Monday, June 25, 2018

Bring Back Mom and Pop

In my latest op-ed for the Daily News, I debate the myths that the real estate industry is putting forth about the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and the demise of brick and mortar retail:

More and more, in rapid succession, our streets are dulled by corporate chains, big banks, systematized “concept” shops and too many vacant storefronts. This is not New York.



If you want to stop massive commercial rent hikes that put small businesses out of business, take action:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market" or "all because of the Internet," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.

Friday, June 22, 2018

High-Rent Blight Monopoly

You may have seen them popping up on high-rent blight around town. Monopoly cards pasted to the windows and walls of shuttered shops. They list outrageous rents and come with a Jane Jacobs quote.



They're the creation of an artist called Symbol. I asked Symbol to explain the project and what inspired him to do it. He told me:

"Everywhere I walked in Manhattan there were empty storefronts, and it seemed like one big game between landlords and tenants. All these landlords waiting for a pharmacy or bank to sign a 10-year lease. Is there a better analogy for that then the game of Monopoly?

Seems like no one really wins at Monopoly but everyone just tires out. All the little stores just seemed to disappear. There were no replacements and Manhattan lost its juice. Bleecker went from high rent/Sex and the City famous to an empty side street.

The signs on Lexington are Amazon-colored orange. The online shopping has only added to the problem and added to my tipping point. Yeah, I can buy cufflinks on Amazon but where's the fun of wandering into some old lady store and finding a cool pair? Same thing with flea markets. Sure, it was mostly crap, but it was fun crap.

I'm not sure what the answer is and I doubt the politicians can deal with what is essentially a free market issue. Hence the Jane Jacobs quote. I'm an artist in a different medium and I wanted to make a statement instead of crying about what was happening. (And buying a box of Kleenex on Amazon Prime.)

I grew up idolizing the city from nearby and have lived here for some time. Every kid growing up just outside of Manhattan has that same feeling. Let's go to the city are the words that are electrifying. I mean anything could happen on a Friday or Saturday night and usually did. Fell in love, danced, drank, got lost, ate at a now closed diner, ended up at home as the sun came up and before my parents woke up.

I hope kids still feel that way. I don't. You want fun? Move to the boroughs."

You can find more Monopoly cards on Symbol's Instagram page



This is actually not a free market issue, although the politicians and real-estate industry want us to believe that. As I explain in detail in my book, Vanishing New York, the market isn't free. It's rigged heavily in favor of big developers and landlords, giving them tax breaks and other incentives, and it works against small business people. There are many things that can be done to remedy this. One is the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

If you want to stop massive commercial rent hikes that put small businesses out of business, take action:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market" or "all because of the Internet," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Legacy Records and Black Branding

In his Times review of a new Hudson Yards restaurant, Pete Wells writes that Legacy Records has "ginned up a history for itself that brings together sloppy research with a superficial tribute to black culture."

I haven't been inside the place, so I'll leave it to Wells, who describes images of black musicians on the walls, stars like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, who supposedly recorded in a studio on the site. Except they didn't. There was a studio there for a few years in the 2000s, he says, "mostly used by orchestras, Broadway cast recordings and commercials."

There's also a photo by Mickalene Thomas of a black woman with an Afro in a sexy pose.


photo by Gary He

Wells concludes:

"Legacy Records has taken this shred of history and turned it into a fantasy of black American music.

Exhibited in a museum or gallery, Ms. Thomas’s photo might be taken as a comment on the different postures and personas available to black women. Hanging it next to the counter where pastries and coffee are sold by day strips out some of its meaning; it looks like an attempt to buy a personality for a restaurant that doesn’t have one of its own.

If anyone gets to decide who can use black culture for what purposes, it surely isn’t me. But Legacy Records uses it in a gratuitous and offhanded way that made me uncomfortable. Stevie Wonder will always be cool, but a restaurant dreamed up by real estate developers doesn’t automatically become cool by putting him on the wall."


photo: Mo Gelber

What Wells describes is not just cultural appropriation, it is "black branding" for the purposes of commodifying an urban space for the wealthy and mostly white. It is a trend that comes with hyper-gentrifying cities across America.

