Thursday, October 31, 2013

Save Yourselves

A reader writes in with these photos from outside City Hall. A "rich woman" was carrying an anti-Bill de Blasio sign and arguing with passersby.

Get ready for "crime, muggings, rapes, murder," she insists. "Save yourselves, protect your children."

According to the reader, "She was saying that she worked hard for her money, and that de Blasio is now going to take away her wealth so it can be distributed to those who don't work or are lazy. Then the argument was interrupted when a couple of tourists asked where the World Trade Center is. Amazingly, both parties lowered their voices and were helpful to point it out to them."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Jack Bistro


Jack Bistro has been at University and 11th for 8 years. Not a long time, really, but people like the place because it's unpretentious and affordable ($10 lunch with soft drink). And now it's closing.

The goodbye sign states the reason for the closure: "the financial obstacles in operating a reasonably priced neighborhood restaurant have ultimately become too great for us to overcome."

A regular from the neighborhood got more specific. She told me, "The landlord is renting the space to a bank for $50,000 a month. Jack offered $30,000, but the landlord wanted more."

Now the body hair waxing salon that replaced the Cedar Tavern next door will have an appropriate new neighbor, just as useless and vacuous, like the entire city is becoming. I hope they enjoy each other's company.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Vercesi Hardware


Reports the pcvstBee, "After more than 100 years in business at the same address, Vercesi Hardware is closing at 152 East 23rd Street between Lexington and Third avenues. The building has been sold and is slated for demolition."

According to Flatiron BID, the shop began as a sheet music store in 1912, opened "by an enterprising teenager from Italy by the name of Paul Vercesi. Later, the young man added film development and a new-fangled invention called radio. At some point, hardware became part of the mix. Eventually, the sheet music and radio tubes and film all but vanished, but the hardware hung on."

"Don't Trust Your Films to a Butcher" (1936, NYPL)

In recent years, Vercesi became 23rd Street Hardware, with nothing more than a change of the name on the sign. I've always liked the look of it, signs piled high, the windows full of stuff--not much different, really, than it was decades ago.

One neighbor summed up the too-familiar situation to the pcvstBee: "Today, if it's old, it's got to go. And for and coffee shops?"

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ohlinger's Movie Material Store


Years ago, New York City had many stores that catered to avid collectors of movie memorabilia. The most legendary were Cinemabilia, where Fran├žois Truffaut shopped when he came to town, Mark Ricci’s Memory Shop, and Irving Klaw’s Movie Star News, famous for its bondage shots of Bettie Page. Today, there’s only one store left in the city that specializes in movie photos, and it’s not going to be here much longer.

Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store has been in business since 1978. It started on West Third Street, moved to West Fourteenth, and eventually ended up on West Thirty-fifth, in the Garment District. With the Internet stealing customers, business isn’t what it used to be, and the nine-thousand-dollar-a-month rent is more than movie photos can pay. Jerry will be closing his shop and selling just online in the next three to six months.

This is unfortunate, because a computer screen will never provide the physical, sensory experience you get when you step into Ohlinger’s...

Click here to read the rest of this story at the New Yorker's Culture Desk.

A few more photos, before it's gone come 2014:

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Heather Quinlan, the award-winning filmmaker who gave us "If These Knishes Could Talk," offers her latest film, Spoke: A Short Film About Bikes, exploring New Yorkers' feelings about bike lanes and the Citibank-sponsored bike share program.

The city’s been inundated with two-wheeled maniacs," says a garbage truck driver. "They’re a cross between a vehicle and a pedestrian, so they think, ‘Okay, I can use the infrastructure that’s designed for vehicles, but I don’t have to obey the rules for vehicles, I’m a pedestrian on wheels.’” Meanwhile, a Citibiker enjoys the freedom of riding and tolerates the corporate branding, saying, “I’m riding around on a giant advertisement. What can you do? They won. They won completely. You gotta live with yourself and measure the benefits against the drawbacks, and this has been a benefit.”

SPOKE - A Short Film About Bikes from Heather Quinlan on Vimeo.

For Quinlan, the bike issue is not black or white. She told me, "I don't hate everything about bikes, I don't love everything about them. And that's what I wanted to get across in the film."

I asked her what she thought about the way bicycling in the city has become such a contentious and divisive issue, whipping people into a froth on both sides of the argument.

