Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Call Your Mother Hot Dog Cart

The cart stands on Houston near Lafayette.

Between the many signs for hot dogs, hot pretzels, and honey roasted peanuts, hand-written messages tell passersby to call their mothers.

"A smiling face is a...beautiful mankind," reads another.

"Let's back to our childhood. There we used to mistake again and again. Some people used to forgive us over and over."

"Wake up! Re-start. U'll overcome this time."

The vendor says the signs bring people to him, inspire them to stop and talk. It's a good thing. "We're all turning into machines," he says, "in this system." It's a good thing to stop and connect.

And go call your mother. Which I did.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Friedman's at the Edison

The fifth location of Friedman's has now opened in the space that long held the beloved Cafe Edison, which was forced to close in 2014 after decades in business.

The new restaurant announced its opening on Facebook a couple of weeks ago: "FRIEDMAN'S @ Edison has officially opened and we are super excited !!😊" Plus the hashtags: #eatgoodfood #mindfuleating #farmtotable #friedmansnyc #glutenfreee #celiacsafe #fall #edisonhotel #nowopen #2017 #goodvibesonly #dinner #breakfast #lunch #brunchnyc

Reluctantly, I went to see what had become of the wonderful Cafe Edison, the place we fought so hard to save -- and lost.

A sign at the door of Friedman's read: "A little taste of the farm for the big city." (See: The Wisconsinization of New York.) Already, everything was off.

Through the entrance, no more Betty at her cluttered cash register surrounded by signs that read, "No Large Luggage" and "Cash Only" and "If you are grouchy or just plain mean, there will be a $10 charge for putting up with you."

At Friedman's, all the character has been stripped away.

The dusty old chandeliers have been ripped out. The counter is gone. The giddy pink and powder-blue walls and columns have been painted beige. And beige. Two shades of beige.

As Rem Koolhaas wrote of The Generic City, "Close your eyes and imagine an explosion of beige."

At Friedman's, you don't have to close your eyes to imagine. The place has a beige personality--nice and neutral, completely inoffensive.

The water comes in a glass bottle that says, "Inspired Living." The music is as innocuous as muzak, but up to date, all soft jazzy hip-hoppy sounds, including a re-mix of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," that iconic rock poem of transsexuality and prostitution, the stuff of old Times Square, now stripped of its language.

I forced myself to try the matzo ball soup, a staple of the old Cafe Edison. It tasted good, but so what? I missed the way the bowls of soup used to come crashing from the noisy kitchen behind the counter. I missed the counter and its swivel stools, its trays of glazed doughnuts under cloudy plastic domes.

I missed the people who used to sit on those stools and lean in over those bowls of soup, tossing their neckties over their shoulders, getting their eyeglasses steamed.

And I missed the brusque waitresses with their accents and post-middle age exhaustion. The ones at Friedman's are deferential, soft-spoken, and youthful. All perfectly nice.

Everything at Friedman's is nice.


Once again, New York has sold its soul for nice. In its restaurants, it has traded character and history for food that tastes clean and new. For a frictionless experience that neither agitates nor inspires.

In the 2000s, New York was remade into a city that caters to consumers. The Bloomberg Way, as urbanist Julian Brash has written, was "a notion of governance in which the city is run like a corporation. The mayor is the CEO, the businesses are clients, citizens are consumers, and the city itself is a product that’s branded and marketed." That product must be inoffensive, made beige and nice, so as not to disrupt or displease the average consumer.

This approach to city life comes from the radical free-market capitalist ethos of neoliberalism. Milton Friedman, the economist who helped popularize neoliberalism, once said, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." In other words, you can't tax businesses to pay for public services. Which brings us to the current federal tax plan of today.

It also brings us back to Friedman's restaurant, which was named after Milton Friedman and not after a Jewish family and their matzo ball soup. There was a Jewish family running the Cafe Edison for decades. They made good soup. They didn't worry about creating a beige experience. They were loved by many and they are missed.


Read all about the closure of Cafe Edison and the fight to save it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

French Roast to La Contenta

Many people were unhappy this summer when French Roast closed in Greenwich Village.