In his book "Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” Derek S. Hyra writes: “Not long ago, an urban community’s association with blackness was mostly perceived as detrimental. But nowadays...neighborhood-based organizations, real estate developers, restaurant owners and urban planners commodify and appropriate aspects of blackness to promote tourism, homeownership, and community redevelopment.”

We saw it most famously at the Summerhill restaurant in Crown Heights, where locals protested the use of supposed bullet holes and Forty Ounce Rosé.

Black branding is happening in hyper-gentrified cities where actual black people are being removed. With hyper-gentrification, New York City is getting whiter. And, as we've seen in many recent news reports, as middle and upper-class whites move into black and brown neighborhoods, they call the police on black people--for barbecuing, playing music, and just hanging out. These attacks happen simultaneously with the commodification of blackness.

Lower-income black people are pushed out. Their images and symbols are kept by the race/class victors as trophies and marketing opportunities. It can be seen as a form of revenge.


Barbecue Becky, Oakland, CA

“The rallying cry of the revanchist city,” wrote urbanist and gentrification expert Neil Smith, “might well be: ‘Who lost the city? And on whom is revenge to be exacted?’”

The notion of the lost city, the stolen city, goes back to white flight, a phenomenon engineered by the federal government beginning in the 1930s. Without Jim Crow in the northern United States, the government had to use stealthier methods of segregation. They developed the racist housing practice of redlining to confine black and brown people in disinvested cities, while luring whites away with good deals on houses in whites-only suburbs. This drain of the city’s tax base played a major role in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which provided the economic excuse for New York’s reorientation away from social democracy and towards neoliberalism, the radical free market, aka "trickle-down economics." And it is from there that hyper-gentrification, as a top-down tactic of state and city government, began.

We cannot talk about hyper-gentrification without also talking about racism. The story of American capital cannot be disentangled from the story of slavery in America. Neoliberalism, while it is an economic approach, was a white supremacist solution. It was, and continues to be, a powerful method to “take back” the city -- and, ultimately, the country—from black and brown people and to re-establish the power of the wealthy white elite. 


Inside Legacy Records, photo: Gary He, via Eater

So it seems appropriate that this restaurant is part of Hudson Yards, the fake city within a city, a curated space for the ultra-elite, and the perfect product of neoliberalized New York -- with all its corporate welfare, Hudson Yards has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

As I noted in my book Vanishing New York, Hudson Yards is a "dreamworld of exclusion," one of those places Mike Davis describes in Evil Paradises: “where the rich can walk like gods in the nightmare gardens of their deepest and most secret desires.”






Monday, June 18, 2018

Cafe Espanol

VANISHED

On Bleecker Street since 1976, Cafe Español has shuttered.



There's no note to say why the sudden closing, only a sign that reads: "This restaurant is closed. Trespassers will be prosecuted."

On their website, they write, "Thank you for all of these years by our side, the Cafe Español family."



This is the latest in a string of closures for Manhattan's old-school Spanish restaurants, including El Quijote, El Faro, Francisco's Centro Vasco, and El Paso.

What remains? There is Spain on 13th St., an absolute treasure, and Sevilla on Charles.

Go while you still can.



Sylvia Pines Uniquities

VANISHING

Since 1981 there’s been a little vintage jewelry shop on the corner of 77th and Lexington called Sylvia Pines Uniquities. By the end of June, it will be gone. It won’t be vanishing because the Internet killed it. It won’t be vanishing because no one buys Victorian handbags or Art Deco necklaces anymore. It will vanish for just one reason: The rent has more than tripled.



On a warm evening, Sylvia Pines’ daughter, Judy Freedman, is behind the counter, taking care of a customer who has been shopping for three hours straight. The customer, a local doctor with a passion for antique beads and opera glasses, points to rings, necklaces, and handbags, wanting to see it all.

“Is that real coral?” she asks.
“No,” Judy replies. “That’s fake.”
“Good,” says the customer. “I don’t want it. How about that handbag?”
Judy gets on a step-stool and pulls down a pink and white beaded bag. The customer runs her fingers over the beads and the two women talk bags.

“Judith Lieber,” Judy says, “was one of the most famous pocketbook makers in the city. She’d come in to this shop to buy vintage bags and then reproduce them.”
“She did,” says the customer. “And now her bags sell at Sotheby’s. On the Upper East Side, when all the old broads die, their Judith Liebers go to Sotheby’s. I want to see one more thing. Are those glass beads Murano? As opposed to moronic.”

