Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Small Business in the Village

Beth Salvini is co-owner of Greenwich Letterpress, on Christopher Street since 2005. While the shop is not a classic New York spot, it is an example of a small local business working hard to stay alive in a climate that has become increasingly hostile to the small and the local.

Recently, the shop moved a few blocks away. Business has dropped. This often happens when a mom and pop relocates. While relocation is publicly celebrated as a victory--against a greedy rent hike, for example--or a sign of resilience, it can actually be a death sentence. In my many years writing this blog, I've talked with several small business owners who relocate--even nearby--and then are forced to shutter in just a few years.

I asked Beth a few questions about life as a small business owner in the Village.

in the former location, photo via PrintMag

A: How long have you run a small business in Greenwich Village?

A: My sister Amy and I opened Greenwich Letterpress in 2005 at 39 Christopher Street in the West Village. This past March we re-located up the block to 15 Christopher Street.

Q: How have you seen the neighborhood changing and how has that impacted the small business landscape, for you and your neighbors?

A: We grew up in New Jersey, and as kids sneaking off to the city during the 90s, it wasn't because The GAP in the city was better than The GAP in Willowbrook Mall. It was because the Village/West Village had the most diverse and eclectic mix of stores.

You could start on Broadway and (affordably) shop your way back to the Christopher Street PATH station and wind up with the coolest pair of sneakers, a Smiths t-shirt, a chessboard, vintage salt and pepper shakers, an import CD, and an obscure art book. The Village was the place you visited when you wanted to escape the conventional and familiar of the suburbs. That’s why we opened the kind of shop we did in this neighborhood, to be part of that Village landscape.

Not long after we opened, we realized just how real the "boom" of Bleecker Street was and how it was trickling into the rest of the neighborhood. Where once stood small indie stores were now empty spaces sitting for years, seemingly waiting for a business that could afford $15,000 or more a month for 400 square feet. You could see the spirit of the Village vanishing.

Over the past decade we have seen beloved customers move out of the neighborhood and the city, due to rent increases. Most notably: A friend of ours talking us through the Bleecker Bob’s store closing, that she was tied closely to, and begrudgingly moving uptown. The stores we would send tourists to when they wanted to visit "other places like ours" shutting their doors. Single families (and investors) taking over brownstones that used to house several families, cutting into the actual population living in the West Village. And empty storefronts becoming a normal part of the view because asking rent was 30k+ a month. Even Barnes & Noble, Gray’s Papaya, and most recently Urban Outfitters shuttering on 6th Avenue. If those places can’t afford the Village, who can?

Q: What made you move to a new location? What's been the result of that move, in terms of business?

A: We jumped on the chance to move for several reasons. We had put an obscene amount of work into our old space over the years, even though by looking at the building you would never know it, and we couldn't continue to make improvements that we knew would only increase the value of the space for the landlord. Time and time again, we would renovate only to have our work destroyed by ongoing floods and plumbing issues that were never really addressed, as well as structural and aesthetic blemishes that were out of our reach and control to fix.

Then there is. of course, the rent--that after a decade crept up to a place that we could no longer justify paying as a small business.

We found out about a space becoming available down the street in a building with a landlord that was sympathetic to small businesses and a management company that wasn't gouging its tenants. We jumped on the rare opportunity. The move has been challenging. We sacrificed two large street-level windows into the shop for a first-floor walkup with two small windows. We got a few months out of our "we moved" posters before the listing real estate agent tore them down in the old space. We keep hearing the “sorry you closed," despite our best efforts to post that we only moved.

Q: What challenges have you faced as a small biz in the city?

A: The obvious challenge is the fact that we need to sell a huge number of products in order to simply pay our rent. This necessitates having a large and broad-based clientele visiting us daily.

Coming into a historic district over a decade ago, we certainly were aware of the desire to preserve the facade of the old Village. Unfortunately, for many small businesses, it does come at a cost. For instance, the simple act of putting a hanging sign above our business to let customers know we still exist has become a four-month process, with countless back-and-forth emails with the various building commissions (luckily we have our landlord and the building management company on our side with us).

We completely understand the desire to keep the integrity of the neighborhood, but also would like to hope that the various commissions would see the struggle of small businesses. We still are not allowed to put up a sign letting people know we are here, and this does have an impact on the number of customers we get. At the end of the day, we sometimes throw our hands up and wonder who out there do you turn to for help or understanding?

The new plight of the small business owner in New York City is that, more and more, you feel alone in this, because it's a shrinking club and the membership fees are too high.

Beth is right. Small businesses are the neglected underdog in a city that explicitly favors corporations and chains. Currently, there are no protections for small businesses--no commercial rent control, which the city enjoyed for years after World War II, no Small Business Jobs Survival Act, no ordinance to stop the spread of chain stores, no penalties for landlords who evict and then warehouse empty storefronts, creating "high-rent blight."

All of the above are possible solutions--some are being implemented in other cities--yet New York's City Hall and City Council will have none of it.

Tell them what you think.

Go to #SaveNYC and, with just a few clicks, send a letter to City Hall.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Storefront Survivors

I chatted with Mike Owen Benediktsson, an urban and cultural sociologist and professor at Hunter College, about Storefront Survivors, a vital research project and online resource about small, independently owned storefront businesses trying to stay alive in a city that has become increasingly hostile to their presence.

all photos courtesy of Mike Owen Benediktsson

Q: What is the "Storefront Survivors" project?

A: The project is a collaboration between three CUNY urban sociologists – Sharon Zukin of Brooklyn College, Rich Ocejo of John Jay, and me. All of us were teaching this really interesting seminar about the city’s neighborhoods at Macaulay Honors College this spring.

Our students talked to more than 140 business owners in dozens of neighborhoods across all five boroughs, gathering a variety of material – transcripts, audio recordings, images, etc. – a portion of which is gathered at the Storefront Survivors website.

