Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gotham Food

Reader Mitch writes in: "News is that the Gotham Deli -- Columbus Ave between 72nd & 73rd Street (East Side of Street) -- will be closing due to a rent hike. The Starbucks located next door will be expanding into the deli's space."

Gotham is just a little deli, a place for sandwiches, but it's been there a long time and people in the neighborhood like the place. Do we really need more of Starbucks?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Preserving Classic New York Award

Thank you to the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts for their Preserving Classic New York Award.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Back in January, DNA reported that Hudson Street's Cowgirl, nee Cowgirl Hall of Fame, "saw its rent increase to nearly $40,000 per month, including real estate taxes, at the same time as business slowed." The manager said there were no plans to close: "Cowgirl is gearing up to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year and isn't hanging up its spurs anytime soon."

More recently, I got the following note from a regular reader:

"There is VERY quiet talk of a possible Cowgirl Hall of Fame closing! I don't know how true the rumor is--but it did come from an informed reliable source! I'm unsure of any date. But I fear sooner than later. I know they have an anniversary coming up. I have a feeling they are going to celebrate and then try to sneak away or announce it and go shortly there after? I'm scared."

So, more rumor? As with all of these uncertain situations, the best plan of action is to go before it's gone. You never know when it will be too late for a last meal.

*Update: Manager Kevin says: "Absolutely untrue. This little nasty tidbit was started due to erroneous information gossiped around the neighborhood. It was a rough winter season, but we are going strong!"

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Willets Vanishing

Photographer Tim Schreier sent in a collection of depressing photographs showing what's become of the Iron Triangle at Willets Point. What had been a bustling community of small business people and their customers is now a dead zone, waiting to be flattened by bulldozers set in motion by Bloomberg.

Tim writes: "I had not been to Willets in a few months and was curious to see how the community of businesses (primarily auto repair and supply businesses) was faring since receiving eviction notices from the city. What I saw was a few businesses hanging on but, for the most part, it was like a ghost town. Willets Point was a thriving, multicultural business community. One could detect not only various languages being spoken but dialects as well. It was a very busy community, businesses thriving individually and collectively.

To the small business owner, it was a place of active trade. A place where they could earn and work. To Citi Field, the city, and other gentrification-driven agendas, it was an eyesore, a neighborhood that could not stand next to Citi Field."

"What stood out most to me was that, on one side of the train tracks, the city was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of The World's Fair Pavilion, and on the other was a clear exercise in plutocracy today. Where Robert Moses stood on eminent domain, The Willets Point Development Project (including Sterling Equities, The Related Companies, and the Queens Development Group) was perfectly aligned.

The only striking difference is that Moses used The World's Fair to develop Corona Park, while at Willets Point businesses are displaced to make way for a 1.4 million square foot shopping mall, a hotel or two, and of course luxury condos overlooking Citi Field (to add insult to injury, over $500 million of public money will be subsidized for the private developers, infrastructure, and land acquisition). In a city where a promise of opportunity is steeped in its history, this is yet another in a growing list of examples of how opportunity is reserved for the wealthy and not for the working poor."

The Fight for Willets Point
The Iron Triangle
Bono Sawdust

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


After approximately 20 years in the East Village, on Third and 10th, the Biomed pharmacy is closing. The rent is too high, according to the cashier (who has a large family to support and is seeking work, if you know of something).

Pretty much everything is 50% off until it's gone.

Biomed was one of a dying breed of surgical supply shops, the place to go if you needed a bedpan or a sling or some rubber catheter tubing, a knee brace, a sitz bath, crutches, or a wheelchair.

They still have an impressive selection of podiatry products, including bunion regulators and hammer toe cushions. 

I always enjoyed walking past their "Ben & Jerry's" "Bed Bug Spray" signs in the window, a coupling that never failed to amuse. Sometimes I'd go in to buy regular stuff--Tums, Advil, a bottle of soda--and marvel at the vast and somewhat horrifying array of wounds and woes one could treat from their copious shelves.

I also liked to think about what used to be in this spot--the wondrous Sig Klein's Fat Men's Shop. (Seriously, you'll want to read all about it here.)

As for what's to come, the cashier thinks: a chain, a restaurant, or a bar--they're the only ones that can afford the rent.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Millinery Center Synagogue

Outside of the Millinery Center Synagogue, on 6th Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets, Cantor Tuvia Yamnik stands by a table from which he sells sets of bedsheets, occasionally calling out, "100% Egyptian cotton!"

This unusual practice has been going on since 1998.

