Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Paradise Cafe


After 20 years in business, the Paradise Cafe in Chelsea is closing. Today is their last day. Reader David sent in a photo of their goodbye sign:

The cafe is a throwback to the 90s, with mosaic art on the walls featuring flea-markety ceramic deer and doll heads. They also make great sandwiches. Possibly the last independent cafe on this stretch of ever-gentrifying 8th Avenue that isn't a Starbucks, they have a much-appreciated sign by the register that reads: "If you insist on ordering using Starbucks terms, we will be forced to charge you Starbucks prices."

And another one's gone.

Go in today for a delicious sandwich at "special prices" and say goodbye. On 8th Ave near 17th St.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Max Fish & Ludlow


Last night was the last night of Max Fish on the Lower East Side--and it was packed.

We've been hearing of this closure for a few years now. Due to a large rent hike, Max Fish is moving to Brooklyn. As the Lo-Down reported, "When Max Fish first opened, Rimkus was paying scarcely more than $2,000 month. Arwen Properties, her landlord, is reportedly seeking $20,000/month for the space next door."

You could argue that Max Fish is being gobbled up by the monster it helped create. There may be some truth to that, but Ludlow Street had attracted artists and hipsters way before Max Fish arrived.

In the 1960s and 70s, members of the Velvet Underground lived and recorded music there. John Cale recalled, "In the fifth-floor apartment in '65, Lou, Sterling, and I combined the music of Erik Satie, John Cage, Phil Spector, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. The result was a new form of rock—more about art than commerce." Warhol superstars also found a home on Ludlow. Taylor Mead lived there--until his recent eviction and death.

photo: Efrain Gonzalez

In the 1980s, more artists, writers, and performers found their way to Ludlow. Theater Club Funambules, later NADA, opened in 1988 (and was evicted in 2000), along with other venues like it. Ludlow was viewed as an untamed alternative to the East Village.

In an eye-opening piece for the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" in February 1988, a young married woman described her move to the derelict street:

"No one we know would think of living here. No one we know has ever heard of Ludlow Street. Maybe someday this neighborhood will be the way the Village was before we knew anything about New York, the way the upper West Side was eight years ago, the way the East Village is now." 

She continues, "We explain that moving down here is a kind of urban pioneering" and "liken our crossing Houston Street to pioneers' crossing the Rockies... So we discover the ungentrified life," a world of no supermarkets, on a street that "becomes more chic by the day. East Villagers stomp down here in those British postmen's shoes they wear, and frequent our cheap Mexican restaurant, El Sombrero. They only wish the East Village were still so authentic, so raw, so unhip it's hip."

The pioneers had landed.

1988: Michael Horsley, flickr

It was into this world that Max Fish was brought by artists in 1989, planted between Joseph Yavarkovsky's paper supply (in business since 1898) and a blanket salesman known as the "pillow man." Fish took over an empty storefront where the original Max Fisch (with a "C") sold Judaica for, according to the handpainted sign still on the door, over 30 years.

Yavarkovsky and the pillow man didn't last. In the 1990s, artists and burgeoning hipsters, pushed out by high rents in the East Village, flooded Ludlow. Older Jewish and Hispanic businesses and residents began to vanish. Landlords plotted to murder their tenants to bring in higher rents.

Collective: Unconscious Theater opened, along with Surf Reality nearby. Music clubs opened on or close to the street, including Mercury Lounge, Luna Lounge, and Arlene's Grocery, whose owner told the Times in 1997, "I liked this neighborhood because there was such a diversity of people, and the likes of Starbucks hadn't moved in... One thing that may help preserve the Lower East Side is that it's a little less accessible... I guess it'll be about five years before the Gap shows up.''

By the late 1990s, Ludlow had been dubbed "Downtown's Disneyland" by New York magazine, and "The New Bohemia" by the Times, which credited the NYPD's mid-1990s crackdown on drug sales for kicking the street into "high gear." (Including a major bust of the Almesticas with helicopters hovering above.) Still, Ludlow was "percolating but not overrun with supermodels."

That all changed in the 2000s--the tipping point for much of the city. Ludlow and the area around it catapulted into supermodel central with a major luxury building boom. Hotel and condo towers ripped into the air. The chain stores came. The frat bars. The noise. The evictions and demolitions. The rents went through the roof.

Thirty to forty years of gentrification, from the 1960s to the 1990s, were left in the dust by a tsunami of hypergentrification.

Like the Bowery, Bleecker, the Meatpacking District, everything along the High Line, and many other areas, Ludlow Street is being decimated by an unstoppable force, massive and moving at warp speed, created not by struggling artists, but by politicians and developers.