Now its replacement has announced itself:

photo: Ora McCreary

La Contenta, a Mexican restaurant "with French accents," has another location on the Lower East Side.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Walter's Antique Clock & Watch Repair


all photos by Justin Hicks

The following is a guest post by Justin Hicks:

Pretty much everyone in the West Village agrees: Walter Dikarev is magical.

“I love him,” Rosemary Wettenhall, owner of Madame Matovu, said. “Because he’s like this magic man. He can fix anything.”

For nearly 20 years, Dikarev held court at his small antique clock repair shop on 10th Street between Hudson and Bleecker Streets. Neighbors squeeze into his cluttered shop to chat, all the while surrounded by his cases of glittering watches, clocks, and jewelry.

“[There’s] even [a] special smell in here, the smell of the clock and watch oil,” Dikarev said. “It’s extremely rare; to be in my business and feel exactly like what you could feel maybe a hundred, a hundred and fifty years behind you, and feel like you’re exactly in the past century.”

“What I give when anybody’s coming here, I give unto this person my love,” he said. “My love and nothing else. My smile, my love.”

Unfortunately for him and the city he loves, he’s being forced to close his shop at the end of the year due to a rise in rent.

“I guess my business is not profitable, not profitable anymore,” Dikarev said. “Just to survive I need to raise the prices for my customers and I do not like it.”

For Walter, it’s just a modern take on the David and Goliath story. Big businesses came in and took over the real estate, raising the prices of rent and displacing the patrons who used to visit his shop.

“[It’s the] biggest killing smallest,” he said. “That’s it. [They make] more money and kill the small things. Like bugs. That’s my story of my life.”

Local shop owners describe Dikarev as the “watchdog” of the neighborhood. His decision to fold under the growing pressure of high rent and low sales is unpopular to say the least.

“Nobody likes my decision,” he sighed. “Everybody asks me please don’t close this business because we just feel very, very alone. [There will be] no business to take care of us here.”

When he goes, the West Village will lose yet another charm that made it so magical.

“It’s losing a lot of the smaller charming shops that help make it what it was,” Sherry Delamarter, the owner of Cowgirl restaurant, said. “I don’t want to whine or be a crybaby about it, but there’s something sad in that passing. That’s something sad for the Village as a whole.

“We will certainly miss Walter,” she concluded. “He was a little jewel of a man who fixes jewels.”

For more, visit www.justinmhicks.com or follow @Hicks_JustinM on Twitter.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Second Hand Rose Records


For a few weeks now, there's a been a sign on the door of the Second Hand Rose used record shop on 12th Street, saying they were closed temporarily for renovation.


As Alex at Flaming Pablum noted, "maybe they are just renovating, and will re-emerge, Phoenix-style, from the ashes of their former ignominy with a robust new outlook." But "I’m not holding my breath."

Today the sign just says "CLOSED," no more note about renovation, and the shop is empty and dark. A few Bob Dylan posters sit in the window. When I asked, an employee of the building said, "They're closed forever."


We do not know the reason for the closure. But we do know that the building, 817 Broadway, was sold to Taconic Partners last year and they planned to "reposition" the property. As the Real Deal reported, "by April 30, 2021, all the building’s current leases will have turned over."

More recently, its anchor tenant, the Social Service Workers Union (SSEU), moved out of 817 to a smaller space in Times Square.

And the building is now wrapped in a new banner declaring it "The address of innovation." The website claims that 817 is "now poised to redefine what a building can do to inspire a city."

We can guess that means "Tech Hub" and not used record shop.

New Ziegfeld

When the old (but not oldest) Ziegfeld theater closed in 2016 after 46 years in business, many New Yorkers grieved. We wondered what would happen to all its odd character when it became an upscale corporate event space.

Well, now we know. Recently, the new Ziegfeld Ballroom opened for events. Here's what it looks like:

"Drawing inspiration from the 1930’s luxury cruise liner the SS Normandie," reads the new company website, "the Ziegfeld Ballroom features a color scheme of silver and greys to reflect its art deco heritage."

Another inspiration appears to be the corporate hotel conference rooms of, well, Midtown.

Gone are the plush, blood-red walls of old, the sky-high ceiling, the antique sconces, and that circular banquette where one could rest beneath a sprawling chandelier while breathing in the aroma of fresh popcorn.