Just walking by, I stopped to talk to the cantor, a warm and friendly man. He explained that the synagogue was recently damaged by a flood--not a Biblical flood, but a busted plumbing pipe--and that they're trying to raise money for the repairs.

I made a donation and went inside to look. The floor boards were buckled, the holy books covered in mold and stacked in piles. The place needs help.

The synagogue dates back to 1934 when it was founded by hat makers in what had been a thriving Garment District. The congregration began by gathering in a loft building, then moved to the synagogue when it was completed in 1948. Daytonian in Manhattan recalls, "Here such groups as the Millinery Bowling League, the Millinery Salesman Union, the Millinery Textile Club and retailers convened."

(As an aside, the Millinery Bowling League began forming around 1904 when the Millinery Trade Review put out a call for bowlers in the hat business to come together for friendly competition in the healthful and pleasant pastime:

Did the bowling milliners wear bowler hats when they bowled? But I digress.)

On the walls of the synagogue are large plates covered with the names of deceased congregation members, those old hat folks. The whole place feels like something out of time, another place, another century.

If you have the chance, or if you happen by, stop and say hello. Make a donation or buy a new set of sheets.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Talking About Gentrification

Recently, I engaged in an email conversation about gentrification with John Joe Schlichtman, formerly of Brooklyn, currently professor in Chicago's DePaul University Department of Sociology, and co-author with Jason Patch of “Gentrifier? Who, Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror." In the article, which prompted me to reach out to Schlichtman, the authors exhort critics of gentrification to examine their own relationship to the process. They are working on a book, tackling this topic, to be published with University of Toronto Press.

JM: Let's start with your paper. What do you see as hypocritical about urbanists critiquing gentrification? Or is hypocritical the right word?

JJS: I see nothing hypocritical about urbanists critiquing gentrification. This was a misreading of my article with Jason Patch, “Gentrifier? Who, Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror,” that gained momentum through the Atlantic Cities piece about our article. Emily Badger’s article was not inaccurate, it was just incomplete, as any brief coverage of our work would be.

The closer one gets to street-level activism, the more you see community leaders who are not exactly seething about gentrification. In fact, in a whole lot of neighborhoods there are left-leaning leaders who would laugh you out of the room at the suggestion that their neighborhood getting a Trader Joes or a Whole Foods would be an injustice. They are not short sighted. They are simply in a very pressing reality.

Jason and I feel that the dialogue about gentrification in academia and beyond has grown hypocritical because it does not acknowledge some critical realities. It seemed to us that the most obvious place to start to address this disconnect was to consider the ways in which those critiquing gentrification are situated in the process.

JM: When I hear that, about community leaders not seething about Whole Foods, etc., I think that they're not quite in reality. Because in reality those businesses help to create and/or intensify gentrification--or what I call hyper-gentrification, or Neil Smith's "gentrification generalized." And that means goodbye to the existing community. I'm thinking of the Whole Foods in Gowanus and the $4 million in support they got from the city to spur more gentrification there, which is happening at a breakneck pace since the grocery chain's opening.

JJS: Let me be clear: I get the injustice. Whole Foods is happily being used as a tool for state-led gentrification. This is true and this is a gross injustice.

Gentrification is already underway in Gowanus. I am talking about all of the areas in the world where no reinvestment is happening. There is a neighborhood in Chicago where an important activist, if I recall correctly, wondered “why can’t we get a grocery store like a Whole Foods? Why are healthy foods relegated to one side of town?” Then the announcement comes that they are. Now, of course, when the realities hit, the issue becomes much more nuanced. This same activist wonders: "Wait a second, why is Whole Foods coming?"

But what is the alternative response in this moment in 2014 when the global overthrow of capitalism is not exactly imminent? What is the socially just, progressive action for city leaders to take? "No, your neighborhood can’t get a Whole Foods. Actually, what is best is for you is to get a grocery store that has old produce from places that allow it to be shellacked with chemicals: that way, hipsters won’t eat it"?

(Just for context, this is coming from somebody who has never understood Whole Foods and does not shop there, so I may be missing something here. I am hardly a connoisseur, as anyone who knows me would attest.)

JM: I was at a gentrification conference in the Bronx, and a local woman said, "We want fresh vegetables at the corner grocer." Of course, who doesn't want access to better things? But what happens is that we get into a false dichotomy: It's Whole Foods or rotten vegetables. It's hyper-gentrification or total chaos and crime. And this woman was trying to get to the middle place, which is where I think we all need to be. How do we help our local businesses better provide to the community and not get displaced by corporate giants? First we have to stop believing in the false dichotomy.

