Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Price on Harlem Gentrification

Author Richard Price spoke at the New York Times' "Cities for Tomorrow" conference earlier this week. He talked a bit about gentrification in Harlem and "that eternal argument: Is this good for Harlem or bad for Harlem?"

NY Times photo

He said: "The big picture is: Everything that's happening now in Harlem, everything that's being built in Harlem is with someone like me in mind, preferably 30 years younger than me. The born-heres? They're looking around and seeing new restaurants, and high rises going up, and new trees planted, and they know it's not for them. It's like: You're in the way..."

"It's like white people discovered Harlem like Europeans discovered America, and the Indians are going, 'Really? What are we standing on, cream cheese?' ... So whatever's exciting and new is a little bit of a death knell."

He talked about the recent closure of Pathmark and the opening of Whole Foods on 125th Street: "The minute that Whole Foods went up--game over."

And he had some sound advice on how to be a decent neighbor in a gentrifying part of town, including "learn manners" and "patronize businesses that were there a hell of a lot longer than you were." Also: "Be a good guy. Have a heart."

Watch here at minute mark 16:15.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Da'Vinci Shoes


Da'Vinci Shoes has been on West 8th Street since 1980, opened by Israeli immigrant Evette Mansoor. Now we hear they will be vanishing.

A regular reader and long-time Villager writes in:

"My girlfriend was in there the other day and was chatting with owner. Rent going from $6K to nearly $40K. So they are looking for new digs. Or just may abandon ship altogether."

Da'Vinci's inventory clearance sale sign hangs below a "for lease" notice from Winick, where the listing--as they all do--celebrates the nearness of chain stores.

Our reader adds: "Same folks--Rudin family--who built the condos on St. Vincent's are raising the rent here."

I can't confirm the ownership, but I can make a prediction. The address 37 West 8th is shared by both Da'Vinci shoes and Uncle Sam's Army Navy, in business since 1969. If the owner is kicking out Da'Vinci, we should expect they will also be kicking out Uncle Sam's. That's just how they do it.

When these two long-time local businesses shutter, it won't be because of trends. It won't be because people don't buy shoes or Army/Navy gear. It won't be because people are shopping online. It won't be due to the "invisible hand" of "market forces." And it won't be because "New York is always changing."

It will be because the elite power brokers of this city made it so.


A few years ago, I wrote on the intentional hyper-gentrification of West 8th Street. At the time, the Marlton SRO was being turned into the boutique Marlton hotel by the BD Hotels chain, with hopes that it would eventually upscale the entire street. It was celebrated by the local Business Improvement District known as Village Alliance.

BD Hotels co-founder Richard Born told the Daily News: "We’ve had the experience of changing neighborhoods like with the Bowery Hotel, where we saw the area take off. We think that will happen here. I bet we raise square-footage prices by $100 across the street when we open... The beats hung out here, and in a way, hipsters of today are the beatniks of yesterday. I think Eighth St. will be as cool as Prince St. in SoHo."

At the time, the Village Alliance was also "talking with the city’s Department of Transportation about possibly putting in the kind of pedestrian plazas found in Times Square," according to the Times. Pedestrian plazas spike rents. In Times Square, they helped raise retail rents by 71 percent in just six months, according to then transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. It was, she said, “the largest increase in the city’s history.” No wonder the BID wants them.

In the end, local small business, the character and history of New York's streets, will be the victim of West 8th Street's enforced redevelopment. And so will all of us who want to live in an open, diverse, and affordable city that has not been curated by the 1%.


P.S. Take a walk on West 8th Street back in the day.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Mr. Cumming, Take Down That Wall

Sarah Schulman is not happy with Alan Cumming. The long-time East Village author and activist recently posted on her Facebook page about the actor's construction of a den atop his East 9th Street townhouse, right next to Sarah's building:

I talked to Sarah about the situation.

"When we all heard that Alan Cumming and his husband, Grant Shaffer, were moving next door we were glad because they had reputations as good guys. We heard on the street that they were planning to remodel within the framework of the building's structure."

But that's not what they're doing.

"They just bricked up our hallway windows. This is an old tenement building and these hallway windows provided light and air for 22 small apartments. They created a breeze."

photo via No 7-Eleven

Sarah doesn't understand how a guy who shows up for East Village rallies, like the ones against 7-Eleven, could do something like this to his neighbors. "Why would you want to hurt the people you're going to be living next to?" she wonders. It's the kind of question she astutely grapples with in her book The Gentrification of the Mind.