What became of the artifacts from the Ziegfeld Museum that once lined the stairways and halls? I heard that some are on display in the lounge of the New Amsterdam Theater, home of the “Ziegfeld Follies” from 1907 to 1927.

But what about the weird "STORY OF THIS WOOD" plaque screwed to the wall, informing moviegoers: "Carbon 14-isotope dating shows this wood has been buried in a peat bog near Cambridge, England, since 2120 B.C."

Who knows where it's buried now?

Before: via Cinema Treasures

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hank's Saloon


Brooklyn music bar Hank's Saloon will close by the end of 2018.

On Facebook, the owner writes: "the building was taken over by a new developer who had plans to build big. We knew it was only a matter of time before we got the news that we would have to close Hank’s and move along."

And "it deeply saddens me that one of the last NYC bars of this kind will no longer exist. These places are extremely special to New York and add genuine heart and soul to the community."

They're looking for a new space.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017



In the East Village for 27 years, the Continental will be closing. The owner writes:

"Continental has less than a year left. Some time after the end of August 2018, this corner will be knocked down and developed. It’s truly heartbreaking that we and so many Old Skool places are falling by the wayside but unless you own your building that’s how it goes."

photo via EV Grieve

Read the rest at the bar's website.

And, yes, this entire corner will be gone, from the shuttered McDonald's to Papaya King. Something new and horrible will rise in its place.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Meet Me at the End of the World

Jesse Malin just released a video for the title track of his EP Meet Me at the End of the World, an album that Rolling Stone calls "a mix of Lower East Side grit and Simon & Garfunkel Americana pop."

The video features the great Ray's Candy and B&H Dairy, two luminaries of the East Village small business scene -- plus a cameo from Ray himself.

Check it out:

Monday, October 30, 2017



Frankel's clothing shop has been in Brooklyn for a very long time. Tucked into the shadows of the Gowanus Expressway in Sunset Park, the shop's painted bricks announce: "An American Treasure Since 1890," "The One," "The Only," and "We're Still Here."

But Frankel's won't be here much longer. Third-generation owner Marty Frankel has decided it's time to pack up and move the shop to Jersey.

With its selection of steel-toed boots and Carhartt work clothes, Frankel's caters mostly to laborers. They've covered his doorway with union stickers.

"You know how the Jewish people have the mezuzah on the door and they kiss it? The union guys do it with a sticker," Marty says. "They walk out and kiss it." He demonstrates, kissing his fingers and then touching them to the door frame.

Before work clothes, Frankel's specialized in western wear. Cowboy boots and cowboy hats. Marty would put horse manure in the dressing rooms to give the place that country aroma. Before that it was Timberland boots and "ethnic clothes," snakeskin pants and Italian knit sweaters, bandannas in gang colors. He shows a photo of customers Method Man and Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan. Before that, going back to when Frankel's began, they outfitted the seamen coming in off the big ships at port. But they sold more than just clothing.

"In the 1950s," Marty says, "condoms were illegal in a lot of places. So we'd get cases of Trojans and take 'em down to the ships," to sell them in bulk to foreign sailors who'd smuggle them back to their home countries. "I'm responsible for a lot of people not being born. I like to say I sold condoms to seamen." He smiles at the joke.

A warm and welcoming guy, Marty likes to joke around. He's got a roll of packing tape on the counter with the word SEX written on it. "That's my sex tape," he says. "Don't mind me. I got Tourette's."

Somehow he gets to talking about the designer Ralph Lauren, who changed his name from Lifshitz, or was it Lipshitz? "They used to say: If your Lipshitz, what does your asshole do? Don't mind me. I got Tourette's."

When Brooklyn's piers shut down and the seamen sailed away, the neighborhood changed. In the 1970s it got rough. Marty would go to work strapped with two guns and a bullet-proof vest. It was a daily thrill. "I miss it," he says, looking out the window to the street. "It was exciting to come in and see who got shot over the weekend. I saw a guy get shot on that corner, a body dumped over there, and another guy get his ear shot off right there. It was a tough place back then. If you weren't black and blue, it meant your father was in jail."