JJS: This “false dichotomy” thing is something that I hear about every day. It has become a cliché. No, the choice does not have to be between gentrification and segregation. And yes, small business creation and development should be the goal of any thinking mayor. Small businesses in disinvested neighborhoods are even more important to protect. So, of course there should be a mobilization to bring fresh vegetables.

But what is going to happen if the bodega gets the fresh vegetables? Middle class people nearby are going to go there because people like good food (and because food quality is becoming a bit of a craze) and--maybe in a few years--Whole Foods will take an interest in the neighborhood. The activists are going to get angry and say "Why do these white folks," because race is what is noticed, not class position, "always have to spoil a good thing?"

So the issue is that we are coming out of a period of middle-class urban disinvestment and entering into a period of middle-class urban reinvestment in which you and I play a part. This is the underlying hairy macro-level issue that is changing the game.

Then what are we talking about? How do we rein this in? Do we implement some type of government control in the neighborhood to monitor who comes in and out, and attempt to control middle-class movement? (Really? Are we to wait for a government that is going to justly administrate that?)

JM: Since gentrification is inevitable in a city where this reinvestment is happening, it seems like a good place for the Good Gentrifier vs. Bad Gentrifier question. Is there such a thing as a good and a bad gentrifier? Or, more accurately, a way to be a good or bad gentrifier?

JJS: This reminds me of Dannette Lambert’s recent article “20 Ways Not to Be a Gentrifier.” While Lambert’s article was very productive in some important ways, it also typifies what I see as a problematic point of view that seems to be gaining momentum.

In a piece I wrote called “Gentrifiers Against Gentrification: ‘Confessions of a Harlem Gentrifier’” about Jordan Teicher’s article in Salon, I likened some gentrifiers to what Patricia J. Williams described as tourists on a “safari” and, as Langston Hughes wrote in 1940, the “fascinated” white patrons of black nightclubs who observe the regulars as if they were “amusing animals in a zoo.” To me, such gentrifiers are actually more problematic than those minding their "privileged" business.

The most problematic element in Lambert’s piece is that it suggests that “it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier; it’s what you do once you get there.” It allows residential decision-makers to exonerate themselves from being a gentrifier by transforming gentrification into a mindset rather than identifying it as a structural problem. If you have the right intention, the thinking goes, you are not even a factor in this huge structural issue.

I respect Dannette Lambert as a person from what I have learned from Googling her; this critique is not at all about her. However, this way of thinking has--I can’t even say a veneer--a foundation of paternalism. All of this tiptoeing (as with Teicher) presumes and reinforces a tremendous amount of power in neighborhood dynamics. "These people are vulnerable: tread lightly." I get into all of this a bit more in my blog post “The Tiptoeing Gentrifier.”

JM: While I see the problems in that essay, I don't see the problem with “it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier; it’s what you do once you get there.” What we do when we get there is important. For example, what I see newcomers do as they get to my neighborhood, the East Village, is to criticize local businesses and celebrate the chain stores and upscale ("hipster"/"yuppie") businesses. They do this via social media and their wallets. 

I know we differ on this point, but I see intention as powerful. Is the newcomer's intention to assimilate to the existing neighborhood, or to force the existing neighborhood to assimilate to her? Again, there's probably a middle ground there.

JJS: I don’t think we differ in terms of intention. I believe intention is very important. The thing is that the problematic elements and the non-problematic elements are quite often conflated so that "good intentions" render one free to go on his way.

You see people coming in and “criticiz[ing] local businesses and celebrat[ing] the chain stores and upscale ('hipster'/'yuppie') businesses” and that bothers you because you remember a day when the neighborhood was better. The new is foreign to you. But at least part of this nothing new? It is part of change and the resulting sentiment of nostalgia in the city.

Your "better" old Village, according to a previous blog post, was “punk, queer, creative, [and] crazy.” Were old-school Village bohemians more legitimate than hipsters? Says who? Would the displaced Nuyoricans and Boricuas agree with this thinking? I know this argument has become cliché (e.g., "why don’t we just give Harlem back to the Dutch") and I don’t want to fall into this trap, but where does this stop?

JM: It always gets tricky and touchy when we talk about what "people" are doing--meaning the newcomers who are moving into neighborhoods. If we talk about processes, government, corporations, that's safe. Those are de-personalized bogeymen. But if we start looking at what "white" people, or "rich" people, or "newcomers" are doing, we get in trouble (let me say here that I often get in trouble) because people identify with these and other descriptors. But many people are having an impact, often a negative one.