Once again, I think of these words from Neil Smith: "gentrification has changed tremendously since the ’70s and ’80s. It’s really a systematic class-remaking of city’s about creating entire environments.”

In 2009, Julian Casablancas, front man for The Strokes, released a solo song about gentrification on Ludlow Street:

Faces are changing on Ludlow St.
Yuppies invading on Ludlow St.
Night life is raging on Ludlow St.
History's fading.
And it's hard to just move along.

The song was featured in an episode of Gossip Girl.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Big Nick's


Big Nick's on the Upper West Side closed for good last night. West Side Rag reported the news first that yesterday would be Nick's last day. After 51 years in business, and remaining ever popular, the beloved burger and pizza joint could not afford the massive increase in already high rent--from $42,000 to $60,000 a month.

The landlord refused to negotiate a better deal, and Big Nick's has been on a month-to-month for awhile now.

An employee said the space will become a bank. However, as City Council member Gale Brewer wrote on her Facebook page today, "A bank cannot come in--per the law that I passed--if the length of the store is more than 25 feet. That's the max for any bank."

So maybe a Williams Sonoma? Or how about a Pottery Barn?

It's getting boring, isn't it?

Enjoy these photos from the last night of Nick's, by the folks at Zipper:

Friday, July 26, 2013

*Everyday Chatter

Gorgeous, wonderful, should-have-been landmarked Eagle Clothes sign goes into the garbage heap. [NYN]

After 22 years, Splash is closing because "maybe we don’t need gay bars." [Next]

"In our current desire to acquire civil rights equal to the straight community, we have chosen to assimilate and to clean up our act. When I recently explored some of my old haunts, I was amused. The Anvil is now a gentrified, chic restaurant, complete with white linen tablecloths and candles. The waterfront along the Hudson River has become the lovely, serene High Line public park." [HP]

Bloomberg's massive rezoning of Midtown really just not a very good idea. [Curbed]

Latest word on Odessa closing: August 15. I hate this shit. [EVG]

Sex & the City “might as well have been a tourism campaign for a post-Rudolph Giuliani, de-ethnicized Gotham awash in money." --Brett Martin [NYer]

Lovely photos of Hart Island--and its Potter's Field. [UC]

Romy: "Some of the changes in the city are small ones, but they can be so incomprehensible when I encounter them suddenly that I feel the way I do when I stand up too fast." [WIC]

New shots from NYC in the 90s. [NYC90s]

"The average weekly wage in Manhattan during the first quarter of last year was $2,464. The next highest borough was Queens at $877. Now that's a disparity!" --Brian Lehrer [WNYC]

Houston St. parking lot sold--another tower to come? [BI]

Friends of the High Line "is dominated by a wealthy and politically connected coterie of real estate developers and property owners, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars, directly and as intermediaries, into Christine Quinn’s mayoral election campaign." [C&S]

Look up zombies! [BB]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Pizza Box


It happened. Pizza Box is gone, the windows covered in brown paper. The following photo appeared this morning on Facebook.

photo: Raphael D'Lugoff, on GV Kids 1960s

A comfortable neighborhood joint, beloved for its large backyard and good slices, Pizza Box opened in 1957. We first heard the news from DNAInfo in April that the place would be closing and that Spanish fast-food chain "100 Montaditos" would be moving in.

"It's affordable elegance with charcuterie and jamon at a reasonable price," said the franchisee.

I went in for a last slice. Later, a reader told me that Pizza Box would not be closing. That, obviously, turned out not to be true.

To Hell with Bleecker Street.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Elk Hotel Pepsi Sign


For years, people have admired the Pepsi-Cola HOTEL sign that hung on chains outside the Elk Hotel on 9th Avenue and 42nd Street. The faded paint, the old typeface, reminded us of a lost Times Square, of fleabags and flophouses, of Travis Bickle rolling by in his Checker cab looking for underage hookers to save.

The sign is now gone.

Nothing remains of it except its chains, a rusted triangle of braces hung between two windows and the words HOTEL CLOSED.

Those windows once belonged to a man called Pops, an 86-year-old disabled war veteran who relied for years on the kindness of his neighbors to bring in food from the outside.

But Pops was evicted, along with Coo-Coo and the rest of the hotel's tenants, as we learned from Mark Schulte, the last of the Elk's holdouts. He has since moved out, too, and the 88-year-old hotel stands empty, a husk of haunted rooms.

Across the avenue, a cluster of old buildings, recently containing the Big Apple Meat Market, have been draped in a black shroud, prepped for demolition and the glossy hotel tower to come. We expect the same fate for the Elk--and maybe half a block of its neighbors, too, which we heard have all been sold to the same buyer in the past year.