Judy reaches into the window, pulls out a string of beads, and hands it to the customer, who holds it up to her throat, letting it dangle down the front of her t-shirt.

“Those are not for you,” Judy says confidently. “They’re gorgeous, but they’re not your colors.”



After the customer completes her purchases and leaves, Judy tells me that a new owner bought the building a couple of years ago and renovated the apartments, turning one-bedrooms into two and hiking the rents.

“I’ve been paying $6,200 a month,” Judy says, “and it’s going to $20,000. What can you sell in a store this size? Drugs. Or Cartier. You can’t sell enough to make that rent. I’d have to sell three $3,000 bags a day. You can’t do it.”

The building, 1104 Lexington, was purchased in 2016 by Friedland Properties. According to The Real Deal, "Friedland acquired the properties from the estate of Marie Cowing, with property records indicating the buildings last changed hands in 1971."

Judy figures the place will sit empty, like other shops on the street, blighted by high rent. This emptying out troubles her, along with the homogenization from chains. “Part of the beauty of New York is the nitty gritty,” she says. “This is a damn great city.” But it’s just not the same. “We’re all feeling it,” she says. “We’re losing the character.”



Sylvia Pines, who started the family business 38 years ago, still works the shop, providing a good portion of its character.

“My mother is 97 years old,” Judy says. “She smokes cigarettes and drinks vodka. She comes in every day from the Bronx. She sits on that fire hydrant out there and smokes. And she’s tough. When she saw a guy sitting on her fire hydrant, she kicked him off. She told him, ‘That’s my fire hydrant.’ You don't mess with her.”

And Sylvia is not a patient shopkeeper either. If a customer takes too long to make a decision, Sylvia will say, “I helped you enough. I’m not spending anymore time with you,” and that’s that. Judy is much more patient, a fact that sometimes irritates Sylvia, who says, “That’s aroisgevorfene gelt,” Yiddish for a waste of money.

Still, for all her toughness, Sylvia takes care of people. One morning, she watched a woman park her car in front of the shop and run with her young son to Lenox Hill Hospital around the corner. All day, Sylvia fed coins into the parking meter so the woman wouldn't get a ticket. Later, the woman sent flowers to the shop with a thank-you note explaining that her son, with a burst appendix, had made it out okay.



Like her mother, Judy takes care of people, too, embodying the ways small shopkeepers contribute to the emotional health of the city.

She gives food and clothing to Carlos, the homeless man who sits on a stool by the shop. She sometimes gives away inexpensive pieces, just to make people happy. Recently she gave away a trio of “Speak No Evil” monkeys to three young men who’d come in covered in tattoos. They looked intimidating, but they appreciated the jewelry and other antiques, and Judy could see they were “old souls,” so they deserved a gift, because “everyone needs a little gift sometimes.”

As we talk, an elderly woman walks in, dressed in linen and a broad-brimmed straw hat. She opens a box and tells Judy, “I want to show you something.” From the box she takes out a pair of large pearl earrings. Judy tells her, “These are stunning. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. And you can wear them with anything.” The woman is having trouble securing the earrings in her ears, so Judy tells her what to do, explaining that the backs are tight, but they’ll loosen up. “It’ll get easier,” Judy says.

Slowly, the woman goes on pulling items from her box. A bracelet that belonged to her grandmother. A gold necklace from an aunt. A watch chain from her father. She holds it up for Judy to see.

“Don’t sell these,” Judy says. “Give them to someone who’s special to you.” The woman explains that she’d like to make a bracelet from her father’s chain, but the clasp is broken. “Come back tomorrow,” Judy says, “and I’ll take care of it.” She refuses to charge any money for the repair. The woman, who doesn't like taking things for free, leans over the counter and whispers, “I'm a therapist. I’ll give you therapy in exchange.”



When the woman leaves, Judy and I talk about the shop’s customers, how they come looking for connection and conversation, along with the wares. What will they do when Judy and Sylvia are gone?

She tells me about the goodbyes, the customers who lean over the counter to kiss her cheek, who promise to have her over for dinner, and who bring gifts, like the woman who made a memory box for Judy and told her, “Put your memories in here.”

By now, we’re both fighting back tears.