This goes to my idea about increased narcissism and sociopathy among many of the newcomers to the city. Many New Yorkers experience this marked personality difference in newcomers of the 2000s, and that isn't just about newness or unfamiliarity. (For the record, I don't have a big issue with hipsters. It's the hyper-mainstream suburbanites that gall me.)

I often wonder how do we talk about that without triggering knee-jerk defensiveness? And I think this is much the point of your paper--gentrifier, look in the mirror--yes?

JJS: I think we avoid knee-jerk defensiveness precisely by acknowledging how much bigger gentrification is than any one person, neighborhood, or city.

But also, any “narcissism and sociopathy” that we are witnessing is a macro-level change. It is not particular to New York. What is particular to New York is the rate of change because New York is so central in global flows of money, people, ideas, products, etc. "Gentrification" is not defined as a system of “narcissism and sociopathy” and a "gentrifier" is not defined as one who is “narcissistic and sociopathic.” If this is the case, there is not a problem in anyone’s mind because who would see herself in this light?

Let’s consider policy reactions. There are two implicit responses to these “narcissistic and sociopathic” newcomers. One, you give the newcomers some easy steps to start acting right (e.g. Dannette Lambert’s piece) so that the cultural tension or “violence” is less acute. Or, two, you tell them to go back to where they came from. But nine times out of ten, the criticizer would have a problem with, let’s say, a suburban newcomer going back to where they came from too because that --the old order--is spatial segregation. That was the original problem. To which the answer is, presumably, some type of spatial integration, which is messy.

These aren’t new problems. The old gentrification or the old displacement wasn’t "the right way" to go about this. The fact that some thinkers are now looking back at old gentrification as the "good old days" is an indication of the power of nostalgia. The contexts are completely different: economically, culturally, socially, and politically.

JM: I'm thinking this goes back to the gentrification vs. hyper-gentrification issue--and I'd love to hear your thoughts on that. But as it relates to malignant narcissism or sociopathy, I see hyper-gentrification as a sociopathic system, in which corporations and government collude to, as Neil Smith put it, remake neighborhoods for the upper classes. I do think that process is attractive to similarly sociopathic individuals on the ground, so to speak, and they are strongly in favor of turning neighborhoods over to the new and the rich. All you have to do is read the comments on the blog Curbed to see that.

But, putting aside the sticky psychosocial analysis, what are your thoughts on hyper-gentrification? Is this just the same old gentrification we've always had, or something different?

JJS: To be very brief, I would say that:

(a) It is the “same old” gentrification in that the middle class desires to come back to the city;

(b) It is “something different” in that gentrification is now a reliable and codified strategy for corporations and governments; and

(c) Collusion is not part of gentrification, so (a) and (b) can happen without (c).

JM: So you don't see city government and corporations colluding to hyper-gentrify neighborhoods? How so?

JJS: I do, but collusion need not be a part of gentrification. If the concept is to have any meaning, we can’t keeping throwing everything we don’t like into the gentrification pot. This is one of the key premises behind the book I am working on with Jason Patch. We are writing not only to policy-makers and academics, but also the newcomers who I see sharing Lambert’s piece.

JM: Do you see any ways to stop, or at least slow down, the breakneck pace of today's form of gentrification?

JJS: Clearly, as urban inequalities and rents increase, it is vital that units of housing are held "outside" of the full influence of the market through mechanisms such as public housing, community land trusts, community development corporations, and rent control. However, all of these methods can be perversely manipulated without an aware public. The popularity of Lambert’s article suggests that young people are actively thinking about what a just city is, especially when it comes to issues of class, race, and ethnicity. This is important, but where do we go from here?

First, it is imperative to acknowledge the large structural forces making it increasingly unlikely that the programs Lambert highlights in her later points, such as “affordable housing, education funding, re-entry services, [and] job training,” are addressed. In fact, even predominantly middle-class communities are increasingly unable to participate in the development of their neighborhoods without a fight. On this note, I see an emerging potential for alliances here.

Second, as Lambert recognizes, newcomers need to learn and utilize the existing political and organizational mechanisms of their neighborhood. This not only pertains to issues such as “re-entry services” and “job training,” but also the mundane issues that may be more germane to the newcomer’s daily life. One great arrogance of gentrification is a newcomer’s desire to place new political and organizational mechanisms on top of the old; e.g., by starting a non-profit to "help the neighborhood" without any sense of context.

Finally, to take it all home, gentrifiers need to recognize that they are not suddenly outside of gentrification simply because they view themselves as responsible. They are taking part in making a new city, one unlike any we have witnessed. The question, as always, is who will have a seat at the table in the process.

