Wednesday, April 27, 2016

S&G Gross


S&G Gross pawnbrokers has been in New York City for over a century. Their building on 8th Avenue and 34th Street is an antique treasure for its neon sign and vintage symbol of the three golden spheres.

Now Gross is gone.

The gates are down, a sign in the window says: "We have moved" and "We've been purchased by Gem Pawnbrokers," up the avenue at 40th Street. Gem is a chain with over 25 locations around the city, Westchester, and Long Island.

"Thank you all the years as our dedicated customers," Gross says in their goodbye note, "it was our pleasure to serve you."

"Established in 1901 by Sol and Gus Gross," according to their website, "the business has continued under the leadership of Robert Gross. The succession has been continued by Robert's son Gary and Gary's daughter Randi. All three generations continue to work together to form a strong nucleus for the continued success of the business."

After 115 years, that's over. With no fanfare. Just an empty window with empty jewelry cases and a lonesome handwritten sign for LADIES MOVADO.

The pawnshop had been in this location since 1918.

How old are those golden spheres? They are dented in spots, like moons struck by passing asteroids but still defying gravity.

It is extremely rare in the city to find the medieval pawnbroker symbol, and in glorious three dimensions such as this. (The symbol dates back to the Medici Family.) I have always enjoyed walking by and seeing them, looking up to make sure they were still there.

The trio also appears atop the neon sign. I will hate to see them go.

What will happen to this piece of New York history now that the Gross family has left the building? What horrible frozen yogurt or cupcake chain will come to destroy them?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Avignone to Sweetgreen

Ever since the beloved Avignone pharmacy was forced out of its very, very long-time location on Bleecker Street, we've been waiting to see what would take its place.

And here it is. Sweetgreen.

It's a chain store. They make salads.

They have over 45 locations across the country. They have a "story" and "core values." Their number one core value, according to their website, is "win, win, win."

At this newly opened location, they held a "private tasting exclusive to NYU." Everyone inside looked really young and healthy and excited to be there. One young woman carried a tote bag that said "EAT PLANTS!"

at the private NYU-only tasting 

In the battle of Old New York versus New New York, I guess Sweetgreen won, won, won.

Avignone was the oldest apothecary in the United States. Family run, it had been in business in New York City for 183 years. Then its building was sold to a hedge fund called Force Capital Management. They tripled the rent to $60,000, essentially forcing Avignone out. The spot sat empty for a long while.

Here's Avignone on PIX 11 News from last year:

Monday, April 25, 2016

Lee's Art Shop


After 65 years in business, Lee's Art Shop on West 57th Street is closing sometime in the next four to six weeks.

from Lee's Art Shop

The building was purchased in 2013 by real estate investor Joseph Safdieh of Safka Holdings, after which he proceeded to sue the owners, David Steinberg and Jill Isaacs, according to The Real Deal, "for refusing to further extend the due diligence period on the property despite several outstanding issues relating to its certificate of occupancy."

That deal fell through--and Thor's Joe Sitt got in on the action. Safka then sued Thor.

Through all the fighting over the property, Lee's stayed open.

photo: NY Times

Steinberg and Isaacs are the children of Gilbert Steinberg, who died in 2008. With his wife, Ruth, Steinberg bought the original store in 1951 and moved it to this building in 1975. They purchased the building 20 years later.

"The building would likely be transformed into a high-end retail box," industry pros told The Real Deal three years ago. The distinctive structure was built in 1897 and is known as the Society House of the American Society of Civil Engineers. It was once home to a Schrafft’s restaurant. And it is landmarked.

Lee's is beloved across the city. "It never fails," wrote the Times in 2012. "You go into Lee’s Art Shop, half a block from Carnegie Hall, as a customer — usually for something prosaic like a couple of Pilot Razor Points from their amazing 215-slot pen rack — and leave wishing you were an artist."

The shop is currently having a major liquidation sale, with deals up to 75% off.