The sign lasted awhile after the closure, the last survivor of the Elk Hotel. We wondered if some intrepid collector of urban ephemera climbed up there to save it, or if Pops took it with him when he went. But we heard from a reader that the landlord's nephew, an antiques enthusiast, claimed it for himself.

Maybe it's hanging on the wall of a luxury loft, to be discussed during cocktail parties. Maybe it will be scrubbed up and sold to a trendy restaurateur who's planning to open a high-end brasserie called Flophouse.

More likely, it'll be hawked on Ebay. So keep watch. You never know.

Inside the Elk (a must read)
The Elk Hotel

Tuesday, July 23, 2013



A guest post by Emma DeCorsey

The beloved Upper West Side store Granny-Made is closing on July 31, exactly 27 years after its opening. Its owner Michael Rosenberg is one of the city's true mensches. I worked there for the first five years I lived in New York.

Opened on August 1st, 1986, it began as a closet-sized boutique specializing in handmade knits for women and men during the sweater boom of the late 1980s. Like Florent with Gansevoort St., it was partially responsible for turning Amsterdam Ave. from sketchy to idyllic shopping street.

Michael named it after his beloved Granny Bert Levy, who knitted sweaters for WWI soldiers and later for her children and many grandchildren. Around 9/11 the store morphed into a baby and childrens' clothing and gift store in order to remain open and to reflect the rapidly changing neighborhood, while still carrying womens' sweaters and a vast array of rare & wonderful gift items. It always had a certain magic about it.

In 2010, my fourth year working there, our landlord at 381 Amsterdam refused to extend our lease as he planned to clear the entire half of the block for a big-box store--bank, Duane Reade, no matter. The neighborhood was outraged, but of course big money won out. We moved up the street to 467 Amsterdam, where the price to pay for staying true to our neighborhood roots was double our previous rent. George Beane, the owner of 467 deserves special mention for renting to us because of his belief in small mom-and-pop stores, and charging us a little under market value. Another mensch.

We were hopeful that the bigger space and the bigger-ticket items like playroom furniture might generate sales we couldn't have had before, but in the end it wasn't enough. I can't count the number of times I'd show something to a customer and they'd say, "I saw that cheaper on Amazon."

John Hamm in the bathroom, by the Goo Gone

Working there was like being part of a crazy little family, and Michael took great care to make his employees feel at home and taken care of as best he could. My coworkers were Ruth Hornbein, veteran sweater designer; Adele Salzberg, master buyer, decorator and creator of the iconic window displays; Hanna Mooney, an Austrian grandmother of two; and Gracie May Rosenberg, Michael's Havanese who was born in 2002 and became the store's official mascot, asleep in her chair and awaiting love all day long.

We all loved talking about movies and TV and we would sneak in the New York Times crossword when Michael was away. Adele and I kept a framed picture of Jon Hamm in the bathroom. I will forever be unsure of just how I, a Brooklyn-dwelling downtown theater actor and singer with no interest in children, came to find my day job there, but Michael and the girls were the reason I stayed. I left at New Years' 2012 and have yet to find a boss as good as Michael.

Granny-Made is a true piece of old New York, and each day I worked there was a million times funnier and more quality and more real than that piece of shit show Girls. Lena Dunham wishes she had the experience I did!

Friday, July 19, 2013

*Everyday Chatter

Check out this collection of old signs hiding under new signs. [NYN]

Nostalgia is good for you. Don't let them tell you otherwise. [NYT]

The hyper-gentrification of Long Island City, photos by Nathan Kensinger. [Curbed]

Remembering the Astro Tower. [ATZ]  

Mars Bar--two years later. [GL]

A reader lets us know that Pepe Verde, opened in the Village in 1998, closed recently. The space is being marketed with the empty restaurant next door.

A Red Lobster is opening next to the venerable Apollo Theater in Harlem. [HB]

The Met's Punk show "captured about as much of the genuine spirit of Punk as, say, Disney World's "It's a Small World After All" ride captures the authenticity of the planet's cultural diversity." [FP]

Q&A with Nick Zedd. [EVG]

Some folks in Chelsea are trying to get a park built on 20th Street and they're asking for your help. [20thSP]

Meanwhile, developers by the High Line are trying to take a park away from the poor residents of Fulton Houses. [CN]

Besieged West 28th Street and the High Line get another whoop-de-doo luxury giant. [Curbed]

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Butcher Shop Sign

The corner of 5th Avenue and Bergen Street in Brooklyn used to house a cheap little furniture store, but Bobo Bergen is expanding and the space is now home to "high-end Scottish whisky bar" the Duke of Montrose, according to Here's Park Slope.

Construction on "the Duke" revealed an old butcher shop sign long hidden beneath the furniture shop's sign. It appears to be hand-painted on metal.