You can follow Professor Schlichtman on Twitter at @JJSchlichtman, and find him on the web at The Urbanist Chronicle.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Luigi's Pizza

As Funkiberry frozen yogurt (yes, another one) prepares to move into the corner spot at Third Avenue and 12th Street, the old sign has been stripped a few times. AAA Amici pizza ("rent-hiked out of there") was removed to reveal Laurence & Paul's Pizza. That, in turn, was just removed to reveal Luigi's 3rd Ave. Pizza.

Reader Sean caught the sign just as it was being destroyed. He sends in these photos and notes that the sign likely dates to the 1970s or 80s. (Does anyone remember Luigi's?)

Sean says, "I pulled an 'A' of the sign out of the trash. Thin aluminum sign front and thin plastic infill. Definitely not that old, but old enough to be cool. I will donate these artifacts to the right person."

Any takers?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Oyster Bar Neon

When the Famous Oyster Bar (of 54th Street since 1959) closed suddenly this past January due to "exorbitant rent prices," and every part of it went up for auction, we thought we'd seen the last of its bright red neon sign.

But the sign has reappeared, all the way down on Delancey Street.

It's now part of the facade on the Grey Lady, a restaurant with a Nantucket theme. Again with the small-town America theming of New York, but anyway, there's the sign, alive and well. So that's something.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

OK Harris & Cigars

Reader Michael writes in to let us know that OK Cigars on West Broadway in Soho is closing the first week of June.

The shop was opened by Ivan Karp, Andy Warhol's art dealer and one of the first gallery owners in Soho. He founded the gallery OK Harris in 1969 and added the cigar shop nearly 30 years later. A frosted glass door reading SMOKE ROOM opens one space onto the other.

"An avid cigar smoker," writes shop employee Gavin Baker in Everything's OK, "Ivan was searching for a smoking room once his gallery forbade the timeless ritual. Brilliantly, he converted the gallery’s supply closet into a cigar shop. In 1997, OK Cigars was born. Shortly after, Ivan partnered with Len Brunson, a blues guitarist and reluctant cigar connoisseur." (It was that or a doughnut shop, Gavin explains on video--Karp was a big fan of the Donut Pub on 14th Street. But cigars made sense, as the building was once home to a tobacco curing plant.)

Karp died in 2012 and the gallery announced that it would be closing on April 19, 2014, after 45 years in business.

Brunson continues to run the cigar shop, a haven for enthusiasts of "peculiar antique tobacciana," and "one of the few mom and pops" left in the increasingly corporatized neighborhood.

And here's a parting 1970 shot of the gallery in what LIFE called the "shabby SoHo area." (With thanks to Justin.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Debating Gentrification

The New York Times' "Room for Debate" asked me to participate in their discussion on gentrification and what can be done about it.

Here's my take--in 300 words (for the longer, more thorough version, check out my post on hyper-gentrification):

The old-school gentrification of the 20th century, while harmful, wasn’t all bad. It made streets safer, created jobs and brought fresh vegetables to the corner store. Today, however, what we talk about when we talk about gentrification is actually a far more destructive process, one that I prefer to call hyper-gentrification.

Unlike gentrification, in which the agents of change were middle-class settlers moving into working-class and poor neighborhoods, in hyper-gentrification the change comes from city government in collaboration with large corporations. Widespread transformation is intentional, massive and swift, resulting in a completely sanitized city filled with brand-name mega-developments built for the luxury class. The poor, working and middle classes are pushed out, along with artists, and the city goes stale. Urban scholar Neil Smith wrote extensively about the phenomenon, calling it “a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods.”

Cultivated by former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, hyper-gentrification in New York was implemented via strategically planned mass rezonings, eminent domain and billions in tax breaks to corporations. This led to the eviction of countless residents and small businesses, destroying the fabric of our streets and putting the city’s soul on life support. To save it, we need politicians, activists and citizens to get tough and retake this city. Let’s drastically reduce tax breaks to corporations and redirect that money to mom-and-pops. Protect the city’s oldest small businesses by providing selective retail rent control, and implement the Small Business Survival Act to create fair rent negotiations. Pass a citywide ordinance to control the spread of chain stores. Strengthen residential rent regulation. Shop local and protest the corporate invasion of neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, too many New Yorkers say, “This is normal. The city always changes.” They’re in denial. This is not normal. It is state-sponsored, corporate-driven and turbo-charged.

The first step to healing is to admit we have a problem.

Rizzoli Boarded Up

On Friday night, reader Robert Bischoff wrote in: "I made a last trip to Rizzoli's 57th Street Bookstore as they closed. A construction crew was waiting outside, and as the last customer left and the staff still inside, they began to erect a wooden storefront enclosure."

