Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Searching for Real Times Square

Now and then, with camera in hand, I will brave the touristic, Olive-Gardenian horrors of Times Square to hunt for elusive remnants of the old neighborhood. It's not unlike hiking through the bush in search of endangered species, the last northern white rhino, the last passenger pigeon, the last Tasmanian tiger.

There are dangers, of course, in this kind of exploration. The tourists aren't friendly. They own the place now, and they will take you down if you even try to walk like a New Yorker. All their blushing out-of-towner shame is gone, replaced by steely entitlement. Bump them and they bump back. It is best to keep your camera visible and meander with a slow, zombie-like gait so as to move among them undetected.

You need patience for this work. It might require standing on a street corner for long stretches of time, waiting for something real to happen. Generally, if you wait long enough and watch closely enough, you will encounter the Real. Pushed out, stomped and crushed, the Real can't help itself. It keeps trying to come back to Times Square.

Here's a brief survey of my most recent entries to the proverbial field guide. It is not exhaustive.

Bare Elegance is an adult video peep joint on West 50th Street. The girls upstairs are gone, but their photos remain in the second-story windows, sun-bleached behind glass pimpled with moisture. "LIVE BEAUTIFUL MODELS," it reads above their faces, a style of advertising adult entertainment that goes back to at least the days of the Parisian Dance Land.

While the instrument repair shops have been almost completely driven off of what had long been known as Music Row, if you walk other side streets and look up, you might find a window full of battered saxophones -- as you do outside Jon Baltimore's shop, relocated to West 46th.

In the early 1990s, especially, Times Square hit a sweet spot where vice and edgy art commingled to create something thrilling. Generally, the only street performers you see today are those "Show Time" guys and the like. The stuff tourists go for. But then there's "Looping."

From what I can gather, it's Matthew Silver, Fritz Donnelly, and other performance artists rolling around in their underwear on the dirty sidewalk, making animal sounds that create unease in the tourists. One snarky child of the Midwest turned to her mother and exclaimed, "These people need help!" But the loopers are keeping Times Square weird. And you know they're doing something valuable when the police chase them away.

Street preachers were once plentiful in Times Square (as beautifully documented in Richard Sandler's "Gods of Times Square"). But I guess they were more interested in shaming those who indulged in the sin of lust, and not so much the sins of greed and gluttony.

Still, here and there, you can find a few. Most just sit around listlessly carrying a "Jesus Loves You" sign, while others put on a real Bible-thumping show of it.

Finally, there are the old Times Square denizens. They emerge from the last remaining SROs or tenements nearby to make their way to McDonald's or to sit in the sun and watch the people. I once encountered a fascinating man who called himself the Freakologist. But that was 2009, and I haven't seen him since.

Even when they're not tricked out like the Freakologist, these people are easy to spot. They look like they don't belong there, and yet they belong more than anyone.

Just as I was getting ready to give up and go home, this little man walked into view.

He shambled along 42nd Street, going slow, waving hello to the newsstand man, steady on, easy going. The crowds didn't trouble him. In his Zen-like state of mind, he created an empty space around himself, moving through the throngs as if they weren't even there.

Maybe that's how you survive it, the heartbreaking, breakneck-pace of change happening all around you. You put your head down, move your feet, and pretend it isn't happening.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

#SaveNYC Concert

This Saturday, May 2, #SaveNYC is sponsoring a rally concert/performance at Arlene's Grocery.

Organized by Blazes, "Brooklyn's musical superhero," the show will include downtown legends like Penny Arcade and DeeDee Luxe, along with several others. Ann McDermott from #SaveNYC will be there to speak about our mission.

Admission is $5, with the money going to the performers and the space. The first 20 people through the door get a free #SaveNYC t-shirt.

For more info, and to purchase tickets, visit Arlene's Grocery.

