in from all sides.

The shop's battered awning slumps down over a front window spattered with graffiti and ads for USA Gold brand cigarettes and Slush Puppie frozen drinks. A neon sign advertising "Fresh Coffee" has lost its light.

Patricia doesn't consider her shop a bodega. "It's a candy store," she tells me with a shrug from behind her counter where a postcard of a handgun-toting Jesus Christ guards the cash register. But Sweet Banana does have many markings of the bodega breed: lottery, ribbons of scratch tickets, bags of plantain chips, a display of vintage pocket hair brushes that fit right in the palm of your hand ("Slip it over your middle finger and feel the relaxation spread as it glides through your hair and gently massages your scalp").

And there's the quintessential hardworking bodega cat who likes to lounge among the newspaper stacks.

A few years ago, when Sweet Banana got a new landlord, we thought we'd lose it, but it somehow survived, despite the rapid changes that surround it. Asked how her business has been since the the rising tides of "MePa" and the High Line began flooding the neighborhood, Patricia shrugs and says, "So-so. It's okay." She's a woman of few words.

Patricia the candy lady

Sweet Banana also serves as a social center for many people of the neighborhood. Men and women hang out here to talk and spend time together.

On most days you can find a friendly woman named Hassie seated behind the stuffed candy rack, selling hot homemade empanadas from an insulated bag for a dollar apiece. They are delicious and come straight from her kitchen on 22nd Street where she has lived for her entire 52 years.

"We keep each other company," Hassie says of her time spent in Patricia's store. She appreciates how Patricia keeps her prices low so the neighborhood people can afford to shop, and she likes to watch the kids come in from the junior high and high school nearby. They come in packs, laughing and gossiping, to grab handfuls of their favorite candies out of the big wooden bin--individually wrapped Circus Peanuts and Swedish fish, mini Butterfingers and Laffy Taffy, Charms Blow Pops and Dum Dums.

Hassie tells me how she and Patricia have watched many of their neighbors grow up. "From little kids, they go to college and come back, and they visit her. They always come back here."

Sweet Banana is more than a candy store or a bodega, it's a meeting place and a home base, a part of the family for many local people. They go away from the neighborhood knowing that Sweet Banana will be here when they return. Of course, with the massive changes happening all around it, how much longer can it last? [This was written before we knew the answer to that question would be June 30.]

Further reading about this block:
New Barber Shop
Death of a Block II
Death of a Block
Saving 9th Avenue
Sweet Banana Candy Store
Chelsea Liquors
New China

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mars Creamed

Back in April, the Hamptons boutique Blue & Cream mounted a "Tribute to Mars Bar" photo exhibit in their Bowery location. Locals were appalled. I wrote about it then, but dared not venture inside for fear of coming out with post-traumatic stress disorder. Well, the exhibit is still up, and I couldn't help myself.

Above racks hawking $600 dresses and $1,000 shoes, the ghosts of the old dive bar hang like trophies on a hunter's wall. The faces of barflies look back at shoppers from vanished stools, like the faces of the old Bowery, recalling Skid Row's down and outs--today washed away by the luxury Bowery Tsunami. Where did all those people go?

At their feet, the price tags on designer leather jackets flutter ($1,350). The color of the leather? Cognac.

At the cash register there's a pile of postcards for the taking. On the front, Blue & Cream has chosen to showcase one of Mars Bar's last murals. The words "The East Village Is Dead" are drenched in blood and flanked by images of its killers. In this space, it feels like a victory flag.

The fellow on the right looks like he shops at this very boutique. Isn't that him, across the room, fingering the fabric of a $285 Pique Polo (perfect with its collar popped)?

front of card

On the back of the card, the boutique informs us that the iconic bar was brought down by a condo developer's wrecking ball.

You cannot make up irony as cruel as this.

back of card

Monday, June 18, 2012

Folsom Fights On

After getting opposition from the newly arrived condo people, and agreeing to take measures to protect their delicate sensibilities, this weekend's Folsom Street East festival was a big success, with one of the largest crowds I've ever seen in attendance.

click here for more Folsom photos

Packed extra tight into a street narrowed by massive construction plywood, bodies pushed and jostled in the beer-soaked scrum, but the energy was joyful. It felt like everyone was keyed up in defiance of the recent anti-Folsom sentiment.

Some of that sentiment was expressed by anti-sex, anti-gay Christians waving a banner on the High Line that said "Jesus Saves from Hell."