To Mr. Cumming, Sarah says, "Take down the wall. Take down the den. Sit in a chair on the roof like everybody else and be a part of the community. If you want to live in a gated community, move to Rodeo Drive."

Astor Place Farce

As I've written about here before, the redesigned Astor Place is shaping up to be a neoliberalized theme park disguised as an open public space. We've watched the process develop over the past few years, and now it's about to reach its hideous completion.

design rendering

Here's the latest scuttlebutt on the project from long-time reader Liberation:

"I was told by someone who works for Village Alliance that, when eventually complete, the new Astor Place will have a variety of food vendors, outdoor tables and chairs, and some type of lighting scheme. There's a large electrical box on the north east corner of Chase that will power all of this. The Village Alliance and some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building decide who these food vendors are and, in general, decide what takes place in the area.

One bit of news I found shocking is that they have allegedly altered The Alamo sculpture so it will now include some type of lighting. According to the Village Alliance employee the sculpture will also rotate on its own now, as he said people have hurt their backs trying to spin it. Personally, I find it unethical to alter an artist's work to make it appear more like a theme park attraction."

Astor Place, 1998, photo by Alex at Flaming Pablum

It sounds like a joke. It has to be a joke, right?

The Alamo, the famous Cube, turned by skate punks and college students from the beginning of time, will now rotate robotically so the new East Villagers don't throw their backs out? A scrappy piece of public art that has been loved into realness by the rough hands of city kids, covered in graffiti, kicked, climbed upon, and even yarn bombed, will now be floodlit and mechanized, like a plastic ballerina turning in a music box? It is almost impossible to believe. Could it be true?

More egregious, however, is the report that "some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building" will be making the decisions about who is allowed to occupy and profit from this supposedly public space.

The Sculpture for Living is the 21-story "green monster" luxury condo tower on Astor Place, the first in a set of massive, out-of-context new construction here. It contains a "limited collection of 39 museum-quality loft residences," originally priced between $1,995,000 to over $6,500,000. "It doesn’t belong in the neighborhood,” critic Paul Goldberger wrote at its opening. “...the architect has destroyed the illusion that this neighborhood, which underwent gentrification long ago, is now anything other than a place for the rich.”

And now those rich residents will dictate how the public will use Astor Place, historic site of riots and protests, over a century of dissent? If the report is true, it would represent a massive betrayal of the people by City Hall.

The betrayal began some 15 years ago, when the city and Cooper Union colluded to rezone and redesign Astor Place for the purpose of upscaling it and making it profitable for a very few. East Villagers fought back. Many said "the large-scale development would turn their eclectic, artistic neighborhood into a sterile business campus."

That's exactly what has happened. Now we have the 400,000-square-foot 51 Astor Place, known locally as The Death Star, full of chain stores and featuring a bland corporate plaza. Now we have real-estate brokers and developers calling Astor Place "Midtown South."

The Marxist urban theorist Henri Lefebvre wrote that a city is a “place of desire, permanent disequilibrium, seat of the dissolution of normalities and constraints, the moment of play and of the unpredictable.”

This is exactly what is being destroyed in New York today--and especially during the years of Bloomberg and Burden. From one end of town to the other, unpredictability has been steamrolled by the tight constraints of design. Our public spaces are being privatized in stealth--they may look open, but look closer and you'll see the mechanisms of closure and control. Security guards, surveillance cameras, corporate events, the uniformity of design elements; and, of course, the private committees of wealthy property owners that quasi-secretly dictate so-called public use of our space (see Washington Square Park, the High Line, etc.).

What have we allowed to happen to our city? Why are we not taking up cudgels and storming Astor Place? Oh, just eat another cupcake. I'll have another latte. Any feelings of injustice will soon fade.

The Alamo cube is due to return to Astor Place any day now. Will it really be plugged in and controlled? Like a loved one kidnapped by the villains of Stepford, will it return to us as a robot, docile and compliant, not quite recognizable?

Imagine the rumor is true. To spin the Alamo cube was to play, to participate, to get your hands dirty and feel your body work in concert with the urban object. You pushed against it with your friends and with strangers. It was, very often, a communal effort.

If we are forced to stand by and watch the cube spin on its own, we will be nothing more than passive observers of a Disney-style spectacle. "Look, but don't touch," the invisible sign will say. This sums up what our entire city has become--and is still becoming.