She said, "Denis Hamill wrote an article about hating the bike lanes, and got raked over the coals by people who misunderstood and thought he was anti-bike. He wasn't anti-bike. But people get so caught up their own opinions that they can't see any other sides. I actually tried to get an interview with Paul Steely White, who's the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, but once he heard there were people in the film who didn't like various aspects of the bikes, like the bike lanes or CitiBikes, he didn't want to do the interview. He kicked me out. I also made several inquiries to get an interview with Janette Sadik-Khan or someone from the DOT, but no one got back to me.

It's definitely a cultural thing. I met a man from Holland who said bike riding is so ingrained in Dutch culture that there's no Us vs. Them aspect to it, like there is here. But here it's relatively new, and especially in New York it gets tied in with yoga, artisanal mayonnaise, and all those other aspects to the new New York. And that does a disservice to those who just want to ride a bike instead of take a smelly subway. Like I said, very few things are black and white."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

D'Auito's Bakery


After nearly 80 years in business, the home of Baby Watson cheesecakes, D'Auito's bakery has closed. Lost City had the news this summer, but we'd also heard it was closed for renovations and would reopen. It hasn't.

When the building went up for sale a couple years ago, it looked like the end. But it kept going, sold to a man named Patel. He told Capital New York at the time, “We wanted the building for its location. New York is growing. Things are moving to 8th Avenue. The Post Office is going to turn into Amtrak, and 6th and 7th Avenues are already packed, so where do you think everyone will go, yeah?”

Patel promised the long-time owner he would keep the business in place, even though “I’d never heard of Baby Watson before." He hoped to make it a family business with his son.

I took these photos last October when rumors were swirling of the bakery's demise. The Halloween and fall decorations could trick you into thinking they're current, but they're not.

I'm not one for cheesecake, but I liked going in for cookies after getting off the train at Penn Station, or if I was just walking by.

And I liked the cluttered beauty of the bakery's facade--the neon signs, the faded photo of the naked baby, the odd angles, and multiple typefaces. It was an interesting place for the eyes to land.

Whatever comes next is unlikely to be so.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Meatpacking Prostitutes

Before the Meatpacking District was a glitzy and hollow shopping mall, it was the stroll for countless transgender sex workers. Invisible to many, eradicated fast, those girls can now be seen in the work of two photographers recently come to light.

Jeff Cowen has a collection of five prints in the New York Historical Society's library, taken in the 1980s, showing the working life of the Meatpacking District's sex workers. For more, there is West Side Rendezvous, a book of photos by Katsu Naito, all portraits of the sex workers taken in the early 1990s.

photo: Jeff Cowen

Both artists' photographs show a lost world, desolate streets at the psychic edge of the city, where no one went unless they were looking for something a little bit dangerous. That began to change in the early 1990s. The gay sex clubs had been shut down during the peak of AIDS hysteria, the meatpacking plants were closing, and artists were moving in. No one seemed troubled by the sex workers--some residents felt protected by them--until the tide turned.

In 1992, Hogs & Heifers came to the neighborhood. The faux redneck biker bar immediately attracted celebrities like Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow. Relations between Hogs and the local working girls were not so hot. When two of the bar’s regular guys were beat up and cut by a group of transgender sex workers, reportedly after they called the girls “niggers” and threw a bottle at them, Hogs owner Alan Dell told New York magazine, “I pioneered this fucking spot. There was nothing here before me… It’s a war zone. There’s nothing I’d like more than for the police to deputize me.” Dell explained how he liked to aim a spotlight on the sex workers from his Bronco, saying, “You flash anything on them and they run like cockroaches.” 

The trans girls were afraid to go by Hogs at night. Said one, “They threaten us all the time... It used to be safe for us to come down here and make a living—now we’re losing business.”

photo: Jeff Cowen

By the summer of 2000, the Meatpacking District was just getting fashionable enough that Sex & the City's Samantha moved in. Immediately, she began fighting with the transgender prostitutes noisily throwing shade and kiki-ing outside her windows. Of course, the working girls had been there first, but like many entitled newcomers to gentrifying neighborhoods, Samantha wanted the old-schoolers out.

Over a breakfast of egg-white omelettes, she complained to her cackling friends, “I am paying a fortune to live in a neighborhood that’s trendy by day and tranny by night!” The ugly jokes ensued, the usual “half man, half woman,” “chicks with dicks” commentary.

By the end of the episode, however, Samantha was throwing a rooftop party for the working girls, with Carrie serving a pitcher of “Flirtinis,” and everything was going to be just fine—for Samantha and her pals, anyway.