The motive for this was partly pedagogical and partly our own sociological curiosity. Having our students interview small business owners turned out to be a great way to humanize some of the abstract issues that we were talking about in class – topics like gentrification, immigration, ethnic succession, and urban planning. By going out into unfamiliar neighborhoods and talking to people affected by these issues, our students could gain some traction on the themes in the class, and in the process, help to tell stories that need to be told right now, through the website.

Q: What inspired you to do it?

A: In a broader sense, we were inspired by mountains of research that suggests that small, independently owned businesses have important payoffs for urban communities. Some of these spillover effects are easily measurable. For example, the evidence suggests that small businesses are vital for job creation – much more so than chains, or other large corporations. When you narrow the focus to the immigrant labor force in a diverse place like New York, these benefits are magnified. Small storefront concerns often provide a foothold in the economy for immigrant workers who might otherwise be marginalized and excluded.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg famously argued for the importance of “third places” – low key, unassuming cafés, bars, restaurants, and shops. These places can serve a particularly vital role in diverse urban communities, bringing people together on an even playing field, and giving them something to talk about. They have a leveling effect and help to build social networks. This kind of capacity only becomes visible from up close.

To be clear though, not all small, independently owned storefronts serve this romantic role. Some businesses divide people along lines of class, or consolidate interaction within an ethnic group. But many longstanding storefronts do have these positive spillover effects for social cohesion or tolerance in a community. And when the businesses are displaced to rising commercial rent or competition with online retailers, neighborhoods lose these little bastions of stability and civility that are hugely important to the urban fabric. So, beyond the economic and cultural benefits of small businesses, they also do something socially vital, and this inspired us to document their struggles.

Q: Can you address the defense of corporate chains, which I often hear, that goes: "Corporate chains are good for a city because they give poor, unskilled people a place to work"?

A: That’s really an economic question. The research I’ve read in urban economics suggests that an area loses overall retail employment in a given industry when a chain comes in, because mom-and-pops are forced to close or downsize their operations, and they end up laying off more people than the chains hire.

The argument that chains provide jobs seems to arise specifically in order to justify a controversial zoning change, or a big, as-of-right commercial development. The problem with this logic in the case of, say, hardware and home improvement, is that you have to weigh the expected contribution of a new big-box store against the jobs that will be lost when all of the small, independent hardware shops within a five-mile radius close.

There’s a sleight of hand at work when a big chain store promises to create 100 or 200 jobs, and this promise is taken at face value, without looking at what competition will do to local independent retailers.

Big chain stores are profitable for shareholders in part because they capitalize on economies of scale, selling goods for lower prices but also employing fewer people than would be necessary to sell the same goods in a bunch of geographically dispersed mom-and-pop shops. So, although my students’ research did not directly address this question, I’m skeptical of these arguments.

Q: What themes emerged in your students' research?

A: Our students didn’t go looking for stories of hardship. They actually were just looking for businesses that had been around for at least a decade. But it became immediately clear how difficult and also how complex the commercial landscape is for independent storefronts in the city right now. Escalating rent was a constant theme, but so were property taxes, punitive or cumbersome government regulations, the erosion of a customer base in rapidly changing neighborhoods, tooth-and-nail competition against chain stores and online retailers, and so on.

The stories contain pretty clear takeaways in terms of the survival strategies of businesses that had managed to stay in the black for decades.

Q: How are small business coping with the massive rent increases we’re seeing today across the city?

A: Unfortunately, the only way for a small business to survive a massive and abrupt increase in rent is to relocate. Roughly a third of the longstanding storefronts my students studied had been displaced at some point in the last 10 years, but had managed to stay fairly close by. They’ll often fight really hard to stay local, we learned, because they hope to retain at least some of their existing customer base.

Another third or so are currently staring a big rent increase in the face, which is tragic when you’re talking about a business that has been in the same neighborhood for 15 or 20 years or more, that is financially viable, and that people seem to love. Our students were looking for success stories, but there was a bittersweet quality to almost all of them. There’s this Italian café on the LES that is typical – it opened 35 years ago and thrived in the same location until 2008, only to be bounced a few blocks away due to a big rent hike. Now the owner has three years left on her lease and told one of my students, “Realistically when my lease is up, my business is over.”

So, even though my students were actually looking for stories of resilience that could inform and inspire other business owners, a lot of what they ended up documenting is the fragility of small enterprise in the path of gentrification.

Q: Other than an affordable rent, what helps a small business survive in the current urban climate?

A: Expanding and diversifying is one major way a small business might weather tough times. The video store guy in Queens who used to specialize in Bollywood DVDs now sells printing equipment and cell phone accessories. The Jewish deli owner who could formerly count on locals and regulars to walk in the door and fill his cash register now does much of his business catering Bar Mitzvahs, and even ships pastrami sandwiches out of state through his website.

This kind of thing can keep a storefront going and even make it wildly successful. But it entails a changing connection between a business and the community around it. A lot of the business owners we talked to had developed an online presence, either moving part of their business onto the Internet, or relying heavily on Yelp and social media for marketing. This signals a transition from word-of-mouth, which is localized and personal, and serves as the marketing currency of ethnic enclaves, to an approach that is impersonal and targets a broader clientele.

For example, spend half an hour in the waiting room of Repairs On Wheels (in my estimation the best repair shop in Brooklyn) and you will witness this crazy combination of old world and new world – elderly Hasidic men from down the street who have been bringing their car in for decades and have never heard of social media, and young Brooklynites from gentrifying neighborhoods on the other side of the borough who were attracted exclusively by Yelp reviews from people who look and sound like them. The owner and his uncle are really good at what they do, and you can watch them code switching all day--they have one way of dealing with their local customers and another way of dealing with people from outside the neighborhood.