He attached these photos:

Protesters had spent the day outside the beloved shop, waving signs that said "Save 57th Street," "Save Rizzoli," and "Shame on LPC." The Landmarks Preservation Committee had twice denied the bookstore and its historic building any protection from the coming demolition.

In one photo, employees wave from the upper window, as if they're being sealed inside the soon-to-be tomb. It does seem a little soon, unrolling the yellow caution tape and putting up the plywood before the corpse is even cold.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rizzoli Inside

Rizzoli Bookstore, after 30 years on 57th Street, will be closing its doors tomorrow, its gorgeous building slated for demolition. There is, however, one last chance, as Landmarks considers an application to preserve its interior.

Here's what will be turned to dust by Vornado and LeFrak if Landmarks says no.

The intricately decorated ceiling is loaded with imagery--birds, cherubs, and goddesses, along with winged monkeys tooting horns while riding on the backs of gryphons. No kidding. Well, they look like flying monkeys.

Here's another description: "An explosion of birds, flowers, shells, chimeras, putti riding hippocamps, and maidens dancing to the accompaniment of lyres and harps."

Rizzoli may not return to this space, but the building is worth preserving, and we can't let the developers win another one. Sign the petition to save this building. And check out Rizzoli's 40%-off moving sale -- it ends tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pearl Paint


A tipster has written in that "Pearl Paint will be closing its Canal Street store soon," according to an employee.

The information has not been confirmed with Pearl; however, Tribeca Citizen also notes this week that the Pearl building is for sale or lease: "the store is a downtown icon, and from the sound of the listing, Pearl isn’t likely to survive a transition. The entire six-level, 11,850-square-foot space is listed on Massey Knakal’s website for sale or rent—or teardown."

A mecca for artists, with six floors of absolutely everything art supply, Pearl began closing stores in 2010. People worried about the Canal Street location, but it soldiered on.

Now, at the same time that artists are being pushed further out of town, it looks like time is up for this important piece of the old creative city.

What might come to replace it? The realtor suggests it's an "Outstanding Condo Conversion Opportunity."

And invites interested tenants to "Join Neighborhood Retailers" like Subway, 7-Eleven, Bank of America, and Starbucks...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Gracie's Corner

Gracie's Corner diner, on First Avenue and 86th Street, is leaving its corner after decades in business.

Employees at the diner say the whole building is coming down, demolished for a new condo development. A sign on the shuttered pizza place next door reads, "Due to recent building events out of our control, we have amicably accepted to leave this location."

A reader writes in with some good news: "Gracie's Diner bought the Viand Diner a block over on 2nd & 86th. It's already renamed Gracie's on 2nd." So, after a shuffle, it's goodbye old Gracie's, goodbye Viand, and hello new Gracie's.

In the end, the city is down one diner and up another luxury condo tower.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Last of the Urban Horsemen

Cornelius “Neil” Byrne leans against the stall of a butterscotch horse named Cowboy and gazes out the second-story window of Central Park Carriages on far West 37th Street. Just a few blocks to the south, a crowd of construction cranes stabs the sky above Hudson Yards. They swing slowly back and forth like giant knitting needles stitching together the new mega-development from scratch.

“I keep looking out at those cranes,” Byrne says. “You don’t have to be a real estate expert to see what’s going on here. So much is going to follow those cranes. Unprecedented growth, they say. I know why Bloomberg called this neighborhood the new Gold Coast. That’s change out there. And it’s change that’s eliminating me.”

If Mayor de Blasio’s plan to ban carriage horses goes through, Byrne and the handful of other stable owners in the city will be forced to close, their century-old buildings demolished, and their horses--about 200 of them--scattered to places no one’s exactly sure about. Behind the ban are the pleas of animal rights activists, who see the urban housing and driving of carriage horses as cruelty. But alongside the outcry, complicating the situation, there’s something more—big real estate money and the unstoppable juggernaut of hyper-gentrification.

Roped into the Hudson Yards scheme due to their proximity to the Jacob Javits Center, properties in this area are being grabbed by the city’s most powerful players. The Chetrit Group, the same developer that took over the Chelsea Hotel, spent $26.5 million on the old buildings next to Central Park Carriages.

Numerous reports, from Michael Gross' initial blog post in 2009, to the New York Times, have revealed that a major force behind the ban is de Blasio campaign supporter and real-estate magnate Steve Nislick, who founded the powerful anti-carriage group NYCLASS. With wealth gained from a chain of parking garages, he is lobbying hard to replace the horses with electric cars--he denies that he wants the stable properties.