Just as it did on Bleecker Street, the TV show helped bring a flood of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes to the area, bobble-headed young women tottering over the cobblestones in their Manolos and Jimmy Choos, slipping in the blood and fat. The transgender sex workers were quickly pushed out--by NYPD harassment--and the real-life Samanthas got a good night's sleep.

photo: Katsu Naito

Where did they go, all those working girls? Some no doubt were murdered, as marginalized transwomen too often are. Others found other strolls, in more dangerous neighborhoods. And some, I'm sure, quit the work. It's impossible to say. All we really know is that they're not a part of the High Line views.

Also see:
Meatpacking Before & After
Meatpacking 1985
Meatpacking 1980s
Life in the Triangle

Monday, October 21, 2013

At the Stage

The building that houses the Stage Restaurant has been sold, reported EV Grieve, supposedly to a bunch of "young guys" who were talking about clearing out the business.

The Stage still has 6 years on its lease, but we know how that goes, especially when "young guys" are in the picture. 

So I went for lunch to soak up the atmosphere while it lasts. Locals, regulars, working men in hard hats, people speaking Polish. And then a couple of young guys walked in.

They weren't the young guys. They looked like NYU kids. They took a seat, ordered borscht and "holy bread." They meant challah, but I guess they didn't know the name or how to say it. And then they started talking.

First, I've noticed that young people in New York today talk about two things, generally: (1) Work: usually something about "marketing" and/or "advertising," about which they're very, very excited, and (2) Technology: often involving Apple products. Overhearing them talk to each other in a restaurant often sounds like this, "Marketing, marketing, iPhone, marketing, iPad, advertising, marketing, iPhone." It's painfully boring. I wish they'd read a book or see a movie or talk about anything that might indicate they have minds of their own and aren't, in reality, robots.

Anyway, these two young guys are eating their borscht with "holy bread" and talking with great excitement and conviction about both marketing and technology. Here's what they had to say:

Young Guy 1: "It's convenient. Even more convenient than going to the actual bookstore."

Young Guy 2: "In New York you can find pretty much everything locally, but there's a lot more value in going online to find it."

Young Guy 1: "It's a better experience, and that's why it holds up. Now we're figuring out how to build in single user utility."

What is it with young guys? Why don't they value the city as it exists?

To them and the ones who just bought the Stage's building: Leave New York alone. Leave the Stage alone. And for chrissakes, learn how to say challah.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sigfrido's Barber Shop

I recently went to Sigfrido's Barber Shop for the first time.

It's on First Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Streets. It's been here for 50 or 60 years and it's not vanishing any time soon.

If you go, be sure to get the full treatment. The hot towel, the warm shaving foam, osage oil, and an old Italian man's hands on your face and head.

I guarantee, you'll walk out feeling cool, clean, and good with the world.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Billy's Topless

When photographer Tony Stamolis wrote in to say he read my post on Billy's Topless and recalled renting the place out for a photo shoot just a week before it closed, I asked him to please send the photos. Billy's closed in 2001 and images of the interior are hard to find.

Tony was kind enough to share these shots (the women here are friends of Tony's, not actual dancers).

all photos by Tony Stamolis

He writes, "They were taken as part of a project that was hung in the windows of Fun Box Times Square, an art/performance space on 42nd Street. That building was torn down soon after. Having spent most of my time (living and working) in that area in the early 90s, the focus was, obviously, on the Disney-fication of Times Square. It was titled "Quality of Life?" and had fake money covering the floors of the windows."

Tony's photos show the crummy little stage that the dancers used, with its undulating three-part shape. The greasy mirror, the dropped ceiling. Somewhere to the left, out of sight, is a hot dog and mac-n-cheese buffet served from trays warmed over Sterno.

We also get a good look at the bar, with its ratty stools and weathered wood. Giuliani's "Quality of Life" campaign shut Billy's down. Now it's all gone to bagels and smoothies. But it was a good old place.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Music Row

It's been awhile since I took a walk on Music Row, that block of West 48th Street once known for its many shops full of instruments, sheet music, and men (mostly) who knew how to build and repair.

A year ago, the Post reported that, after 50 years here, and ever expanding, Sam Ash would be leaving the block and moving to 34th Street. This meant leaving several empty storefronts behind. Sam Ash held so much real estate here, including the more recently taken over Manny's Music, their move effectively killed the block.

Walking on Music Row today is like walking through a ghost town. Sam Ash's empty storefronts, once capped with red awnings, are empty, white-painted hollows, each covered by a roll-down gate--and they run for much of the block. It looks like urban blight.

Demolition has begun for an incoming condo building. A Dunkin Donuts is "Now Open" in what had been Rod Baltimore's New York Woodwind & Brass Music shop.