Another thing is that a number of the longstanding business owners, it turned out, had at some point scraped together the resources to buy the space they occupied. Again, not too surprising. Advocates for small business have pointed to this as an important factor – it insulates business owners against rent increases and provides equity and collateral. But what we saw is that it also introduces an interesting dynamic. Commercial landlords who are also small business owners can have a different outlook than property owners who are in it strictly for the real estate. They are more invested in the character of the place, and the characters in the place.

But this can work in either direction, depending on how business owners view their role as property owners. In some cases, they act to insulate other independent businesses against gentrification. There’s an independent hardware store owner in Queens whose own business is in jeopardy because he refuses to raise the rents on the other commercial tenants. On the other hand, the Pintchik family in Park Slope, as independent business owners, run one of the quirkiest, most endearing hardware stores you can imagine. But as owners of a massive swath of Fulton Avenue, they ended up embracing upscale boutiques and chains.

The last strategy, and I think in many ways the most important, is getting political and getting organized. Dozens of the storefront survivors that our students talked to had become involved in civic organizations and campaigns, and were able to protect themselves through advocacy and activism. Our students interviewed a florist in Queens who led the fight against a new Home Depot, a barber in Flatbush who faced off against the mayor over excessive fines leveled by city inspectors, and a discount store owner who created a Bangladeshi local business association.

It’s important to realize that merchants’ associations, unlike business improvement districts, which are run by property owners, specifically represent local storefronts. There is strength in numbers, and they can organize against landlords or city agencies that are causing trouble for their members. Two of the Manhattan business owners interviewed by our students are members of the three or four-year-old East Village Independent Merchants Association (EVIMA). If successful, an organization like this could do a lot to stabilize the commercial identity of an area and preserve local character, simply by helping independent business owners pool their resources and provide a strong collective counterweight to the state and market forces that uproot independent storefronts in this city at an alarming rate.

But, again, the reality is that none of these strategies can help a business respond to a quintupling or a 10-fold increase in rent. That is pretty much a guaranteed deal breaker no matter how well you’ve been running your business over the decades, and is probably an indication that the landlord simply wants you gone.

Visit Storefront Survivors to learn more about small businesses around the city. 

And join #SaveNYC. Help fight City Hall and their unwillingness to stand up for the little guys.

Monday, July 25, 2016

R & L Signage

Madewell, a clothing chain store owned by J. Crew, is moving into 69 Gansevoort in the Meatpacking District--the former address of Florent and, prior to that, the R & L Restaurant.

At the moment, Madewell/J. Crew is gutting the space. In the process, the antique chrome R & L signage has been removed from the facade. Will it be back? (See updates below.)



It also appears the "R&L" has been ripped from the floor by the entrance, and they've stripped off all the vintage chrome from the facade.



This space opened as the R&L luncheonette in 1938. In 1955, it became the R&L Restaurant, with the lovely chrome sign.

Owned by Ari Lucas, the R&L was a place where longshoremen and meatpackers would dine at night--they called it "Eatem and Beatem," according to the Chicago Sun, "because they would zip in and out around 3 in the morning."

Sol Libsohn, MCNY

In 1985, Lucas' daughter took over the R&L and rented it to Florent Morellet, who opened one of the first businesses to bring gentrification to the Meatpacking District--and one much beloved by a wide array of people, from uptown rich to downtown artists to leather daddies and drag queens.

On Gay Pride Day in 2008, restaurant Florent closed its doors, forced to shutter after 23 years when the landlord raised the rent from $6,000 to $50,000 per month. On his famous menu board, Morellet spelled out an optimistic thought in white plastic letters, “REAL ESTATE GOES DOWN / NYC SURVIVES.”

At the restaurant’s closing party, customers wept for the end of an era, for a place that provided a space to “political drag queens, suicidal libertines, secular surgeons, transvestal virgins, lunatic ravers, steroidal saviors, twelve-stepping two-steppers, infidel lepers, sadistic humanists, lunatic sensualists, wondering Jews, multicultural views, leftist rituals, and delectable victuals.”

Morellet later told Channel 13, “I’m all for change done the right way. But they have completely destroyed the Meat Market, the Village, and the New York I loved so much when I moved here.”

(He has since moved on to Bushwick. “Cities change,” Morellet told the Times in 2013. “Young people are going to be pioneers in neighborhoods and make them livable. Wealthy people are going to move in and young people are going to move to the next neighborhood, and the next neighborhood. We have tons of neighborhoods to rebuild. Yes, the prices are going up. That’s great.”)


After Florent, the R&L space cycled through various unimpressive, upscale restaurants and wine bars, all of them closing quickly, apparently unable to make the insanely high rent.

And now it will be a shopping mall chain. This is the way the entire city is going.

Without commercial rent control (as New York had after World War II, from 1945 - 1963), without the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, without a rezoning to control the spread of chain stores, without any protections whatsoever for small businesses in this city, New York will continue to turn, block by block, into the Mall of America, taking every last remnant of our history and local character with it.

Hopefully, J. Crew and Madewell will put back the R & L sign. It's the least they can do. But whatever they do, how about telling the mayor and City Council to #SaveNYC?

*UPDATE: A reader sent in a permit from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (PDF). It mentions the R&L sign while giving permission to the building owner to remove it--along with other historic details.

"The approved work," reads the permit, "consists of exterior alterations at the storefront, including the removal of the existing stainless steel storefront, and installation of a new stainless steel storefront ...removal of the projecting stainless steel signage." But it also mentions "reinstallation of the existing signage."

Does that mean "R&L" will return?

Another reader says, "The sign has temporarily been removed and resting on top of the sidewalk shed. I am told the plan is to reinstall once the facade repairs are complete. Thank goodness for LPC in this case."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Price on Harlem Gentrification

Author Richard Price spoke at the New York Times' "Cities for Tomorrow" conference earlier this week. He talked a bit about gentrification in Harlem and "that eternal argument: Is this good for Harlem or bad for Harlem?"