A week after I took this first photo, I received the following shot from reader Joel Schechter with a note saying the sign is being stripped off. Joel saw "a pile of the panels from the old sign removed, stacked on the ground. One of the panels was bent like a pretzel."

Does anyone know anything about this butcher shop specializing in "Quarters for Holiday Poultry"?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013



Sofia's Italian restaurant has been in Times Square's Edison Hotel for over 35 years. Now we hear they've lost their lease.

Reader Paul Jeromack passed along this message from his friend Ron's Facebook page:

"Last call to experience the world's greatest, authentic, living 1920s - '30s 'hot-dance Jazz band': Vince Giordano and His Night Hawks at Sofia's. It's the end of an era; leading hopefully to a new one. If I ever encouraged you to go or invited you to join me NOW IS THE TIME! Sad to report that Sofia's is closing in August (they have lost their lease). Mr. Giordano doesn't know for sure if the last performance there will be on Tuesday, August 13th or Tuesday, August 27th."

I've never been to Sofia's, and Lost City Brooks gave the place a terrible review, but it makes me nervous and I'll tell you why.

In 2010, the Edison Hotel denied the Rum House a new lease after 37 years, it changed hands, and was made hipper. And now Sofia's. So what's going on? Is the Edison cleaning house? This makes me worry about the wondrous Cafe Edison, that pink and frothy "Polish Tea Room," one of the last of maybe two oases (Jimmy's Corner being the other) of sanity and goodness and real New York left in the Disneyfied hellhole that Times Square has become.

It was at the bar in what became Sofia's that Luca Brasi was made to sleep with the fishes in The Godfather.

Mr. Giordano and his Night Hawks are looking for a new venue. If you know of one, please call him at 718-376-3489.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

6 Years

So I completely forgot my own blog anniversary yesterday. Six years!

A big thank you to everyone for reading, commenting, and supporting "Vanishing New York." It would not be worth doing without you.

Without You I'm Nothing - Sandra Bernhard from LoLo on Vimeo.

Mitch Broder's Vintage NY

Journalist Mitch Broder has been writing the blog "Mitch Broder's Vintage New York" since 2011, covering the "classic old haunts" of Manhattan, from Katz's to Eisenberg's to Bill's Gay 90s. Recently, Mitch published a book on the topic. Filled with full-color photos and detailed descriptions of each classic place, Discovering Vintage New York is a must-have guide to what remains--before it vanishes.

Mitch will be talking about his book this Thursday, July 18, 7:00 at the Strand--go see him. We had the chance to chat a bit over email, and I asked Mitch some questions.

How did you go about choosing the vintage spots for this book?

To start with, they had to be at least 50 years old (though I let one slip through at 45). But atmosphere was as important to me as age. My idea was to create a collection not just of old places, but of old places that take you back in time. I chose places that look the part, so that you could go to any one of them and encounter another way of life in New York. As you know, there are plenty of places with legendary names but without much more connection to their past. I try not to judge them (though I do), but I did not include them. I sought authenticity. I saw this book as a kind of time machine.

Did you have any worries that putting them in the book might jinx them, causing them to vanish? (I sometimes have this irrational concern myself.)

You have correctly deduced that I am the kind of guy who would worry about something like that. But here I was more specifically worried that I would finish a place's story and then see the place's name pop up in your blog beneath the word VANISHED.

It happened in one case--the Primeburger Coffee Shop, which I eulogize in my introduction as a cautionary tale. The Primeburger was a Museum of 1965, from its conical space-age light fixtures to its box seats with swiveling tray tables. It was one of the last places that had stayed nearly unchanged for decades. But I didn't cause it to vanish. A sixfold rent increase caused it to vanish.

photo by Wellington Lee for Discovering Vintage New York

What is the value of vintage places in the city? Why should people care about preserving them?

Maybe it's the same value as that of vintage people in the city. Our society tends to devalue age, but can you imagine a world filled with only people under 25? (Yikes!) A great city is a city of contrasts. An insufferable city is a city where everything opened last week. What could be more fascinating than a metropolis sprinkled with places that allow you to experience life throughout much of its history?

People should care about preserving them for the same reason that they care about preserving historical landmarks and museums. These places are landmarks--and they are living museums. New York has been New York for only about 350 years, so a 70-year-old store has lasted for a fifth of its life. To me, that makes it part of the city's history. Keep losing places like that, and your city becomes a mall--which, as you know better than anyone, is what seems to be happening.

You say in your introduction that your original title was "True New York," then you changed your mind because old does not necessarily equal true. But there is a sense, especially lately, that the true--or real--New York City is being replaced with something false or fake. What are your thoughts on that?