Rod Baltimore had been doing business on the block for about 50 years. In an interview with WNYC just last year he said that "he'll never retire" and "made sure the store on Music Row will outlive him. 'If I do go to the happy hunting ground, so to speak, if I go up to heaven or if I go down, I don't know where I'm going yet, the store goes to the employees, whoever's working at the time,' he said."

I don't know what happened to Mr. Baltimore and his store, why it's now a Dunkin Donuts. Baltimore's website and Facebook page has not been updated in quite some time.

In 2007, I interviewed his son, Jon Baltimore, in the family's original shop on 48th Street. He was forced to close in 2009 and moved nearby to 46th.

So what's left?

There are just two buildings on this block that still contain music shops. There's one slender brick building for Rudy's, and another for Alex Carozza's accordion shop.

Inside Carozza's, you can visit the Accordion Museum, a little showroom filled with beautiful antique accordions. Alex is a nice guy, and he'll tell you about the accordions there, each one an intricate work of art.

Rudy's has been here since 1978, and while I sometimes hear rumors of their closure, no one at the shop has ever confirmed it.

Music lover Jarrod Lynn is hoping to landmark the block. He started a Facebook page for it and tells me, "It's one of those New York places that I was sure was sacred. The thought of it being destroyed is almost totally incomprehensible to me."

But destruction is the block's most likely future. New York really needs more luxury condos and chain stores.

Also read:
Talking with Jon Baltimore
Closure of Manny's
Strip Street

Monday, October 14, 2013

Elk Hotel for Rent

When I went inside the closed Elk Hotel last year, I was told that the place had been sold in a purchase that nearly completed the acquisition of an entire block of tenements along 9th Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets.

Now the Real Deal reports that the Elk and its neighboring parcels have been put on the market "with brokers expecting offers of about $2 million per year in triple net rent." Said the broker, “The highest and best use is multi-floor retail. It would be a great branding opportunity with high visibility on 42nd Street."

(It would also require a gutting that would curl toes.)

The Elk is closed and vacant, but there are several other businesses still here, all included in the parcels up for rent.

When last I checked, there was a 99-cent pizza place, a Papaya Dog, a barber shop, and the dive bar (with free nuts) Dave's Tavern, along with a few others.

It's a regular New York corner, a bunch of cheap joints, nothing fancy. But with the glassy Orion tower behind it, and the new luxury hotel to come across the street, regular New York will get the boot.

Inside the Elk
Elk Pepsi Sign
Elk Hotel

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Joe Brainard on Film

Filmmaker Matt Wolf has made a sweet short documentary about the New York School artist and writer Joe Brainard. Up until yesterday, you could have watched the whole film for free at Vdrome, but I screwed up the dates (sorry), so now you can watch the trailer and buy the film at Matt's site.

The film features 1950s Americana footage, including scenes from sex education films about Syphilis, played while Brainard reads from the lovely "I Remember." In between, poet Ron Padgett reminisces about their close friendship, from their school days back in Tulsa to Joe's death from AIDS in New York.

I asked Matt a few questions about the film.

You said the vanishing of New York tapped into your desire to make a film like this--how so?

Sarah Schulman's book Gentrification of the Mind really shook me. It helped me understand the connection between AIDS and the transformation of New York. It also helped me better understand the kind of artist's life that is no longer possible in New York today. Joe is part of a generation of artists who died prematurely from AIDS, and I worry his and others' legacies might be lost if they're not celebrated. I made this film because I love Joe's work, but also because I don't want it to be forgotten.

Schulman's analysis of how AIDS contributed to gentrification is very important. Reminds me also of Fran Lebowitz in the documentary Public Speaking, when she says, "An audience with a high level of connoisseurship is as important to the culture as artists...and that audience died in five minutes."

I don't know. I'm always amazed when I go to a cultural event in New York that I perceive as marginal, and it's sold out. I imagine that the Joe Brainard fans of the world are highly concentrated in New York. While the life of artists is less and less sustainable here, I think the vitality of its many cultural institutions is enduring.

I've been a big fan of "I Remember" for years, but there seems to be an assault on nostalgia in the current climate. How do New Yorkers, especially, respond to "I Remember" these days?

I think the problem with nostalgia is romanticizing the past as better, or more authentic. But I think there's a lot to be celebrated in the present, in New York and beyond. There's so much value in digging into the past, uncovering hidden histories. Not just hidden cultural histories or biographies, but also the hidden histories within ourselves. That's what Joe is doing in "I Remember." I imagine that people will always find his poem to be refreshingly simple and emotionally direct.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hua Mei Bird Garden

Recently, for the first time, I came upon the Hua Mei Bird Garden in Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side at Chinatown's edge. The garden has been around officially since 1995, but you'll miss it, too, unless you're up and walking in the early morning.

