Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Hole That Was St. Denis

A dream-like dispatch from author Elizabeth Wurtzel (who lives above the hole in the ground that was the St. Denis building, whose illustrious history and miserable death you can read all about here):

I have no idea what is in the dirt next door, but my guess is Love Canal, sewage from the Mississippi, cigarette butts, marijuana ash, slave remains, rats, mice, Three Mile island, Mount Etna, Mount Saint Helen, Dust Bowl, Adam, Eve, serpent, Satan, Chernobyl, Berlin Wall, acid rain, asbestos, uranium, geraniums, 9/11, 7/11, Donner Party, bird beaks, pigeon claws, squirrel tails, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Mafia hits washed up from the East River, cocaine, syringes, works, broken bottles, Bataan Death March, Manila massacre, Boston Tea Party, frog legs, goldfish, rusty pipes, mutant ninja turtles, alligators from Florida, red algae, yellow fever, Agent Orange, bubonic plague, gold teeth, silver spoons, copper wires, iron ore, Crest with fluoride, whitening strips, stripper tips, dollar bills, twenties laced with cocaine, subway tokens, expired MetroCards with unused fare, tickets to see Star Wars in 1976, bicentennial souvenirs, gutta-percha, cat guts, doll parts, golf balls, tennis racket strings, cashmere socks, polyester, rayon, pylon, nylon, Mylar, warped vinyl, scratched CDs, crispy leaves, shredded lettuce, tarnished keys, queen bees, xerox paper, pepper spray, Prozac pills, poppers, pooper scoopers, hula hoops, leis, fecal matter, aborted fetuses, snot, rot, cots, bots, shot glass shards, broken windows, chimney smoke, dice, playing cards, poker chips, lollipop sticks, toothpicks, used tissues, toilet water, wolf fangs, sunburn peel, hangnails, cavities, skin, split ends, fur balls, chicken bones, dissected cadavers, Big Bang, Little Miss Muffet, Humpty Dumpty, Rip Van Winkle, bog wood, petrified forest, primordial ooze, love letters, promises kept and broken.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Gem Spa Cash Mob

Saturday's cash mob for Gem Spa was a great success. I can't tell you how many gallons of U-Bet were used, but the egg cream soda fountain never stopped flowing for three hours, as fans of Gem lined up out the door of the store to get a taste of what the place does best--and to keep them alive.

photo: NationofNY

The event turned into a "happening," as attendee Lolita Wolf put it in a conversation on the sidewalk, a scene of locals and former locals hanging out and socializing, while characters showed up to perform for the documentary and news cameras, or to just look interesting.

One young man, barefoot and with a head of blue hair that looked like cake frosting spooned onto his head, shook a bottle of BBQ sauce and ranted, then settled down to play with Candy the Gem Spa cat. Devlin, a jewelry designer who you might see walking the East Village dressed in leopard print and strumming a guitar, sang an impromptu song about not wanting a bank to move in here. And Mosaic Man Jim Powers showed up at the end to deliver a fire and brimstone sermon in front of the Schitibank banner.

Mostly, it was people just hanging out together.

Beloved, long-time East Village performance artist Penny Arcade came by and recalled swinging on the parking meters out front of Gem in 1969 with David Johansen of the New York Dolls. Novelist Arthur Nersesian stopped to say hello. I saw blogger and author Ed Hamilton and his wife Debbie Martin from the Chelsea Hotel. Artist Nayland Blake was there, too, enjoying an egg cream and conversation.

There were so many people, and so much good will, most of it is a blur, but I am grateful to all who took the time to be there for Gem, and to the folks from #SaveNYC who showed up to help with the event.

Owner Parul Patel was very happy and grateful, too. Contrary to some reports, she is nowhere near the verge of giving up. She is fighting to stay put--and this community of New Yorkers is fighting with her.

I want to make it clear that this event also goes beyond trying to save one business, which we know is next to impossible in the current political and economic climate that favors big business, landlords, and developers. The Gem Spa cash mob is also a way to say no to all banks and corporate chains, to say no more, to say we are here, we're not leaving, and we reject the systematic vanishing of our city. As a people, we will not go down without a fight. The Gem Spa cash mob is an act of love and resistance. And we need more of that. Every day.

The Schitibank installation will be up at least until the end of September. Please go by, get an egg cream, order a t-shirt (they're now "The Hottest Look in Streetwear"), and Instagram that installation. Help spread the word about Gem.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Gem Spa to Schitibank

Last night at midnight, all ready for Saturday's cash mob, Gem Spa was transformed -- into a vivid dystopian vision of the new St. Mark's Place. It is now Schitibank, a play on the rumor that Citibank wants to move into the corner space that has been Gem since 1957.