“In order to pacify my sadness,” Judy says, “I’m going to cultivate the other part of me.” She plans to spend more time painting and playing classical piano. She wants to learn Spanish. The shop will be gone in another week and Judy needs to fill the days. A part of her is looking forward to the time. It's been many years behind that counter.

“I’m gonna miss the clowns,” she says, “but not the circus. I’ll miss my people. What is beautiful about this place is that I have relationships here.”

She wonders if, in another life, she would have been a therapist. I tell her, “You are one,” and then we’re fighting tears again.

Judy says, “The city used to be full of little stores like this, where you could go in and talk, and people cared. It was like talking to your local bartender. In this shop, I was like a bartender of jewelry.”



If you want to stop massive commercial rent hikes that put small businesses out of business, take action:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market" or "all because of the Internet," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.

Friday, June 15, 2018

St. Denis' Last Days

Earlier this year I wrote about the death of the great St. Denis building on 11th and Broadway, a building that should be landmarked but isn't, a building full of vital history.

The building was bought by Normandy Partners in 2016 and all of the tenants were removed--hundreds of small businesspeople, myself included, put out. Today, a few remain, but they will soon be gone.


photo: Phil Penman

Now we hear that Normandy is "hungry for a refinancing," as The Real Deal reports. They want $187 million for the St. Denis.

Writes TRD:

"At 799 Broadway, the funding would in part go toward the construction of a new, nearly 190,000-square-foot office building replacing the existing office property... The existing building, formerly known as the St. Denis Hotel, will be completely vacated this month and readied for demolition this fall."

And there's a new rendering of the soulless, dead-eyed nothing pile of glass to come:



What was here before? What will they be murdering? Something more alive, more haunted, more storied than most buildings -- and certainly more than this zombie stack of hollow boxes.

Beyond the St. Denis, the entire neighborhood is under threat. Send these quick and easy pre-written letters to the Mayor, the Borough President, and Councilmember Carlina Rivera. Add a note to say that the St. Denis should be protected from total demolition. You can include this history to argue for protection.






Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Lincoln Plaza Cinema Reboot

As I first reported in April, the shuttered Lincoln Plaza Cinemas has attracted a band of angels working to bring it back to life, including Norma Levy, who told me at the time, "I decided there has to be a way to recreate the cinema. It's too tragic to lose."

Now, with New Plaza Cinema Inc., we're getting a new version of the cinema. Through a press release today they announce a partnership with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan "to host first run and independent films in its 250-seat auditorium throughout the summer."



“We’re excited that the JCC has graciously agreed to screen our films this summer,” said Levy. “We’re working to find a more permanent venue which will offer first run and independent films.”

Toby Talbot, who co-founded Lincoln Plaza Cinema with her late husband, Dan Talbot, supports the New Plaza Cinema’s goals. She says, “Although Dan is no longer with us, I’m sure he would have been heartened—as am I—that a band of devoted theater goers have taken upon themselves the arduous task of creating similar cinema anew. I fully support their effort and look forward to their ultimate success.”

According to the press release: "The series will have a soft kick off with an uptown run of the IFC release The Catcher is a Spy by Ben Lewin with multiple screenings on June 24, 25 and 26. The following week, the series will honor the passing of Philip Roth with a marathon of films based on his books."

For more information visit:
www.newplazacinema.com
www.JCCFilm.org

Read more on the fight to save the Cinema.


Click to enlarge schedule

Monday, June 11, 2018

Searching for Soul

On Thursday, June 28, from 6:30pm – 8:30pm, I'll be at the Museum of the City of New York talking with author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, cartoonist Julia Wertz, and New Yorker staff writer Vinson Cunningham about what it means to capture the “soul” of the city, even as many longtime New Yorkers question its survival.

Get your tickets and more info here. Use the code SOUL1 for a discount.



In other news, my book Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul will be out in paperback July 24. You can pre-order it now from any bookshop.