Blazes at the Small Biz Crawl

Monday, April 27, 2015

Jane's Walk on the Bowery

This weekend, May 2 and 3, come downtown for a Jane's Walk about Hyper-Gentrification and Appropriation on the Bowery. I organized and wrote the walk, while Kyle Supley from #SaveNYC will be your knowledgeable and charismatic guide.

Jane's Walk is a global "movement of free, citizen-led walking tours inspired by Jane Jacobs." In New York City, the walks are sponsored by the Municipal Arts Society.

Visit the site for more on the Bowery walk and many others. Here's a description:

For over a century, the Bowery’s character had been of the countercultural sort. Since the late 1800s it had been the sleazy territory of outsiders—punks, artists, bums, queers, and drop-outs, drag queens, prostitutes, tattoo artists, and con men. It was a haven for homosexuals when it was illegal and unsafe to be gay. Groundbreaking artists, including Mark Rothko, moved to the Bowery in the 1950s. More artists arrived through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Mapplethorpe. The music scene at CBGB’s gave birth to punk rock. Then, in the 1990s, everything began to change.

Today, the Bowery, once synonymous with Skid Row, has become a luxury brand that appropriates its gritty past, sanitizes it, and then sells it for a sky-high price. On this walk, organized by Jeremiah Moss of Vanishing New York and #SaveNYC, and guided by preservationist Kyle Supley, participants will tour the main sites of the Bowery’s massive transformation and engage in a discussion about hyper-gentrification and appropriation. If time allows, participants will also loop back to Houston Street via Rivington and Essex for a look at how hyper-gentrification has transformed what is now known as “Hell Square.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Comic Book Heaven

Filmmaker E.J. McLeavey-Fisher has made a lovely short documentary about Joe Leisner, former owner of the shop Comic Book Heaven in Sunnyside, Queens.

I asked E.J. a few questions about the film--which you can watch in its entirety right here:

Comic Book Heaven from E.J. McLeavey-Fisher on Vimeo

Q: Something I like most about the film is its depiction of what might be called "a real New York character." Can such a breed still exist in the city? And can they still run a successful business?

A: That breed can definitely still exist, but I don't think they can necessarily run a shop like Comic Book Heaven without making some serious tweaks over time. To me, Joe's "New York character" comes from that defiant, stubborn outlook that often gets equated with the overall NYC attitude. That's the charm, of course, but when it applies to a business model, it's not so sustainable.

The conflict now is that people get a kick out of Joe and appreciate his efforts in a film like this, but when it comes down to it, they might still prefer a new coffee shop in that storefront.

Q: It seems like many of the newcomers to New York have trouble dealing with shopkeepers who have...let's call it an "edge." In Joe's shop, he had a sign that said if you don't put the comics back in alphabetical order, "we will break your fingers." I suspect that if a sign like this existed today, in the gentrified parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn, people would be screaming bloody murder about it on Yelp. What are your thoughts on this?

A: Joe definitely has that edge, but it's hard not to notice the intentional humor within it. I would hope that if a character like Joe and those signs existed in a store in another neighborhood, people would take the time to soak him in and find the humor in it. But some people aren't looking to necessarily engage in a conversation or get to know the person running the store they're shopping at, which is understandable too.

New York City is rather unrelenting in how much interaction it's throwing at you at all times and it takes a while to get used to that. So if you just want to get your comic book and get out, Comic Book Heaven may not have been the place for you. It's a personal preference thing, I guess. If I read negative reviews on Yelp about Comic Book Heaven that still included any of those anecdotes, I'd probably want to go even more.

Q: What was lost when Joe's shop closed?

A: I’m not into comic books myself and had never been to the store before I started this project, so I don’t have that personal connection that some do. But after observing the business over the months that I was filming, I saw how comforting a store like this was for some of the customers in the same way that others might go to a local bar.

And I don’t envision these people now making the trek into Manhattan to hang out at Forbidden Planet. So that specific community, however small, isn't there for these customers in the way that it once was.

Q: What inspired you to do this film, especially since you're not a comic book fan?

