Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Boho's Lament

Filmmaker Dustin Cohen has made a poignant short film about the dying soul of New York with one of the last of the original East Village bohemians.

He writes: "I met Phillip Giambri at Grassroots Tavern (R.I.P.) on St. Mark's Place during the summer of 2016 after hearing him perform at an open mic in the East Village. He drank me under the table that afternoon, but not before we agreed to collaborate and bring his poem 'The Boho's Lament' to life."

Giambri was a Grassroots regular. He was written up in the Times a couple of years ago as "the Ancient Mariner, being a Navy veteran and as relentless a storyteller as Coleridge’s salty narrator."

As Cohen notes on the film's Vimeo page, Giambri "has been writing and performing in New York City's East Village since 1968," and you can find him "sipping cheap drinks and waxing philosophical at the some of the last remaining real East Village dive bars like Coal Yard, Doc Holidays, 7B, and International Bar. He hosts an open mic on the last Wednesday of every month at Three of Cups Lounge on First Avenue." (Which will also close, on April 1 -- so tonight is the last night of the open mic.)

You can also find him online.

Watch the video:

The Boho's Lament from Dustin Cohen on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Mercer Street Books & Records

For 27 years, Wayne Conti has been running Mercer Street Books & Records, one of the last used bookstores in town. Recently, business has gotten rough. He's not vanishing yet, but he just signed a new lease, and it might be the last.

It came with a jump in rent, plus an escalation.

“My rent is far from the worst,” he says, “and my landlord’s not a bad guy, but I think he got pulled into the idea of the market. It’s not a partnership anymore, like it was in the past. It’s all market, market, market.”

Wayne points out the high-rent blight in the Village and Soho, storefronts kept empty by big landlords, sometimes for years at a time. He heard a theory about the practice. A high rent, even on an empty space, he explains, means high equity that building owners can turn into high loans from banks, that can then be used to buy more buildings. It’s some kind of a racket—and it’s helping to kill small businesses in the city.

“I think every small business person is unhappy in New York,” Wayne says. “Who in their right mind would go into business in Manhattan now?”

Across the street from the bookshop, NYU is undertaking a major construction project, and it’s cutting into Wayne’s business. “It’s not a very attractive street anymore,” he says. “People aren’t walking by.” The construction combined with the jump in rent is “the perfect storm to tip the equilibrium. And I find myself struggling.”

The Internet has taken a bite, too. People used to hunt for used books in the real world. Now, it can all be found online. “You’ve lost that feeling of ‘I’ll never see it again.’” But the Internet is “not the whole story by any means.”

Wayne says, “The rents are going faster than inflation.” And landlords are looking for major players to put up flagships, loss leaders that mostly serve as advertising for a national or global brand. “Many a landlord won’t even talk to you if you’re not a chain,” says Wayne. “The chains have the resources, so even if the store is not making money, they’ll keep paying the rent.”

He is not ready to close shop and retire. He’s 65 years old and he’d like to keep the bookstore going until he’s 70. “It’s going to be hard to find a job.”

photo of Wayne Conti by Franck Bohbot--see his project on New York Indie Bookshops

Wayne looks around at Manhattan and sees it becoming a mall – “and a mall is a very dull place. You see the same stores over and over. It cycles every 20 blocks. You’re losing the engine of innovation. You lose all the texture and quality of life.”

He doesn’t have much hope that City Hall will step in with solutions like the Small Business Jobs Survival Act or the revival of commercial rent control, enjoyed by New Yorkers for many years after World War II.

“Most politicians,” he says, “are unexceptional people. After they’re in office, they’re put on the boards of real estate companies. So they don’t want to upset their future bosses.”

“New Yorkers need to say let’s take a break here and take control of our destiny and elect people who aren’t greedy monsters. We need people who say 'I’m not so interested in money that I’m willing to destroy my community.' We need politicians with a sense of shame.”

But too many New Yorkers of today aren't making that happen.

“People started getting really snotty at the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s,” Wayne says. “After 9/11, people calmed down. They connected with each other. But it didn’t last. We need to wake people up. They need to know they’ve fallen asleep.”