NY Times photo

He said: "The big picture is: Everything that's happening now in Harlem, everything that's being built in Harlem is with someone like me in mind, preferably 30 years younger than me. The born-heres? They're looking around and seeing new restaurants, and high rises going up, and new trees planted, and they know it's not for them. It's like: You're in the way..."

"It's like white people discovered Harlem like Europeans discovered America, and the Indians are going, 'Really? What are we standing on, cream cheese?' ... So whatever's exciting and new is a little bit of a death knell."

He talked about the recent closure of Pathmark and the opening of Whole Foods on 125th Street: "The minute that Whole Foods went up--game over."

And he had some sound advice on how to be a decent neighbor in a gentrifying part of town, including "learn manners" and "patronize businesses that were there a hell of a lot longer than you were." Also: "Be a good guy. Have a heart."

Watch here at minute mark 16:15.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Da'Vinci Shoes


Da'Vinci Shoes has been on West 8th Street since 1980, opened by Israeli immigrant Evette Mansoor. Now we hear they will be vanishing.

A regular reader and long-time Villager writes in:

"My girlfriend was in there the other day and was chatting with owner. Rent going from $6K to nearly $40K. So they are looking for new digs. Or just may abandon ship altogether."

Da'Vinci's inventory clearance sale sign hangs below a "for lease" notice from Winick, where the listing--as they all do--celebrates the nearness of chain stores.

Our reader adds: "Same folks--Rudin family--who built the condos on St. Vincent's are raising the rent here."

I can't confirm the ownership, but I can make a prediction. The address 37 West 8th is shared by both Da'Vinci shoes and Uncle Sam's Army Navy, in business since 1969. If the owner is kicking out Da'Vinci, we should expect they will also be kicking out Uncle Sam's. That's just how they do it.

When these two long-time local businesses shutter, it won't be because of trends. It won't be because people don't buy shoes or Army/Navy gear. It won't be because people are shopping online. It won't be due to the "invisible hand" of "market forces." And it won't be because "New York is always changing."

It will be because the elite power brokers of this city made it so.


A few years ago, I wrote on the intentional hyper-gentrification of West 8th Street. At the time, the Marlton SRO was being turned into the boutique Marlton hotel by the BD Hotels chain, with hopes that it would eventually upscale the entire street. It was celebrated by the local Business Improvement District known as Village Alliance.

BD Hotels co-founder Richard Born told the Daily News: "We’ve had the experience of changing neighborhoods like with the Bowery Hotel, where we saw the area take off. We think that will happen here. I bet we raise square-footage prices by $100 across the street when we open... The beats hung out here, and in a way, hipsters of today are the beatniks of yesterday. I think Eighth St. will be as cool as Prince St. in SoHo."

At the time, the Village Alliance was also "talking with the city’s Department of Transportation about possibly putting in the kind of pedestrian plazas found in Times Square," according to the Times. Pedestrian plazas spike rents. In Times Square, they helped raise retail rents by 71 percent in just six months, according to then transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. It was, she said, “the largest increase in the city’s history.” No wonder the BID wants them.

In the end, local small business, the character and history of New York's streets, will be the victim of West 8th Street's enforced redevelopment. And so will all of us who want to live in an open, diverse, and affordable city that has not been curated by the 1%.


P.S. Take a walk on West 8th Street back in the day.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Astor Place Farce

As I've written about here before, the redesigned Astor Place is shaping up to be a neoliberalized theme park disguised as an open public space. We've watched the process develop over the past few years, and now it's about to reach its hideous completion.

design rendering

Here's the latest scuttlebutt on the project from long-time reader Liberation:

"I was told by someone who works for Village Alliance that, when eventually complete, the new Astor Place will have a variety of food vendors, outdoor tables and chairs, and some type of lighting scheme. There's a large electrical box on the north east corner of Chase that will power all of this. The Village Alliance and some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building decide who these food vendors are and, in general, decide what takes place in the area.

One bit of news I found shocking is that they have allegedly altered The Alamo sculpture so it will now include some type of lighting. According to the Village Alliance employee the sculpture will also rotate on its own now, as he said people have hurt their backs trying to spin it. Personally, I find it unethical to alter an artist's work to make it appear more like a theme park attraction."

Astor Place, 1998, photo by Alex at Flaming Pablum

It sounds like a joke. It has to be a joke, right?

The Alamo, the famous Cube, turned by skate punks and college students from the beginning of time, will now rotate robotically so the new East Villagers don't throw their backs out? A scrappy piece of public art that has been loved into realness by the rough hands of city kids, covered in graffiti, kicked, climbed upon, and even yarn bombed, will now be floodlit and mechanized, like a plastic ballerina turning in a music box? It is almost impossible to believe. Could it be true?

More egregious, however, is the report that "some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building" will be making the decisions about who is allowed to occupy and profit from this supposedly public space.

The Sculpture for Living is the 21-story "green monster" luxury condo tower on Astor Place, the first in a set of massive, out-of-context new construction here. It contains a "limited collection of 39 museum-quality loft residences," originally priced between $1,995,000 to over $6,500,000. "It doesn’t belong in the neighborhood,” critic Paul Goldberger wrote at its opening. “...the architect has destroyed the illusion that this neighborhood, which underwent gentrification long ago, is now anything other than a place for the rich.”

And now those rich residents will dictate how the public will use Astor Place, historic site of riots and protests, over a century of dissent? If the report is true, it would represent a massive betrayal of the people by City Hall.

The betrayal began some 15 years ago, when the city and Cooper Union colluded to rezone and redesign Astor Place for the purpose of upscaling it and making it profitable for a very few. East Villagers fought back. Many said "the large-scale development would turn their eclectic, artistic neighborhood into a sterile business campus."

That's exactly what has happened. Now we have the 400,000-square-foot 51 Astor Place, known locally as The Death Star, full of chain stores and featuring a bland corporate plaza. Now we have real-estate brokers and developers calling Astor Place "Midtown South."