Let's hope it's all a farce. Recent history, however, doesn't support satire in this case. To quote Luc Sante:

“The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats—as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions—have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds… As a consequence of these and other changes, we have forgotten what a city was.”

Astor Place Redesign
Battle for Astor Place

UPDATE: William Kelley, executive director of the Village Alliance, writes to EV Grieve:

"The Alamo sculpture should return in August, and it is exactly the same as it was before. There are no lights and the spinning mechanism is human powered, just like before. It received a thorough cleaning and coating to protect it from the weather and will return in good shape. Also coming in August, there will be bistro tables, chairs and umbrellas for use by the public, much like you see in other plazas around the city.

Finally, there will be a single food concession in the north and south plaza spaces at Astor Place (not around Cooper Square or points south) pursuant to the license agreement with NYCDOT. No other vending will be allowed on the plazas."

Mr. Kelley, what decision-making powers will come from the Sculpture for Living residents? 

Friday, July 15, 2016


Earlier this week I reported that the Stage Restaurant has been gutted by building owner Icon Realty, who evicted the beloved, long-time East Village business last year. Here's a heartbreaking look inside.

Photo by Kirsten Theodos, Twitter

The real estate developers will not rest until they murder this entire city, from one end to the other, ripping out the guts of every neighborhood.

It is not natural.

It is not inevitable.

It is not "New York is always changing."

It is the outcome of city and state policies. And it can be changed. But New Yorkers will have to wake up and do something--or it's going to be same shit, different day, day after day after day after day. #SaveNYC -- before it's all gutted.

7th and 17th

Richard writes in:

"I just came from the bodega at 7th Avenue and 17th Street, which is almost empty. The nephew of the owner was behind the counter. He explained that the building was recently purchased and they were being evicted, along with Merchants bar/restaurant and Muscle Maker Grill, so that a large apartment building can be erected in their stead."

"I asked where the owner was.

'He died. Heart attack. Two weeks ago. He was 56.'

The owner's son was outside, sitting on top of the empty fruit-and-flower stand, staring into space. I had talked with him over the last few months about his plans for the store. He recently installed a new sign --- Pop's Place, it reads; his dad had been there for 30 years --- and wanted to install a juice bar, and do other things. Sweet kid. All for naught.

I offered condolences. He doesn't know what he's going to do now.

Friday is their last day, in case you'd like to stop by."

That day is today.

via Real Deal

Last year, the Real Deal reported that the two buildings at 116 Seventh Avenue and 204 West 17th Street were purchased for $11 million by Gary Barnett’s Extell Development.

This month, the Real Deal also reports, Extell sold a controlling interest in the properties to A&H Acquisitions’ Alex Adjmi for $29 million.

And so the story is the same, again and again. Another massive profit for a massive developer. Utter heartbreak and loss of livelihood for a small businessman who hoped to carry on his father's legacy. What will the people of Chelsea get in return? We can guess--another soulless, chainstore-filled glass box to suck the life right out of us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On Donnell's Replacement & $375 Cocktails

The new 53rd Street Library opened recently, replacing the beloved Donnell library. Sleek, stark, and only one-third the size of the old Donnell, the new space is true to the architect’s original fantasy rendering, a bizarre scenario in which people sit on designer bleacher seats, staring blankly into space, not reading books.

Library entrance beyond the Baccarat and its guard

The entire library is bizarre. There are not many books, though there is plenty of vast empty space that could hold them (Justin Davidson calls it a "perfect haven for checking stock prices and Twitter"), and the glossy wood floor is conspicuously loud underfoot, booming with every step. But the ampitheater that ushers guests inside has got to be the strangest part.

As it leads you down into the subterranean space, it blatantly recalls the High Line's "10th Avenue Square," where people sit on wooden steps and look out at traffic. On the right-hand wall is a metal mesh screen that brings to mind the skin of the New Museum on the Bowery.

There are no books on display here. (Books "smell like old people," after all.) People mostly chat and check their Facebook feeds. The steps are oddly placed and feel precarious, making you cling to the handrail as you go.

The people sitting on these steps are compelled to watch an unavoidably large video screen placed in front of them, where flashing scenes of New York City include several shots of luxury towers, built or under construction.

To watch people watching this, in a library that replaced a library that was destroyed so a luxury tower could rise, is to participate in a surreal nightmare of modern neoliberal urbanization.

As I sat there, watching people passively watch the screen, I remembered one of the last times I was inside the old Donnell. It was a very different scene.