But Marty survived. He was part of the scene. He grew up in the neighborhood and came to work in the shop with his father. The place is full of antiques, including a bowler hat that belonged to Marty's grandfather, a shoe-fitting fluoroscope (for x-raying feet while emitting radiation), and a long wooden bench that goes back a century.

"My whole life was spent on that bench," Marty says. "I slept on it as a child. That was my crib. I don't know anything else. All I know is this store."

Marty owns the building and doesn't plan on selling it. But it's time to close.

"I'm 76 years old," he explains. "I'm tired. I fell asleep going home on the Pulaski Skyway. I'm lucky to be alive, but I get tired driving home to Jersey every night." And the parking around the store is terrible. "It's not easy down here. There's nowhere to park. They call this Sunset Park? They should just call it Sunset."

Besides, the majority of his customers have moved away from Brooklyn.

More and more, old-time locals come in and tell him their landlord has sold their building and they're getting evicted, moving to Pennsylvania or some other state. The neighborhood is changing again. A nearby Costco has taken a bite out of Frankel's -- "It hurts. Costco gets all the deals" -- and the newcomers to the neighborhood haven't helped.

"Hipsters. They're all white guys with Chinese girlfriends and rescue dogs," says Marty. "They try on twenty pairs of shoes, but they won't buy here because the store doesn't look nice. They like to take pictures of my barcodes, though, and then buy the shoes online."

Still, Frankel's is well loved by its regulars and the neighborhood people. A guy walks in and calls out, "Hey Marty, I gotta take a piss," and heads to the restroom. A woman comes in and chats about life, the school they both went to years ago. Customers come and go, buying boots and hats.

They all know Marty and enjoy his easy talk--and his sense of humor. Like his trick of leaving an old boot on the sidewalk as bait. Passersby pick it up and bring it in, saying, "You left a boot outside." He thanks them and then, after they go (hopefully after buying something), he tosses the boot back on the sidewalk.

"It's going to be hard to leave," Marty says, sitting down on that antique bench. "Mentally, it's hard. I'm like the watering hole here. People come by and ask What happened to this guy? and Have you heard from that guy? I've got three generations of people shopping at this store. Now that they know I'm closing, they write me emails. They say, How can you do this to us? Do it to them? I have trouble sleeping at night, thinking about the move. But it's time. A hundred and twenty-seven years? I figure that's long enough."

By the end of November, Frankel's will be gone.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Argo Electronics


After close to four decades, Argo Electronics on Canal Street has closed. Tribeca Citizen shared the news today, writing, "I’d have to wager that the building—and the one(s) to the west—aren’t long for this world."

photos from 2015

Argo was a beautiful little remnant of old Canal, its wares organized in cardboard boxes spilling out to the sidewalk, a cacophony of useful junk and stuff.

Power cords. Extension cords. Remote controls. Rolls of duct tape. Rolls of masking tape.

Motherboards. Keyboards. Key chains. Coffee pots. Flip flops. Watch bands.

I never got the chance to go inside, but I always liked the look of the place and photographed it each time I went by, mostly because it had that look.

You know the look. The one that says: I won't last much longer in this new New York.

For videos of the inside, visit Tribeca Citizen.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

One October

Rachel Shuman is the director of the film One October, a time capsule of New York in 2008, "when gentrification is rapidly displacing the working and middle classes, Wall Street is plummeting, and Senator Obama is making his first presidential bid." Along the way, radio host Clay Pigeon talks with everyday New Yorkers to "poignantly reveal urbanist Jane Jacobs’s idea of the 'ballet of the good city sidewalk.'"

One October will be screening on November 8, complete with a live score and discussion with the director, at the Rubin Museum. Buy tickets here.

I asked Shuman a few questions:

JM: You ended up with a film in which many people speak about the changes of the city, about gentrification and "mallification." Did you know you would get that? Was that the intention or an accident of sorts?

RS: The film was inspired by Chris Marker’s film "Le Joli Mai," which is portrait of his native Paris in the month of May 1962, a moment when France had just signed its peace treaty with Algeria after 8 years of war and while a big push for urban renewal was spreading around Paris. In the film Marker notes how the streets of his beloved city were changing, "In ten years, these images will look stranger to us than today do the images of Paris in 1900."