From the reviews:

“Essential reading for fans of Jane Jacobs, Joseph Mitchell, Patti Smith, Luc Sante, and cheap pierogi.” —Vanity Fair

“A full-throated lament for the city’s bygone charms.”—Wall Street Journal

“A cri de coeur that is essential reading for anyone who loves this city.” --The Village Voice

“The pleasure of reading Moss is his purity.” –The New York Times Book Review

“A remarkable atlas charting where New York has gone, and why.” –The New Republic

“Passionate, sprawling.” --Slate

"Moss, a cantankerous defender of the city he loves, chronicles its disconcerting metamorphosis from cosmopolitan melting pot to bland corporate lounge with passion and vigor; New York is lucky to have him on its side." – NewYorker.com

"a vigorous, righteously indignant book that would do Jane Jacobs proud." --Kirkus

“This is a very good, angrily passionate, and ultimately saddening book.... a brilliantly written and well-informed account.” –Booklist

“Every page is charged with Moss’s deep love of New York. It is both a vital and unequivocally depressing read.” – Village Voice

“an impassioned work of advocacy on behalf of a city that’s slipping away…a brawny book…a full-throated argument for New York City as a particular kind of place, and for a certain kind of life lived within it.” –Guernica

“a compelling and often necessary read.... One of the great accomplishments of this nearly 500-page polemic, is that even as I read through in a state of outrage and sadness, I was also reassured: I am not crazy. The city really has vanished…” – Daily Beast






Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Caffe Vivaldi

VANISHING

On their website, the folks at Caffe Vivaldi write:

"With heavy hearts we announce the upcoming closure of Caffe Vivaldi and the conclusion of our 35-year run at this magical room on 32 Jones Street in our beloved West Village."



Opened in 1983, Vivaldi has been fighting to stay in business for several years now.

Back in 2011, Vivaldi was being forced to close by a tripled rent hike from their landlord, the infamous Steve Croman. They survived and got a new lease, but the struggles continued. In 2016, they reported landlord harassment.

This April, Vivaldi owner Ishrat Ansari wrote on the site's blog about his struggles:

"My untimely stroke occurred two weeks before a crucial court hearing about the Caffe’s future—that has continued to drag on to the present. In 2011, my tormentor, Steven Croman, became the new owner of the building where Caffe Vivaldi resides. From the beginning, his conduct has been belligerent and illegal, unilaterally breaking the renewed lease, which commenced on January 1, 2012, that I signed with him for the Caffe Vivaldi space, and treating me with dismissive contempt. My emotional distress reached its most damaging state as Mr. Croman’s conduct towards me rose further and further above the law. The menace that Mr. Croman continues to pose threatens to destroy 35 years of history nurtured by Caffe Vivaldi in the West Village... I want to let you all know that Mr. Croman, a convicted felon, is taking us to court again, and we might be forced to close our doors."



Mr. Croman was released from prison last week. He served eight months of a one-year jail sentence.

Vivaldi's fight has come to an end.

They explain: "our legal and financial difficulties with our landlord came to a head this spring. To continue to fight would be self-destructive in many, many ways for the business and for all of us. Because of these extenuating circumstances, we will be closing our doors for the final time on the evening of June 23."

The live music cafe has been featured in Woody Allen and Al Pacino films, and their old wooden chairs have seated Andy Warhol, Bette Midler, John Cusack, Rob Reiner, Joseph Brodsky and many neighborhood folks and other New Yorkers.

You can share your Vivaldi story here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Good Corner

The surviving peep shows at the margins around Times Square keep vanishing. Yesterday I reported on the demise of old Show World. There's a smaller, less storied spot a few blocks south on 8th Avenue at 39th Street--and it's vanishing, too.



Vihan's Video, with the ever-photogenic neon sign on the front, has a giant FOR LEASE banner on it.

"3-Floor Flagship," it says. "Restaurant/Bar."



Sadly, this whole corner is being destroyed--and it was a good corner, too, an old slice of the old city hanging on at the edge of the Garment District.

Last year, the marvelous Mayfair Barber Shop was replaced by the boring, useless Corvo Coffee. More recently, NYC Fried Chicken shuttered. It was always a good spot to watch the people seated at the windows. The Shoe Repairs place next door is still open, but for how long? And there's a liquor store with two antique neon signs--for some reason, it is shown in the realtor's listing.



Barber shop, cobbler/tailor shop, fried chicken joint, liquor store, peep joint. It was a rare corner, a scrappy survivor, and it's being chipped away.








Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Show World Center

VANISHED

Last year, Richard Basciano, "New York’s former prince of porn," died, leaving behind the Show World building at 42nd St. and Eighth Ave. While the big Show World closed in 2004, the next door Show World Center remained, a glittering warren of peep booths, sex toys, and crossword puzzle books. I wrote, "Now is probably the time to go and say goodbye. The last gasp of smutty old Times Square may not be here tomorrow."

Well, Show World Center is now gone.



The lights are off and the shutter is down.



The inside is empty. A peek around back shows the hallway with its mirrored diamond decorations, along with stacks of boxes waiting to be moved out.



A number of other businesses in this building have also shuttered, making me wonder if the place has been sold and will be demolished for another glass hotel tower.

I talked to the Nuts 4 Nuts guy who works outside and he told me that Show World Center closed last month. He said the building will not be torn down. A security guard confirmed that information, saying the place will be renovated instead.

It's totally unlikely that a new Show World will open in the spot. We'll probably get a chain store of one kind or another. That's what the new Times Square deserves. But some will remember that for 40 years, Show World was here, smelling of bleach and orange-scented mop water, doing its service for New Yorkers, commuters, and tourists alike. With one more down, only a few peeps remain.

See inside Show World:
Last year
Before the closure in 2004 
In 1980
And read Death Knell of the Peeps

(Thanks to Warren for the tip.)







Monday, May 21, 2018

The Village Den

VANISHED

David Sigal on Twitter lets us know the sad news that the Village Den has closed.


photos via David Sigal

I was dreading this inevitability. Because nothing decent can stay.

The Village Den was one of the last places in this part of town where you could get a regular, affordable meal, not surrounded by horrible people.

And another New York diner is gone.

(The owner says to go try his sister's place, the Bus Stop Cafe on Hudson Street.)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Cleaning Up Canal Street

In the Times today, an article celebrating the gentrification of Canal Street is getting strong reactions.



This type of article is a long-time staple for the paper. For years, they've sent writers into "up and coming" neighborhoods to highlight the new shops and eateries. As a record of the changing city, these articles are invaluable--I relied on them when I wrote my book, Vanishing New York. But they also help to hype the changes.

And in all of them, someone makes a statement about how the old neighborhood was dead and the new one is alive, how "no one" was there before and now it's full of "people."

In today's piece, the owner of an upscale new jewelry shop says, “I think people were afraid of Canal Street for so long, and now they’re recognizing there are just so many advantages to the area. I think we’re just beginning to see the neighborhood come alive."

In the hyper-gentrifying city, where City Hall works with developers and corporations to rezone and "renew," where more and more upper-class white newcomers move into working-class neighborhoods of color, we hear this sentiment all the time. It is what one writer referred to as colonial myopia. In her book Harlem Is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts recalls sitting in a new Harlem café listening to a conversation between two white men. One lived in the neighborhood and one was visiting. “This is fabulous,” the visiting friend exclaimed. “Really, you have to do something to get the word out. There need to be more people up here!” As Rhodes-Pitts points out, the men were “afflicted by that exuberant myopia common to colonists.”

Bloomberg's Planning Commissioner, Amanda Burden, was famous for this affliction. She told the Times in 2012, “We are making so many more areas of the city livable. Now, young people are moving to neighborhoods like Crown Heights that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been part of the lexicon.” Livable for whom? Which young people? Whose lexicon?

We know who.



In the lead photo for the Canal Street article, we see two young, fashionable, well-heeled white women walking into Canal Street Market, a kind of clone of Chelsea Market, that hyper-gentrification machine.

Behind them are at least five people of color, not fashionable and not well-heeled. But they are not the focus of the photo. They are not the stars of this story. They are in the background, as if already fading into the past. They have been coming here for years, shopping for the bargains that Canal has long been known for. But they are not here. They are not part of the lexicon.



Like much of the city, Canal has recently been high-rent blighted. Bloomberg cracked down on counterfeit handbag sellers. Legit shops were forced shut.

In their place are coming new shops for a new population of people who want their spaces controlled, curated, and very clean.



But the wild and vital messiness of New York life still hangs on here.

The aliveness of Canal Street are the crowds of bargain shoppers. The diversity of its clamor. The gray-market merchants and knock-off artists. Canal Plastics and Canal Rubber. (It was, until very recently, the crazy spillage of Argo Electronics. And Pearl Paint. And the Cup & Saucer.) It's the Chinese vendors with their carts of fruits and vegetables and delicacies sending up steam. It's the t-shirts with their "New York Fuckin City" slogans next to "I Heart NY."