For some of us, the "true" New York is found in places like the ones in this book. For others, apparently, it's found in places like Toys "R" Us Times Square. This may confound me, but rather than subjectively dictate what is or isn't "true," I switched to "vintage," which is more precise (and more expressive).

I don't see quite all new places in the city as false or fake--on my blog I include quirky new spots that I think evoke old New York spirit--but I do see an awful lot of new places as pretentious, predictable, unoriginal, uninviting, and devoid of character. The good news is that many of the old places are still appreciated by people of all ages. So there still seems to be room for a little of everything. For now.

photo by Wellington Lee for Discovering Vintage New York

Were there places you wanted to include but weren't able to--and will there be a sequel?

Along with the 50 featured places, I covered 50 more with short descriptions. A few of those short descriptions were dropped for space in the final book design. But just about every place that I think should be in this book is in there. And no one turned me down, for which I was very grateful.

I'm considering sequels of several sorts. What comes next will be partly determined by the response to what has come first. In a way, I'm in the same boat as many of the places I've written about. These days, books are bygone, too.

photo by Wellington Lee for Discovering Vintage New York

Monday, July 15, 2013

1961 Village Map

There's a 1961 map of Greenwich Village hanging in the men's room at Julius' bar. If you see it there, you might think, as I did, that it's an antique, a one of a kind that you'll never be able to find. But that'd be wrong. A week later I saw it again, this time in the window of a frame shop on 14th Street.

The map, originally drawn and published by cartographer Lawrence Fahey, was rediscovered and reprinted by local tour guide and amateur historian Tom Bernardin, author of the Ellis Island Cookbook.

Tom told me the story behind the map: "When my dear friend Margot Gayle died, her daughter called me and asked if I wanted to go to her apartment for Greenwich Village and New York City books and stuff. Fortunately, I had a friend here and we loaded up a taxi. For the longest time, I had the map, folded, staring me in the face. A friend was unemployed and teaching himself Photoshop. So I had it scanned and he spent hours meticulously cleaning it up. Fold lines, etc. Quite a job. I had 800 printed. Quite a financial layout and my friends think I am nuts. But I knew it was just too wonderful not to have it out there."

This large, handsome poster is an extraordinary time capsule of the Village in 1961--which basically means the 1950s. It took Fahey three and a half years to make the map and he published the first edition in 1960. "Every important place in the Village is drawn on the map," says the cartographer's explanation, including bookstores, bars, restaurants, shops, movie houses, and places to buy chickens.

Fahey opted not to include the Hudson River Waterfront because, he wrote, it "lacks the charm of the 'Old Village' and the zest of Bohemia. The same is true of the area south of Prince Street where depressing loft buildings and dark streets would hardly appeal to any visitor."

These areas were omitted so the map could include Astor Place and its environs, including the galleries of 10th Street, Fourth Avenue's Book Row, and McSorley's Old Ale House, "that famous old 'for men only' hangout."

The slice of the city you'll find in this map is filled with the vanished. The people who lived in its world and roamed its streets cared about different things. They must have loved books, because there are lots of bookstores. They also must have loved going to the movies, listening to jazz, and drinking coffee in ramshackle cafes.

Of all the coffee houses listed, I believe only Cafe Reggio remains. The bookshops have been wiped out. A few of the restaurants are still in operation, like Seville and Gene's, but most are gone or have been gutted and re-branded, like Fedora, Rocco's, and the Waverly Inn.

This is the kind of artifact you'll want to gaze at for a long time, the kind that can transport you--and break your heart.

You can buy a copy of the map for $20 by contacting Tom Bernardin directly via email:, or telephone: 212-229-0202. Then have it framed at the 14th Street Framing Gallery.

Friday, July 12, 2013

*Everyday Chatter

July 18: Your last chance to tell NYU where to stick it. Say NO to their 2031 plan! [FASP]

July 24: See "El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem" and be a part of the neighborhood discussion. [EBT]

July 28, August 3 and 4: Celebrate punk rock and the riots in Tompkins Square Park. [FB]

Performance art and neoburlesque return to the LES with COW. [EVG]

Orchard Street is still Orchard Street--here and there. [HNY]

Landmarks approves transformation of Coney Island Child's into a theater--apparently to be patronized by dimwitted-looking people. [Brownstoner]

Unfinished memoir published posthumously from Bob Guskind, blogger of Gowanus Lounge. [UV]

Take a walk on 18th Avenue. [OMFS]

That vanishing of gas stations around the Village and Chelsea has been halted, slightly, by the return of a gas station--that lost Lukoil on 8th Avenue and Horatio is now a Mobil. And they look very happy to be here:

photo: Thomas Rinaldi

Thursday, July 11, 2013

More Bleecker Retail

Bleecker Street needs more luxury shopping mall chains!