A: Sunnyside has a small-town vibe to it compared to some other neighborhoods in the city, so it's more noticeable when a business opens or closes. I'd been following a local neighborhood news site for a while that covered these stories pretty frequently and wanted to try and catch one of these businesses to document the process of closing--not after they had closed suddenly.

I saw the article about Comic Book Heaven closing and stopped by, figuring it might make for a quick 3-minute piece as the shop closed a month later (which was the original plan). But once I met Joe, I realized there was more to it. Plus, he ended up staying open for 5 months longer than he was supposed to, so I was able to shoot much more than I initially anticipated.

Q: What's Joe up to these days? Does he miss the shop?

A: Joe does not miss the shop but he misses the companionship and activity for sure. He does his best to stay in touch with former customers and people from the neighborhood, but without a specific schedule and living out in Canarsie I think he's a bit bored. His motivation and energy is incredible though; he wants to become an actor now that he's spent some time in front of the camera. But as any aspiring actor in NYC knows, it's not a quick or easy career to launch. He keeps telling me that I need to find him a gig because he's "running out of time."

You can follow the film on Facebook

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Angel Feet

A number of readers have written in to let us know that Angel Feet Reflexology is closing. Diane writes, "This lovely business has soothed the soles and souls of New Yorkers since 1995 in its tiny space on Perry Street. Another victim of rising rents. The women who work here are all kind, caring, and gifted and they are all heartbroken to see this community broken up."

May 31 will be their last day.

I got in touch with Angel Feet manager and reflexologist Chantel C. Lucier. She explained:

"Regarding our closure, it was a number of things affecting our expenses, including a rent hike, and no matter how hard we tried we just couldn’t generate enough business to cover all of these expenses. The rent hike was the last straw.

New York City and State claim to be supportive of small business, but the taxes and regulations are disproportionate to what a small business can actually bring in.

Angel Feet was a small woman-owned business in its 20th year. We have supporters and clients all over the world and it has been heartbreaking to say goodbye to them. I hope that New York may at some point in the near future reclaim the spirit that inspired the immigrants of the last century to come here to see the birth of their dreams and allow small family run and women owned businesses to thrive. We were there and we can be there again if the government will allow the individual creative spirit to flourish!"

If you want to help protect small businesses in New York City, check out #SaveNYC.

Monday, April 20, 2015

ICON Artist

Someone is trying to let Icon Realty know how they feel about the eviction of the beloved Stage Restaurant. Reader Kate Puls sent in this photo from 441 E. 9th St.:

The ICON logo has been reworked to read: "I AM CON ARTIST." The sign was also tagged with the demand, "LET STAGE LIVE!" and the #SaveNYC hashtag.

This address happens to be the former home of New York School poet Frank O'Hara. Not his last place, which was demolished for a condo, but the place where he wrote enough poems, the GVSHP put a plaque on the wall. Maybe it was Frank's ghost, home from a long stroll, who marked up the Icon sign.

Further along, at 445 E. 9th, he wrote the same messages on another ICON sign. What looks like a second hand added: "The rent is too fucking high, you greedy fucks!" To which someone else replied, "yes!!"

A 300-square-foot retail space here goes for $5,000 per month.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Second Ave. Small Businesses

This past Saturday, #SaveNYC organized a Small Business Crawl on the block of Second Avenue most impacted by the recent gas explosion.

photo: Beatriz Rodriguez. Sandy Bachom and Jordy Trachtenberg.

While it's impossible to say exactly how many people showed up to support the businesses, there was a lively crowd and the event was an overall success. The East Village mom and pops got a lot of positive attention from the media, getting featured on local TV news channels, including NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX5, NY1, and WPIX:

To kick off the day, the crowd of supporters met outside Gem Spa, where the vintage newsstand kept the egg creams flowing. They lunched at places like Paul's Da Burger Joint, who reported to #SaveNYC's Kirsten Theodos, "It was a big help, as it pushed business up nearly 40%." The little gift shop Himalayan Visions also did well, reporting their sales were up 200% on Saturday.

