Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Little House on 18th Street

When La Lunchonette closed on New Year's Eve, forced out of business after the landlord sold the building, I wondered what would replace it -- and what would happen to the little house behind the front tenement along West 18th Street.

Berenice Abbott photographed the house in 1938, along with its equally diminutive neighbor.

via MCNY

Probably dating back to the 1880s, the two structures are hardly changed today. One had clearly been a stable for horses. It still has its arched hayloft window.

The interior of the living space above the restaurant looks like a hayloft, with wooden beams and ceiling. But it won't be here for long.

La Lunchonette's owner Melva Max told me that the little house will be demolished. A new luxury condo is coming. People are excited about it because it's made of wood, it's designed by Shop, the architects who did the Barclays Center, and we're all paying for it, through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

(If you've got some free time, check out what Shop's Vishaan Chakrabarti thinks should be done with the area south of Penn Station. Hint: redevelop the whole neighborhood--those manufacturing zones "have an enormous potential to be part of our new economy in New York City.")

475 West 18th, Shop Architects

Also falling to make room for the new building are the two galleries on 10th Avenue to the north of La Lunchonette.

Three businesses and five good old buildings, all gone for one more luxury condo.

And the High Line Effect just keeps on chopping 'em down.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Ziegfeld


By now you've probably heard the news that the Ziegfeld movie theater will be closing after 46 years.

It is "not a movie palace from the golden-age of movie palaces," as James Barron recently pointed out. But it was modeled on them, upholstered in red velvet with crystal chandeliers and plaster filigree.

It is not the original Ziegfeld, opened in 1927 and demolished in 1966 against public protest. The original was meant for live theater, the Ziegfeld Follies, not movies. When it opened, Will Rogers said, "I hope you never have to put in a movie screen." But it did eventually become a movie house, before it was sold, razed (along with two apartment buildings), and replaced by a skyscraper.

When the current Ziegfeld opened, the owners celebrated its "space-age technology." Ziegfeld's daughter, Patricia, remarked, "Progress seems to do nasty things to tradition, doesn't it?" But, she continued, "tradition has been preserved in this new theater... I'm sure Daddy would have approved of it since everything is so Ziegfeldian."

On Saturday nights, for a short time, formal attire was required by moviegoers.

The Ziegfeld is also not--as many are saying--the last single-screen movie theater in Manhattan. For that, we still have The Paris, which dates back to 1948.

What the Ziegfeld is, more than anything, more than any other, is enormous. The auditorium is vast, with rows of red seats stretching back and up into the horizon. It was a thrill whenever a blockbuster played at the Ziegfeld because that's where you'd want to see it. Big movies need big screens in big auditoriums. And when you went to a movie there, it felt like a special occasion--like an event.

The Ziegfeld has history. Forty-six years is not a century, but it's still a significant vintage. And attached to that forty-six years is the name. Ziegfeld! So New York.

And with vitrines placed throughout the lobby, it also houses the Ziegfeld Museum, a collection of artifacts from the original Follies.

What will happen to the Ziegfeld Museum? To the costumes that once belonged to divas like Lillian Lorraine? And to the programs and photographs from other performers long gone? And the bust of Fanny Brice? What will happen to the bust of Fanny Brice?

Not to mention the weird "STORY OF THIS WOOD" plaque screwed to the wall, informing moviegoers: "Carbon 14-isotope dating shows this wood has been buried in a peat bog near Cambridge, England, since 2120 B.C."

What will happen to all that when the Ziegfeld becomes an upscale corporate event space?

The first movie to play in this theater, back in 1969, was Marooned, a space-age thriller. The last movie will be Star Wars, another story in outer space. What does it all mean?

We hear Thursday may be the last day.

During this weekend's blizzard, New Yorkers lined up to get inside. To say goodbye. They took pictures of the old place. They stroked the velvet walls. They stood in the long, wide aisles of the auditorium and bemoaned the coming destruction. One man looked up at the sky-high ceiling and said, to no one in particular, "Where else can you have an experience like this?"

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Oyster Bar

No, not the one in Grand Central Terminal. The other one, over on 7th Avenue and 54th Street. You might remember it was forced out of business in 2014 after 55 years.

At the time, the restaurant's hostess told me that the new landlord refused to renew their lease. "I think she'll keep it empty," she said. "I think the building is coming down."

She was right.

The Oyster Bar has sat empty ever since--their neon sign moved to Delancey--and now plans have been filed to demolish the building.

New York Yimby reports that a 29-story, mixed-use building is coming to replace the Oyster Bar's building and its little neighbor:

"Retail will occupy the first six floors, filling 38,236 square feet. The seventh floor will be devoted to recreation space, and then the eighth through 19th floors will have three units each. There will be just two units a piece on the top ten floors, followed by a roof deck."