Down below, a kinky couple held up their own sign in response, saying only "LOVE."

There never used to be Christian protesters here--but now the High Line is bringing the mainstream in to what was once a relatively protected, unknown piece of New York City. Folsom is suddenly very visible.

Up above, groups of High Line tourists crammed the stairwell (many more than last year), staring down and taking pictures of the scene below, some of them smiling, but most of them looking very serious. They were not amused, but couldn't look away.

When one of the event organizers took the stage, he psyched up the revelers, shouting into the microphone, "Some people are saying we are inappropriate...but New York City is not a sanitized place to go mall-shopping with your children!"

He waved to the gawking High Line tourists and thanked the Folsom crowd for "coming out on the streets of New York City, in the daylight, and saying: We are here, we are queer, we are straight, we are kinky--we're gonna be here as long as you are, so put down your 50 Shades of Gray and get your fuck on!"

And they did get their fuck on. While the +Art condo dwellers were given a barricaded corridor for entering and exiting their building, the spankings and whippings went on just as they do every year. The leathermen and women continued to pour in and out of the Eagle. Adults of all ages strutted their stuff without shame. It felt like "New York Fucking City" for once, after all.

Of course, next year will be another story. Current complaints are coming from the +Art condo building, the only condo on West 28th. It brought 91 residential units to a block that used to have practically zero. But soon those 91 won't be alone here anymore. The massive Avalon West Chelsea is rising fast, bringing another 700 units. And a third giant tower at the eastern end of the block will bring an additional 312 units.

That's going to be a lot of new whiners and complainers.

Folsom East and The Eagle
Folsom East Responds
Folsom Under High Line
Eagle Under Siege

See all my Folsom East photos here

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Folsom East Responds

Yesterday we heard from a resident of one of the luxury condos that have recently gone up along the High Line on formerly desolate West 28th Street. He told us about how the new residents are trying to shut down the Folsom Street East festival, now 16 years strong in Chelsea. I got in touch with Susan Wright, Media Liaison for Folsom Street East, and asked for her response.

Q: What was your initial reaction when you found out from my blog that the new condo residents of West Chelsea have been organizing against Folsom East?

A: We were surprised because we haven't been contacted by anyone. Folsom Street East is a community event, and is eager to work with the neighbors. We observed certain issues last year, so one of the ways we have adjusted the fair this year is to provide a 5-foot-wide sidewalk along the buildings that goes from 11th Avenue down to the condos at 540 W. 28th Street. That way residents don't have to walk through the attendees in the street. They will be able to walk alongside the buildings and enter their own home as usual.

Q: Residents are petitioning the Community Board to eliminate or move the fair. Has anyone ever complained directly to the organizers of Folsom East?

A: Folsom Street East has not received any complaints from anyone about the fair.

Q: How do you respond to the people in the new condos who don't want to see nudity and "lewd" acts from their windows? Or who don't want their children to witness the fair?

A: The attendees at the fair must follow our Code of Conduct, and that includes no lewd acts or full nudity. Attendees are allowed to wear street-legal clothes, which in NY city is fairly liberal, as it should be. There are some entertainment pieces that take place on the stage, at the other end of the block, that enter the "burlesque" realm, but legally it doesn't fall into the "lewd conduct" category. Security volunteers are in place to be sure that all the rules are followed by the attendees.

Q: The residents have also suggested that Folsom move "to the next block where it's bordered (for now) by commercial on two sides, Con Ed to the north, and West Street." If anything, I think that could only be a temporary solution, because certainly more condo development is coming. What are your thoughts about this suggestion?

A: Folsom Street East is willing to work with the community to ensure our fair is low-impact. We would be willing to discuss any potential options with Community Board 4 and the neighboring community. However, the current location adjacent to the Eagle is ideal for this street fair, and moving would cause difficulties.

Q: How long has the fair had its home on West 28th?

A: Folsom Street East has been on West 28th for 8 years, ever since we moved from our location outside the Lure in the Meatpacking district.

Q: How did the fair get started and what is its mission?

A: Folsom Street East is a celebration of the SM-Leather-Fetish community in New York City. Like the great Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, we thought New York City should have its own leather street fair.

The BDSM-leather communities should not be pushed underground, and sponsoring our own street fair is a way of highlighting the existence of our community and the fact that we must fight against persecution and stereotypes every day. Folsom Street East is a nonprofit event run by volunteers--all of the funds that are raised are donated to charity. The three beneficiaries this year are the LGBT Center, the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.