Small Biz Crawl supporter Jordy Trachtenberg wrote in to say, "I spoke to the Gem Spa folks and they told me that Saturday was their record day for selling egg creams. Over 350 of them! Wow!"

photo: Kim Cummings. #SaveNYC Steering Committee at work

Business owners very much appreciated the support from New Yorkers far and wide. In a note, Himalayan Visions owner Tenzin wrote:

"Thank you so much for organizing Small Bis Crawl. As I told you that on Saturday their was a lots of people came to support us from our community and also from different apart of area. I was so amaze to see these kind of support. It give us a lots hope & encourage to work hard no matter happen. Lastly, I must say that 'if you contribute happiness to others people life, it is a true meaning of life' -HHDL. Once again thank you so much."

Small Biz Crawl Boosts Blast Zone Business from Bedford + Bowery

Unfortunately, beloved legacy businesses like B&H Dairy and the Stage Restaurant were closed on Saturday, and remain closed. A fundraising page to support B&H has collected over $22,000, money that the beloved dairy luncheonette will need to stay alive.

In disturbing news, while more than 1,000 people have signed a petition to reopen the equally beloved Stage, landlord Icon Realty just evicted them. While there are reports of problems with the gas line, we also recall when E.V. Grieve reported in 2013 that the building was sold "to a group of four relatively young guys" who were heard "talking about 'clearing out' the shop in the front" of the building.

The Stage family has released a statement on their Facebook page. In part, it reads: "We at the Stage Restaurant are deeply troubled by the landlord’s false allegations that we engaged in any illegal siphoning of gas. Stage is a long-standing restaurant with deep connections to the community – we have never siphoned gas, and have committed no wrong... the Landlord is seizing on the recent tragic events as an opportunity to wrongfully evict us for reasons unknown to us."

In addition, Mariann Marlowe's rockabilly shop Enz's (since 1972) has been destroyed. Visit her fundraising page to help her rebuild and get back to business.

photo: Janko Puls

#SaveNYC is planning more actions to support these and other nearby businesses. If you would like to participate in our ongoing efforts, visit the #SaveNYC website, send in videos and photos, and join the Facebook group

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ziegfeld Museum

Last week we heard the news that the great Ziegfeld movie theater might be closing. It's been here since 1969, and it's one of the last remaining single-screen palaces in the city.

*UPDATE January 2016: Confirmed. The theater is closing to become a high-end corporate event space.

I like it because it's big, truly big, with those red velvet chairs you don't find anymore in this day of stadium seating.

I also like it because it's unusual.

The entire entryway, from the downstairs lobby up to the theater lobby, contains Reade's Ziegfeld Museum, made up mostly of statuary and a series of vitrines displaying artifacts from the old days of the Ziegfeld Follies.

A costume once belonging to "Ziegfeld diva" Lillian Lorraine is on display, accompanied by a sign that reads, in 1920s font, "These too were part of the Ziegfeld mystique."

In Scandals and Follies, author Lee Davis wrote that Florenz Ziegfeld "was insanely in love with Lillian Lorraine and would remain so, to one degree or another, for the rest of his life, despite her erratic, irresponsible, often senseless behavior."

Another display is dedicated to Marilyn Miller, who began in vaudeville in childhood, debuting as "Mademoiselle Sugarlump." After a stellar career on the Follies stage, she died from complications from nasal surgery and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Fun fact from Wikipedia: "A sculpture of Miller, in the title role of Sunny, can still be seen atop the former I. Miller Shoe Company Building" at 46th and Broadway in Times Square.

The museum also includes a very 1960s-looking bust of "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice, and a statue of an elephant.

Even the wood paneling on the walls comes with a story. "STORY OF THIS WOOD," reads the faded plaque screwed to the wall:

"Carbon 14-isotope dating shows this wood has been buried in a peat bog near Cambridge, England, since 2120 B.C." Thanks to rising sea levels and the pressures of 4,100 years, the wood has a rich, charcoal hue. "None has proven to be as large or well preserved as this one."