The Marxist urban theorist Henri Lefebvre wrote that a city is a “place of desire, permanent disequilibrium, seat of the dissolution of normalities and constraints, the moment of play and of the unpredictable.”

This is exactly what is being destroyed in New York today--and especially during the years of Bloomberg and Burden. From one end of town to the other, unpredictability has been steamrolled by the tight constraints of design. Our public spaces are being privatized in stealth--they may look open, but look closer and you'll see the mechanisms of closure and control. Security guards, surveillance cameras, corporate events, the uniformity of design elements; and, of course, the private committees of wealthy property owners that quasi-secretly dictate so-called public use of our space (see Washington Square Park, the High Line, etc.).

What have we allowed to happen to our city? Why are we not taking up cudgels and storming Astor Place? Oh, just eat another cupcake. I'll have another latte. Any feelings of injustice will soon fade.

To quote Luc Sante:
“The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats—as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions—have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds… As a consequence of these and other changes, we have forgotten what a city was.”

UPDATE: William Kelley, executive director of the Village Alliance, writes to EV Grieve:

"The Alamo sculpture should return in August, and it is exactly the same as it was before. There are no lights and the spinning mechanism is human powered, just like before. It received a thorough cleaning and coating to protect it from the weather and will return in good shape. Also coming in August, there will be bistro tables, chairs and umbrellas for use by the public, much like you see in other plazas around the city.

Finally, there will be a single food concession in the north and south plaza spaces at Astor Place (not around Cooper Square or points south) pursuant to the license agreement with NYCDOT. No other vending will be allowed on the plazas."

Astor Place Redesign
Battle for Astor Place

Friday, July 15, 2016


Earlier this week I reported that the Stage Restaurant has been gutted by building owner Icon Realty, who evicted the beloved, long-time East Village business last year. Here's a heartbreaking look inside.

Photo by Kirsten Theodos, Twitter

The real estate developers will not rest until they take this entire city.

It is not natural.

It is not inevitable.

It is not "New York is always changing."

It is the outcome of city and state policies. And it can be changed. But New Yorkers will have to wake up and do something--or it's going to be same shit, different day, day after day after day after day. #SaveNYC -- before it's all gutted.

7th and 17th

Richard writes in:

"I just came from the bodega at 7th Avenue and 17th Street, which is almost empty. The nephew of the owner was behind the counter. He explained that the building was recently purchased and they were being evicted, along with Merchants bar/restaurant and Muscle Maker Grill, so that a large apartment building can be erected in their stead."

"I asked where the owner was.

'He died. Heart attack. Two weeks ago. He was 56.'

The owner's son was outside, sitting on top of the empty fruit-and-flower stand, staring into space. I had talked with him over the last few months about his plans for the store. He recently installed a new sign --- Pop's Place, it reads; his dad had been there for 30 years --- and wanted to install a juice bar, and do other things. Sweet kid. All for naught.

I offered condolences. He doesn't know what he's going to do now.

Friday is their last day, in case you'd like to stop by."

That day is today.

via Real Deal

Last year, the Real Deal reported that the two buildings at 116 Seventh Avenue and 204 West 17th Street were purchased for $11 million by Gary Barnett’s Extell Development.

This month, the Real Deal also reports, Extell sold a controlling interest in the properties to A&H Acquisitions’ Alex Adjmi for $29 million.

And so the story is the same, again and again. Another massive profit for a massive developer. Utter heartbreak and loss of livelihood for a small businessman who hoped to carry on his father's legacy. What will the people of Chelsea get in return? We can guess--another soulless, chainstore-filled glass box to suck the life right out of us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On Donnell's Replacement & $375 Cocktails

The new 53rd Street Library opened recently, replacing the beloved Donnell library. Sleek, stark, and only one-third the size of the old Donnell, the new space is true to the architect’s original fantasy rendering, a bizarre scenario in which people sit on designer bleacher seats, staring blankly into space, not reading books.

Library entrance beyond the Baccarat and its guard

The entire library is bizarre. There are not many books, though there is plenty of vast empty space that could hold them (Justin Davidson calls it a "perfect haven for checking stock prices and Twitter"), and the glossy wood floor is conspicuously loud underfoot, booming with every step. But the ampitheater that ushers guests inside has got to be the strangest part.

As it leads you down into the subterranean space, it blatantly recalls the High Line's "10th Avenue Square," where people sit on wooden steps and look out at traffic. On the right-hand wall is a metal mesh screen that brings to mind the skin of the New Museum on the Bowery.

There are no books on display here. (Books "smell like old people," after all.) People mostly chat and check their Facebook feeds. The steps are oddly placed and feel precarious, making you cling to the handrail as you go.

The people sitting on these steps are compelled to watch an unavoidably large video screen placed in front of them, where flashing scenes of New York City include several shots of luxury towers, built or under construction.

To watch people watching this, in a library that replaced a library that was destroyed so a luxury tower could rise, is to participate in a surreal nightmare of modern neoliberal urbanization.

As I sat there, watching people passively watch the screen, I remembered one of the last times I was inside the old Donnell. It was a very different scene.

Back in 2007 the library hosted a Municipal Art Society discussion entitled “Is New York Losing Its Soul?” Tickets for the event quickly sold out and people loitered outside the library hoping for scalpers. Inside, the audience was restless, ready to be whipped into a froth. We’d been living in Bloomberg’s New York for five years, and we were not happy.

The moderator, Clyde Haberman of the Times, started off by saying there was an implied "yes" to the question of the night, New York is losing its soul. You feel it, he said “under the relentless bulldozer of homogenization…as you see one small shop, one small restaurant after another just basically ground down and replaced by--does it have to be one more bank? Does it have to be one more Duane Reade or CVS? People on the Upper West Side are nearly in revolt, but they won't revolt because they'll just go to Starbucks and take care of that.” After an enthusiastic round of applause, he continued, crediting the soul loss to “an administration that has yet to meet a developer to whom it wishes to say no.”