“Bookstores help with that, because you really can get into someone else’s mind. When you’re reading, you get to be another person. That increases your knowledge and understanding. Art is about standing in someone else’s shoes. Or standing more securely in your own. Bookstores are centers for the exchange of ideas between people and books, and people and dead and living people. And it really enhances the quality of your life.”

“I really like this place,” he says of the shop. “I don’t want to see it die.”

Visit Mercer Street Books at 206 Mercer St, just north of Houston, and buy some stuff from Wayne. Many of us really like that place, too.

Monday, March 26, 2018



Scaletta Ristorante has been on the Upper West Side for 30 years. Recently, I walked by and looked at its old yellow sign and thought I should check it out, because the old yellow sign seemed like an indication of something authentically New York and a little bit hidden. It also made me think: That can't last.

Now I won't get the chance because the landlord gave Scaletta the boot. Last night was their last night.

West Side Rag reported the news and shared Scaletta's note to customers, which included this pointed bit:

"You might be wondering whether we were yet another victim of astronomical rents? Well, to eliminate any speculation, here’s the story.

Yes, our rent had steadily climbed up, but no, it wasn’t the ultimate reason for our closing. In fact, we were willing to stomach yet another rent increase, and invest in gut renovating our space and committing to another decade or more. No, the truth is we simply weren’t wanted. Our landlords coveted a shinier, fancier model in our place. To our landlord, as well as to many in NYC these days, a celebrity chef-owned chain, or private equity backed steakhouse sounds a lot sexier than a family-owned Italian joint.

We get it. However, when we look out at the incredible number of retail vacancies polluting our neighborhood, including one prominently empty space on our very corner, we question whether pursuing big name tenants is shrewd business or simply quixotic. Commercial vacancies have become a blight on our communities, and yet it’s not for a lack of viable business models. It’s simply short-sighted greed."

There you have it in a nutshell. Once again, if you're sick of this shit, here are some extremely simple, easy things you can do to try and create some positive change: do this and do that

Their landlord, Equity Residential, told West Side Rag, "We are excited about the possibilities the future holds for this space.”

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Three of Cups


In the East Village, Three of Cups is closing. Owner Anthony Barile writes on his Facebook page:

"The day has come where I must share the sad news that Three of Cups will be closing. I’ve thought often about what I might say when this day came and each time I pushed the thought from my head, but here we are. The reasons are many that we are at this moment, with all of them meaning that I can’t sustain it any longer. It’s the end of the longest thing I’ve continuously been involved with, almost 1/2 my life, nearly 26 years."

Their last day will be April 1.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

El Quijote's Raw Deal

Last week we learned that El Quijote, the 87-year-old restaurant in the Chelsea Hotel, is closing at the end of March, thanks to its new owners. Now Page Six reports that the employees are getting a raw deal.

“The staff is being disrespected,” said a tipster to the Post. “They are being given two weeks’ severance pay...from a person who just started working last month to the executive chef who’s been working there over 30 years. They’re all being treated the same.”

I first reported on the coming closure of El Quijote here in 2014. Since then, the restaurant and the hotel changed hands (again and again).

The hotel is currently owned by "BD Hotels’ Richard Born and Ira Drukier, and Jane Hotel honcho Sean MacPherson." Born told the Post, "The real severance obligation is from the original owner...We have only been here a little over a year.”

El Quijote has been a thorn in the owners' side for awhile now. Back in 2010, The Real Deal reported:

When BD NY Hotels took over operations of the legendary West 23rd Street lodge in 2007, the Richard Born and Ira Drukier-led management team tried to rent the empty retail spaces to a number of other restaurateurs, including the prolific Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

“The problem,” according to court papers filed in 2008 concerning a dispute between BD NY and the building’s owners, “has been that the existing lease with El Quixote [sic] negotiated by the prior management contains a covenant prohibiting any other restaurant in the building.”

In 2014, the hotel's then owner, Ed Scheetz, bought El Quijote and the troublesome lease ended, making it possible to close the restaurant, upgrade it, and/or put more restaurants in the hotel.

Some claim that the restaurant will reopen, likely gutted and glossed for an upscale clientele, aka "Vongerichtified." But an employee that I recently spoke to told me, "They'll probably just sell it."