I walked through three of the west side stables and saw animals that were fed, cleaned, watered, and shod, with cushioned stalls big enough for turning around and lying down. Open windows on all sides of the stables let in fresh air, and the smell is that bracing, healthy aroma of manure and hay, like a brisk day on the farm. Inside, you feel like you’re in another time and place. It’s quiet here, with no traffic noise, just the soft sound of horses moving about the straw.

This is a native environment for Neil Byrne. Born in the rough heart of Hell’s Kitchen, the son of a Hansom cab driver, Byrne bought the building that houses Central Park Carriages in 1979. Today he owns a fleet of 17 horses and carriages, including his father’s 1902 Hansom, painted Brewster green and filled with memories of its days rolling through the city behind a mare named Sunshine Shannon. Hidden in the cab’s seat cushions, Bryne discovered a cache of artifacts, including a ragged souvenir photo of a long-ago dinner party at the famous Leon and Eddie’s, the faces of the tourists washed away by time.

Byrne holds these fragile ghosts salvaged from his father’s Hansom and says, with a rueful laugh, “This is all my father left me. This cab and a lot of bills.” He remembers a childhood spent in poverty, but without self-pity. “Look, nobody started on the top of the mountain here. We’re all guys who struggled for what we’ve got. That’s why we want to hold on to it. This is torture what they’re doing to us. There’s a lot of sleepless nights. It’s tough. Guys keep asking, ‘What’ll I do if I can’t do this?’ And they don’t come up with an answer. Me? I don’t know what I’ll do. I couldn’t even work at McDonald’s.”

One block north, at West Side Livery on West 38th Street, stable manager Antonino “Tony” Salerno clicks his tongue at a black beauty named Spartacus and the horse plants an oaty kiss on the man’s cheek. Salerno is happy here and the horses appear to be happy with him. They lean out of their open wooden stalls to nuzzle him, and each other, as he walks by.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “We don’t have cruelty here. This type of horse built New York City, working together with the man, building the bridges, the whole city. Now? The horse has an easy job. I can pull the carriage myself! They say they’re gonna rescue the horse? That’s like coming into your house and stealing your kids, saying, ‘We’re rescuing them.’ These horses are my family. They’re gonna take my kids?”

Salerno grew up with horses in his home village in Sicily, where his grandfather drove a carriage. In New York he tried life as a cabinetmaker, but “the mind is in the horse,” so he stopped cabinetmaking and went to work at the livery.

“This stable is like my house,” he says, putting a hand to his heart. “I spent 37 years in this place. If Mr. de Blasio takes my house, what I’m gonna do? I don’t want to drive an electric car. Who wants an electric car? Some tourist is gonna get out of a cab to ride an electric car? I want to stay with the horse. The horse is alive. I know the horse. I take care of him, and he takes care of me. I spend more time with my horse than with my wife.”

There are 36 horses living here, along with one calico cat who dispenses with the mice. Real-estate developers keep badgering the owner, Mrs. Spina, to sell, but she refuses. Salerno says she’s keeping the building in memory of her late husband—and, perhaps, in memory of its long history. On the topmost floor, across a shadowy hay loft filled with golden bales, there’s a room filled with antique harnesses, horse shoes, and carriage lamps, all covered in dust and cobwebs, artifacts from the stable’s century in business, harking back to the days when the streets of New York were filled with horses. To the developers who want this property, and to the activists who want to rid the city of carriage horses, that history belongs in the dust heap of the past.

“They’re all a bunch of liars,” Salerno says, picking up a heavy U-shaped shoe, that old symbol of luck. “Just because they want to build a big building and make lots of money? Physically and mentally, they already started damaging me. When you work and you dream, and they take it away from you, you feel like your whole life was a waste. I feel damaged because I don’t know what’s gonna be my future. My grandchildren were gonna take over, but now? I spent my life with the horse, now what I’m gonna do? I don’t have a future.”

Up on West 52nd Street, far from the Gold Coast of Hudson Yards, the Clinton Park Stables stands already surrounded by encroaching luxury development. As the day begins, the carriage fleet breaks out, rolling like slow-motion chariot racers into the traffic along Eleventh Avenue and branching across side streets to make the 0.9-mile trot to the park. They go past gleaming condos and high-end rentals, including yet another Avalon development, while down the street, the famed Roseland Ballroom readies for its final show, followed by demolition and a new luxury tower.

