Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Bleak City

For years, we've been watching the hyper-gentrified parts of town wither under the strain of what's become known as high-rent blight. The city is being hollowed out. Small businesses are vanishing--not because of random "market forces" or changing consumer trends, and not only because of online shopping, but because the rent is too damn high.

The issue is finally getting traction in higher places.

State Senator Brad Hoylman, a long-time advocate for small business, has published an in-depth report: "Bleaker on Bleecker: A Snapshot of High-Rent Blight in Greenwich Village and Chelsea."

Hoylman trying to save Cafe Edison, 2014. Photo: Peter Ajemian, twitter

In the report: "Senator Hoylman’s office found numerous examples of high rent blight, where independent businesses are forced out because of 'exorbitantly high rent…being raised astronomically.' In case after case, landlords push out local businesses in order to hold out for luxury retail or corporate chains capable of paying higher rents. The result is a glut of empty storefronts, chain stores, pharmacies, and high-end national brands that often lack local character and don't provide goods and services the community needs."

Hoylman isn't just reporting on the situation. He also proposes a multi-pronged approach to solving the problem, including the policy recommendations we've been advocating for at #SaveNYC. He plans to introduce legislation in the State Senate to:

- Create a New York City Legacy Business Registry
- Create Formula Retail Zoning Restrictions

He also recommends:

- Phasing out tax deductions for landlords with persistent vacancies
- Eliminating the commercial rent tax
- Collecting sales tax on online sales

In addition, he puts in a good word for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, an alternative to commercial rent control that would help small businesspeople negotiate fair lease renewals and stay in place.

You can help, too. #SaveNYC has made it easy for you to write to City Hall with our letter campaign. And here are more ideas for how to get involved.

Further reading:
Save New York
Unchain the City
Vacant New York

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Newsstands Dying

Years ago, I wrote a lengthy piece on the history of New York's newsstands, how City Hall and other powers had been trying to replace and control them for decades, and how Bloomberg succeeded.

In 2003, Bloomberg signed the street furniture bill, aiming, in his own words, “to rationalize the streets of the city, where right now it’s a hodgepodge of unattractive things.” The city seized hundreds of stands from their long-time owners, replacing them with identical stainless steel and glass boxes by Cemusa, a Spanish advertising company. As the Times explained, “Before 2003, newsstand operators paid the city a licensing fee, but owned and paid for their newsstand.... Now the newsstands are owned by Cemusa.”

At one point, Bloomberg reportedly wanted the mom-and-pop operators to pay for the new stands—at a cost of up to $40,000 each. That’s like the government seizing your house, building a new house you’ll rent from a corporation, and then charging you for its construction. Luckily, that didn’t wash, but the old stands still fell.

A lawyer for the Newsstand Association called the bill “an unconstitutional taking of private property.” The courts sided with Bloomberg.

Now Thrillist reports that our newsstands are suffering. The Cemusa deal, chain stores, and the usual changes in consumption, are all sucking the life out of them.

“Everything is going down, down, down,” said one newsstand operator. “I’ve been here for twelve years, and every day is worse.” He blamed the proliferation of chains like Duane Reade and Walgreens. “This business will not be around for much longer."

The solution? One guy wants to see updated newsstands selling "millennial-targeted" stuff, like bike helmets and natural condoms. After all, he says--essentially agreeing with Bloomberg--“The [old] newsstands were...pretty crappy."

Or we could, you know, give the newsstand operators their private property back. And maybe, call me crazy, rezone the city to control the rampant virus of chain stores that's killing every small business in town. #SaveNYC.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Lenox Lounge Lost

Here's what's left of the once great and gorgeous Lenox Lounge. There's nothing but a pile of brick and timber, a couple of broken walls, and the ghosts of Harlem past.

photo: Lynn Lieberman (AFineLyne)

Untapped Cities has more photos, if you'd like to rend your garments and beat your breast in grief.

The demolition began earlier this month after a long, sad story--which you can read here. And, yeah, it was the rent. It's almost always the rent. Regulations on commercial rent would have prevented this.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Death Knell of the Peeps

Last week, we heard the news that Richard Basciano, porn king of Times Square, had passed away. He had kept Show World going for decades in a pair of old buildings on 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, remnants of the lost Deuce. Surely his passing will mean the closure of Show World and the sale--and likely demolition--of the buildings.

I went by to check on Show World. Already, much of the place has been closed. The main room is open, still selling DVDs, magazines, and sex toys; and the handful of video peep booths there are running. But the warren of back rooms and basement spaces has been closed. The neon lights are off. Chains cross the entrances hung with "do not enter" signs.

Show World has been diminished.

This week, Crain's offered an in-depth look at Basciano's life with Show World. They came to the same conclusion:

"Regardless of whether his estate sells, undertakes a development itself or finds a partner, the financial pressures from the lawsuit make it likely that Show World Center will close. That would mean the end of an era, reducing to three the number of porn shops operating around Eighth Avenue in Times Square: Vishara Video, The Blue Store and The Playpen.