As Gem began struggling earlier this summer, it looked shuttered and bare, especially with the newspapers and Zoltar removed from the front, the signs taken down. People thought it was closed--or closing.

So I reached out to Tommy Noonan and Doug Cameron of the design firm DCX Accelerator. A few years ago, they staged what they called an “Artisanal Landlord Price-Hike Sale" for Jesse's Deli in Brooklyn. It brought awareness and customers to Jesse's and I hoped they could do the same for Gem.

Tommy and Doug said yes right away--DCX puts 20% of their profits toward "cultural activism" like this--and, with approval from Gem's Parul Patel, they created a (pro bono) full art installation, complete with a blue awning and creative riffs on the corporate co-optation of the East Village soul.

The result is an eye-catching satire of "authentrification," which can sometimes, in reality, be more outrageous than fiction.

The Schitibank project features bohemian East Villagers -- Jean-Michel Basquiat and Patti Smith (on Schitibikes), Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Ted Berrigan, the New York Dolls, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Gem Spa's own Candy the Cat (smoking weed).

When I should have been in bed with the flu, I spent the night watching the team install and asked some questions:

Q: You and your team said yes right away when I asked for help with Gem Spa. What made you excited to do this artist/activist makeover?

A: We see too many large banks and large chain stores move into these small neighborhoods putting mom and pop shops out of business. We wanted to see if our art could prevent that. Gem Spa is a fixture of the community and we wanted to help. DCX puts around 20% of our profits into ideating and printing our activist art or installations. This one lined up with us nicely because Parul wanted to do something provocative. We worked with her on all of the ideas, we bounced ideas back and forth. There was a lot of laughing, an instant connection between her and DCX. It made us want to push the idea even further. We love working with clients like that.

Q: What inspired you to do a Schitibank makeover and what is it saying about St. Mark's and the city?

A: The inspiration came from Parul, the owner of Gem Spa. When I heard from her that the landlord is courting a Citi Bank to try to get them to take over the space, DCX wanted to create an art installation that made the neighbors aware of what was happening. We like to channel the voice of a real subculture, in this case a "snarky NYC smoke shop owner," who is up against corporations with a lot of money. There’s something large corporations can’t do, and that’s have an authentic, combative voice, but we can do that.

The whole store will look as if a schiti bank has come to the East Village and tried to co-opt the space in a cool way, kind of like many other corporations, Chase cafés, TD Bank that knocked down Mars Bar, Target Greenwich Village, and how John Varvatos took over CBGB’s and kept the vibe. Many banks have created café-style atmospheres with rough-hewn wood tables and chairs and with some old photographs from the neighborhood that make them look like they are part of the history. They want to fit in, but mostly for profits, not to help the neighborhood. They treat their stores and storefronts like a billboard. It’s a space to do banking but it's also basic repetitive awareness advertising. Perhaps they think it gets them credibility; the fact that they are in an interesting neighborhood.

Q: What do you hope the makeover will do for Gem Spa?

A: We hope the schiti takeover will help the sales at Gem Spa. We ask people come in and read the signs and see how a famous "oasis" of the East Village may end up as "just another schiti bank." We hope that it gets people to buy all the great things Gem Spa has to offer, the New York Egg Creams (which they’re famous for), the wigs, the hats, the other cool things behind the counter to help with your nicotine or CBD fix. Besides that, we hope that schiti bank sheds some light on the corporate kindling that ignites gentrification in New York City neighborhoods.

Don't miss this one--while it lasts. You're gonna schit when you see it.

Come out this Saturday starting at 12:00 noon for the Gem Spa Cash Mob. Buy some egg creams. Take some selfies. Spread the word. Let the banks and the chains and the landlord know: We want Gem to stay put.

View the Facebook invite here.

And, later, in the light of day:

Update -- Citibank responds:

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

September 11: From "Vanishing New York"

Until September 11, 2001, New York was not quite America. From its Dutch beginnings, the city existed as a space apart. Exceptionally able to tolerate, and celebrate, a multiplicity of cultures and ways of living, it had been both the gateway to America for foreign immigrants and the escape from America for those who never fell in line with the American way of normal. New York was a liminal space between inside and outside, a threshold neither here nor there but ultimately itself. It was a city that permitted transgression, the crossing of old boundaries, whether that meant a Jewish immigrant from Russia casting off her wig, or a young man from Nebraska putting his on (with false eyelashes to match).