Market Diner Demolished

When we last checked in with the doomed Market Diner it was locked behind green plywood. Now reader Shade Rupe sends in photos of the gruesome remains.

photo: Shade Rupe

A bit of stone foundation still stands. A stairway to nowhere. The rest is dust.

photo: Shade Rupe

The Market Diner was here since 1962. It was beautiful and unusual. Developer Joseph Moinian's Moinian Group bought it, evicted it, and is replacing it with a 13-story building. If it matches their existing two towers across the street, it will be yet another dull, dead luxury box.

You can like those towers or hate those towers. But here's the thing: All the glass boxes around the city are making us sick--mentally and physically. They are literally killing us as they hasten our deaths.

Cognitive neuroscientist Colin Ellard studied what happens to people on the sidewalk when they stand in front of a bland glass fa├žade. In one study, he placed human subjects in front of the Whole Foods grocery store on the Lower East Side, strapped skin-conducting bracelets to their wrists, and asked them to take notes on their emotional states.

He reported, “When planted in front of Whole Foods, my participants stood awkwardly, casting around for something of interest to latch on to and talk about. They assessed their emotional state as being on the wrong side of ‘happy’ and their state of arousal was close to bottoming out. The physiological instruments strapped to their arms showed a similar pattern. These people were bored and unhappy. When asked to describe the site, words such as bland, monotonous and passionless rose to the top of the charts.”

Moinian's two towers across the street

In his book Happy City, Charles Montgomery calls this “an emerging disaster in street psychology.” The loss of old buildings and small businesses, the homogenization from suburban chains and condo boxes, is more than an aesthetic loss. It is damaging us both psychologically and physically.

Writes Montgomery, “The big-boxing of a city block harms the physical health of people living nearby, especially the elderly. Seniors who live among long stretches of dead frontage have actually been found to age more quickly than those who live on blocks with plenty of doors, windows, porch stoops, and destinations.”

You have to wonder if the developers and corporations putting up these buildings and facades actually want anyone around. Montgomery points out that many corporate towers are built to be “deeply misanthropic,” intended to actively repel people with repellant street-level design. In a city where people are reconceived as consumers, not citizens, it is best to keep everyone moving and disconnected.

Market Diner in happier days

The opposite is true when people walk along a diverse block of small businesses and buildings. As Ellard found on the Lower East Side, they feel “lively and engaged.”

Visually interesting architecture and human-scaled, idiosyncratic storefronts enliven us. I would bet that they stimulate our brains to produce happy chemicals, warding off stress and the damage it causes. It's not far-fetched to say that buildings like the Market Diner, with unusual shapes and inviting facades, don't just make us feel alive, they keep us alive. And yet City Hall continues to encourage developers to kill them off.

More and more, we are living in a zombie city, its aliveness murdered by politicians and developers. It's only a matter of time before all of New York becomes the undead.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Gene's Coffee Shop


A few weeks ago, while wandering around the east side of midtown, I found myself for the first time in Gene's Coffee Shop on 60th Street between Park and Madison. One of those overlooked treasures of the vanishing city, Gene's felt like a real find. An endangered species. A good old New York City coffee shop. Excited to be there, I thought: Now I have a place to eat in this neighborhood.

Well, call me a jinx.

photo via Yelp

Reader MM writes in: "On Thursday, there was a sign that they were closed for the day because of a gas cut-off. This seemed plausible, there's a huge building going up directly across the street. Today there was an eviction notice in the door."

Is this yet another case of death by gas cut-off? It almost happened to the B&H Dairy. It did happen to The Stage restaurant in the East Village, La Taza de Oro in Chelsea, Mariella's Pizza in Gramercy, and possibly several other small and older restaurants.

Businesses struggle without gas, lose money, and fold. Or the landlords take advantage of stricter gas codes, tightened since the Second Avenue explosion, and use them to evict. We don't know if that's the case here, but it's a growing problem in the city that no one in the mainstream media is reporting on -- and it is killing local businesses.

For some time, Gene's has been buried under scaffolding, which may have been a contributing factor to the closing.

Writes MM: "I work in this neighborhood, a lot of the diners have been dispossessed, usually because their buildings are knocked down. In this case, Gene's was suffering a little from the construction, but I figured they'd do okay when the new building went up. You could order and have things delivered in less than 10 minutes. The restaurant was always sparkling clean, with friendly staff of Greek and Spanish guys, dishing out food for people who worked nearby and for tourists. Eviction papers indicate the lease goes back to 1983, though the restaurant may be older."