'Show World was the mega emporium of all things erotic,' said Neil Wexler, a writer for a host of X-rated magazines in the 1980s and 1990s, including Leg World, Cheeks and Girls Over 40. 'It’s a shell of what it was. If it closed, it would be symbolic of the death of the industry in Times Square.'"

Crain's also reveals another imminent vanishing:

"Vishara Video may also be unable to withstand the pull of market forces," they write. ("Market forces" is another way of saying landlord-driven hyper-gentrification.) "Hersel Torkian, the XXX store’s landlord, said he did not plan to renew its lease: 'Their lease is coming up soon, and we don’t want them there.'”

Here's what the last shuttered XXX joint on 8th Avenue looks like today. What was DVD Depot has been sitting empty for 3 years. From smut to high-rent blight:

Monday, May 8, 2017

Lenox Lounge Demolished

After 73 years of legendary life in Harlem, and after 4 years of sitting empty and wasted, the once great Lenox Lounge is currently being demolished. It is a terrible shame that could have been avoided.


If the city had commercial rent control, as it did for many years, it would have been avoided. If the City Council had passed the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, it might have been avoided. But City Hall refuses to protect small business people against landlord greed, claiming that it's a free-market society--which it is not.

Corporate chains in the city are regularly chosen by Business Improvement Districts and given millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives. That's not laissez-faire. That's corporate welfare.

Thanks to City Hall's catering to big business, we have lost the Lenox Lounge, along with countless other precious local landmarks. For the soul of the city, the price of that loss is high.

Owner Alvin Reed, Daily News photo, 2012

In 2012, the landlord of the Lenox Lounge doubled the rent, from $10,000 to $20,000 per month. This was more than small business owner Alvin Reed could manage. The lease was given to Richie Notar of the Nobu luxury restaurant chain.

At the same time, Whole Foods announced a move to 125th Street--later we would learn that it would land in the empty lot directly across from the Lenox Lounge. In the Whole Foods Effect, rents near the store increase. That's exactly what happened in Harlem. And that Whole Foods would not have been there without the Bloomberg Administration's rezoning of 125th Street, a controversial process that has strangled the historic street in chains.

After being forced to close on New Year's Eve 2013, Alvin Reed stripped the Lenox Lounge of its antique facade, announcing that he would resurrect it all in another location. That did not come to pass.

The landlord sued Reed for stripping the place. Cultural history isn't worth much without those antique details. Notar backed out of the deal, telling the Daily News, "the scope of the project (mostly the overall condition of the building) became bigger than anticipated."

The Lenox Lounge was left to rot. Someone spray-painted "1939 - 2012: 80 YEARS FOR THIS” across the plywood that covered the door.


As the big, shimmery building that will house Whole Foods rose across the street, the rent on the Lenox Lounge space doubled again--to $40,000 per month.

Then we learned that it would be completely demolished and replaced with a dull glass box containing a Sephora. Two glass boxes, two hollow mirrors, will soon reflect each other across Malcolm X Boulevard. What effect will that have on the people there?

Whole Foods coming

In 2011, cognitive neuroscientist Colin Ellard studied what happens to people on the sidewalk when they stand in front of a bland glass fa├žade. He placed human subjects in front of the Whole Foods 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 instruments on their wrists agreed. “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.” Ellard then moved the group to another site nearby, “a small but lively sea of restaurants and stores with lots of open doors and windows.” Here, these same people felt “lively and engaged.” Their nervous systems perked up.

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 psychologically and physically. Montgomery writes, “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.”

The big shiny boxes are literally killing us.

Small old buildings and businesses, like the Lenox Lounge, have a positive effect on our mental health. Just walking past and looking at them can be an emotional and physical boost.

Today, as the Lenox Lounge is demolished, there is no boost, only despair. The inside has been gutted to the beams and bricks. Sunlight streams in through the busted roof and shines in the place where the walls were once flocked in zebra stripes and Billie Holiday sang of "Strange Fruit." On the sidewalk, black Harlemites walk past shaking their heads. They stop to take a final photo, a memory of what's been lost.

Last week we also learned that New York City has lost 30% of its black-owned businesses--in just the five years between 2007 - 2012. The Lenox Lounge was one of them. Its loss was not inevitable. It wasn't normal or natural or part of that tired cliche of "New York is always changing." It was part of a systemic process rooted in the racism and classism of redlining and urban renewal, what James Baldwin called "Negro removal." Today, he could use the same words for hyper-gentrification.

The Lenox Lounge is yet another casualty in the long battle for the soul of New York.

For additional reading, see Michael Henry Adams' "Last Call: Who's to Blame for the Destruction of the Lenox Lounge?"

Friday, May 5, 2017

Canal Rubber

A couple of readers sent in a listing offering the Canal Rubber site for rent. "Currently Canal General Merchandise and Canal Rubber," it reads, with a plea and a renaming: "Join Canal Street’s burgeoning design district."