Q: What do you think is the future for the queer and kinky of New York City? What will the city lose when this culture is pushed out?

A: Leathermen and women will never leave New York City! We are as much a part of New York as bagels and the Empire State Building. What would New York City be without its diversity? Folsom Street East intends to do whatever is necessary to ensure that we can continue to come out as a group and celebrate our culture.

Come on down to Folsom Street East [this weekend] and see for yourself the spirit of togetherness and celebration that inspires Folsom Street East.

Folsom East and the Eagle
Folsom Under High Line
Eagle Under Siege

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Folsom East & The Eagle

Last year, when the second part of the High Line opened, I wondered how long the sex-positive Folsom Street East festival would survive on West 28th, now that the once-desolate block has become a destination for tourists and condo-buyers. Soon after, I looked at the arrival of massive condo-box Avalon West Chelsea, coming to the same block, right across the street from the Eagle gay leather bar, and predicted that the Eagle would not last much longer, either.

As we come up on the 16th annual Folsom East fair this weekend, we hear from an anonymous resident of 540 West 28th (the +ART building) that those dire predictions may already be coming true. Folsom East and the Eagle, he tells us, are not long for this rapidly changing world.

2011: High Line tourists pointing at Folsom-goers

Construction began on the +ART building in 2008, when there was nothing on that block except for a gay bar, a strip club, a scrap yard, a truck yard, and some autobody shops. Our anonymous interviewee has lived there for the past year. He bought the condo because he, like many of his neighbors, was attracted to "the building, view of the river, wide open space, proximity to Chelsea Piers, High Line, and the Hudson River Park."

I asked him some questions and he provided us with an inside look into how the new condo dwellers of the High Line are forcing change on the once-wild, westernmost hinterlands of Chelsea.

Q: What is the prevailing opinion about the Folsom East fair among your neighbors--how do people talk about the fair?

A: It's a mixed bag. The primary issue is the zero access to the building without walking through the fair itself where lewd conduct and nudity isn't uncommon. Those with children find it particularly difficult.

Q: In what way have the neighbors organized, and what is your goal in terms of the fair--do you want it to stop running, move to another block? What are the neighbors doing to meet this goal?

A: Residents from several surrounding buildings have passed fliers asking our residents to write to the Community Board to relocate or totally eliminate Folsom Street East because "fetish" fairs shouldn't be allowed so close to so many residential buildings. There's word that a petition of some sort will be circulated but I'm not exactly sure what the details are.

A letter was written to the Community Board asking how they can assure residents access to the building without having to walk through the fair itself. Another suggestion was to move it to the next block where it's bordered (for now) by commercial on two sides, Con Ed to the north, and West Street.

The primary issue for us at 540 W 28th isn't the Eagle or even Folsom Street East. It's allowing residents access to the building without having to go through the fair itself. Other residents of the surrounding buildings and even my own building may have additional concerns with regard to the lewd conduct and nudity in full view from their units.

Q: Were you aware of the fair's presence before you bought property here? [The fair's been running for 16 years.]

A: Yes... It's only once a year.

Q: What about the Eagle and Scores? It's hard to imagine those lasting on 28th with the new Avalon West Chelsea going in. How long do you think they will last?

A: I can't speak for all residents but a group of us would like them to stay. We've gotten to know the bouncers and they always say hello or play with our dogs. The crowd that gathers outside of the Eagle is always very nice, and the clientele at Scores really just get out of their cars and zip right inside. No loitering in front for the most part. Having the bouncers out front also gives us an additional level of security. Sure, you'll always have those that will be obnoxious or use the side of our building as a urinal but doesn't that happen just about everywhere in NYC?

I did hear that this summer may be the Eagle's last which would be a shame. I hope they reconsider. [Note: To this, the Eagle says, "Don't listen to rumors."] With the addition of 700+ units in Avalon Chelsea, it may be a matter of whether or not Scores or Eagle even want to be there. I give it a year. Construction across the street is going at a rather fast pace.

Queer, kinky, weird New York is vanishing at an astonishing rate--as fast as the new condos are being constructed along the High Line's glamorous flanks. Folsom Street East and the Eagle are the last vestiges of a once-thriving queer leather scene in Chelsea, one that not so long ago stretched across the Meatpacking District, up and down the far west side.