In the mid 2000's I felt like we were in a similar moment; we'd been at war in Iraq for several years and I began noticing the sweeping urban renewal that was happening in NYC, particularly in the East Village and Lower East side so I decided that I wanted to make a film like "Le Joli Mai" about my city to create a kind of time capsule of what was happening, in part to be able to remember of how the city looked at that moment in time.

By 2007 when I really started thinking about going ahead with the film, I was living in the East Village and had become quite alarmed by the rapid changes happing to the neighborhood. At that point it seemed like no one was really talking about it, so part of the impetus to make the film was also as a rallying cry to say, “Hey, do you see what is happening here?!”

A defining moment for me was standing on the corner of University Place at about 12th street late one night and noticing that all four corners were aglow in the harsh neon light of various bank façades. It was very eerie, and metaphorically I felt like a war was happening and that the enemy had managed to capture all four street corners and we were doomed….

So yes, when I set out to make the film I was very interested in finding out what people were thinking about the changes in city in that moment. And certainly by the time we were filming in October 2008, the changes had started to register and people expressed their feelings about it.

Clay Pigeon interviews Stacie who is worried that the changes in Harlem will push her out of the neighborhood.

JM: How do you think the city has changed between 2008 and today? (I noticed many of the buildings in your shots are gone. Demolished.)

RS: It seems that this pace of hyper-gentrification, as you call it, has just become more accelerated. Whole blocks have been completely taken over by outsized luxury condos and mega-chain franchises.

In thinking about this interview, I decided to take a walk through some of the neighborhoods that we filmed to see specifically what had come of some of our locations. The most shocking change is a vacant lot that Stacie, a worried mother in Harlem, mentions in the film. She predicts that in six months to a year it will become a Marshalls or a Gap and says, “In five years I won’t even be living here no more.” Indeed she understood what was happening cause that spot is now home to the new Whole Foods in Harlem and Marshalls is across the street. Of course as you know many other spots are gone too, the Mars Bar is now a TD Bank.

The banks are absolutely everywhere! Corporate sponsorship seems to dominate every event.

The vacant lot where Stacie is standing in Harlem in October 2008.

JM: What made Clay Pigeon right for this project?

RS: In the Marker film, the interviewer is not a character and is almost never seen, but I knew that I wanted to cast the role of interviewer in the film and one night a friend of mine who used to have a radio show on WFMU suggested I listen to Clay’s "Dusty Show" and within the first few minutes of hearing his show I just knew he was the person I was looking for. Since an inherent part of Clay’s radio show is his interviews with strangers on the street, I chose to follow him as he was doing his normal rounds and some of the interviews that are in the film were also broadcast on WFMU as part of his show. I did talk to Clay about the themes in my film, but we have a lot of overlap in that regard so it was a natural fit for him to incorporate some of my questions into his conversations.

Clay is from Iowa and he talks about how being from a small town really informed his approach to interviewing. He says that growing up he was always stopping to chat with people on the street and I think it fostered his genuine curiosity about people. He’s not afraid to ask difficult questions. Some may call them probing or invasive, but that’s not what motivates him. He connects on a human level and he has a lot of compassion for people and their stories.

The other appealing thing was that though Clay had been doing his show for ten years (mostly outside of NYC) he had only moved to the city a year before we began filming and he was still kind of in awe of the place. I loved seeing the city through his fresh eyes cause part of my mission was not only to show the changes that were happening, but also to film the things I loved about the city as a way of preserving them.

That corner lot is now home to the new Whole Foods in Harlem.

JM: There is a sense of hope in the film -- that Wall Street's corruption will be defeated, that New York will be saved -- so where are we now?

RS: In all honesty, things seem much worse now. As your readers know well, hyper-gentrification and corporatization have taken over most corners of the city. And politically…well, I can’t even touch that. Even though the film does rest on some optimism about Obama, there is a lot of tension there and I feel like the film actually foreshadows a bit of where we are now. But I do think we need to take the long view.

At the beginning of my film I have a quote from "Harper’s Monthly," from 1856, that says, “New York is never the same city for more than a dozen years altogether.” So change is the nature of this beast, but I do agree that this wave of change is unlike any other the city has seen. It’s not the Jews replacing the Italians replacing the Irish; it’s of an entirely different order.