Hanging in trees, from poles, around the chain-link fence, and sitting on the leafy ground, are dozens of beautiful bamboo bird cages, some half shrouded in white cloths, most of them ornately carved, and all containing a songbird.

Many of the birds are small--colorful finches, a few black-capped chickadees--but some are the Hua Mei, a fighting thrush from China for whom the park was named.

Socializing around the cages are the elderly Chinese men who own them. Wrote the Times in 2007, "Most of the men who come to listen to them are retired; the oldest are in their late 80s. Yui Kang, who has been coming to the Hua Mei Bird Garden since the mid-1990s and has been collecting songbirds for more than 50 years, is known as the chief. 'We are old men,' he said the other day. 'We like bringing the birds and drinking the coffee. We feel better.'"

The park was born, informally, in the early 1980s, due to the location of a pet store across the street, reported the Times in 1994, "which sold hua mei and their favorite snack, live crickets." A trip to the park became the birds'--and the men's--daily constitutional.

Stumbling upon the scene is a bit surreal. It reminds you that surprises can still happen in New York City, where so much surprise is vanishing. The birds and their cages are beautiful. I stayed and watched them for awhile. It isn't easy to look at a caged bird. They are constantly in motion, hopping from perch to perch, as if frantically looking for a way back into the sky.

I felt both grateful and sad for their presence there, in those lovely cages, making that incredible music.

Listen here:

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Donut Pub: Post-Cronut

Next year, the Donut Pub on 14th Street turns 50. It shows no signs of closing and has outlived at least two Dunkin Donuts that have parked nearby in failed attempts to steal the Pub's customers. No dice. The customers here are loyal. The waiter knows their orders and gets them ready before they sit down--black coffee, jelly doughnut, coffee with half and half, decaf, sesame bagel with butter, glass of cold milk.

Now, like many places, they have created their own version of the hysteria-inducing cronut--the "Croissant Donut." But there is no hysteria here. No all-night lines, no sidewalk campers, no groupies. The Pub remains the Pub.

On an unseasonably warm afternoon, the Donut Pub is an oasis of cool and quiet. At the marble counter, a woman stirs her iced coffee, making the milk swirl. It feels like a long sigh.

"Get a load of this," says a man reading the paper. "That neighborhood north of Madison Square Park? Now they're calling it NoMad. Like Soho and Tribeca. Okay, but what the hell is fee-dee? Fee-dee? I can't figure that one out."

Someone complains about the temperature. Someone else says, "Hey, did you know, next year this place'll be 50 years old? Don't the doughnuts taste like they're 50 years old?"

It's a wisecrack. The doughnuts are delicious and fresh. Through the kitchen door, the baker pulls trays out of the oven to cool and gathers chocolate doughnuts into long baskets for display. He threads a dozen Honey Dips onto wooden spindles and douses them with a thick, gooey glaze before leaving them to drip.

The wisecracker is "Magic Mike," a retired member of the FDNY who wanders into the Donut Pub to perform card tricks and to sell decks of magic cards to customers. He demonstrates the Disappearing/Reappearing deck, the Svengali, and Chase the Ace. He says, "Hocus pocus, alakazam," and makes a handkerchief disappear into a fake rubber thumb hidden in his fist. He and the Pub's manager give each other the business.

"Hey Mike, who'd you have to blow to get into that Brotherhood of Magicians? I want to know, why'd they let you in?"

On the radio, The Eagles are taking it to the limit. A man who smells fresh from the barber, of Clubman talcum powder, walks in, sits down, and begins to obsessively arrange the nearby napkin and sugar dispensers, to make them neat, to make sure they're just right. Everything has its proper place. The waiter, without exchanging a word, places a cup of coffee and a toasted coconut doughnut in front of the man. All is right with the world.

Not everyone here is happy, however. Like the blonde who totters in on her stiletto heels to loudly ask, "You have coffee?"

"Regular?" says the waiter, grabbing a cup.

"Just regular? You don't have lattes, cappuccino, espresso?" She squints for several seconds at the coffee pots on their hot plates and then points a lacquer-tipped finger at them. "Is that the regular coffee?"

"That's coffee," the waiter says.

"What does 'regular' mean?"

"Milk and sugar."

"Oh," says the blonde, "no, no." She walks out empty-handed. She doesn't even look at the knock-off cronut. But nobody seems to mind.

Donut Pub Wins
The Donut Pub
Peter Pan Donut Shop
Donuts Coffee Shop
Disco Donut