Monday, May 21, 2018

The Village Den


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 cafĂ© 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.


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.


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.


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