As citizens, we will have to work hard to shift the direction it’s going. But I do like to think of Roberto in the film who in his 83-year-old wisdom says that every 100 years or so everything comes back around and repeats itself. It reminds me that this particular phase of the cycle won’t be where we are forever.

And as Clay says in the film, for those just arriving, "these are the good old days."

Mars Bar then...

...and now

Monday, October 23, 2017

Tales of Times Square: The Tapes

Author and musician Josh Alan Friedman was working for Screw magazine, covering the Times Square beat through the late 1970s and early 80s, when he wrote the cult classic Tales of Times Square.

Recently, he dug up the tapes he made from that time--interviews with the denizens of the old Deuce--and turned them into a podcast. Tales of Times Square: The Tapes takes you back in time through the voices of "strippers, old fighters, burly-Q men, peep show girls, hustlers, cops," and one man who ran the penny arcade at 42nd and 8th since 1939.

I asked Josh a few questions.

All photos via Josh Alan Friedman's blackcracker

You've had these tapes for decades. What inspired you to digitize and turn them into a podcast now?

Two years ago people started asking if I was involved with The Deuce going through on HBO. So I offered to contribute but they wouldn’t take our calls. My wife, Peggy, said, "What about all those cassettes you recorded back in Times Square?" Stacked on the wall among hundreds of others. I’d forgotten about them, just scratch tapes. But she told me to digitize them before they dissolved. I’d just finished my last album, working from Logic Pro on my home computer. So I was able to formulate a podcast. I’m still not sure what’s workable, but I’ve managed six episodes so far. It’s spinning off differently than Tales of Times Square, the book. Hindsight and the fate of these characters.

What will people find in the tapes that they can't get from the book?

It’s startling to hear the ghosts of old Broadway come back alive. Voices were different then, like Edward G. Robinson or Cagney, see. Unnerstand? That beautiful New Yorkese, the Damon Runyon lingo you might remember from Guys & Dolls.  

Tales of Times Square came out in ’86, after a decade spent covering the Square. It’s had four different editions and a cult following--some of these readers are giddy to finally hear the actual voices—as well as seeing their pictures on the podcast site, BlackCracker.fm.

Seedy old 1970s Times Square is enjoying a revival, especially through The Deuce. What do you think it is about that place that draws so much interest?

Right after the Times Square Redevelopment Corp. and the Shuberts finally condemned the theaters on 42nd street, they approached the great Broadway composer, Cy Coleman. They were rebuilding the New Amsterdam, the Lyric (Foxwoods), and The Selwyn (American Airlines Theater). They told Coleman they wanted to designate the whole street for musicals only, get people back on 42nd Street. Coleman said he had a great idea. Great, whaddya got? Pornography.

His hit musical, The Life, played the Ethel Barrymore in 1997. Pimps and hookers, all singing, all dancing. Right after they’d eliminated all of it from the street. A future episode of my podcast is with Cy, who we lost a while back.

Nostalgia is easy once the danger is gone. During the years I spent in Times Square, I felt the dying embers of Old Broadway, a century of show biz, which was invented there. I loved the old days. And I guess I also loved the incoming Live Nude Girls, the peeps and burlesque; the way it intersected and cross-faded with old Irish bars and delicatessens, the faded glamour and Joe Franklin’s office. High life and low life, side by side. Of course, some of it descended into utter depravity on the street. What I hoped for was a compromise. Dial back some of the depravity, but keep a red light district in Times Square. Even if just one block, say 42nd between 6th & 7th, keep just one block for the millions of us who require a little decadence to stay sane. The city can have 50,000 other blocks for corporate domination and chains. But no, they had to bulldoze everything, to get rid of the social ills. No more ghetto entertainment or sex or urban spontaneity. A whole culture eliminated.

Why do you think people today are so nostalgic for 1970s Times Square? Is it a response to something lacking in the present moment?