That administration was Bloomberg’s, a crew of businessmen and socialites hell-bent on turning Manhattan, and much of the city, into what the mayor liked to call a “luxury product.” Most of us didn’t understand it then, but he was using zoning, branding, eminent domain, and corporate welfare to reconstruct New York for the very wealthy.

Empty space, no books

Just one year after the Donnell Library hosted that discussion on the loss of New York’s soul, it became a victim of the same phenomenon.

Built in 1955 and still the second busiest branch of the New York Public Library, the popular Donnell had long been a center of culture, featuring films, concerts, lectures, and readings by poets such as Marianne Moore. They had a great music library. A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh doll lived there, sitting in his threadbare fur in a bulletproof, climate-controlled glass cube. Like that Pooh and other well-loved velveteens, the Donnell was on the scruffy side, a fact that made it friendly—and vulnerable to those who insist that everything must be shiny and new. Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, seemed to be suffering from status anxiety when he told the Times, “We’re very conscious of the quality of design that is presently on that street. We’re not going to be the poor, shabby neighbor anymore.”

A tragic symbol of the city’s shift from public to private, community to corporate, socialist to neoliberal, the Donnell was shuttered in 2008, sold off to help fund an ill-conceived, glitzy renovation of the library’s Main Branch on Fifth Avenue (itself renamed that year after billionaire donor Stephen Schwarzman, a man who “had become,” wrote The New Yorker, “the designated villain of an era on Wall Street—an era of rapacious capitalists and heedless self-indulgence").

The Donnell sat empty until 2011 when, against public protest, it was demolished to make room for a 50-story, $403 million combination hotel and condo tower. Opened in 2015, the Baccarat Hotel & Residences New York boasts rooms that rent for $899 and suites for $18,000 per night, a restaurant that caters to “Eurotrash, oligarch wannabes, and hedge-funders (New York Post), and “a boutique store selling crystal with price tags up to $10,000” (Wall Street Journal), all topped by a $60 million penthouse where “the master bedroom is large enough to house two New York studio apartments” (Forbes) -- and where the tenants (who are probably never home) have their own private library.

It probably has more books in it than the public library in Baccarat's basement.

Baccarat bar and lounge

After I toured the new library, I went upstairs to explore the Baccarat.

The second-floor bar and lounge is open to the public. The place is decked out. People sit in leather seats surrounded by their shopping bags and check their Facebook feeds. They talk about money and real estate. They talk about the far-flung places they've traveled and what everything costs. "Do you know they serve a dish for $64,000? For that much money, I want endless orgasms with my dinner."

The Baccarat bar doesn't serve anything that expensive, but they do their part. They have specialty cocktails and premium cocktails, which are not cheap, along with one "super premium" cocktail known as "Le Roi."

It costs $375.

To get the Le Roi, you have to order in advance so that Baccarat can fashion a custom-made glass to pour it into. In goes the most expensive gin in the world, Nolet's Reserve, which sells for $700 a bottle. This is mixed with Grey Goose VX and Lillet Rose. You then get the exclusive privilege of drinking the cocktail from the custom-made glass--which, by the way, you apparently can't take with you. This is not McDonald's, where you're encouraged to "collect them all."

For $375, I'd at least want to bring home the souvenir glass. 

In his review of the new library, Times critic David Dunlap noted parenthetically that there is a “column to be written about secretive plutocrats buying investment aeries in the sky while public institutions are relegated to basements. Some other day.”

I hope that day comes soon. The way the 53rd Street Library is set up, it seems doomed to fail as a library. How long before we hear reports of "under-utilization" and the place is closed? Which, let's be honest, may well have been the plan all along.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Stage Gutted

Last week I posted about the East Village's guerrilla response to Icon Realty's habit of pushing out our beloved small businesses. Locals have vandalized Icon's signs around the neighborhood with graffiti and stickers telling the real estate developer where to get off.

Most recently, someone spray-painted the sidewalk outside the evicted and empty Stage Restaurant, telling the East Village to boycott the incoming business--which, at this writing, will be another outpost of Kati Roll.

Immediately, the day after I published the post, a team of workers were on the scene. They furiously power-washed the sidewalk in front of the Stage and completely gutted the interior, ripping out the counter, the swivel stools, everything.

Now the spot has been wrapped in plywood, the sign ripped down and vanished.

The Stage was here since 1980. It was locally owned and operated, and it was always busy. Every day, the counter was full of working-class joes, cops and construction workers and garbage collectors, along with college kids, old people, and oddballs, writers and artists, sometimes Helen Mirren, and everyone in between.

After the Second Avenue gas explosion, Icon evicted the Stage, claiming they were illegally siphoning gas. Owner Roman Diakun denied it and resolved the case, but the legal fees and the loss of money over months of sitting closed was too much for the little restaurant and they were forced to shutter.

Angry New Yorkers responded immediately, decorating the empty storefront with notices that read "Closed by Order of a Money Grubbing Landlord and Real Estate Scam" and GILF's "Gentrification in Progress" tape.

A #SaveNYC sign also hung in the window.

Real estate developers often cover up a site of dissent, burying the body to make us stop our angry grieving. To make us forget.

In today's city, where the power brokers want us to forget, to remember is an act of rebellion. They need to wipe from our memory The Stage and Cafe Edison, CBGB's and Roseland, our bookstores and record shops, our greasy spoons and scruffy meeting places.

Henry Giroux calls this “the violence of organized forgetting,” a concept borrowed from Milan Kundera, who wrote, “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have someone write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history.” Is it possible to cross such a “desert of organized forgetting”? Yes, it is possible. But it requires a radical remembering.

“We have forgotten what a city was,” Luc Sante has written. We all must dare to remember.

Monday, July 11, 2016

NY Central Art Supply


Last year I shared the news that New York Central, one of the oldest art supply stores in the country, was in trouble.