El Quijote still does a brisk business and is loved by many New Yorkers just as it is. Historically, it was frequented by Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs, and many other cultural luminaries.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Breen vs. The Glassing of New York

From her downtown office, Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, looks out over historic buildings that the Conservancy had a hand in preserving--Ellis Island, the 1886 fireboat station at Pier A, the U.S. Customs House/National Museum of the American Indian.

They remind her of what can be accomplished--and what is at stake in this age of rampant over-development.

A proposal is right now sitting on the desk of the New York State Assembly. If it passes, the city will become a radically different place. Breen wants to stop it.

The Conservancy is celebrating its 45th year of advocating for and funding the preservation and restoration of what Breen calls "the best of New York," from the Olmsted House and the Picasso Curtain, to neighborhood brownstones and houses of worship.

"Buildings tell stories," says Breen. "And all the different layers in New York tell our history. They tell migration patterns. They give you a sense of continuity of place. Here is a solid place, they say. People have lived here before and people will continue. It's home."

New York has always been in flux, yet it has maintained its character and cultural originality, its openness to new people and ideas. "But change has picked up more rapidly in recent years," says Breen, and that change is turning the city into something that looks more like Shanghai or Dubai.

It's about to get worse--and most of us don't even know it.

2016 protest againt MIH and ZQA, Getty

Breen is most concerned about the de Blasio administration zoning changes that are lifting restrictions on how high and wide developers can build.

First came ZQA. Packaged with the controversial MIH (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing), ZQA (Zoning for Quality and Affordability) was approved by the City Council in 2016, a move met with fierce protest from neighborhood activists and many other advocates for a human-scale city. Simply put, ZQA was a citywide upzoning to increase the sizes of new buildings in the name of affordable housing.

In their statement to the City Council, the Historic Districts Council called it "a concession to developers to sweeten Mandatory Inclusionary Housing." Furthermore, "ZQA loosens the entire city’s existing zoning to allow greater density for market-rate development, under the guise of creating affordable units, which, as we all know, is optional. The provisions for seniors have an expire after thirty years, after which will be converted to more market rate housing."

But the looming towers loosened by ZQA hit a ceiling--the FAR Cap.

The citywide residential FAR (floor area ratio) was capped at 12 back in 1961. FAR limits the size and density of buildings, and 12 is not the biggest--for comparison, the Empire State Building has a FAR of 25. Lower FAR can discourage new construction, and higher FAR often increases land values. For obvious reasons, the real estate industry wants higher FAR.

In New York, the FAR Cap is about to be removed.

"Once this cap is gone," says Breen, "it allows the city to come in and upzone. Communities will have very little impact. And nobody knows this is happening," because there has been no public hearing. 

"This is the opposite of democracy."

from HDC

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) supports the repeal of the FAR Cap. In a recent report (PDF), they claim it will increase racial diversity and fight inequality. Council Member Rory Lancman agreed in a Daily News op-ed. In the age of neoliberalism, where the so-called free market rules all, people have a hard time even imagining affordable housing not tied to big, luxury development. And the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is a big supporter of the repeal.

"They call it an answer to affordable housing," Breen says, but she is skeptical. Without the residential FAR Cap, she explains, the upzoning "will allow developers to go into neighborhoods they can't go into now," like low-rise areas of Brooklyn and Queens. "This is a radical change," pushed through without public input.

If it is approved, says Breen, "A lot of residential neighborhoods will change drastically. A lot of places that are already liveable, dense, and affordable will change--and not for the good. And we'll still have to solve affordable housing." Real-estate speculation will be a problem, she says, just like it is today with the rezonings in East New York and Inwood. "Once you get a couple of super-luxury buildings, with not really affordable apartments in them, it sets off a chain reaction that forces people out." Lifting the FAR Cap, she believes, will lead to mass displacement of the current population.

Breen is not against change and new growth, as she often has to attest. "We don't have a brick fetish," she says. But density for the sake of density is "not an unalloyed good." For too long, City Hall's approach has been to zone, not plan--and what do you get with zoning and no planning? "You get Long Island City," says Breen. Density and tall buildings, but "Where's the grocery store? Where's the park? You're just stacking people up."