The grit, the grime, and the attitude have been wiped clean. Is it possible that some millennials are beginning to realize that this total corporate domination and soulless architecture has a downside? Like no more wild west--which is what Times Square was. Pornography is not sex--but Times Square sex was a lot more interactive than internet porn. Neon is more beautiful than Godzilla-sized computer graphics. (But even neon was considered ugly and crass in the 1940s, by an earlier generation that preferred incandescent light bulbs). I say skip the nostalgia and bring it all back.

Listen to the tapes here.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

HiFi Bar


Last night, word circulated on social media that HiFi Bar on Avenue A is closing.

HiFi was Brownie's from 1989 until 2002, when the concept changed a bit. The Voice called it "a quintessential neighborhood music staple in an era when any indie band with a guitar and a cheap band T-shirt to sell could get a record deal." Those bands included The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes, and Death Cab for Cutie.

photo of Stuto by Robert Stolarik, for New York Times

The bar's co-owner Mike Stuto posted yesterday on his Facebook page:

"I (sorta) regret to inform you that my bar HiFi will be closing at the end of this calendar month, ending my 23 year tenure at 169 Avenue A. All parties booked before the end of the month will happen as planned. The story? Quite simply, the renovations we undertook a few years ago to reinvigorate the business were not successful in putting us back on a good financial footing. The generation of people who inhabit this neighborhood on weekends remain mostly indifferent to the place.... while I hoped that would help us have a broad appeal to the newbies, it turns out that it translated as utilitarian (aka boring) to their tastes."

He adds, "I want it to be clear that the building’s landlord is in no way to blame for this outcome." In this case, it wasn't the rent. It was the changing East Village.

In his memorial post last night, Alex Smith at Flaming Pablum noted, "the sting of [Stuto's] observation that the current denizens of the neighborhood are 'indifferent' to the character and legacy of HiFi/Brownie’s remains. Much like the Joe Strummer mural a few blocks to the south and a few other other fleeting signifiers, HiFi is ultimately a fading vestige of the sensibility of a vanished East Village."

As the Times put it in 2014, "Now that the East Village is filled with artisanal restaurants and upscale boutiques, HiFi is no longer just another dive but a tether to this neighborhood’s faded bohemia."

That tether has broken.

photo by Robert Stolarik, for New York Times

Back to the 2015 Voice article:

"Meanwhile, rents kept going up and the East Village continued to gentrify, and so the neighborhood clientele changed.

According to Stuto, the area went from bohemia and blue collar to something he never imagined would occur at his doorstep.

'You never saw someone with a jacket and a briefcase and tie coming out of an apartment in the morning when you were going to work. There were none of those,' Stuto said. 'I still remember the first time I saw one of those people in the neighborhood. The people who use the East Village as a destination today versus the people who used this neighborhood as a destination 20 years ago or more, they’re just different people.'"

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Deconstructing the High Line

Next Tuesday, October 24 at 6:30pm, the editors of the book Deconstructing the High Line: Postindustrial Urbanism and the Rise of the Elevated Park will explore the after-effects of the popular luxury park, looking at gentrification along with causes and consequences of the “High Line Effect.” (See more description and info here.)

I asked co-editor Brian Rosa some questions:

What motivated you to "deconstruct" the High Line? When the High Line first opened, and for quite awhile, it felt forbidden to critique it in any way. Why this book now? How has the possibility of deconstructing the High Line opened up over time?

The genesis for this project was when Christoph Lindner and I first met at an authors’ meeting for a book he was editing, called Global Garbage, in June of 2014. We were wondering out loud why the reception of the High Line had been almost unanimously celebratory. Your op-ed in the New York Times from 2012, along with a few articles here and there, was the only critical work we could find on the topic, particularly in the design and planning fields. In the meantime, as we were going through the process of publication, more critiques began emerging.

I had been studying the High Line since I was completing a Masters degree in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, and my PhD research in Human Geography at the University of Manchester was focused on the transformation of the spaces along and beneath the Victorian elevated railways of Manchester, England, and how they were implicated in the city’s attempt to reinvent itself as postindustrial.

The reimaging process of the elevated railway corridors in Manchester came along with quite a bit of property- and design-led industrial gentrification as these sites were gradually transformed from light industrial use and semi-abandonment to landscapes of leisure and consumption.

The whole time I was doing this research I would be asked about my opinions of the High Line, and my impression would be that we would see a number of the same dynamics, only on steroids because of the intense real estate speculation that defines urban redevelopment in New York City.