Today they announce that the shop will be going out of business by end of summer. Doug Steinberg wrote in with a press release, explaining that the closure is "due to poor business conditions and its building being sold."

From the press release:

"The store, which has been in continuous operation at 62 Third Avenue since 1905, is losing its month to month lease at the end of September.

Founded in 1905 by Benjamin Steinberg, the store has been run by the Steinberg family for more than 3 generations. Benjamin’s son Harold (whose brother Gilbert went on to open Lee’s Art Shop which also recently closed) took over in the 1940s. The store’s most recent President, Steven Steinberg, started working at the store in the 1950s and took over in the early 1970s. He built the store into a mainstay of modern artists, and added a world-renowned paper department. His sister Marcia Norins worked there as well, running New York Central Framing, which closed in 2012. Steven Steinberg recently passed away in November of 2015 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s Disease, and his sister Marcia passed away from Cancer in July of 2015.

'We’ve held on as long as we could out of loyalty to our long-time staff and amazing customers, but the business was not set up to survive current economic conditions,' said Barrie Steinberg, Steven’s daughter.

The store's customer list over the years has read like a who's who of modern artists, including Andy Warhol, Willem deKooning, Frank Stella, Larry Rivers, Cecily Brown, Keith Haring and many more, but in recent years the store has faced tremendous challenges from the rise of online shopping and the infiltration of national chain stores.

'In a world where people can get what they need shipped to their door with the tap of a finger, Central’s old-world charm and personal service was both a blessing and a curse,' said Doug Steinberg, Steven’s son. 'It’s very emotional for everyone. I’ve known most of the employees since I was a boy. I really hope another store realizes how amazing they are and offers them a new opportunity.'

The store plans on remaining open throughout the summer as it liquidates current inventory."

Quotes on a Condo

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a photo of the Yves condo building in Chelsea, where Core Realty had on display a quote from Fran Lebowitz: "When you leave New York, you are astonished at how clean the rest of the world is. Clean is not enough."

Before (photo by mingum7)

We wondered if Fran would approve of having her words so appropriated--and in such an inappropriate fashion--for selling clean, sterile real estate. Signs point to: No, she didn't.

I left a message on Fran's answering machine (you just know she still has one of those) to tell her about the quote and now--it's gone. (I would love to know exactly how it all transpired.)


Still, several other quotes remain on the walls, mostly from bohemians talking about how New York is an exceptional place, not for typical Americans, where unusual things are happening. The sort of quotes that don't belong on a luxury condo, helping to sell other luxury condos, and in the ever less exceptional post-Bloombergian city. But the remaining quotes all come from dead people, so I can't call them up and alert them.

The only person in the bunch that does belong is Le Corbusier, the man who wanted to bulldoze New York City and fill it with dead, soulless boxes.

Djuna Barnes certainly should not be here. "New York is the meeting place of the peoples," she says from the northern wall of Yves, "the only city where you can hardly find a typical American."

As my friend Romy Ashby of Walkers in the City pointed out, "Djuna would have a fit" if she saw her words used this way. I asked Romy to share her thoughts:

"First of all, the quotes they chose all come up on the first list of '50 Best NYC quotes' when you go googling for easy quotes, so it's likely that whoever chose them had no idea who Djuna Barnes or Dylan Thomas were. And if they did know who they were, then it is completely tasteless to use their words to advertise 'residences' that neither of them would ever have been able to afford even if they'd wanted to live in one. I think they should have used the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'New York is a sucked orange.' It's much more apt, and I'm sure it wouldn't damage their sales."

She adds: "I know several people who knew Djuna Barnes when she lived in her little apartment on Patchin Place down by the Jefferson Market Library. She lived there for 42 years. She was extremely smart and she had a real temper and did not like being used. She was furious when a feminist bookshop opened in the Village called Djuna Books. She rang them up and demanded that they change the name. So I think it's pretty safe to guess that if Djuna were still alive and saw herself quoted as part of an ad campaign for pricey real estate splashed onto a big ugly stack like the one on 18th and 7th she would have a fit of considerable magnitude."

There is one more quote that's been added to the wall: "Evict Trump." That one should stay.

Lydia Lunch's Sexy Stories

In "Sexy Stories from New York City’s Torrid Underground," the legendary Lydia Lunch will be hosting a series of events at The Roxy Hotel. She'll be performing stories from her book Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary and presenting readings from the unpublished memoirs of Warhol Superstar Bibbe Hansen and Lower East Side raconteur Zoe Hansen. There will also be musical interludes.

Monday July 11, Tuesday July 26, and every other Tuesday in August
The Django
The Roxy Hotel Tribeca
2 Avenue of the Americas
Doors 8:00
Show at 9:00

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Telling Icon Off

Looking around the East Village, it seems that Icon Realty is the most hated realty company in the neighborhood. Maybe it's because they've been pushing out our favorite small businesses  -- and leaving the empty spaces sitting empty, plastered with their corporate logo.

The neighborhood is filling up with Icon Realty signs -- more high-rent blight -- in many cases, stretched across the entire length of buildings as they've emptied whole ground floors.

And wherever the signs appear, locals are expressing their outrage. People recently protested on E. 9th Street. Many are leaving angry messages.

"FUCK ICON," they say in graffiti.

They're slapping stickers to the signs that read:


But the biggest protest message so far just appeared spray-painted in big capital letters across the sidewalk in front of the dearly departed Stage Restaurant on Second Avenue.

"DO NOT RENT HERE," it says, "DO NOT BUY HERE. BOYCOTT IN EFFECT," with arrows pointing to 128 Second Avenue.

This sounds like the sort of boycott that successfully saved the Upper West Side's Suba Pharmacy from becoming a bank 10 years ago. Neighbors vowed to boycott the bank if it moved into Suba's space, and that helped save it from eviction.