Back in 2007 the library hosted a Municipal Art Society discussion entitled “Is New York Losing Its Soul?” Tickets for the event quickly sold out and people loitered outside the library hoping for scalpers. Inside, the audience was restless, ready to be whipped into a froth. We’d been living in Bloomberg’s New York for five years, and we were not happy.

The moderator, Clyde Haberman of the Times, started off by saying there was an implied "yes" to the question of the night, New York is losing its soul. You feel it, he said “under the relentless bulldozer of homogenization…as you see one small shop, one small restaurant after another just basically ground down and replaced by--does it have to be one more bank? Does it have to be one more Duane Reade or CVS? People on the Upper West Side are nearly in revolt, but they won't revolt because they'll just go to Starbucks and take care of that.” After an enthusiastic round of applause, he continued, crediting the soul loss to “an administration that has yet to meet a developer to whom it wishes to say no.”

That administration was Bloomberg’s, a crew of businessmen and socialites hell-bent on turning Manhattan, and much of the city, into what the mayor liked to call a “luxury product.” Most of us didn’t understand it then, but he was using zoning, branding, eminent domain, and corporate welfare to reconstruct New York for the very wealthy.

Empty space, no books

Just one year after the Donnell Library hosted that discussion on the loss of New York’s soul, it became a victim of the same phenomenon.

Built in 1955 and still the second busiest branch of the New York Public Library, the popular Donnell had long been a center of culture, featuring films, concerts, lectures, and readings by poets such as Marianne Moore. They had a great music library. A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh doll lived there, sitting in his threadbare fur in a bulletproof, climate-controlled glass cube. Like that Pooh and other well-loved velveteens, the Donnell was on the scruffy side, a fact that made it friendly—and vulnerable to those who insist that everything must be shiny and new. Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, seemed to be suffering from status anxiety when he told the Times, “We’re very conscious of the quality of design that is presently on that street. We’re not going to be the poor, shabby neighbor anymore.”

A tragic symbol of the city’s shift from public to private, community to corporate, socialist to neoliberal, the Donnell was shuttered in 2008, sold off to help fund an ill-conceived, glitzy renovation of the library’s Main Branch on Fifth Avenue (itself renamed that year after billionaire donor Stephen Schwarzman, a man who “had become,” wrote The New Yorker, “the designated villain of an era on Wall Street—an era of rapacious capitalists and heedless self-indulgence").

The Donnell sat empty until 2011 when, against public protest, it was demolished to make room for a 50-story, $403 million combination hotel and condo tower. Opened in 2015, the Baccarat Hotel & Residences New York boasts rooms that rent for $899 and suites for $18,000 per night, a restaurant that caters to “Eurotrash, oligarch wannabes, and hedge-funders (New York Post), and “a boutique store selling crystal with price tags up to $10,000” (Wall Street Journal), all topped by a $60 million penthouse where “the master bedroom is large enough to house two New York studio apartments” (Forbes) -- and where the tenants (who are probably never home) have their own private library.

It probably has more books in it than the public library in Baccarat's basement.

Baccarat bar and lounge

After I toured the new library, I went upstairs to explore the Baccarat.

The second-floor bar and lounge is open to the public. The place is decked out. People sit in leather seats surrounded by their shopping bags and check their Facebook feeds. They talk about money and real estate. They talk about the far-flung places they've traveled and what everything costs. "Do you know they serve a dish for $64,000? For that much money, I want endless orgasms with my dinner."

The Baccarat bar doesn't serve anything that expensive, but they do their part. They have specialty cocktails and premium cocktails, which are not cheap, along with one "super premium" cocktail known as "Le Roi."

It costs $375.

To get the Le Roi, you have to order in advance so that Baccarat can fashion a custom-made glass to pour it into. In goes the most expensive gin in the world, Nolet's Reserve, which sells for $700 a bottle. This is mixed with Grey Goose VX and Lillet Rose. You then get the exclusive privilege of drinking the cocktail from the custom-made glass--which, by the way, you apparently can't take with you. This is not McDonald's, where you're encouraged to "collect them all."

For $375, I'd at least want to bring home the souvenir glass. 

In his review of the new library, Times critic David Dunlap noted parenthetically that there is a “column to be written about secretive plutocrats buying investment aeries in the sky while public institutions are relegated to basements. Some other day.”

I hope that day comes soon. The way the 53rd Street Library is set up, it seems doomed to fail as a library. How long before we hear reports of "under-utilization" and the place is closed? Which, let's be honest, may well have been the plan all along.