LIC, photo: Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao/New York Magazine

The State Senate just passed the bill (S.7506A) eliminating the FAR Cap. In two weeks, the Assembly will consider similar bills (A.9500B, A.9509B) to put it through. "Every assembly person from New York," says Breen, "needs a barrage of emails and calls to say stop this and let's have a public hearing."

If you think New Yorkers should have a say in their communities, take action to demand a public hearing on this decision:
1. Find your Assembly Member's phone number and email -- click here.

2. Call and/or email them. You can cut and paste this message from the Conservancy, or one you write yourself:
"Don’t Lift the Cap! Eliminating the current 12 FAR cap in residential neighborhoods must not be included in the final budget resolution. It won’t solve the problem of affordable housing and will damage livable, diverse, and already dense neighborhoods.”

OR: The Municipal Art Society (MAS) has a ready-made email you can just fill out with your info and send -- click here.

For more information:
Landmarks Conservancy Alert on Lifting the FAR Cap
MAS: Testimony Against Lifting the FAR Cap
MAS: Accidental Skyline Report
HDC: On ZQA and MIH 
Norman Oder on Lifting the FAR Cap 

Friday, March 16, 2018

El Quijote


After nearly 90 years in the Chelsea Hotel, the great and wonderful and gorgeous El Quijote is closing on March 30.

Eater reports: "Staffers at the historic restaurant, located at 226 West 23rd St. between Seventh and Eighth avenues, were given two weeks notice. Ownership allegedly told employees that the restaurant is being renovated and will re-open eventually. Eater NY has reached out to the restaurant for comment."

Back in 2014, I reported on this coming closure. At the time, I was told that El Quijote would be upscaled and sanitized in a fashion similar to what happened to Minetta Tavern.

The plan was denied -- and then confirmed. A rep for Ed Scheetz, the man who took over the hotel, said at the time that they would "retain the signature look and feel of El Quijote" while "maintaining its authenticity."

But then life went on. El Q remained untouched. We held our breath.

When -- and if -- the place reopens, it won't be the old El Quijote anymore.

Banksy's Back

Banksy is back in town. He unveiled a mural on the Houston Street wall today, urging the liberation of Turkish artist Zehra Dogan.

A Banksy rat appeared on a clock at 14th and 6th Avenue, atop the old Greenwich Savings Bank that will soon be torn down for luxury condos.

photo via Banksy

Now Instagrammers are finding more possible Banksy easter eggs around town, including one somewhere in East Harlem:

And another at Avenue I and Coney Island Ave -- both with a similar message for the capitalist class:

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Silver Spurs


The Silver Spurs coffee shop has been around since 1979. After this month, it will be no more.

The original on Broadway and 9th Street shuttered in 2013, thanks to an expired lease that was not renewed. The landlord hiked the rent, breaking hearts, and the space went to Starbucks. That left one other Silver Spurs, at Houston and Laguardia.

A reader in the Village sent in the news and spent some time talking with Kiki Bourekas, the manager of the restaurant, who said the place is closing because business is down. As we know, coffee shops are closing all over the city.

Kiki says, “It was like Cheers in here. It was family. Customers became friends. You came here and made friends in the neighborhood. I’ve been here since it opened 22 years ago. People in the neighborhood call it ‘Kiki’s.' 'Let’s go get some of Kiki’s coffee,' they say. I stayed on all that time because I liked it so much."

The place is family owned and got its western theme in 1979 "Because of the uncle. He liked western."

They used to be open 24 hours a day on the weekend, Kiki recalled, and the place was always full, often with college and graduate students. "But two years ago, we stopped being able to make it. Not enough customers, especially at night. It’s very sad. Me and all the guys are out of a job.”

The last day will be March 29 and Kiki says, “Be sure to come in and get your last hamburger!” She gets off work at 3:30 if you want to say goodbye.

As for what's coming to take the place of Silver Spurs, Kiki hears it'll be an ice-cream place. “Expensive," she says.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Shakespeare & Co.


It's rare when bookstores open. It's rare to get any good news in this town about local businesses. And yet. Yesterday we heard that Shakespeare & Co. is opening two new stores in the city.