This place has been alive for a long time. And now it is being killed by the same force that is killing so much of the city.



On the Times article, the vast majority (if not all) of the comments are critical. Readers are angry.

Tony says, "Seems to me this story is saying in all sorts of coded language that Canal Street became reputable once it became less Chinese and more white. Shade, anyone?"

(Some of that coded language, with a reference to Mandarin, was removed in an online edit last night. The original headline, "Canal Street Cleans Up Nice," was changed to "The Gentrification of Canal Street.")

Scott says, "This article is incredibly tone deaf. Chinatown locals are being pushed out by rising rents, and these writers are celebrating the means by which this is happening."

Bronx girl says, "Real people lived and shopped and went to work and created crowds on Canal Street... This is so distressing. Bye home."

BB says, "Having lived a blocked removed from canal Street for the past 4 decades, Canal Street was the livliest are for as long as I can remember, filled with real people living and working as normal people do most parts of the world. That NY Times would write 'I think we’re just beginning to see the neighborhood come alive,' is offensive to those of us that's lived and enjoyed our real neighborhood."

It goes on.



So maybe it's time for the Times to retire this feature. No more celebrating gentrification. No more selling the corporate white-washing of New York's neighborhoods. The tide is turning on gentrification. People are simply tired of it.






Tuesday, May 15, 2018

2 Chinatown Newsstands

(From an old post I never posted.)

C&L Sunrise Grocery was a little newsstand on Hester Street at Bowery. Its facade is remarkable thanks to the old, hand-painted sign that hangs above its awning, announcing: "Chung's Candy & Soda Stand," with 7-Up and Coca-Cola logos, also painted by hand.



The place sold candy and newspapers, lottery tickets and umbrellas. The usual stuff. Awhile ago, I went by to find a "Space for Lease" sign on its rolled-down shutter. (Maybe by now it's reopened as a new newsstand?)

Meanwhile, at another corner of Chinatown, where Lower East Side-style gentrification is seeping in, another newsstand vanished.


before

At Rutgers and East Broadway, against community objections last year, Jajaja Plantas Mexicana moved in to what had been the Golden Carriage Bakery and a little newsstand with a metal awning.

The popular restaurant serves vegan Mexican food. They left the newsstand signage, but it looks kind of sad, hanging out there without its old soul.


after

Monday, May 14, 2018

Posman's to Warby Parker

When Posman Books was evicted from Grand Central in 2014, New Yorkers were heartbroken.

At the time of the closure, it was understood that Posman's spot would be left vacant for "short-term storage area during the construction of the new eateries planned for Vanderbilt Hall." The neighboring Rite-Aid was allowed to stay in business.

But then (two years ago now), a new tenant moved in.



Warby Parker, the eyeglass chain, moved into Posman's space.

So what's that about? Why did we have to lose another bookstore?


today: Rite-Aid and Warby Parker

From these before and after shots, it looks like only a small portion of the space is being used by Grand Central.


before: Rite-Aid and Posman's

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Tax Commercial Vacancies

Back in 2015, Benny's Burritos shuttered on Avenue A after 27 years in business. The space is still empty, creating more high-rent blight, a plague that is swallowing hyper-gentrified neighborhoods across the city.

Someone has a suggestion.



A vacancy tax has been on my wish list for a few years now. Recently, Mayor de Blasio mentioned it on WNYC. He said:

“I am very interested in fighting for a vacancy fee or a vacancy tax that would penalize landlords who leave their storefronts vacant for long periods of time in neighborhoods because they are looking for some top-dollar rent but they blight neighborhoods by doing it."

Now the street is speaking.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop

The great Eisenberg's has been sold.

We've been hearing whispers about this for the past two years. Today the sale was announced on Eisenberg's Facebook page. They say they've "passed the torch" and hope "things will continue as they were."



When I called for information and asked for long-time owner Josh Konecky, I was told by Jodie the manager that he is "no longer connected with Eisenberg's."

The employees just got the news on Monday night. "It's so fresh for us," Jodie said, "I know nothing except they told me that Eisenberg's will be running just as is."