In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto writes, “It was no coincidence that on September 11, 2001, those who wished to make a symbolic attack on the center of American power chose the World Trade Center as their target. If what made America great was its ingenious openness to different cultures, then the small triangle of land at the southern tip of Manhattan Island is the New World birthplace of that idea, the spot where it first took shape.” Its multicultural receptivity arguably made New York the most truly American city, but not the Heartland version. It was something else. As Djuna Barnes said in 1916, it was “the only city where you can hardly find a typical American.”

When Al Smith, the Italian-Irish New York governor from the Lower East Side, campaigned for U.S. president in 1928, the Heartland rose against him as a Catholic, the son of immigrants, and a New Yorker. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on the tracks when his train came to their towns, and they warned constituents to be ready for Smith’s arrival, crying “America is for Americans!” In publications, they howled about the Roman Catholic “alien hordes” that had “invaded America,” determined to destroy democracy. “Already they have captured many large cities.” And no city had been more corrupted by alien hordes than New York. From his radio pulpit, Reverend John Roach Straton denounced Smith, accusing him of everything the Protestant American Heartland believed was wrong with New York: “card-playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorce, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, modernism.”

This view of the modern city was not fringe, but the extreme expression of a common American sentiment, one that would endure for decades. In 1977’s Annie Hall, Woody Allen might have had Straton’s speech in mind when he joked, “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual, pornographers.” In New York Calling, urbanist Marshall Berman recalled the anti-New York venom that streamed from 1970s America, when politicians asked their constituents, “Should New York live or die?” And their constituents chanted, “Die! Die! Die!” The city had reached its modern-day pinnacle of exceptionalism—and delinquency. For much of the nation, and for the conservative leaders in Washington, New York was a perversion, a dirty town full of dirty people, and now it would be punished and reprogrammed.

When President Gerald Ford essentially told the city to “drop dead,” denying a federal bailout to prevent bankruptcy, a presidential spokesman likened the city to “a wayward daughter hooked on heroin.” Like a rebellious teenager kicked out of the house, the city dis-identified further from the mother country, elevating itself in the process. If America was rejecting New York, then New York would reject America. Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, "View of the World from 9th Avenue,” famously expressed the city’s sense of superiority with a map in which Manhattan is detailed, central, important, while the rest of the country, crammed between the Hudson River and Pacific Ocean, is just an insignificant sketch. In “My Lost City,” Luc Sante recalls, “in the 1970s, New York was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, very few born-again Christians who had not been sent there on a mission, no golf courses, no subdivisions. Downtown, we were proud of this, naturally.”

That vaunting pride did not endear New York to middle America. Talking to Ric Burns for his New York documentary, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable explained: "The combination of power and money and creative vitality has created a city that we New Yorkers are very chauvinistic about and rather disliked for all over the world; we're considered just not in touch with the rest of the world. Well, maybe we're not, and maybe that's a good thing, maybe the fact that we are doing all this creative work is something that is so unique, and so special, that it does make New York a city unlike any other."

As late as the 1990s, after more than a decade of City Hall working to make New York more likeable to the average American, the heart of the Heartland still wasn’t having it. New York magazine published a 1995 cover story that explained “Why America Hates New York.” In short, we were liberal, multicultural, and bereft of right-wing Christian family values. “New York is more than ever considered Sodom on the Hudson,” wrote the magazine. “More chillingly, [right-wing America’s] hatred for us is commingling with the conviction that New York is anachronistic, vestigial, and on its way to being expunged.” The Protestant American right, after disparaging the liberal city for a century, now saw a future in which New York would be overtaken by their values. “New York is a dinosaur,” Georgia politician Gordon Wysong told New York. “We’re the power now. These suburbs, built on white flight, are only going to become more conservative and more powerful. New York has been deposed.” Revenge was in the air.

The conservatives of America could see the changes coming, and they were gleeful. In the spring 1995 issue of City Journal, a publication of the neoliberal, neoconservative Manhattan Institute, David Brooks published a critique on “out-of-step New York,” scolding snobbish city folk for looking down on Middle America. “Over the longer term,” he wrote, “New Yorkers might—dare I say it?—change. New York liberalism will gradually dissolve; cultural attitudes will drift toward the mainstream.”

Looking back from a post-9/11 and post-Bloomberg position, these words offer an eerily prophetic message. But how could we ever have imagined the expunging of New York? Drift toward the mainstream? The city’s utter queerness—if we take “queer” to mean everything eccentric, suspicious, and strange—acted as a repellent that kept out the dull and unimaginative. Being hated by America was good for the city. And, ultimately, good for America. Every family needs a black sheep to keep it interesting.

And then.