The maker of this message might be using a similar tactic, launching a boycott of the business opting to rent the Stage's space at 128 Second Avenue. (That's Kati Roll.)

With no protections for small businesses from City Hall, people are doing whatever it takes to save what's left of our local streetscape and its rapidly vanishing mom and pops.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

70 Hester Street

Casimir Nozkowski has made a lovely short film about life at 70 Hester Street, a building that was once a synagogue, a whiskey still, and a raincoat factory before it became a home and a studio for Nozkowski's artist parents in the 1960s.

It was recently sold and re-sold for millions and the Nozkowskis were forced to leave.

You can watch the entire film here and on Vimeo. I chatted with Casimir about old buildings in the city.

70 Hester Street from Casimir Nozkowski on Vimeo.

Q: What is the value of old buildings to the city and its people?

A: In my opinion, having grown up in a 130-year-old (plus) building, there is an enormous value to maintaining spaces constructed in long-ago eras or event recent eras. The personalities of cities are going to change over time, of course, and lots of new buildings and new spaces will be built. But being able to see and feel a connection to the past is a reminder that we occupy land that many souls have lived and breathed on.

I think seeing an older building is a way to inspire more empathy, to know that you're part of a continuum of people who have made the city into what it is. I know growing up at 70 Hester Street, I often thought about the congregants and factory workers and other residents of the building who had all left their marks on the infrastructure. I'm thinking of the little bits of prayer book that would just kind of appear in the corner, or fixtures that had once shone light on the shower curtains and raincoats that were produced there, or a sliding door with a peephole that had guarded the whiskey still running during prohibition. I was incredibly lucky to be able to see all those marks, and I think it made me more aware of the history we all share and that we're all a part of together.

Also it might just be my personal bias, or an oversimplification, but a lot of the new buildings have a lot less personality and detail than the old buildings I'm used to seeing on the Lower East Side. Is it me or all the new ones all about glass and steel and using a lot of the same silver, blue, shiny color palettes? The old buildings have more character.

Q: Your family home has a rare beauty that today seems only accessible to the very wealthy. (I'm going to assume that your family was not wealthy--I may be wrong about that.) What are your thoughts on what happens when only the rich of a city are permitted to live in beautiful, open, well-lighted spaces?

A: My parents moved into 70 Hester right out of college (they went to Cooper Union) and cleaned it out in exchange for a tidy rent of $100 a month in 1967. They weren't wealthy and were looking for space to pursue their art. Finding something that beautiful was a bonus. Once they cleaned it out I think that beauty became something that inspired them and may have informed the work they made (that's just my speculation though).

I think it's a shame when beautiful spaces are only available to the wealthy. But I guess I think it's a shame when anything is ONLY available to the wealthy.

When my parents moved into 70 Hester Street in the 60s, the Lower East Side was a kind of tough neighborhood. So it didn't matter how beautiful or well-lit a space was, there weren't any rich people (not the ones we're talking about) who were coming down to the neighborhood anyway. But then, of course, gentrification happens and neighborhoods get safer, relatively speaking, and more perks and franchises move in, and people with money scoop up all the beautiful, well-lit spaces and think they've discovered them.

I don't know what the policy looks like--is it rent control? Is it regulations that temper buying or flipping properties strictly for investment purposes? It's some combination of that, which we need, so that the people who want to be inspired, want space, want to live in a building with a shared, long history don't always have to have absurd means to do so.

My parents did not move into 70 Hester as any kind of financial investment. They wanted to have a place to work and live that didn't bankrupt them. That seems reasonable to me and I'd certainly prefer a city where a maximum number of people could choose where they live for similar reasons.

Q: So, the top 2 floors, where your family lived, is now renting to a gallery for $14,500 per month? I have to ask that very New York question: what was the rent before that?

A: Actually I think the building's owners couldn't find someone who would pay that $14K rent (I guess there are some limits to rent even on the LES?) and they sold the building again just this year for $5.9 million I believe (up from $3.5 million in 2012!).

Like I mentioned above, when my parents moved in, the rent was $100 a month. That was 1967. Their landlady and then her daughter kept the rent very low for many years. I think when my parents moved out in 2012, the rent was $1,200 or $1,400 a month. I'm not positive, but it was something well below market.

My parents were always very conscious of the deal that they were getting and put a fair amount of their own money and time into building upkeep (including literally building walls and making it at all habitable when they moved in). And the same goes for the family that lived below us on the first floor and the artists who worked in the studio below that. Everyone contributed in making the building livable.

But no one has to shed any tears for us. My parents and I had a lucky run in a space like this for many years at a great rent. It came to an end very abruptly, but I think we all feel very grateful for getting to live and work in a building like this for 45 years. That ability to live in one place--especially a place as special as 70 Hester Street--for so long feels more and more impossible in New York City every year.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Rebel Rebel Shuttered


Earlier this month, I first reported on the impending closure of Rebel Rebel records on Bleecker Street, pushed out by rising rent. According to owner David Shebiro, the landlord opted to let the luxury clothing chain Scotch & Soda expand into the record shop's space.

Now it's gone.

The windows are covered in newspaper. A photograph of David Bowie, the inspiration for Rebel Rebel records, salutes passersby. A #SaveNYC sign hangs in apparent futility -- as City Hall continues to ignore our pleas and do nothing to protect the cultural and locally commercial streetscape of New York.

For his farewell note, Mr. Shebiro quotes from Bowie's "Future Legend":

"And in the death
As the last few corpses lay rotting
on the slimy thoroughfare
The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building
High on Poacher's Hill
And red, mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City
No more big wheels

Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats
And ten thousand peopleoids split into small tribes
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald
Any day now
The Year of the Diamond Dogs

This ain't Rock 'n' Roll
This is Genocide"

"Love Me Avenue" has been replaced in red by "Bleecker Street." And at the end, a final note: "BEWARE OF CORPORATIONS."