The same could be said for the Ziegfeld. It's large and well preserved, and it's old. It's got a story to tell--and it should be allowed to keep telling it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

House of Cards & Curiosities


On 8th Avenue in Greenwich Village since 1994, the House of Cards & Curiosities will be closing for good on May 31.

A small space stuffed with stuff, it's a neighborhood favorite for its selection of greeting cards and, of course, its many curiosities, including Day of the Dead skeletons, odd little toys, and a Wunderkammer filled with taxidermied lizards, bones, and shark teeth. Actress Molly Shannon called the shop "one of those downtown neighborhood places that are so great."

As we know, those great downtown neighborhood places are vanishing fast.

"Was it the rent?" a long-time customer asked.

"It was everything," the cashier replied.

The shop's neighbor, Chocolate Bar, also recently announced its closure, citing rising costs and slow sales, thanks to three years of street construction outside their doors.

The House of Cards is currently having a 30% off everything sale.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Chocolate Bar


Chocolate Bar on 8th Avenue in Greenwich Village is closing. Already, a "Store for Lease" sign has appeared in the window.

Owner Alison Nelson has written to her employees:

"It is with sadness that after 13 years of business and much contemplation, I have decided to close our West Village location. Over the past year we have fought the struggle with rising costs and stagnant sales due to street construction and difficult weather. We have seen much of our neighborhood change over the past few years, fought 3 years of street work right outside our door and watched many of our fellow small businesses and neighbors leave due to rising rents and expenses. All of this has taken a steady and sometimes biting toll upon us and our operations. Know that it is with a very heavy heart that I have made this decision. I never envisioned leaving the West Village, a place that had been my home for nearly 20 years, and Chocolate Bar's home for over a decade."

Their last day will be Sunday, April 26.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Small Biz Crawl for 2nd Avenue

This Saturday, starting at 12:00 noon, #SaveNYC is organizing a Small Business Crawl along the stretch of Second Avenue impacted by the recent gas explosion and fire.

photo: Janko Puls

After such a disaster, small businesses struggle to survive. Some don’t make it. Especially the old-timers. Like elderly people, they are often the most vulnerable to upheaval and interruption--and the least resilient.

Already, beloved businesses like The Stage diner and B&H Dairy have lost tens of thousands of dollars--and they still have not been able to reopen. The local businesspeople here need our help. So we're working to bring customers, cash, and attention to those mom-and-pops in most need.

Paul's Da Burger Joint, by Kirsten Theodos

B&H Dairy, by Kirsten Theodos

The Small Biz Crawl starts at Gem Spa (since 1957), on the southwest corner of Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. Buy your magazines, cigarettes, and egg creams at this first stop.

From there, head down towards 7th Street. Do some gift shopping at Himalayan Visions (since 1997). Have lunch at the B&H Dairy (since 1937) or Paul’s Da Burger Joint (since 1989). Other small restaurants here include Bar Virage (since 1998), Hot Kitchen, MisoYa, San Loco, and Taqueria Diana. Dine at the spot you most want to save.

(Fingers crossed B&H reopens, at least partially, by Saturday. The Stage will likely still be shuttered, and Moishe's is not open on the Sabbath. #SaveNYC will do our best to return to these businesses with help in the future.)

Bar Virage, by Kirsten Theodos

After lunch, weave your way across the barricades of 7th Street to stock up on groceries at the New Yorkers Foodmarket, and then unwind with an espresso or glass of wine at Café Mocha.

Your dollars go a long way. So does your good will and emotional support. When small businesspeople know they are loved and cared about, they are more likely to fight for survival. Let them know how valuable they are to you, to the East Village, and to the whole city as it drowns under a tsunami of dull chain stores.

We simply cannot afford to lose one more legacy mom-and-pop.

