Monday, April 16, 2018

Guys at the Cafetal Social Club

On a warm spring day outside the Cafetal Social Club at 285 Mott Street you might find the filmmaker Paul Stone and his adopted family, including neighborhood guys like Vinny Vella, aka "the Mayor of Elizabeth Street," and Dominick Ferraro.

For over 60 years the Cafetal was a social club. It's been a home-style Italian restaurant for 6 years. The guys hang out on the sidewalk to drink coffee, shoot the breeze, and reminisce about life in old Little Italy, childhoods spent sleeping on fire escapes and showering in fire hydrants with bricks of Ivory soap.

Stone, a half-Italian, half-Irish native of Brooklyn, moved to Elizabeth Street in 1985. He lived in Martin Scorsese's building, played in punk bands, and made movies. In Mulberry: A Gentrification Story, he shows how the neighborhood changed in just a few short years.

"A few years ago," he says, "it went from slow gentrification to hyper-gentrification. The dial got turned way up. It was a combination of what Giuliani started and Bloomberg finished. Giuliani cleaned it up for the billionaires."

Too often now the place is called Nolita, for North of Little Italy, a nickname invented by the real estate industry to raise prices. I ask Vella, "What do you think of Nolita?" He says, "Nolita? I don't know her."

"I'd like to get the guy who did that," says Dominick.

"This is Little Italy," says Vinny. "If you don't like it, go back to Ohio or wherever you came from."

For Stone, living in Little Italy and then on the Bowery in the age of hyper-gentrification was making him cranky. The new people were clueless and rude. He was angry all the time. Then he made Mulberry and it connected him back to his roots. To these guys. "Now I have this family," he says, "and I don't notice the other stuff so much. The movie rejuvenated my whole outlook toward the neighborhood."

That's connection. Community. Something the guys remember as an important part of the old streets. The new people, they say, don't say hello. It wasn't always like that. Vella used to haul out garbage cans and close Elizabeth to traffic. Neighbors would bring out their lawn chairs and kiddie pools. They'd barbecue and play music.

"Now there's no more sitting in front of the buildings," says Dominick. The new owners won't allow it. And you can't go up on the roof either. No more Tar Beach. "That was an important part," he says, about life in the city. "We used to sit out 'til two, three in the morning. Your daughter or your son could walk out and people would watch out for them. In the '70s there was a wiseguy who lived on the first floor. His wife would lean out the window. She said to me, 'The day you guys are not on this corner, that's the day I'm moving out.' And this was a wiseguy's wife. Without people sitting out, it's not a neighborhood."

Vella interrupts, "You know what my mother used to say about people who talked too much?" He says it in Italian, something like mangia il culo del cavallo. "He eats the horse's ass."

Before anyone can figure that one out, the punk poet Patti Smith walks by in a red flannel shirt and jeans, long white hair flowing out behind her. The guys talk about the celebrities they've seen here: Leonardo DiCaprio, Gabriel Byrne, David Bowie. Little Italy has become one of the priciest neighborhoods in America and the old people are being pushed out, bought out with cheap money or just given the boot.

It's safer now, of course, and the guys appreciate not having to run for their lives anymore. "But we sacrificed the soul for safety," says Paul.

"I miss the smells," Dominick says. "On a Sunday morning, every building had a different smell. You could smell the Sunday gravy. Everywhere you went, you felt like you were in your living room. Even now, as soon as I get into the neighborhood, the temperature drops. Like I'm in my living room. It's weird. I guess it's psychological, but it really happens."

They've made the best of it. Vella likes watching the models walking by. Dominick likes the shopping--and not getting hassled anymore by Irish cops.

"Things have always changed in the city," Paul says, "but the hyper-gentrification is the scariest part. That's the stuff we need to fight."

Mulberry - A Gentrification Story. from Paul Stone on Vimeo. Also check out Stone's short film "Tales of Times Square" (NSFW). His latest, "Big Elvis," premieres next week at the Tribeca Film Festival.


Laura Goggin Photography said...

Thanks for sharing that film - it was great, and beautifully shot.

zuzuzpetals said...

I'm gonna look for Vinnie. I really miss how families used to sit on the front steps every evening. Something else I noticed started about 3 years ago—the churches now peal their bells so softly that they can't be heard over the traffic. The new gentry must have complained and yet, hearing them was one of the most connective things in the neighborhood—every hour, every one hearing the same beautiful tone. And the church towers used to "talk" to each other—first one and then the other. Now, it's gone.

This change would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

zuzuzpetals said...

This is just a test. Have posted several comments and I'm sure they passed muster but they don't show up days later. Trying to find out if something is amiss in the system for the last week.

JuliaB said...

I grew up across the street from this place. Nothing but the best memories. It's sad how its changed.