Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Carnegie Deli & America

I went to the Carnegie Deli recently to experience it before it shutters forever this New Year's Eve after 79 years in business. It's closing not because of the rent, but because the owner is tired of it all. Someone wants to buy the place and keep it going, but the owner is not interested. It's closing. Period. So I went.

If you've tried to get into the Carnegie you know it's almost impossible, thanks to the hordes of tourists mobbing at the door day and night. Tourists have always dined at the Carnegie--I did when I was a teenage tourist--but today the city suffers under mass tourism and there are many places--parks, museums--that are no longer enjoyable because of them.

So I got there at 8:00 in the morning, the moment it opened. Only a few diners were inside. It was quiet, the speakers playing light music from the 70s and 80s. Kenny Rogers, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond. Their images hang on the walls, in the famous sea of autographed head shots.

What will happen to all those head shots when Carnegie goes? What will happen to Larry Hagman, David Hasselhoff, Mr. T?

I couldn't bring myself to eat an overloaded pastrami sandwich at 8:00 in the morning, so I ordered eggs. A mistake. Nothing interesting happened. No Borscht Belt comedians were hanging out, cracking wise. Just the tourists, most of them looking tired and somewhat depressed.

As I was leaving, the place had already begun to crowd. A group of giddy young women took up a whole long table, every single one carrying those flowery quilted duffel bags you only see tourists carrying. They were loud. Bachelorettes. I left.

I decided to go to the Guggenheim just to use the golden toilet known as "America." I walked across Central Park, hoping that by the time I arrived at my destination my breakfast would have inspired a solid production. A shit in a golden toilet would be something. But this was not to be.

Again, I arrived early. I got to use the toilet right away, before the crowds showed up. The attendant informed us that people wait as long as two hours for the opportunity to evacuate into solid gold. Maybe they want to feel like Donald Trump. Maybe they want to make a statement, some sort of private protest. Or maybe they're just nihilists.

Does anyone prep for this experience by swallowing a handful of Just Another Rich Kid's gold pills so they can shit gold in the gold toilet?

I stepped inside and closed the door. Alone with the toilet, I snapped a few photos, then did what anyone does. A belly full of Carnegie Deli coffee went into "America." I can't say that I felt any better about the whole thing--the tourists, the loss of New York's character, hyper-gentrification, the presidential election, America, the way everything is going (down the shitter?). But I did feel like I'd accomplished some elemental mission, and it was still early in the day, after all. So there was that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Bleecker St. Records


Last week, I shared the news that Bleecker Street Records would be closing. This past weekend, they shuttered.

from Bleecker St. Records Facebook page

As noted earlier, the shop left Bleecker Street in 2013 after over 20 years in business when the landlord hiked the rent to $27,000. They relocated to West 4th. Sadly, many relocations don't work out, and stable, long-term small businesses often fold after being forced to move.

The shop's old spot on Bleecker was turned into a Starbucks.

In more depressing news, the record store's famous cat, Creeper, died two weeks ago. Their Facebook page reported:

"She's up in rock & roll kitty heaven with her brother, Scuzzball, and probably sitting on David Bowie's lap on a sparkling cloud floating somewhere above Manhattan."

from Bleecker St. Records Facebook page

Monday, October 24, 2016

Gay Gotham

The Museum of the City of New York is currently showing "Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York," a multi-media exhibit that "brings to life the queer creative networks that sprang up in the city across the 20th century."

It's a show worth seeing. I was most intrigued by a collection of small photographs taken on the streets of New York by an anonymous photographer in the 1960s. They show men walking, cruising, and meeting other men, mostly around 42nd Street.

The wall text references a 1960 New York Times article decrying the "decay of 42nd Street," thanks in part to homosexuals, at a time when the city wanted to attract tourists for the upcoming World's Fair.

In the article, reporter Milton Bracker hits the street to see the decay for himself.

"In two weeks of studying the area, virtually at all hours," he wrote, "this reporter encountered several of the most extreme types. One was a Negro who wore fluffed-up hair and heavy black make-up on his brows and lashes."

"Another obvious deviate," Bracker wrote, "was a white youth with thick blond hair and handsome features who wore make-up on his eyebrows. This youth wore a wind-breaker (sometimes called a 'tanker jacket') and tapered black trousers of the the style known as 'continentals.' His wavy hair was combed straight back and he spoke effeminately and shifted his hips and legs as he spoke."

When the blond boy walked with his friends into a cafeteria, he "attracted a great deal of attention and many contemptuous remarks." But he was not arrested. It was getting harder to tell the homosexuals from the beatniks, so police were making fewer arrests for "committing a crime against nature."

Bracker concluded, "He may have been a subject for a psychiatrist; he was not one for the police."

The article goes on to describe loiterers, drifters, perverts, prostitutes, purveyors of knives and itching powder, sailors, Murphy Game operators, and players of Fascination.

Vivid scenes from a lost 42nd Street, finally defeated in the name of tourism.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

New York Bakery


New York Bakery is not a bakery. It's a hidden little gem on West 29th Street where the owner, Harrison, and his wife serve a quietly celebrated mix of Mexican and Korean food. It's been there for 12 years, up a narrow set of rusty stairs in the Wholesale District.

It won't be there much longer, as tipster Jared wrote in.

I went by for lunch. Harrison told me that developers are working on permits to tear down the building and put up something bigger.

He figures he's got another month or two before he has to go.

When he first opened shop, the Korean immigrant sold Korean food. But no one was buying. He noticed that many of the workers in the neighborhood were Hispanic. A Mexican woman started cooking for him and business got better. Gothamist recently called the tacos "glorious."