In 2009, the New York Leather Weekend was canceled when the Standard Hotel and the Food & Wine Festival complained to the city, successfully ousting the queers from MePa's sacred cobblestone streets. I have no doubt that the people of West 28th Street's new condos will eventually win the fight against Folsom the same way--and, apparently, no one is even trying to stop them.

Folsom Under High Line
Eagle Under Siege
Eagle's Nest
Pleasure Chest 1972
Men in Leather
Lenny & Leather

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

*Everyday Chatter

Another fucking Starbucks for 1st Avenue in the East Village. [EVG]

And yet another fucking Starbucks comes to the Lower East Side. How many more...? [BB]

Romy revisits Jackie 60 and the Chelsea barbers. [WIC]

Talking to Taylor Mead in the vanishing East Village. [PRD]

Our friends at Grade-A Fancy present "Truly Greenwich Village," a guide to the neighborhood's surviving old haunts. Get it before they vanish. [GAF]

Spend some time with Tom's neon sign. [NYN]

On the return of Chinatown Fair (the chickens have been gone a long while). [NYT]

Crawford Jewelry, with the fantastic old clock in the window, is closing on Canal. [LC]

Remembering when Essex Street was the pickle district. [ENY]

New York Pizza Project

The New York Pizza Project is a new website and blog (later, a book) that explores the relationship between New York City and its quintessential pizza places. Created by "Corey, Gabe, Ian, Nick, and Tim...5 dudes born and raised in New York City," the New York Pizza Project includes interviews and photos of pizza places across the 5 boroughs of the city.

I asked the five guys some questions--they answered...

All photos from the NY Pizza Project blog

Q: Why pizza as the quintessential NYC food? Why not hot dogs or knishes or something else?

A: New York had a much richer street food culture around the turn of the century. These peddlers pushed immigrant food like knishes, halal, oysters, sausages, and even pizza. Legal changes would eventually force most of these vendors off the street. After World War II, GI’s that were stationed in Italy came home demanding pizza. While I couldn’t really imagine some of these older street foods reincarnating as permanent shops, pizza made perfect sense, since it required a large oven. There was pizza in New York before the war, but it is from the 50’s on that we see a huge growth in pizza consumption in the city.

Today, pizza fits New York’s pace. It is easy to grab on the go. It’s widely available. It’s affordable. There are vegetarian options. Most importantly, it’s delicious, and New Yorkers love delicious.

Go to a pizza place in Florida and it may very well be called New York Pizza Co. or something like that. There is something about the New York pizza parlor that everyone wants to imitate. We run into tourists from all over the world during our journeys. For many, eating a slice is more important than seeing the Statue of Liberty. When we ask New Yorkers what is so special about our parlors, they tell us it’s not the austere setting or crispy crust, but the relationship with the staff.

Q: What does a pizza joint need to qualify for inclusion in your project?

A: Our intent is to capture all the type of places that we grew up grabbing a slice. The loose criteria we ended up creating were the following: has been in the neighborhood awhile, is beloved by the neighborhood, sells slices (as opposed to whole pies), and fits an aesthetic that we would call “classic New York pizzeria.” What that really means is "no frills."

Q: What are your favorite pizza joints in each borough?

A: Funny you should ask. Whenever we tell people about the project, we stress that it’s really not about the food, but about the people and places. Regardless, we have some favorites:

Manhattan: Joe’s in Greenwich Village or Pizza Suprema on 8th Avenue near Penn Station.

Brooklyn: Carmines on Norman Ave in Greenpoint, My Little Pizzeria on Court Street near Atlantic Avenue, and Nino’s in Bay Ridge for their Grandmama slice.

Bronx: Pugsley’s (near Fordham), for Sal, the eccentric owner

Queens: VI Pizza in Bayside for maybe the best Sicilian in the city, and Amore in Flushing for a great slice and great owner, Andy.

Staten Island: Nonna’s Pizza in Great Kills

Q: What will the city lose when all these mom-and-pop pizza joints finally vanish--or do you think they never will?

A: I’m not smart enough to predict what retail will look like in the future, but the pressures these shops are facing are real. Owners tell us all the time that while business is steady and recession-proof, pizza is not the business it used to be. The margins have narrowed significantly amidst rising rents, food costs, and city regulations. There is a real sense of pride in the pizza business, and great appreciation for the customers. So a lot of these places continue to work hard and put out the same product even it means that they take home a little less loot.