There will be one in Greenwich Village, in the spot long occupied by Jefferson Market (closed in 2008, turned into a Gristede's, and then a luxury condo showroom). Another will come to the Upper West Side at 2020 Broadway, between 69th and 70th Streets. (None for the book-starved East Village?)

They are slated to open in the fall/winter of 2018.


I asked CEO Dane Neller a few quick questions.

Q: Downtown, we still miss the Broadway location near NYU (closed in 2014 and turned into a Foot Locker). Will the new shop on 6th and 11th Street have a similarly curated selection?

A: Yes, with more selection since it’s a larger store.

Q: With so many bookstores closing across the city, what's the secret to surviving -- and growing -- in the current market?

A: Being community based; offering an intimate setting and literary cafe for customers to convene, socialize, and browse; providing a forum for self-expressions and creation with the Espresso Book Machine technology; and having a thoughtfully curated selection of books geared to the neighborhood patrons, with knowledgeable and friendly booksellers.

Q: So is it a myth that people are reading (and buying) fewer print books?

A: Absolutely. Printed books still represent over 75% of total industry sales.

At the Shakespeare & Co. uptown

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Wong Kee


Reader Ted Rao writes in:

"The amazing Wong Kee, located on Mott Street between Canal and Grand, succumbed to a new landlord and rising rents. Its last day was 1/21/18."

photo via Yelp

According to this video from SinoVision, Wong Kee was in Chinatown for nearly 30 years.

The lease ended and apparently was not renewed by the landlord. According to SinoVision, "The landlord plans to take the property back and construct a pharmacy in its place." There are already several pharmacies nearby.

Monday, March 12, 2018

'99 Snapshots

The following is from photographer Michael Berman:

’99 Snapshots is a documentary project about people I met and photographed in 1999. I met them on sidewalks and in places of business in each of Manhattan’s many neighborhoods. I am now re-photographing and interviewing as many of the 300+ original people as I can find, seeking details about who they were in ’99, who they are now, and their thoughts on multiple topics including New York but also big ones like life and the passage of time. Because I encountered the people in 1999 randomly, the group as a whole reflects demographic diversity. I aim to turn this into a book and a documentary film.

Marian and Lindsay, Harlem

I’m able to find many people on my own, using social media and the phone book (I have their 1999 names). But some people I can’t find, so I post “ISOs” to the project’s Instagram feed, with hopes that people might help out.

Sometimes I find out that a person has died. If possible, I want to include them anyway. So I try to find out about them by speaking with people who knew them. I feel it's important to pay homage to who they were.

Here are a few examples from the project of people who I have found. There are more on the Instagram feed.

Nina, real estate broker. That might be the biz she’s in, but she has real problems with how much real estate costs have skyrocketed. She’s read “Vanishing New York." She acknowledges that the cost of an apartment in New York has increased too much for many people. When asked what could be done about this, she said: “Oh, god. I wish I knew. I don’t know if there’s an answer really. It used to be that city planning was a big thing. But now it’s all being done behind closed doors. The profit motive is just too strong, and it seems to outweigh everything.”

Abdul, food cart operator on lower Broadway. When I photographed him in ’99 he was one of only 2 small carts on the northern edge of what is now Zuccotti Park (then it was called Liberty Plaza Park). Now he’s across Broadway and he’s one of about 7 carts there. I asked him when it expanded to more food carts at that location and he said soon after 9/11, because tourists started coming and the area got a lot busier. He told me that several years ago he fell and injured his foot. Now he has a muscle that doesn’t work properly. He has health insurance but cannot take time off for surgery because recovery would be six months, and that would be time without income. He is married with 4 children.

Here's Jon, an advertising exec on the creative side, waiting to catch his train from Grand Central in 1999. Jon now works from home in Connecticut and has his own small agency.

James, in 1999, worked at the Empire Diner. In 2018, he’s living in Park Slope, making paintings and working as a personal assistant.

Below is a photo of someone who passed away several years ago. When I photographed him in ’99, he said his name was Michael Peterson, but I believe he later went as Michelle Rostelli. Michelle was a regular fixture on the Lower East Side, and lived on Rivington Street. She loved making the rounds of the local businesses there. She helped herself to coffee and cookies at Sugar Sweet Sunshine, and they never let her pay. They have a memorial sign in her honor on the wall when you walk in.