On the morning after 9/11, in a cloud of dust and despair, the fractured, frightened city awoke to find itself cradled in the arms of the nation. In their murderous act of terrorism, the attackers managed to strip away New York’s grandiose exceptionalism and, humbling the city, made it accessible. Beneath the collective grief, America was enervated by the trauma, moved to a state of heightened arousal that pulled it magnetically toward Ground Zero, a smoldering hole that quickly became a tourist attraction, complete with grisly souvenirs. The attack was a colossal taking down a peg for wayward, arrogant New York. In the dark privacy of the human heart, who doesn’t feel a bit of Schadenfreude when a swaggering giant falls? Milton Glaser, creator of the “I Heart NY” logo, put it less cynically when he said of the post-9/11 city, “A powerful giant is one thing. A vulnerable giant is much more loveable.”

Into wounded, loveable, suddenly huggable New York rushed the Heartland with its homemade chicken soup for the soul. After that day, we heard the phrase “We are all New Yorkers” echoed across the country--and the globe. The statement appeared in the UK’s Guardian, France’s Le Monde, and in the program for a Carnegie Hall concert of the Berlin Philharmonic, echoing JFK’s famous “We are all Berliners” speech: ''At this terrible moment, we are the ones who say with you, 'We are all New Yorkers.’” America was attacked, but it was the city that fell to its knees. Capturing the touristic national sympathy, a cartoon in the regional newspaper Florida Today painted a suburban scene: Houses displaying American flags, one man watering his lawn in an “I Heart NY” t-shirt and Yankees cap, another pushing a lawnmower in a “Times Square” t-shirt, and a woman walking her dog with “NYC” spelled across her chest. For good measure, the dog wears one of those foam-rubber Lady Liberty crowns that tourists love. They’re waving to each other, as folks in Florida do, above the caption, “In light of recent events, we’re all New Yorkers.” It’s a supportive message that yet contains an ominous proprietary undertone. The city is ours. Here we come.

In 2004 the Republican National Convention came barging into liberal New York for the first time in history. Deep in enemy territory, with angry protestors howling at the gates, Bush supporters banged the drums of 9/11, waving the tragedy like a flag. Governor George Pataki told the delegates, “On that terrible day, a nation became a neighborhood. All Americans became New Yorkers.”

The Big Apple, the Rotten Apple, was done for. The vulnerable, diminished city became as acceptably American as apple pie. Soon after 9/11, the New York Observer announced, “The Heartland Loves New York,” claiming it had become “the most American of all cities.” A year later, The Economist called New York a “sweeter Apple” and “a nicer place” since the attacks. Sweet and nice? Those two words had never, I would wager, in the city’s long and turbulent history been seriously used to describe the unwieldy, throbbing thing that was New York. Something was changing in the civic atmosphere. While terrorism alone didn’t turn the tide of America’s sentiment toward New York, it surely accelerated a process already in place. In The City’s End, a history of America’s murderous fantasies towards New York, Max Page observed, “City leaders had made much of Manhattan safe and clean for tourists. A nation far more willing to be sympathetic to New York was fully on the city’s side after 9/11. Pity after the disaster bloomed into a surge of love for New York.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Papaya Dog to Hair Masks

Twitter tipster Sara Harvey, a Brooklyn resident, let me know that something horrifying happened to Papaya Dog on 6th Avenue in the Village.

Gisou, Instagram

It was turned into a pop-up for hair care products. Expensive hair care products.

Dogs and fries were rapidly replaced by honey-infused hair masks and texturizing wave sprays.

Yelp has it marked down as "closed."

cititourofficial, Instagram

But fear not. The pop-up was only temporary. I gave them a call tonight. They answered "Papaya Dog" and told me "We're back again."

Let this be a warning to us all.

This Papaya Dog has been under threat of closure, so it may be a matter of time before something like this becomes a permanent installation. Read more here about the last remaining dog-and-papaya shops in town (minus some since then) and why they remain as important as ever to many New Yorkers.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Gem Spa Makeover and Cash Mob

This Saturday, September 14, at 12:00 noon, come spend some money at Gem Spa--and Instagram the shit out of it.

At #SaveNYC, we are hosting a Cash Mob to help support this beloved and historic East Village business. Get some stuff--egg creams, pretzels, t-shirts, toothpaste!--and take your photo with a surprise work of guerrilla street art, as an acclaimed group of cultural activists and designers radically transform Gem into a dystopian vision for the new St. Mark’s Place.

The event will take place from noon to about 2:00, rain or shine, but you can visit and spend your money any time. Gem Spa is located on St. Mark's Place at the corner of Second Avenue in the East Village. (View the Facebook invite here.)