Plus, they are becoming stuck in the middle of a new NY-pizza-verse of extremes, with 99 cent shops at one end and fancy Neapolitan places on the other. In a way, the places we’re going for in the project are special precisely because they are so ordinary. No price gimmicks, no 900-degree ovens, just a solid slice and a Coke for a few bucks. Lots of people we talk to have been going to the same pizza places for years or decades. For those people, these places offer up a feeling of consistency and a sense of home. We met a guy who grew up in Washington Heights and moved to England as a young man. Every single time he came home, the whole family went straight to George’s Pizza from the airport, a tradition that’s been going on for over 10 years.

Part of what we’re after is figuring out just how so many of these places have withstood the test of time in a city where tastes and trends are constantly shifting, especially in food. There really is no clear answer. The owners work hard, they put out good product, and they have loyal customers. If these places were to go, the city would lose part of what makes it special, part of its DNA.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

New Barber Shop

After hearing the terrible news about the imminent closure of the New Barber Shop in Chelsea, and the loss of its neighbors along the block, I went over for a last haircut. Willie was in the doorway, smoking a brown cigarette and watching the rain. He told me they won't be closing until the end of June, so there's still some time to say goodbye.

I sat in the dilapidated red barber chair and Willie draped me with a candy-striped smock, other men's hairs poking out through the fabric. From a dusty boombox, filmed with talcum powder, the radio station played hits from the 1980s--Bon Jovi saying, "We gotta hold on to what we got" and Journey telling us "Don't stop believing." But it's hard.

As Willie went about selecting the proper tools, he told me he'd heard a rumor that the businesses coming to replace him and his neighbors will be a Duane Reade or a Walgreens and a bank.

How can a little barbershop compete with that? A little barbershop that opens its doors to the downtrodden and the lonely, that lets homeless men sleep on its floor at night, and holds the neighborhood together by providing a space for friendship and connection. Walgreens won't do any of that here.

When Willie cuts your hair, you can hear him breathing. This is work. You can smell his skin and his breath, and it's the smell of grandfathers, familiar and comforting. He takes his time with the cutting. Men come in and sit for haircuts from the other barbers. They talk softly in Spanish. Men come in and complain about the rain and the relentless humidity.

Willie talked about his search for a new spot to reopen his beloved barber shop, but it's hard to find an affordable space these days in Chelsea. Thanks to the High Line and hypergentrification, it might be impossible. We talked about the greed of landlords, the haves and the have-nots.

"My grandfather used to say," said Willie, "you can't eat ALL the sandwiches. Other people have to eat, too."

He's looking for a small space, just enough to fit three barber chairs, with a monthly rent between $2,000 and $3,000. If you know of somewhere, please give him a call at the shop: 212-243-0334.

Willie and his co-workers were featured recently on NY1 News. The shop's co-owner, Manuel Castillo, said it just so, "I blame the landlord but I blame the politicians too, because they no try to do something to protect small business. They want to convert Manhattan into Monaco, rich and famous. In five more years, no working people can live in this neighborhood. In five more, maybe less."

And this is how a block dies in today's New York City:
Death of a Block II
Death of a Block
Saving 9th Avenue
Sweet Banana Candy Store
Chelsea Liquors
New China

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

New China


In Chelsea, checking in with the long-surviving mom-and-pop block of 9th Avenue about to be completely revamped by its landlord, the Stonehenge Group, we hear that the New China take-out joint has been shuttered.

Brad sends in photos with the sad news: "It's been closed since last Friday, which was June 1. I had a wonton soup from Chelsea Golden Wok on 8th Ave and 21st today and the proprietor told me New China closed due to rent increase."

New China wasn't glamorous and it wasn't special. It was a typical Chinese take-out joint with color photos of the dishes glowing above the register, a few booths for dining, and greasy meals served in Styrofoam containers. But it was family-owned and had been there for a long time--and it was always busy, always packed with neighborhood people, especially teenagers from the nearby schools.

And the prices were cheap. As one Yelper put it, "considering the cheapo prices, it's actually damn good! I go here for lunch sometimes because the prices are about half as expensive as anything I can get at the nearby Chelsea Market."

2 weeks ago

But family-owned and "inexpensive" is not permitted anywhere near the High Line, not in Chelsea, vanished.


Of 8 long-term businesses that existed 4 years ago, only 4 remain today (Sweet Banana Candy is not in the photo), and these 4 have only weeks left to live.


Death of a Block
Death of a Block II

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chain Stores in the City

Lately, I've been thinking more and more about chain stores, their history in the city, and my own conflicted relationship to them.