If anyone who reads this knew Michelle/Michael well enough to talk about the person she was, please contact me to do an interview at (Note: I prefer on-camera, and will ask you to sign a release.) I’m also told that there may have been a film about her. If anyone knows who the filmmaker is, or how to locate the film, I’d love to find out.

See more on Vimeo


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The St. Denis Building

The St. Denis building south of Union Square is full of stories. For 165 years, it's been a place for the famous and the radical. Most recently, it's been full of shrinks.

But that's all coming to an end as the building is emptied--displacing hundreds of small business people (myself included)--and as Union Square changes under the pressures of hyper-gentrification and City Halls' "Tech Hub."

I talked to the people inside the St. Denis, and wrote up the story of the Death and Life of a Great American Building for the New York Review of Books Daily. Read it here.

New Beer Distributors


New Beer Distributors on Chrystie Street just announced via their Facebook page:

"Sorry guys to announce we have a few days left till we shut down for good. We have a fire sale going on!!! 50% off on everything on our shelves. Thank you guys for all the business and memories you gave us for the last 50 years."

I recently walked by to find them flanked by luxury construction and demolition.

They say it was the rent. 50 years--wiped out by hyper-gentrification. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Moscot's Move

Last month I wrote about the demise of 69 West 14th St and its tenement neighbors. At that time, nine storefronts had been shuttered, and developer Extell will likely demolish the buildings. Now there are ten.

Sol Moscot was (from what I can tell) the last tenant in the buildings, making them now clear for destruction.

And Moscot has moved up 6th Avenue, into the mini-mall structure built a few years ago by the Stonehenge Group.

Stonehenge is the same group that cleared all the small businesses out of a building they purchased on 9th Avenue and 18th Street. It was a move that broke the hearts of many local people. That was years ago. Since then, they put in a Wells Fargo bank, but all of the remaining spaces still sit empty and wasted.

Stonehenge also quintupled the rent on Colony Records, putting them out of Times Square after 60 years. Has anything permanent moved into that spot, or is it still revolving holiday pop-ups?

Anyway, I hope Moscot got a good, long lease at 555 6th Ave. It's getting so you can't stay anywhere for long in this town.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Glaser's Bake Shop


By now you may have heard the sad news that Glaser's Bake Shop is kaput. Or will be soon.

On Friday, they posted on their Facebook page:

"It is with a heavy heart, the bakers and coworkers at Glaser's Bake Shop regret to inform you on July 1, 2018 Glaser's Bake Shop will be closing it's doors to the public after 116 years of service. After many years of daunting hours and hard work, the third generation of bakers have come to the difficult decision to hang up their bakers hat and move towards retirement."

Co-owner Herb Glaser told Eater that it's not easy to run a retail bakery, "especially in today’s climate." A PIX11 reporter said, "it's been really tough to maintain a family-owned business in this changing landscape." And to AMNY, he said, “We struggled with it for quite a while. But we realize what’s involved keeping [the bakery] going, and we just can’t anymore.”

On Saturday, the bakery was packed, as it always is on Saturday. But this time, there was an extra sense of urgency among the people standing in line.

"Did you hear they're closing?" "Today's the last day." "Not today. People think it's today, but it's not until July." "So we have some time." "It's so sad."

It was after 3:00 and the black-and-white cookies were gone. Glaser's is perhaps best loved for its black-and-white, a specialty they've been perfecting from the beginning, making them one possible origin story of the iconic New York pastry.

The beginning for the Bavarian bakery was 1902, back when Yorkville was still Germantown. The gorgeous interior of the place hasn't changed since 1918 when it was remodeled, outfitted with oak and glass cabinets and a tile floor that spells out "John Glaser" in blue and white.

Herb Glaser told AMNY that, while they'd like to see the interior preserved, "he and his brother are open to all kinds of buyers." They own the building, so they can decide what kind of business goes in. Let's hope they don't turn it over to a chain store or even a small business that would remove the period details.

I have a feeling that any business that guts Glaser's won't be forgiven.