Retail space on the western "Gold Coast" end of Bleecker is not unlimited, but you can make more by converting the first floor of your townhouse into retail. That's what's happening to 397 Bleecker. This lovely little townhouse was sold (asking price $5.3 million) and the new owners are knocking out the first floor.

(This was done in another townhouse two years ago to make room for Jimmy Choo.)

The sales listing reads: "this historic townhouse is one of a privileged few homes with access to gorgeous Bleecker Gardens with its beautifully landscaped plants, trees and a fountain pool." (Check out the listing for photos of those hidden gardens.)

Did you know that Bleecker "has now surpassed London's Bond Street and Los Angeles' Rodeo Drive in retail price per sq. ft."?

Here's the rental listing if you'd like to open a store here--maybe a used bookstore or a record shop?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Every Bodega

Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata is a photographer in Brooklyn who has taken on the task of capturing every bodega in Manhattan. Her photos, along with a map, are featured on a webpage with the same name: Every Bodega in Manhattan.

I asked Gail a few questions about her project.

Q: Why photograph every bodega--what's important about the city's bodegas?

A: When I moved here from Chicago a decade or so ago, the bodegas were among the first features I appreciated as unique to this city. We don't really have them where I come from, it seems to be either chain convenience stores or grocers. The bodega seems to cater specifically to its own neighborhood in addition to carrying basics.

I've seen home-cooked Dominican food for sale in a largely Dominican neighborhood, religious tracts on prominent display near an Islamic center, and caviar advertised off ritzy 5th Ave, all crammed in next to cigarettes, flowers, diapers, beer, tiny overpriced bottles of aspirin. Plus, many of these shops are open 24 hours, so you've sort of got a perfect mini-metaphor for New York--the bodega never sleeps and is its own melting pot of cultural influences.

Watching these unique places get shuttered as 7-11 stores spread is, in my mind, like watching every random corner pizza shop turn into a Sbarro. Another piece of New York's specific identity is blotted out, to what end? So we can be a boring, homogenous strip mall like anywhere else? Why would anyone want that?

Q: What interests you visually about the New York bodega?

A: Visually, I'm fascinated by how differently each bodega presents itself in spite of essentially selling the same thing. Right now, you'll typically see that Arizona Tea ad, "I heart big cans," which has somehow inserted itself onto the exterior of an absurd majority of bodegas, and probably the NY Lotto logo, but other than that it's a completely unique collage of ads and products crammed into or onto the windows. They're usually quite colorful just because all of the advertisements are competing for your eye at once, or the packages of the products in the window make an interesting pattern, or there are flowers just...being flowers.

I'm also interested in the signs, the surprising lists of goods printed on the awnings, the names of the shops themselves. I realized I'd spent much of my time here not realizing what my own neighborhood bodegas have been called because they're just THE shop on the corner, period. Many of them have quite curious names. Then you'll hit a neighborhood where nearly every shop will have some permutation of the same name. Up near Columbia Presbyterian you practically can't walk a block without hitting a Presbyterian Deli of some stripe. And yet they're completely different in stock, signage, and just general tone. All these display choices are visually compelling to me.

Q: How do you tell the difference between a bodega and a grocer's?

A: Initially, I adopted the very loose Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it" type approach, which lasted for about a day of shooting in January after staring at one market for 15 minutes, freezing for no good reason, trying to decide if it fit. My criteria is that a bodega sells lotto tickets, beer, or cigarettes (preferably all three). Anything that advertises specials in the window not involving a deli counter is probably not a bodega--you don't need to have sales when your customers are desperate and it's 3am!

If it's a gray area beyond that, which is rare, I go inside the shop. More than a deli counter, say, a meat counter, no dice. If they have a printed circular with coupons, it's a grocer. I've found the cigarette requirement really helps in these cases, most bodegas sell cigarettes and most grocers or ambiguous-looking health food markets, in my experience, do not. Newspapers could probably fit in, here, too. Bodegas tend to sell newspapers where grocers may not. But cigarettes usually work as my deciding factor.

Q: How do you plan to get to every single one? There must be a lot of them!

A: Oh, man, there are thousands! I'm just walking the entire island block by block and marking off where I've been on a map. I started at the top and I'm working my way down, with the occasional interruption if I'm somewhere random with my camera. [Click here to see a map of Gail's progress so far.]

I think walking through the entire city is the only way to do it. I'm certain the entire list will have changed by the time I've finished. I know several of the shops I've shot in the past few months have closed already, I see new ones opening, and 7-11 stores keep popping up like weeds. My project is sort of a moment frozen in time, I guess.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

1970s Stock Footage

Reader Philip Shelley turns us on to a great find--from the NBC/Universal Film Archives, originally shot for NBC News, it's a whole bunch of 1970s stock footage of the city.