Unless there's hope for Gene's, another authentic New York coffee shop vanishes--in a city where we are losing them by the day.

via Facebook

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Missing Mural

Peter Missing is at work on a new mural at the First Street Green Art Park -- a giant, golden, cyclopean version of his infamous upside-down martini glass, a.k.a. "The Party's Over," with scenes of toppling buildings and flowers.

On his Instagram page, he writes:

"We have started a new mural at Houston and 2nd Ave Peter Missing and Cyril Mazard at Art Park, NYC ... Happy to be back in the ghostland and my hood of the Lower East Side. Stop by over the next week and spin the art and politics around and grab me a mud coffee with milk and sugar from 1st and 1st - the nexus of the universe. See you soon and bring good vibes."

To which he adds, "Missing Foundation performance in front of mural May 21, 2016."

Mark your calendars. And let's hope the performance will include witches, yuppies, and mysterious satanic rituals. Just like in the old days.

(h/t to Alex)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Showman's Jazz Club

Showman's jazz club has been in Harlem since 1942. They've hosted many of the greats, including Sara Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, and Duke Ellington. With 74 years under their belt, they are Harlem's longest running jazz club -- after the wasteful and tragic destruction of the elder Lenox Lounge.

Last week, Showman's posted the following "farewell" announcement on their Facebook page:

Reader Carrie Butterworth sent in the tip and followed up with some questions for the owners. She reports: "Mona Lopez and Al Howard are selling the business so they can retire."

Lopez and Howard have been running the club for the past 38 years. (Howard was one of the NYPD detectives who took the call when Martin Luther King was stabbed by a woman with a letter opener. He was also a supervisor on the hunt for Son of Sam.)

Showman's has moved three times since 1942. Their original building, next to the Apollo, was destroyed by fire. "After playing at the Apollo," writes Butterworth, "the musicians used to go next door and play their own music, hence the name Showman's."

They were pushed out of their second location by the Harlem USA mega-development. And they've been in their current spot on 125th since 1998.

Washington Post photo

Butterworth says, "What I and so many other people enjoy about this bar is the sense of community and family. It's full of regulars--Harlem old-timers and people who are friends with the musicians--who show up every time to support their friends. If it's your birthday, they'll have a cake and some chicken and rice.

A lot of the new jazz clubs charge you a cover, then you have to buy dinner or drinks, and then they throw you out after the set, unless you want to buy another table charge. At Showman's, there's only a 2 drink minimum per set. You can stay all night. The barmaids, or as they call them 'star-maids,' know what you drink, and have it ready."

She does not know who is buying the building. However, she adds, "they claim they'll keep it as a jazz club."

Let's hope they do. Rezoned by the Bloomberg administration, 125th Street is being destroyed by chain stores and other developments. Let's hope the new owners keep Showman's accessible, affordable, and welcoming to all, just as it has always been.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mariella Pizza

Joe writes in about the closure of Mariella's Pizza on 16th Street and 3rd Avenue:

"After 37 years, Mariella's bit the dust. I spoke to the owner and he was fuming over the long list of expenses, rent and rent tax being the biggest culprits.

He was so pissed as he explained it to me, you would have thought I was the one throwing him out. They had the best food hands down of any pizzeria around! They always hosted a brisk business no matter what time of the day I went there, but as he fumed, 'After a while, how much can I charge for a slice?'"

Back in February, I heard from Liz Solomon. She wrote:

"There is a pizza place on the corner of 16th Street and 3rd Avenue called Mariella's. It has been there since 1976. Everyone needs a place like Mariella's in their life or they need to go back to Iowa. Great slices, pies, and low-end Italian food.

Con-Ed workers came across the street in droves, kids from the extreme demographic divide of Friends Seminary and Washington Irving were after school slice regulars and there delivery business was enormous. I live in a medium sized building two blocks away and I could guarantee on any given night four or more Mariella's deliveries came through our building alone.

Then all of a sudden Mariella's shut down. This was about three weeks ago. They said it was due to a 'gas leak in the building' but nothing has happened and I don't see anyone working there. The metal gate has been down constantly. No one who generally knows everything that happens in the neighborhood knows anything.