On it goes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Lenox Lounge For Rent

Recently, I took a walk by the once glorious Lenox Lounge. After three years, the building is still sitting empty -- and up for rent.

What happened to all those grand plans to take over this piece of Harlem history?

After 73 years in business, the club served its last drinks on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2012. The landlord had doubled the rent, from $10,000 to $20,000 per month, essentially forcing owner Alvin Reed out of business.

Richie Notar, of luxury restaurant chain Nobu, was taking over the spot. At the time, many suspected this was another--call it a history grab, like the takeover of Rocco Ristorante, Bill's Gay 90s, Minetta Tavern, and countless other historic dining and drinking establishments. Deep-pocketed new owners with mini restaurant empires like to cash in on the cachet that comes with the classics--after they turn them upscale, of course.

Instead of letting the newcomers profit on Harlem history, so infused in the club's aesthetic, Alvin Reed stripped the facade of the Lenox Lounge and took the neon sign with him.

In December 2013 Notar told the Daily News, “This is a gem of New York. I don’t want to change a thing about how it looks,” adding that the new club will be “not too much different than what it is now.”

Did he change his mind after Reed took the good stuff? He told the Daily News in 2015 that "the scope of the project (mostly the overall condition of the building) became bigger than anticipated," leading to delays. He has since moved on to another location.

After the closure, someone spray-painted on the plywood that covered the door: "1939 - 2012: 80 YEARS FOR THIS," pointing out the terrible loss. The message has since been painted over in black paint, but the accusation still lingers.

A local small business owner lost his business and Harlem lost a piece of its history so a landlord could double his money and a luxury restaurateur could expand his empire. And now? The Lenox Lounge is just another gutted storefront, another example of hyper-gentrification's "high-rent blight."

Walker Malloy has the real estate listing -- the landlord is now asking $40,000 per month for the lounge and its vacant neighbor.

Meanwhile, across the street, a massive new building is going up, with a Burlington Coat Factory and a Whole Foods inside.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Starting Line


Adding to the ever dwindling number of gay businesses on Chelsea's 8th Avenue, The Starting Line will be closing.

They've been in business here for about 26 years, according to tipster TJ. Currently, they're having a 30% off everything sale, and will likely be gone in about a month.

photo: NY Mag

Previously vanished along 8th Ave:
Rainbows & Triangles
The Unicorn
The Rawhide

Monday, January 11, 2016

Tammany Hall Empties Out

Last spring, Curbed reported that the Tammany Hall building on Union Square East will be topped by a large glass dome as part of a major renovation.

As you can see from the before-and-after renderings, all the small businesses currently on the first floor have been removed from the future vision.

That removal is happening.

I went by the find the owners of the magazine and smoke shop closing their gates for good.

Frank's Wines & Liquors is draped with a large CLOSING SALE! sign. Inside, I was told that "the landlord is redoing everything." They've been there at least 40 years and don't expect to be reopening.

The Trevi Deli on the corner is already gone.

Around the corner on 17th Street, the building housed two cultural institutions, the New York Film Academy and the Union Square Theater.

The Film Academy has now moved down to Bowling Green. They'd been in the Tammany building since 1994.

The Union Square Theater has also closed. Its long-running show, 39 Steps, had its last performance earlier this month.

I poked around inside to find the place a wreck. According to DNA, the theater will be gutted and "replaced with retail and offices."

It's been hosting shows since at least 1985.

What sort of businesses do you think will replace these small businesses and cultural institutions? Well, almost every single thing around Union Square Park is a national shopping mall chain. (Here's a list.) Those that aren't, like Blue Water Grill, tend to be upscale.

The Tammany Hall building was a final remnant of the old Union Square, holding the last collection of low-rent independent businesses and cultural centers on the park.

What's left?

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Sock Man


Since 1983, The Sock Man, aka Marty Rosen, has been selling socks on St. Mark's Place. Now a reader writes in to say the end is near.

She says that Rosen is "being forced off St. Mark's Place forever due to Real Estate tyrannical fascism. It breaks my heart to help him pack up the store."

E.V. Grieve broke the news yesterday, noting the last day of business may be January 18.

With Trash & Vaudeville going, Sounds going, and pretty much everything else gone, St. Mark's is dead and keeps on dying. Like many of those old-school spots and their proprietors, Rosen embodies the vanishing neighborhood spirit -- curmudgeonly, idiosyncratic, the real deal.

Chloe Sevigny once called him "the grumpiest man on Earth. He's like the Soup Nazi, but he sells socks."

Rosen embraced the moniker, replying, "I'm the Sock Nazi."