7-11 on St. Mark's

It seems there's been a big push from chains in the past few months--and a big push back from people.

Looking just at recent developments in the East Village and Lower East Side: After a controversial 7-11 appeared on St. Mark's Place, the windows were smashed by anarchists, and New York magazine reported on 7-11's plans to put our local bodegas out of business. When Starbucks crept too far east, taking the former spot of Little Rickie, disgruntled locals pasted up anti-Starbucks posters and later egged the windows. As for Subway sandwich outposts, they're proliferating like bedbugs in summertime.

On Grand Street, neighbors are petitioning to keep 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts out, and there's a petition to stop more chains from moving into the East Village, which ranked third on the list of most-chained neighborhoods in New York City on the Center for an Urban Future's massive report on the state of chains in New York City. The Upper West Side is also fighting back, advocating for new zoning to put a stop to chains.

A lonely East Village McDonald's in the 1980s

Same McDonald's today--with Subway and Dunkin

The flood of chain stores to New York City happened in the past 10 years--just like all the other waves of hyper-gentrification and suburbanization, including the luxury tsunami on the Bowery, the high-end mallification of Bleecker Street, and the quick-change transformation of the Meatpacking District into glitzy MePa. (Interestingly, we don't see the high-end chains getting attacked, except for the recent paint-bombing of a Marc Jacobs store in SoHo.)

Just before the chain explosion of the 2000s, we heard the early rumblings of trouble throughout the 1990s. In 1996, Kmart opened on Astor Place, joining newcomers Barnes & Noble (1994) and Starbucks (1995). Politicians licked their chops while residents blanched. Said one local to the Times, "I hate the thought of stepping over Kmart shoppers on my the way to buy bagels on Sunday morning."

In the 1980s, a chain store in the East Village was still an anomaly, as when The Gap moved to St. Mark's Place in 1988, causing "there goes the neighborhood" panic.

Fifth Avenue Korvette, 1960s, source

The chains of the 1970s and earlier are perhaps far enough away to inspire nostalgia in some, and I doubt people got upset about them bringing gentrification or suburbanization to the city back then--except for those worried about property values going down.

According to the blog Pleasant Family Shopping, when the Korvette department store chain opened on Fifth Avenue and 47th in 1962, "the store became the subject of many jokes (and much genuine concern) within Fifth Avenue’s elite retail enclave... The basis of this was a fear that Korvette would open a stereotypically tacky discount store with barren walls, poor lighting, pipe garment racks and substandard goods, thus tarnishing the area’s image."

Still, there have long been chains in the city. Howard Johnson's was a popular chain whose loss we've grieved, and Chock Full O'Nuts is one whose reappearance we've celebrated. I still weep for Woolworth's.

Beloved Horn & Hardart automats once dominated the streets of New York City, with 40 locations in 1939. In the mid-1950s, if you walked west along 42nd Street, you'd pass an automat at Madison, another at Fifth, and another at Sixth, before you came to the mother of all automats just a few blocks north on Broadway in Times Square.

Somehow, I doubt people were egging the automats in protest. Maybe that's because 40 locations is nothing compared to the chain dominance of today, when multiple national and multi-national businesses plague every block of the city in numbers that continue to soar.

Of course, many people today want both low- and high-end chains in New York City.

The Apple stores are worshipped. When IKEA opened in Red Hook, it attracted overnight campers. When a Starbucks closes, it gets tearful notes from customers. On Grand Street, the petition against 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts has been met with a petition in favor. In the New York Post, op-eds defend the honor of chain stores.

I don't understand any impassioned defense of today's massive chains--it seems insane, even sociopathic. Still, like most of us, I do not avoid shopping at chains 100% of the time. I have my own somewhat arbitrary list of the chains I'll patronize and the ones I'll avoid like the plague. I buy some of my clothing and home furnishings at chains, while my prescriptions, food/drink, and books come from independents. When in need, I will buy from a chain drugstore--and hate myself for it--though I'll never give my money to a 7-11 in the city.

Until, of course, they run all the bodegas out of town and I'm left with no other choice--which is part of what makes the massive proliferation of chains so enraging: More and more, they are taking away our freedom to choose.

Personally, I don't want them all to vanish--I just want most of them to vanish. I want balance. I want to go back to the days before the Great Chain Explosion, to the antediluvian era when we didn't worry so much about the power of chains to destroy the cultural fabric of the city. And when buying underpants didn't feel like a criminal act.