If this is the end of Mariella's, it closes another door to MY New York and no doubt will open another for tourists and transplants and the kind of people who line up for farcical desecrations of the sacred bagel, the existence of which must be making my father spin in his grave."

Mariella's had reopened after the "gas leak," and then closed again for good, possibly in part to lost business during the forced closure.

Ever since the 2nd Avenue gas explosion, "gas leaks" have been killing small restaurants, shuttering them for months and requiring expensive upgrades. Is this necessary? Or is it the city asking too much of mom and pop? Why don't we ever see Starbucks shuttered due to a gas leak? Instead of the B&H Dairy, The Stage, La Taza de Oro, The Carnegie Deli, and other longtime locals? Someone needs to look into this. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Class Divide

Class Divide, a documentary about hyper-gentrification in Chelsea, the High Line, and the impact of stark inequality on both rich and poor, will be screening at IFC beginning this week.

I'm no movie reviewer. I'll just say that this thing had me in tears and you should go see it.

I talked with director Marc Levin and producer Daphne Pinkerson of Blowback Productions:

Q: The film is impressively even-handed. As a viewer, I felt empathy for both the rich kids of the Avenues School and the poor kids of the projects. Everyone seems caught in a system they have no control over. Did you go into making the film with a particular viewpoint? How did that change--or not--during the process?

A: We certainly knew that the gap between rich and poor was at Gilded Age levels and believed that was not good. Our last few films looked at the human consequences of this economic divide and we were searching for a way to continue covering this situation. We realized that the stark economic discrepancies were starting to close in around us in our own neighborhood of Chelsea where we live and work.

Every day there seemed to be a new luxury building going up, along with my monthly apartment maintenance. We thought we would focus on small businesses and tenants getting pushed out and the perspective of people as they were coming and going. But the point of view of this next generation of young people broke many stereotypes and changed our expectations, re-focusing the film.

Q: While at dramatically different levels, there yet exists some common themes between the two groups of young people, in terms of living with economic and social pressures. What do you see there?

First, the one area of common ground between the kids on both sides of the street is they are all anxious about where they fit into the future. The lower-income kids see the neighborhood changes compounded by political changes that have reduced social programs, like after-school, job training, and most importantly, funds for public housing. So they are legitimately concerned over not only their prospects, but what will happen to their parents and grandparents.

On the other side, the wealthy kids know they are no longer competing just against the kids from Dalton and Fieldston. Now they are also competing against kids from China, India, Korea, Russia, and Singapore. They know that today, no matter where they go to school, there is no guarantee that they will do better or even as well as their parents.

And that brings up the second important point, which I think the film reveals. This kind of income inequality and hyper-gentrification is BAD for everyone, not just the poor, working class, or middle class. There are no walls, fences, streets, or doormen that can protect even the wealthiest and most privileged kids from the reality of the world they inhabit. That exacts a real toll also.

photo: Marc Levin

Q: The parents of the NYCHA kids are very present in the film, but not so much the affluent parents, with the exception of one and we mostly see her selling real estate. What are your thoughts on their absence?

A: We got to know Rosa and Joel's parents better because they were always present to chaperone their children. There is a hedge fund manager in the film who lives on West 26th Street and sends his daughter to Avenues. He has lived in the neighborhood for quite some time and believes in the importance of mixed-income neighborhoods.

We did interview other parents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds who were very articulate and thoughtful but the film became focused on the voices of the young people themselves. There were some Avenues parents, mostly husbands, who said nothing good could come of participating in a film comparing the rich and the poor. But they were wrong! Ha!

It would be interesting to do a film about how the super wealthy feel justified in using their resources to influence government policy and still claim to be living in a democracy. But I don't think telling that story through the parents of a liberal arts secondary school is going to happen.

Q: I read in Chelsea Now that the frame on the High Line at 26th Street was part of your inspiration for making the film. I've stood there myself and watched tourists pose in the frame with the NYCHA projects as backdrop. It always strikes me as a bizarre moment. Can you say more about the role this frame played in your making the film?