What do you think made the High Line so resistant to critique?

I think the High Line eluded critique at first because it was not yet apparent the impact that its creation—and the rezoning that was integral to the city’s support of the project—would have on the surrounding areas of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and the area which is now becoming Hudson Yards.

A particular concern of mine is how the High Line fits within the broader framework of rising economic inequality in New York City. Anyone reading the policy documents, along with Mayor Bloomberg’s and Amanda Burden’s support for the project, could have predicted that the High Line would stimulate property values, loosen height restrictions for luxury development, and cause widespread commercial displacement and residential gentrification. It is possible to have underestimated these impacts, but I think claims that the High Line had “unintended consequences” are at best naïve and at worst disingenuous.

One only needs to look at the economic justifications that undergirded the strategic documents that made the High Line possible to see that this was a project focused on priming the pump for further luxury development and the revalorizing of a district that had already gained attention and aesthetic prestige through its art galleries and adaptive reuse of industrial structures.

However, I do not think it was until the point that new buildings started going up, the experience of walking through a low-rise industrial landscape was diminished, and it became (as you called it) a tourist-clogged catwalk, that the backlash started finding a vocal presence in public discourse.

In an interview, High Line co-founder Robert Hammond recently said they "failed" to create the High Line for the local community. He has founded the High Line Network to help keep other "adaptive reuse" parks equitable and accessible. What are your thoughts on that project?

It was clear that Hammond received a lot of pushback from donor-members of Friends of the High Line because of his “the High Line failed” statement. I am a member of their email list, and I took note of the PR damage control email that was sent after that article was published. In essence, it said: “when I said the High Line had failed. I didn’t actually mean failed, just that we could have done better at addressing social equity issues from the start.” I agree completely, but I think it was worked into the very fabric of the project that issues of rising inequality would have to be sidestepped in order to see it through.

The area along the High Line has become among the districts in the United States with the highest levels of income inequality, with almost all of the only remaining low-income housing being in the public housing projects. The High Line played a huge part in this. If it weren’t for the projects and some moderate income housing in the form of co-ops, it would be exclusively for the wealthy at this point.

At the same time, I acknowledge that Friends of the High Line has become more focused on social inclusivity, and this is reflected in Danya Sherman’s chapter in Deconstructing the High Line. Along those lines, I am following the newly-created High Line Network with great interest, and will be discussing the topic at the NYU panel. I am trying to do so without cynicism, but it is very hard. Part of the problem is that so much of the discourse of “equity” is about inclusion and participation of traditionally marginalized, but short of making real demands for social justice.

Do you think it's possible for other High Line-inspired parks to be equitable, considering all the development that is attracted to them? If so, how might that be accomplished?

In reality, I don’t think such adaptive reuse projects can do anything but heighten socio-economic inequality in cities with high levels of property speculation, and I think it is doubtful to see such projects come to fruition if there is not a heavy element of market-rate property development incorporated into plans. In areas where there is less development pressure, the gentrification concerns might perhaps be lower, but at the same time there would be more difficulty in securing the sort of philanthropic funding required to create something like the High Line.

There is actually starting to be some real pushback against “vanity parks,” particularly those perceived to be driven by the personal ambitions of the wealthy: the Garden Bridge in London and “Diller Park” in Manhattan are a few examples of new, semi-private parks that have been defeated in the past year.

Bill de Blasio recently visited the High Line for the first time and seemed to refuse to give it any praise. This refusal was met with frustration from the press. What's your interpretation of that?

My interpretation of Mayor de Blasio’s choice not to visit the High Line until recently is that he has been positioning himself as a champion of neighborhood parks, particularly those in the outer boroughs which have been under-funded for decades. From my understanding, his administration has indeed shifted attention to such parks, which is to be applauded.

However, I would note that it is under his leadership that the management of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park has been passed on to a parks conservancy, making the largest park in Queens less public and more commercialized. It is an extension of the “tale of two cities” narrative that got him elected, but in the end his strategies toward issues like affordable housing are largely market-led. I think this is a folly. In many ways, in the dual sense of the word, the High Line is a folly too.