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:

1 comment:

Pat said...

I really love this action! Bravo Schitibankers!!! Did share on FB. Love the Gem Spa family very much, having lived on their block since 1975. They have always proved themselves to be compassionate and kind neighbors to the crazies and the normal (more or less) folks who frequent their establishment. Like a 24/7 light in the darkness of this sometimes spooky city.