He's also got a fine-looking #SaveNYC sign hanging prominently in the Sock Man window. So what can be done to save the Sock Man? Nothing--absolutely nothing can be done--unless we get City Hall to make real change. Here's one thing you can do right now.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Baby Dee

I went out to Coney Island on New Year's Day and it was good to see all the oddballs again. I used to love to go out there, but I don't anymore, though New Year's Day was an exception. It made me think about all the colorful characters we used to see in the East Village, before the life was sucked out of the neighborhood, and I was thinking especially of Baby Dee. Here's something I wrote sometime back in the 1990s:

One hot afternoon I took the train out to Coney Island to see the Sideshows by the Seashore. I got off at Brighton Beach and walked out under the shadowy roar of the El, bought a hot knish at Mrs. Stahl’s, and then followed the boardwalk to Coney, past the old Russians playing chess, and one lone trumpeter blowing his song to the sea over the stretch of sun-bright sand.

Coney was jumping with the summertime crowds, a giddy throng of sweaty bodies, half-naked, sticky with ice-cream drippings and cotton candy, tipsy on cheap beer. I passed the Cyclone, that ancient, rickety wooden coaster, and walked by the Wonder Wheel, Dante’s Inferno, and the Tilt-A-Whirl, heading straight for the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. I wanted to see the freaks.

Outside the sideshow, the banners rippled in the wind, painted with images of performers both old and new. There was the Human Pincushion and the Lobster Boy, the Bearded Lady and the Half-Man/Half-Woman.

Inside the crumbling theatre, the Escape Artist was onstage, wriggling his way out of a straight-jacket. Then came the Glass Eater, who chewed and swallowed an entire light bulb. Then Enchantra, the snake charmer, who did a sexy dance with her albino python. And then Xenobia, the Bearded Lady, played by Jennifer Miller, the lesbian-feminist performance artist. She had a long, thick beard and mustache and long hair. While juggling several gleaming machetes, Xenobia tried her best to raise our consciousness. She said, “Hair is a symbol of power and that’s why men don’t want women to have too much in too many places.”

Michael Wilson, via Sideshow World

After the show, I stopped to talk with an old-timer who ran the sideshow museum across the street. His name was Eddie Sudan and he sucked on a soggy cigar and wore a gold-brocaded vest with a red velvet fez perched on top of his head. Standing before the banners for the Eubangi Beauties and the Giraffe-Neck Women of Burma, he told me about the illustrated man, Michael Wilson, “tattooed from the top of his head to the souls of his feet.”

Eddie said, “Mike told me once, some days, everything's beautiful. You step out into the sun, grab a handful of sand, walk into the surf, everything's beautiful. Other days, it's Hell, with everyone staring at you all the time and you know you can't hide everything." Eddie paused a moment, looking out towards the boardwalk and the ocean beyond.

"What's in your head?” Eddie asked then, of no one in particular. “What makes a person do that to themselves?"

“There was another great act,” he went on. “Baby Dee, the harp-playing hermaphrodite. They were a classically trained musician. They would get on stage and play the harp, while the contortionist would go through her contortions. It was a beautiful show, one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen."

I wished I could see Baby Dee, but Eddie told me that she had left the show at Coney Island and headed out west to California.

Baby Dee, playing the classic "half and half" at Coney

Soon after my visit to Coney Island, like a strange and enchanting apparition, Baby Dee appeared. She came riding through the East Village pedaling a giant tricycle, a golden harp in tow. She wore a tutu and angel wings and played the accordion. She stopped in front of me and sang a song. I thanked her and dropped a dollar in her bowl.

An old Ukrainian man came over and slapped her on the knee, playfully, and called up to her, "Why are you doing this? You shouldn't be up there, you are too beautiful!" Then he looked at me and said in a conspiratorial kind of way, "When I look at a leg like that, oh boy, you know what I think!" We said goodbye to Baby Dee and she pedaled away singing, disappearing around the corner, like a ghost.

The Ukrainian man had a friend with him who was giving him a hard time. He said, “That was a man you old fool!”

The Ukrainian turned to me for help, "Tell me, that was not a man. Was that a man or a woman?"

"It was a man," his friend muttered.

The Ukrainian turned to me again. "You're smart," he said. "Tell me. Please. If it's a man, it's okay. If it's a woman, it's okay."

"She's both," I told him.

“How can that be?” he asked, searching my eyes for the answer.

I shrugged my shoulders and, as I turned to walk away, added, "She’s wonderful, isn't she?"

The old man’s face brightened, and he called after me, "Yes! She is wonderful! I wanted her to stay, but she went away!"

Baby Dee is still doing her thing--just not here.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Meisler's Sassy '70s

Recently, Bizarre Publishing released photographer Meryl Meisler's book of photos, Purgatory & Paradise: Sassy '70s Suburbia and The City. In the book, Meisler "juxtaposes intimate images of home life on Long Island alongside NYC street and night life – the likes of which have never been seen. Quirky, nostalgic and a bit naughty, it’s a genuine cultural capsule of a decade that captivates today’s generation."