Stable owner Conor McHugh recalls when the neighborhood was “the wild west,” when the park across the way was filled with crack addicts and the streets were deserted. McHugh supports progress, but says, “We want to be a part of it. We don’t want to be run out of town. We were here when nobody was here.” McHugh got into the business of carriage driving in 1986, soon after his arrival from a small village in County Leitrim, Ireland. The county is still with him, in his green Irish-knit sweater, frayed at the elbows, and in his soft brogue.

“The job of carriage driver,” he says, “is often a starting point for immigrants. Like me. I came from a rural place, and working with horses was something I knew how to do.” The horses helped him and his fellow Irishmen get their bearings in the strange, new city. “When we first came here, we were like wild animals. We knew nothing of the culture, of living in cities. But driving the carriage, it connected you in ways you didn’t realize at the time. It was familiar. Like home.”

With 78 horses and 39 carriages, Clinton Park Stables is the largest carriage stable in town. Originally built to house horses in 1860, it was later used as a cardboard box warehouse, and then turned back into a livery by McHugh. While it harbors remnants of its deep history—like rusted and unused nineteenth-century tie rings from the time when stalls were much smaller--this is a modern facility in many ways.

Each stall has its own water fountain, a bowl with a special spout that the horse can control by pressing with its nose whenever it wants a fresh drink. Ceiling fans are threaded with misting hoses for hot days. And many of the stalls here are larger than regulation requires.

“We feel like the good guys in all this,” says McHugh, “but that’s not how we’re portrayed. Unfortunately, the way to defeat your enemy is to demonize him.”

Stephen Malone and Christina Hansen, drivers and spokespersons for the Horse and Carriage Association, get in on the conversation.

“It’s class warfare,” says Malone, frustration in his voice. “If we were on Polo ponies out in the Hamptons, we’d be great people.”

“But we’re not cocktail party people,” adds Hansen.

Back on West 37th, in the shadow of the Hudson Yards cranes, Neil Byrne stands on the sidewalk, looking up at his building, remembering better days.

“It used to be we were a very welcomed part of New York,” he says. “As a driver, you were a celebrity. Now you’re a goat.” He attributes this change to Steve Nislick and the powerful efforts of NYCLASS. In a 2010 speech to a group of moneyed horse people in Wellington, Florida, a town that the Wall Street Journal has called “Home to billionaires with an equestrian bent” (including Georgina Bloomberg), Nislick referred to the carriage men and women of New York City as “totally random guys” and “bad actors.” It’s a comment that sticks in the craw of every carriage person.

Nislick called us random people,” says Byrne. “You know what random people means? It means a guy you can just push around, not a tough guy who’s gonna fight back, not a guy with political connections. A random guy you just push out of the way. I felt very insulted to be called random. I’m not random.”

Secure in the good treatment he gives to his animals, Byrne says, “I hope on Judgment Day that my judges are my last three horses, smoking big cigars and deciding which way I go. Heaven or Hell. I’m not worried about where they’ll send me.”

He points to the empty buildings next door, wrapped in scaffolding as they wait for the Chetrit Group to demolish them. Byrne figures that Chetrit wants his and Tony Salerno’s horses out of there, so he can acquire both stables and enlarge whatever he plans to build on the site. He also believes that Chetrit’s silent partner in the deal is the King of Morocco, but he can’t be sure. The idea is not so farfetched—Chetrit bought the Sony building last year for over a billion dollars with backing from sovereign Middle Eastern wealth. In the air around Hudson Yards there’s enough global finance to choke a horse. And then some.

Ironically, the cornerstone of the Hudson Yards development is the sky-high Coach tower, home of the luxury brand with a horse and carriage logo. By the time the tower rises, that logo may be the only reminder that this world ever existed.

Byrne turns and gestures toward a dusty path below the nearby overpass, to Amtrak’s Empire Line railroad cut where it runs through a large exposed outcrop of Manhattan schist. He says that’s where a pedestrian walkway will be one day, with all the air rights transferred to neighboring sites for high-rise development, just like the city did with the High Line.

Change is coming in as fast as a freight train, barreling down the tracks for the Number 7 extension.

“When that train comes,” says Byrne, “this neighborhood’s going to be in full bloom. All these people will be coming right through here. And that’s why they want my property. We’re in the way. I don’t want to leave New York. This is my New York, too."

"If things were right, if there was no eminent domain and big money and all that, I’d be in the strongest position. I could relocate. But no. They gotta screw you. Who’s running New York? That’s what I want to know. Is de Blasio running New York, or is it Nislick?

In January 2014, Steve Nislick responded to claims that he is interested in obtaining the real estate on which the stables stand. He stated, "No one at NYCLASS, including me, has any interest in these properties." Read his full statement here.