A: The frame became a sort of subtle leitmotif for us through the course of the film. What you see depends on the frame through which you look. What do the people in the projects see when they look across the street and visa versa? You see almost every subject in the film looking through window frames across the street.

What is it like to look through someone else's frame? How does it change your perspective? Luc really plumbs this idea speculating what the little boy in the elevator thinks of him and how that should influence how he responds. Deep.

photo: Marc Levin

Q: What's your verdict on the impact the High Line has had on the neighborhood?

A: The High Line was another metaphor for us as an example of what a community can do through activism. The activists fought the powerful real estate industry to preserve something for rich and poor alike. It is a beautiful public park for everyone. You see Rosa's joy there, and the mix of people at the Latin dance night. There are internships and planned activities for children in the community.

The irony, as Joe Restuccia from Community Board 4 says in the film, is that it has been almost completely commodified by the luxury real estate industry in terms of housing. Is there any mixed income housing on the High Line? And it is so crowded some days you can barely move! Maybe there needs to be crowd control and tickets like a regular museum?

Q: Another apt metaphor--as the hyper-gentrifying neighborhoods of the city become museums, to be looked at and consumed, largely by tourists, but not quite lived in. I'm thinking of how Restuccia says in the film: "This is not about a neighborhood or about New York. It's about: 'I want to take my money out of Singapore, out of Abu Dhabi, and invest and park it here,'" in those ultra-luxury condos along the High Line. In some ways, we're left at the end of the film wondering: Who is responsible for this? Or is it all just "natural market forces"?

A: First, what we are seeing here in Chelsea is a microcosm of a global phenomenon, where cities around the world, like New York, London, San Francisco, Hong Kong, etc., are becoming investment opportunities for the global elite, and where inequality is growing.

How to reform or transform the global consumer capitalist model so that it distributes wealth more equally is the great challenge now, especially for this next generation. The market is not an inanimate force of nature. It is very much a political, cultural, and social construct that was created by humans and can be remade by them. This is reflected in much of the recent populist politics we've witnessed, from Bernie Sanders, who will be holding a rally in Washington Square right before our film opens a block away on Wednesday, to Donald Trump.

Second, if there is any neighborhood in this city that can be a vanguard on how to create a thriving, mixed urban community in the 21st century, it is Chelsea.

So, from local to global, the message is the same. Organize. Remember how the High Line was saved and became a park in the first place. Become involved and informed, we need more citizen activists!

There will be four daily screenings of Class Divide from April 13 - 19. Visit the IFC Center to check ticket availability. All screening times will be posted by Monday evening. You can also follow the film on Facebook.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Celebrating Streit's

The Streit's matzo factory, on the Lower East Side since 1915, is scheduled for demolition, ironically, the week of Passover.

At the same time, Michael Levine's "Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream” will have its premiere at Film Forum from April 20 - 26.

To mark the occasions, Art on A Gallery will feature an exhibit on Streit's, opening later this week.

At the gallery, Michael will be showing photographs from the company's history, along with parts of the factory's antique machinery, which has been in storage since Streit's shuttered last year and moved out of town.

The stippler will be there--that machine that presses the little holes into the matzo--along with the cutting machine and some pieces of the Carnegie Steel rails that guided the swinging baskets of matzo through the factory.

Along with archival prints from history, you'll find the photographs of Joseph O. Holmes, who captured the last days of the Rivington factory, along with a film from the 1940s.

photo by Joseph O. Holmes

As an added treat, artist Judi Harvest will be showing her gold-leafed matzos. She's been gilding the unleavened bread since 2000, but for this show she is using rare pink gold leaf, to match the color on the classic Streit's Passover box.

She will assemble an entire wall of pink gold matzos. They will all be Streit's.

pink gold-leaf matzo by Judi Harvest

The opening of the gallery show is this Thursday, April 14, from 8:00 - 10:00 pm at 24 Ave A. Members of the Streit family will be present, along with some of the factory workers, the artists, and the filmmaker. The event will be both celebration and memorial, a piece of Lower East Side history encapsulated. For a little while.