I asked the photographer a couple of questions.

Q: How do you see suburbia and the city as different and/or similar in the 1970s? Where did the cultures and aesthetics overlap and diverge?

A: From my personal perspective, both NYC and Long Island people identified as New Yorkers. Most of the Long Islanders I knew had a strong connection to The City, whereas the connection of city dwellers to Long Island was less apparent (unless they summered at LI beaches or had family there).

The majority of the people I grew up with in Long Island had roots in The City. My parents bought a brand new split-level development home in North Massapequa, Long Island when I was two years old. The farmland that surrounded our development grew into more developments so rapidly I don’t even remember the open land other than in my father’s photographs of the of our house being built. The suburbia I knew was neighborhood after neighborhood of predominantly 1st and 2nd generation Americans, who grew up poor during the Great Depression, mostly in The Bronx or Brooklyn, and bought their homes with the GI bill with the hope of giving their children a better life. Nearly everyone had a two-parent household with two or more kids. Most of the dads worked in The City, and moms I knew were stay-at-home moms until the kids were a little older. Divorced and single parent households were rare. I can’t even recall a family that had “only” one child.

Our town, Massapequa “Matzah Pizza,” was predominantly Italian, Jewish, Irish, German and very Caucasian. Jerry Seinfeld’s dad’s business “Kal Seinfeld Signs” was nearby. Seinfeld grew up in another section of Massapequa. In High School I didn’t even realize the kid with the last name Rivera was Hispanic. A girl in my Brownie troop whose family came from Cuba was the only person of color I knew. The kids whose family who owned the Chinese Laundry nearby were the only Asian students in our school. The next town over, Amityville, was predominantly African American, as were a few other neighboring towns.

Some families, like mine, brought their children into The City to visit family or enjoy theatre and cultural activities as well as to visit our family in The Bronx. Teenagers would take the LIRR or drive to go to theatre, concerts, or eat in Chinatown. NYC and Long Island were symbiotically connected. There were Long Islanders (then and now) who had no interest in going to The City, reminiscent of NYers who wouldn’t go above 14th St.

The NYC I moved to in 1975 was magnificently diverse. I met and socialized with people of multi- ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds with similar interests in the arts. The NYC I discovered was also a place where you could live alone or with friends, be part of a non “traditional” family, gay and lesbian, free to discover who you wanted to be. The punk and disco scene was emerging and then in full swing. “Bridge and Tunnel” people were excluded entry from the most exclusive clubs. On Long Island, there were a few discos that emerged that emulated the NYC club scene such at Uncle Sam's in Levittown, The Ice Palace in Fire Island, and clubs in the Hamptons.

In the Long Island I grew up in most people went to their local public school unless they went to Parochial Catholic School. You didn’t have a choice. Local “zoned” NYC public schools varied radically from neighborhood to neighborhood. Students in The City could compete to get into the better public schools. In 1979, I began my 31-year career as a NYC public school art teacher and got to know it and photograph it from an insider's point of view very well.

Rents in NYC in the early to mid 70s were affordable, especially with rent control and rent stabilization. The idea of rental buildings “going coop” was just starting to happen. By the end of the decade, it was increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. At the same time, the inexpensive homes in Long Island bought on the GI bill were becoming very pricey too.

Small businesses were prevalent in NYC and LI in the 1970s. My dad commuted 6 days a week to the printing company he owned and operated in Chelsea, Excel Printing Company. Dad would be very surprised that the site of his factory at 418 West 25th Street is a super luxury building in a hot gallery district. I miss the smell of litho ink emanating throughout the many buildings in Chelsea that were filled with printers.

Q: How does that all compare to today? As the city becomes more suburbanized, is this something you see through your camera lens?

A: The suburbs I knew in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s are becoming slightly more diverse. There are more businesses and opportunities to work in Long Island, but there is still a large influx of commuters who work in The City. Growing up, everyone I knew owned their home in LI but now I know of people who rent in LI as well.

There are children who are 2nd and 3rd generation Long Islanders, many people bought their parents' homes when the elders retired to Florida or other locales. Now I know of single people or people without children living in Long Island. The beautiful Long Island beaches still draw out NYC residents as day-trippers, renters, or vacationers. In Long Island and NYC, people are going further out in Suffolk County or neighborhoods in the outer boroughs to find more affordable communities.

I am far from a fan of big box or chain stores and cookie cutter mall culture. In my opinion they are destroying small family-owned businesses, making great stationery and hardware stores, for example, face extinction.

I like to photograph people and places I know well or find interesting. To me if you have seen one big box or chain store, you’ve seen them all. They aren’t subjects I am drawn to photograph.

all photographs © Meryl Meisler

You can find the book at The Strand and other independent local bookshops.

And you can find more of Meryl's work at her website.