And, of course, there's a rendering of the blandification that the realtor hopes will come, clearly a dream of Shake Shack (and a different breed of people):

Canal Rubber has been in this location since 1954. I called the place and was told that the building has been sold to a new owner, but the shop is not closing: "We're not going anywhere."

That's good news because Canal Rubber is beloved--by customers, of course, but also by passersby, thanks to its unique vintage signage. IF IT'S IN RUBBER - WE HAVE IT!

(They've got a great Twitter feed that shows all the amazing things you can do with their products.)

Urban miniaturist Alan Wolfson even rendered Canal Rubber in Lilliputian dimensions. Long live Canal Rubber.

mini Canal Rubber, Alan Wolfson

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Show World's Basciano

The Daily News reported yesterday that Richard Basciano, "New York’s former prince of porn who made a mint peddling smut in the old Times Square," has died at the age of 92.

Basciano, the paper notes, "owned several neglected, but highly valuable, buildings between 42nd and 43rd Sts. along Eighth Ave. The former porn purveyor had gotten many offers from major developers for his infamous Show World building at 42nd St. and Eighth Ave." But he lived in the building and, for reasons involving a partner, was not able to sell it. So it has remained.

But what will happen to the Show World building--and Basciano's other "neglected" and valuable properties--now that he's gone?

The former Show World, early 2000s

The original Show World vanished (mostly) in 2004 and became a family-friendly entertainment center.

After Giuliani’s 1995 zoning ordinance, Show World had soldiered on, its naughty bits whittled away piece by piece. By 1998, the live girls were gone and the theater space was leased to an off-off-Broadway company that performed Chekhov plays on stages where naked girls once performed live sex acts, including Face Shows—as the sign said, “Let our girls sit on your face.” (Here's an NSFW look inside in 1980.)

Most recently, it held Times Scare, a haunted-house themed bar and restaurant.

Show World Center, however, remains a XXX joint right next door--originally a sort of annex to the old Show World. It went up for lease or sale in 2008, but never budged.

To walk through Show World Center is to descend into Times Square past, exploring a neon-lit warren of rooms, levels, and staircases, filled with dirty magazines and video peep booths. An attendant makes change and mops the floors. Men shuffle past in furtive glances.

There's a Coke machine for your refreshment.

Signs warn of NO LIVE GIRLS since 1998. In case you missed it, there's an image of a live girl with a big red X through it.

"Sorry for the disappointment," the sign reads.

Of course, they also sell sex toys--the usual double dildos and penis pumps, vibrators and nipple clamps. But the most unusual sight of all awaits you downstairs in the quiet, unpopulated basement.

There you will find, by order of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, entire rooms full of nothing but crossword puzzle books (along with old TV Guides and other supermarket magazines).

When Giuliani passed his unconstitutional ordinance against sex shops in 1998, part of the ruling stated that a store would be considered X-rated if 40 percent or more of their stock or floor space was in adult materials. As the Times reported at the time, the sex shops complied--by loading their spaces with just enough non-adult materials to qualify them as not X-rated. 

I rather like the crossword puzzle book room at Show World Center. It gives you an odd, disorienting sensation to come upon it in the midst of smut and neon lights. No one is ever there. No one is looking at the crossword puzzle books. And no one -- I would wager -- ever bothers to buy them.

They sit there, turning yellow and crinkly over the years, doing their job of keeping the cops from the door. These little crossword puzzles have kept Show World Center open for the past 20 years. But for how much longer?

We've seen it before. When an old-time property owner passes away, there's always a feeding frenzy for his buildings. The developers descend. The descendants fight among themselves, trying to get the most money. Eventually, everything is sold--then demolished and replaced with something expensive and made of dull glass.

Now is probably the time to go and say goodbye. The last gasp of smutty old Times Square may not be here tomorrow.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Phil's Stationery

I like paper. I like pretty much anything on paper. I like how it looks, feels, and smells.

Some people go around smelling old books. Lagerfeld makes a perfume that mimics the odor of books, called Paper Passion. Book smell, say researchers at the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage, is “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” It is the smell of decay.

Stationery stores don't have the full-bodied aroma of a used bookshop, but they're a close second, especially an old, cluttered stationery store like Phil's on E. 47th Street.

"One of the last old fashioned stationery stores," as they say on their site, Phil's carries vintage stationery supplies: "Airmail envelopes. Onion skin paper. Many Boorum & Pease record and columnar books. Old typewriter and printer ribbons. Rolodexes. And more!"

Genuine means product from the original manufacturer!
When Phil's says original -- It's original!
When Phil's says genuine -- It's genuine!
When Phil's says authentic -- It's authentic!
Everything is original and never used before!

Buy Real! Buy Phil's!"

And here's the latest Yelp review:

"If you're a New Yorker who, like me, grew up idolizing the New York of the pre-Giuliani age you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage to Phil's and buy yourself a pen or notebook. If you want a spic'n'span experience where you are waited on like a princess (I'm looking at you, 3 star Georgina!), go to Staples."