When news first broke of the closure in 2008, I visited the factory, talked with one of the owners, and took a tour. We said our goodbyes. And then the winds shifted. Streit's was staying. As shown in Levine's poignant film, the family had the contract and a million-dollar check on their desk, but could not bear to sign it. Still, it was only a matter of time. A closure announcement would come again.

I have not been by the factory since it closed. I used to love to watch the men pull the matzo from the oven. Sometimes, I'd get a taste, hot and fresh. During their final Passover week, I bought a pink box of matzos. I have not opened them. The label says, "Baked with Pride, Lower East Side, New York City." And the address on the side is Rivington Street. I'll probably never open them.

The factory will be replaced with luxury condos. Nothing else is possible.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Forlini's at Mid-Century

I'm a fan of the great, but somehow little known, Forlini's restaurant, so I was excited to see they put some vintage photos up on their website of the place back in the 1950s and 60s.

Forlini's dates to 1943. It's a favorite place for judges, lawyers, and other people involved in the justice system, thanks to its location close to the State Supreme Court house.

Tourists to Little Italy seem to be completely ignorant of its existence, and let's hope it stays that way.

About once a month or so, you can go and hear the song stylings of Mr. Angelo Ruggiero, a scene that should not be missed.

Check out the full gallery of vintage photos here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Where Gay Meets Pretty

It is 1996 and I’m in love with Coney Island. I’m in love with its decrepit, ancient buildings, crumbling but also vibrating with color and life. Ice cream, cotton candy, corn dogs, fried clams. I’m in love with the smell of grease and seashore. The feeling of being at the edge of the world. On the margin. Way out there. Beyond. And I can’t get enough of the freaks.

I go to Sideshows by the Seashore to see their 10-in-1 show. Zenobia, played by Jennifer Miller, is the bearded lady. She wears plain clothes, pants and a shirt, no makeup, nothing theatrical. The focus is her beard, thick and woolly, a bit wild. With her long wavy hair, she looks, if not like Jesus, then one of the apostles. A hippie.

She goes through her spiel: "I am a woman with a beard,” she announces. “If I called myself The Bearded Lady, I would be claiming that I, Zenobia, was the one, the only, woman with a beard in the entire world. The Bearded Lady. Could that possibly be true? Of course not. The world is full of women who have beards. Or at least they have the potential. They have the potential to have a beard, if only they would reach out and fulfill their fabulous potential, as I myself have so obviously done. Historically speaking, speaking historically, that is, hair has been a symbol of power. It goes back to Samson and his great mane of power. That's why men don't want women having too much in too many places. You get it? Forget it. That's what I said, forget it. So people want to know how I deal with walking down the street. Cause here I am, a gal with a beard, gallivanting around New York City. You think I'm getting hassled out there? I get more than my fair share. So what do I do?”

She picks up a machete from the stack behind her.

“After a long hard day at work, I'm hot, I'm tired, all I want is a nice cold…”

“Beer!” the crowd yells.

“Machete!" Zenobia corrects them and begins juggling three glinting, sharp blades. She’s good. The crowd roars in applause.

It is 2016, exactly 20 years since it was 1996, and I return to the Sideshows by the Seashore. I’ve been back a number of times over the years, but today it’s a revival, Superfreak Weekend, and Jennifer Miller is reprising her original Zenobia act.

She’s glammed it up since 1996, wearing a purple satin gown over her jeans and motorcycle boots, her eyelids painted with purple powder. Her beard has a few gray hairs in it now. She begins her spiel, word for word, the same as it was in 1996: “If I called myself The Bearded Lady, I would be claiming that I, Zenobia, was the one, the only, woman with a beard in the entire world!”

A boy in the audience shouts out, “You have a gay name!”

He’s maybe 8 years old. His mother tells him to “stop it.” Zenobia relishes the moment—as Jennifer Miller she’s a professor of performance studies, a lecturer on gender, and director of the left-wing political theater troupe Circus Amok. “Now we can really talk,” she says, moving to the front of the stage and kneeling down. She addresses the boy directly.

“What about the name Zenobia strikes you as gay?”

“It’s a gay name!” the boy shouts. His mother tells him again to "stop it." They go around like this, the boy repeating himself, clearly in the throes of a gender mind-fuck. The needle on his cognitive record keeps skipping. After 20 years, the bearded lady act still has the power to unsettle.