New Yorkers Supermarket, by Kirsten Theodos

Please bring your #SaveNYC sign to let everyone know who you are and why you’re there. Click here to print out signs--and to find out more about #SaveNYC.

Click here to view the Facebook invitation for this event.

Donate to help save the B&H Dairy here.

See more of this story on News Channel 7:

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

5 Spot

Quintessential New York is Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Died," with its bouncy, urban "I do this, I do that" listing of the poet's day and then the last, heart-stopping lines:

"I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing"

Years ago, I tried to find the original site of the 5 Spot. I ended up at a bar inside the now demolished 35 Cooper Square, mistakenly thinking it was the right place. There was no Internet back then and I had little to guide me. Now there's a Wikipedia page for the 5 Spot and this site, 5 Spot Artifacts, put together by the daughter of former owner Joe Termini.

The original 5 Spot was at 5 Cooper Square, between 4th and 5th. It was a favorite place for many painters and poets, including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg.

It was demolished and a second 5 Spot opened on the corner of St. Mark's Place and Third Avenue in the 1960s.

Billie Holiday died in 1959, so it wasn't at the second Five Spot that O'Hara leaned on the john door and stopped breathing.

The second Five Spot is now a pizza place and some open-street shops that sell hats, sunglasses, and marijuana paraphernalia.

"Tea," as it was known in the jazz scene. "Reefer" and "Mary Jane." Billie Holiday loved it. But she probably never smoked it through a bong attached to a gas mask.

P.S. Happy belated birthday to Billie.

Thelonious Monk and Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter get into her Bentley outside the Five Spot cafe, New York, 1964. Photograph: Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Yormark's Sign


Back in 2012, I posted about an antique sign for J. Yormark Shoes. It had been revealed and partly restored when a barbershop moved into its old spot on 8th Avenue near Jane Street.

Last year, the barber shop moved out and more portions of the sign were revealed. Above the stained glass was a second sign: SHOES YORMARK SHOES.

Then scaffolding went up, and the stained glass sign was not treated with any apparent care.

Now the renovation of the storefront is complete. Sadly, the antique sign has been removed, replaced with plain glass. The sign above it has either been removed or covered up. 

J. Yorkmark Shoes opened sometime in the 1890s. For historic family photos of the shop, click here.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Donut Pub's 50th

This year mark's the good old Donut Pub's 50th anniversary. The celebratory banner says, "Always fresh! Since 1964!" So maybe it's their 51st anniversary?

In any case, for the grand occasion, they've created a special Golden Anniversary doughnut.

The Golden Anniversary doughnut is rather elusive. Rarely made, it may or may not be available when you visit. I've been trying for weeks, and didn't get my Golden Anniversary doughnut until my fifth visit. (In the midst of my slightly obsessive quest, I dreamed about this pastry. In my dream, it was topped with flakes of real gold leaf.)

In reality, the rare delicacy is a regular doughnut glazed in yellow (for the "golden" part) with green stripes (for reasons unknown).

Was it worth the effort? Any visit to the Donut Pub on 14th Street is worth it. Next time, however, I'll stick with my usual honey dipped.

A Day at Donut Pub
Donut Pub Defeats Dunkin

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Oyster Bar Blight

After 55 years in business at 54th and 7th, the Famous Oyster Bar was forced to close one year ago. The owner of the restaurant said a new landlord took over the building and the rent was hiked, from $12,000 to $50,000 a month.

The hostess told me that the new landlord refused to renew their lease. "I think she'll keep it empty," the hostess said. "I think the building is coming down."

One year later, the space is still empty. Gutted and stripped. (The antique neon sign made it to Delancey Street.)

Landlords are allowed to do this in New York. They're allowed to kick out long-term, beloved businesses by jacking up the rent or simply refusing to renew the lease. They're allowed to leave the spaces empty for years, waiting for property values to increase, waiting for Starbucks to make the right offer.

In the meantime, we're left with a dying city. And no one is doing a thing about it. #SaveNYC.

Oyster Bar to Close
Neon Sign to Delancey