Now, with its ethnic mash-up, New York Bakery attracts devoted fans from all over the city.

Harrison told me, "My customers will be crying" when they hear about the closing.

He's not sure where he'll go next or if he'll even be able to relocate.

The rents in the neighborhood have climbed too high as developers rush to demolish everything in sight, replacing the useful little buildings with shiny new towers for a new population.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Bleecker Street Records


Back in 2013, I shared the news that Bleecker Street Records, after over 20 years in business, would be leaving Bleecker Street--and relocating to West 4th--when the landlord hiked the rent to $27,000.

Now we hear they are vanishing completely.

Jason at Generation Records wrote in:

"As of Halloween 2016, we will be making some significant changes at Generation Records. After much deliberation, we have decided to close our sister store, Bleecker Street Records. A number of factors have contributed to this decision, most notably the proximity of our two stores and the realistic necessity of having them both in a neighborhood that has seen a drastic rent hike in recent years. We realize that the loss of yet another record store in Manhattan seems discouraging, but our hope is to secure the future of Generation Records as a Village staple."

He reports they'll be consolidating all the stock from Bleecker Street Records to Generation on Thompson Street, and hope to be around for a long time.

With Rebel Rebel recently gone, and Bleecker Bob's before that, it's one of--how many record stores left in the Village?

As I've said before, moves are hard to make. When a landlord hikes the rent or denies a lease renewal, it looks like good news if the small business can find a new spot. But many close the new location within a few years.

Meanwhile, the old Bleecker Street Records spot remains a Starbucks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Controlling Astor Place

Astor Place has long been a site of public protest and free expression. Today, after an upscale redesign, it is being controlled. This is what happens in a neoliberalized city. Public space becomes quasi-privatized.

And as urban scholar Sharon Zukin notes in Naked City, "Privatized public space...tends to reinforce social inequality."

New signs asserting the rules have gone up over Astor Place. Prohibited activities include the "unreasonable obstruction" of sitting areas and pedestrians, along with camping, storing personal belongings, and lying down.

This language clearly refers to the presence of homeless people and presumably will be used to harass them out of the new plaza. They can also be used to stop political protests and spontaneous, unregulated art performances.

Skateboarding is also not allowed, though it's been an unofficial Astor Place tradition for decades. In addition to this sign, there are several other day-glo signs placed on the ground around the plaza. They look like they're yelling. If you did try to skateboard (or bike) here, you'd have to maneuver around the signs, like in an obstacle course, there are so many of them.

You also can't smoke at the New Astor Place. It used to be an open public square, a city street, but now it's officially a Pedestrian Plaza, and Bloomberg outlawed smoking in Pedestrian Plazas.

A Pedestrian Plaza is much more controllable than an ordinary public square. The city's Department of Transportation began the Public Plaza Program in 2008 under Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan of the Bloomberg Administration. They hyped Pedestrian Plazas as a way to improve the "quality of life" for New Yorkers by removing cars from the streets and providing open space for sitting.

But one thing Pedestrian Plazas do really well, aside from controlling the populace, is to raise property values in the surrounding area. The Times Square Pedestrian Plaza, for example, helped to hike retail rents by 71 percent in just six months. Sadik-Khan called it “the largest increase in the city’s history.”

photo: Taji Ameen and Justin Fly, via Vice

The new Astor Place Pedestrian Plaza is run by the Business Improvement District known as Village Alliance, a private group managed mostly by real-estate developers. BIDs are invested in raising property values. As Max Rivlin-Nadler wrote in The New Republic this year, "Business Improvement Districts are a favored neoliberal practice that transforms mixed-income neighborhoods into the same chain stores one can find at any outlet mall across the country."

A BID can also "hire its own security to patrol an area, effectively control who is offered retail space, kick out street vendors, and influence legislation and expansion efforts."

People who live in nearby condos also want to raise property values. Recall the rumor we heard this summer that "some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building," the green glass condo tower on the square, is helping to dictate what happens at Astor Place.

(While I've not been able to confirm that rumor, I don't doubt it. We saw something similar happen with Washington Square Park, when a private group of "wealthy women" incorporated themselves into a conservancy to push “unsightly” hot dog vendors from the park.)

Where's the Cube?

"BIDs," Sharon Zukin wrote, "are an oligarchy; they embody the norm that the rich should rule."

They "direct a new kind of governance of public spaces by creating 'discretely manicured spaces' as playgrounds for adult consumers who have internalized norms of proper behavior and keep watch over others to make sure they conform to the rules. In an implicit bargain for the power to exercise control, BIDs provide quality services that show users they are being catered to: cleanliness, safety, well-tended flower beds, poetry readings."

When our public spaces are quasi-privatized, given over to zombie urbanism, they no longer belong to us. They may look pleasant on the surface, with benches, umbrellas, and public art installations, but they conceal a darker intention.

They are meant to control the people and the spaces of the city. They increase inequality and raise the rents. They squash public dissent. They package corporate advertising as interactive installation. As they hyper-gentrify our neighborhoods, they displace those of us who might protest.

Be aware. You are being civilized.

Battle for Astor Place
Astor Place Farce

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

We Are Stardust

If you walk past Ellen's Stardust Diner at Broadway and 51st, you'll find their singing waiters making music -- on the street.

They're singing in protest of several firings that came after they unionized this summer in response to a change in management they say led to sexual harassment, bullying, and other abuses.

Ellen's Stardust Diner has been in business since 1995.

The workers' union is called Stardust Family United, a branch of the international labor union Industrial Workers of the World. You can visit their site to support them, and see more on their Facebook page. Playbill has many more details on the story.