Zenobia continues to talk to the boy and the audience. We laugh at a joke. The energy moves. She asks the boy again what’s gay about her name. Quietly now, he says, “Well, it’s kinda gay. And it’s kinda pretty.”

“A-ha! Now that’s what we call queer,” Zenobia says, getting to her feet. “The place where gay meets pretty!” And the show goes on. She completes her spiel and juggles her machetes. She’s still good. The audience roars. She gets ready to do it again.

I walk out to the boardwalk, past the many bright-colored banners for Thor Equities: “Space Available,” “Stores for Lease,” “Retail Space Available,” one after another, tied to chain-link fences around bulldozed lots, strapped to shuttered building facades and empty storefronts. Much has changed in 20 years.

Giuliani illegally tore down the old Thunderbolt rollercoaster. The Stillwell Avenue subway station got a major makeover. Thor's Joe Sitt bought up acres and acres, and then kicked out the carnies. Astroland shuttered. Bloomberg rezoned the whole place, drastically reducing the space for amusement. The decrepit, ancient buildings I loved were torn down. And the chains came in: Applebee's Dunkin Donuts Wahlburgers Johnny Rockets Bank of America Subway.

I tell myself Coney is still Coney. You can still get a corn dog and a plate of fried clams. The Cyclone still gives people whiplash. Local families still come to have fun. The crowd is diverse, multi-cultural, working class. You can’t argue with that. But there is something vital missing. Coney has lost its edge, the character it boasted for over a century. Everything feels brighter, shinier, cleaner. More controlled. Less alive.

On the graffiti-covered gates of the Eldorado Arcade, signs read: “GRAFFITI FOR FILM SHOOT - PLEASE DO NOT PAINT OVER - NBC UNIVERSAL.” The graffiti doesn’t look anything like real graffiti, made by someone who perhaps has never seen real graffiti.

I walk down to Williams Candy, a sweet little spot that’s been here for about 80 years, and buy a small paper bag full of malted milk balls. I’m the only customer. They’re all going to IT’SUGAR, the massive chain. Next door, the tables at one of the last honky-tonk clam shacks are empty, while families cram into Applebee’s and Wahlburgers.

People don’t want surprises anymore, so there are no surprises left at Coney Island. Except for that scene back at the Sideshow. That is what Coney Island has always been about, shaking people out of their everyday lives, shocking and thrilling them with experiences of the unusual.

In his Coney Island history book Amusing the Million, John Kasson writes that Coney encouraged “the grotesque.” The freaks symbolized “the exaggerated and excessive character of Coney Island as a whole,” unusual bodies that “displayed themselves openly as exceptions to the rules of the conventional world.” The whole place was an escape from conventionality. But at today's Coney Island, the sideshow is the one space left where gay meets pretty.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Kossar's Scoops

Kossar's Bialys, under new ownership, got a makeover a couple months ago. So I went by to check it out.

Founded in 1936, it's still on Grand Street and it's still called Kossar's. So there's that. The interior used to be unfussy, haphazard, almost industrial. I liked it that way.

Here's what it used to look like:

(Note the lack of cute sandwich names on the menu board.)

Now the place is shiny and new. With cute sandwich names. Which is the way everything seems to go.

Here's what it looks like now:

The new place is basically inoffensive. Nothing to be excited about and nothing, really, to complain about either.


The menu offers two special services: "YES," it reads, "WE TOAST AND SCOOP!"

This is not a message to New Yorkers.

This is a message to tourists and to the extended-stay tourists known as recent transplants who don't ever intend to become New Yorkers. Because while some New Yorkers might toast their fresh bagels when putting butter on them, scooping is a definite no-no. A shonda, you might say.

Here's Gothamist's take on scooping: "Did you ask for the dough to be scooped out from your bagel? Really? You demanded that the soul of your bagel be removed? Well, neither toasting nor untoasted freshness can save you. Please leave bagels alone forever. We have nothing more to say to you."

And the Post agrees, saying "Bagel scoopers are ruining NYC." In addition, it's wasteful.

Also, that exclamation point? Totally for the tourists.