The new owner is named Warren, but that's all the information available right now. Let's keep our fingers crossed and pray that Warren is a true fan of Eisenberg's and will in fact keep the tradition going, just as it is, like Josh did when he first bought the place, saving it from certain destruction and running it for the past several years with heart and soul.



When I spoke to Josh for this blog in 2007, I asked him, “Most people nowadays when they buy a place, they change it. Why did you keep this place the same?”

He looked at me like I had just asked the most ridiculous question in the world, then he shrugged and said, “Why change it? When I bought the place, people kept saying, you’re not gonna change it, are you? I told them, I’m just gonna clean it up a bit. And they’d say, Don’t clean it up too much!”

Eisenberg's opened in 1929. It's beautiful. It's perfect. There is nothing else like it. Warren, whoever you are, don't fuck it up.


Previously:

Eisenberg's Not Vanishing
Eisenberg's U-Bet



Monday, April 30, 2018

Gargoyle Hunting

On a warm spring afternoon I meet John Freeman Gill on the Lower East Side for a little gargoyle hunting. Gill is the author of The Gargoyle Hunters, a novel set in 1970s New York City about a boy and his father who rescue ornamental stonework from tenements and other old buildings under demolition. For the father, it's a way to preserve a vanishing city.

"The book is completely about the evolving streetscape of New York," says Gill. "The city is constantly destroying itself. Regenerating. It's always been a city in a hurry."



Gill's inspiration for the book was a man named Ivan Karp, a self-taught gargoyle hunter who put together a team in the 1950s and led "clandestine raids on demolition sites." It was the time of Urban Renewal when countless tenements were destroyed, taking their decorations with them. Karp saved some 1,500 sculptures and eventually got the Brooklyn Museum to take them in.

Since the days of Urban Renewal, housing for low-income people doesn't come with much in the way of beauty or aliveness.

Gill and I are standing on Madison Street and Rutgers. On one side are tenements, covered in ornamentation--demon faces, cherubs, sea monsters, nudes. Their first floors are full of businesses like bodegas and Chinese restaurants. The sidewalk is busy. Across the street are the public housing towers that came out of the 1950s. They are dull and drab. Little life occurs at their feet.



Decorating tenements wasn't an act of landlord generosity--it was a marketing tool, says Gill. "The goal was not to create beauty, it was just to dress up shabby housing for the poor. It makes it look fancier than it is." Still, the decorations made for a livelier streetscape, one much less homogeneous than what we have today.

"You can feel the imprint of the individual in the object," says Gill. Then he points across the street at the housing projects. "These monstrosities are just boxes for housing low-income humans."



On the tenements, the ornaments generally come in two types: terracotta and stone. The terracotta pieces, Gill explains, were produced in a factory. The stone pieces were carved. How to tell the difference? Terracotta works tend to be sharper, while stone pieces are more likely worn away by time.

Many men among the nineteenth-century immigrants who came to New York were stone carvers. "They carved the monuments, the statues and gravestones, of Europe," says Gill, and then they carved the monuments on the faces of the tenements built for them to live in. "These gifted carvers are decorating their own housing. "

The architects didn't specify on the blueprints what decorations they wanted. "They'd just write 'carving,' and then the foreman might say 'Give me a Mary' or 'Give me a Moses,'" generic terms for a type of male and female face. "So the carver would do what he wanted. They'd carve each other's faces. Or the cop, the barkeep, or a girlfriend. So when you look up at these buildings, you're seeing the New Yorkers of the late nineteenth century looking back at you."



This stuff is in Gill's DNA. His mother, Jill Gill, was a gargoyle hunter. A self-taught artist, she painted street scenes as they were vanishing, and when she came across a forsaken ornament from a demolished tenement, she'd load it into her baby's stroller and cart it home. "My mother was obsessed about this," says Gill, but he didn't pay much attention to it in his youth.

It wasn't until he started writing for the New York Times' City Section that he "Gravitated toward historic preservation." Now, he says, "The ephemeral nature of New York's cityscape is my eternal fascination."



He wants to make it a fascination for his readers, too. "New Yorkers never look up," says Gill. And there is so much they're missing. The carvers of the past "incised their imagination onto our streetscape. They turned the streets of New York into marvelous public art galleries."

After you read The Gargoyle Hunters, you might find yourself looking up more often.


Read more about The Gargoyle Hunters and find out where John will be next