Click here to watch Part One--it includes Times Square, a quiet part of town compared to today. The silent, shuffling crowds go by, only the sound of their feet making noise. The streets are more subdued, and they're also sexier with their 1,001 Danish Delights, porn houses that offer a "box lunch," sidewalk barkers drumming up customers for the "anything goes" psychedelic burlesque.

The footage moves along. Sixth Avenue is desolate. No crowds. The whole city seems a bit hushed. Until you get to total pandemonium at what looks like Bethesda fountain in Central Park--people riding bikes and rowing boats in the water. You'll also find rare scenes in the old Children's Zoo.

Click here to watch Part Two , which goes from Harlem to Brownsville to the South Bronx, desolate scenes of children playing in the wreckage, footage of buildings in flames.

At 43 minutes in, we go to Coney Island, the beach packed like it never is today, bodies overlapping on the sand. And there's the forgotten Tornado rollercoaster, eventually lit on fire and demolished in 1978.


Finally we see city buses covered in graffiti, subways messily tagged, not with the exuberant artworks that would come in the 80s. Weary riders, bereft without uninvented electronic devices, have no choice but to think and feel as they plunge below the streets of this other, lost city.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies

In 1974, the Village Voice hired Stan Mack to write "Real Life Funnies," a brilliant, observational comic strip that eavesdropped on the city, collecting the voices of the streets, the jazz joints and cafes, the consciousness-raising groups and cocktail parties. The strip ran until 1995, and Stan moved on to other projects.

"Real Life Funnies" remains as an invaluable time capsule of two decades when New York City was still a wild, weird, creative place filled with people who, at the very least, had something interesting to say.

Recently, I got the chance to talk to Stan about his work.

from "An Evening with a Male Liberationist"

Q: Your work beautifully captures the culture of the city in the 70s and 80s. The language people used, and the way they spoke, the topics they spoke about, are familiar from the films of Woody Allen--neurosis and art and sex. It's a different city now. What do you find yourself overhearing these days?

A: Mostly what I hear is cell phone talk: "I’m on Bleecker and 10th, where are you?" Less often words I once would have written down, but, as you suggest, the time of the wonderful self-revealing comments, situations, and events (at least the kind I could get at) is past.

Q: What do you think is the difference between the "voice" of the city then and now?

A: It was late ’74 when I started my documentary comic strip about New York City in the Village Voice, which was a kind of town square of the counterculture. It was a period when many of the ‘60s political and social activists were turning inward, searching for the meaning of life—spiritual, sexual, self-actualizing.

That period was followed, in the ‘80s, by the New York invasion of yuppies with Rolexes. During those two decades I wandered the city hearing wonderfully pithy and revealing epiphanies: in bars and restaurants, rap sessions, self-help seminars (offering every sort of revelation), elevators, movie lines.

Today I hear one-sided cell phone prattle on street corners, read what Facebook friends like, what links Twitter people recommend. Recently I heard a woman say her department is full of freaks, they don’t like her, and she doesn’t have a life, but that sounded more like a whine than an epiphany. I’m no sociologist so I don’t know if this era is less interesting. You’d think people would be as tormented by sex, self-fulfillment, and relationships (and babies) as ever, but I’m not hearing it on any movie lines I’ve been on lately. Maybe I should ask the NSA.

from "Oh Men, Oh Women"

Q: In your wanderings to overhear, did you go out in search of interesting conversations or did they just happen wherever you were? Reading through your Real Life Funnies, I kept wondering what you were doing in all those singles groups and psychics meetings.

A: There were a number of ways I got my words and stories. Wonderful lines did drop into my lap when going for milk. Still, my weekly deadline was always rushing towards me, so I regularly left home to troll for lines in bars, parks and museums, at gatherings of psychics, UFO abductees, and pigeon fanciers, by following political protests, by hanging out with a dominatrix...intrepid boy reporter/voyeur.

In order to hear people speaking naturally, I sometimes needed to be accepted as just another participant--a sincere searcher for my soul mate at the Universalist Church on the Upper West Side, or whomever. And that required a little method acting, including being a very boring searcher for my soul mate. I was there to listen to, and secretly write down, the words of other searchers, not have them be interested in mine.

As time went on, I found I liked cutting an individual from the herd and having a conversation where I didn’t have to write in tiny, crabbed shorthand on the corner of a napkin while pretending I wasn’t. One subject was an enforcer (knee breaker), a very effective bad debt collector, who was also an elegant calligrapher and guest lecturer on calligraphy at the New School.

There was another way I picked up dialogue, and I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else. I did a weekly documentary comic strip for Adweek magazine. It was called Out-Takes and was an inside look at the secretive and mad New York advertising scene. I hung out with art directors, copywriters, and photographers, and their creative angst also made its way into my Voice strip.

I came to trust that it took a New Yorker to express feelings that the rest of the country had but usually couldn’t articulate.

from "Cocktails at the Ramrod"

Q: Now you're doing comics on American history. How did that switch happen--from contemporary New York to the country's deep past?

My Real Life Funnies comic strip started as collections of snippets of real-life dialogue, which I usually gathered by overhearing self-involved boomers at work and play. Gradually, I began to organize the many voices into stories with beginnings, middles, and endings.

Looking back, I can see that I kept trying to dig deeper into people's lives. My stories were finally growing too long and complex for the size of the comic strip. I wonder if I was somehow anticipating today’s graphic novel boom and the willingness of readers to tackle serious comics.

Among my lengthier strips were those covering the protests in the East Village. Those stories would lead to my first book. An editor who lived on St. Mark’s asked if I’d be interested in doing a book related to the Tompkins Square Park riots. Out of that conversation came my comics history of the American Revolution--using a sort of Real Life Funnies "street" approach. Great fun giving George Washington a New York attitude.

When the Village Voice (facing their own shrinking future) dumped a lot of features in 1995, including my comic strip, I began a second book (the Story of the Jews) with the same idea of covering history Real Life Funnies-style. I looked forward to giving God a New York City street voice.

And then, sadly, I got a chance to dig as deeply as I wanted into the lives of two Greenwich Village writers/artists. My partner, Janet, a great character and wise-ass (who’d appeared many times in my strip), was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. I became her caregiver. The voices of the street became muted, the voices of the two trapped people were magnified. We coped with the indignities of every day New York City life when one is ill. (Like the ambulette driver on speed who took us on a circuitous ride through pothole-filled streets to get to Beth Israel with the wheelchair-bound patient painfully bouncing around in back.) After Janet died, I wrote a memoir about it all, with lots of my drawings. That book was Janet & Me. One more New York City story.

From "Janet and Me"

Q: Did you find yourself missing those voices of the street during that time of struggle and loss? And do you think you'll go back to hearing them again, to putting the city's voice onto paper, or is that chapter over?

A: Over the past few days I’ve gone on long walks through the East Village and the Upper West Side and Central Park. For me, every few blocks of the city or areas of the parks are filled with voices from my strips. (Covering the city for 20 years will do that.)

I think of a strip I did at the Village Vanguard in 1995, which was the 50th anniversary of that famous space. I sat in the empty room with Lorraine Gordon, the owner and guiding force, as she reminisced about all the brilliant musicians who’d played there. For her and for the many Vanguard fans, those long-ago sounds are still present. But so are the artists of today. The Vanguard is as alive as ever.

And of course, New York is as well. Today when I walk the city, I’m surrounded by all those funny, poignant, pithy words from my old strips. Maybe because I’ve moved on to other kinds of projects, today's voices seem duller or more faint by comparison (not to mention how many of them are in languages I don’t understand). But maybe they really aren’t. Maybe they’re just as lively, but different. I know there are plenty of young, talented artists around, I’ll leave it to them do the collecting.

from "The Village Vanguard"

Visit Stan Mack's website to read and buy Real Life Funnies and more

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Flowers by Philip

In Bloomberg's New York, even the businesses that cater to the rich are being given the boot.

Reader Dan let us know about Flowers by Philip. After 45 years at 1141 Madison Avenue, plus another decade in business overall, the second-generation florist has lost their lease.

Luckily, they found a new spot over on Lexington.

As the Times reported in 2009, even luxury stores can't afford the sky-high rents of Madison Avenue. It's the same story that's happening everywhere--small, old businesses are being kicked out to make room for more and more global chain stores.

Flowers by Philip is real Upper East Side--old and posh. Says the website: "Flowers by Philip is owned and operated by Philip Mercedes continuing a family tradition begun by his own father and the founding of the shop 52 years ago. Flowers by Philip combines the elegance and style of Madison Avenue with the customer service and friendliness of your trusted neighborhood florist."

Designer Paul Martinez, once a poor kid from East Harlem, has worked at Flowers by Philip since 1992. He told the Times in 2010: "This is a family shop, second generation. Jackie Onassis was our client, although I always knew her as Mrs. Kennedy. She liked simple arrangements. Her favorite was lily of the valley; when she passed away, that was what we put on her casket... When Irving Berlin died, we did a casket blanket of white gardenias."

But what was good enough for Jackie O. and Irving Berlin, just isn't good enough for the new New York. It's not Ralph Lauren. It's not Juicy Couture. It's not Abercrombie & Fitch.