Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cafe Edison Is Closing

I am heartbroken to have to share the news that the fight to save Cafe Edison has not been successful.

Their last day of business will be this Sunday, December 21. They say they'll stay open that night "until the last person leaves."

photo: Tim Schreier

I just spoke to Jordan Strohl, grandson and son and of the owners. He told me that the owner of the hotel, Gerald Barad, is not responding at this point and they have no choice but to shut down. "People are walking out of here crying," he said of his customers, who have been hearing the news over dinner tonight. He said that the city government tried its best, but in the end, "There's nothing they can legally do. We are out of options."

His family is optimistic that they will find a new space. "We lost the fight," he said, "but we did not lose the battle. Six weeks ago, we would have just shut down, but the campaign to Save Cafe Edison re-inspired my family. We are committed to reopening in a new space, and to bringing our food and our family warmth back to the city. A thousand thank-yous to everyone. We cannot say thank you enough."

He adds, "This is not goodbye. It's see you later."

We fought hard, but the forces of greed are too strong in this city, and our small businesses are completely unprotected. The soul of New York, once again, is being destroyed, piece by piece.

It's true that the City can do nothing legally to protect Cafe Edison--or any other small business. And that's why we must change the laws. Without legislation to protect our cultural landmarks, we are powerless to preserve them. They will keep vanishing. Even when we break our necks to save them.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the fight. You all made a difference over these past weeks. And, yes, we will have one last Lunch Mob.

Here's how it happened:

11/6: Thanks to two tipsters, I broke the news here about Cafe Edison's forced closure. The story spread far and wide, and many followed up, from the New York Times to the BBC. Jason Bratton launched a petition, now with nearly 10,000 signatures. The #SaveCafeEdison hashtag appeared on Twitter.

11/8: First Lunch Mob at the coffee shop--600 supporters showed up. People brought signs and showed the city that we were serious. The mob was covered by the press, including NBC News. That night I started the Save Cafe Edison Facebook group--now with nearly 600 members, including a core group of creative, active people who regularly share ideas and make things happen.

11/14: Thanks to group member Kathleen Vestuto for reaching out, we got a letter of support from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, asking landlord Gerald Barad to give Cafe Edison a lease.

11/15 and 11/16: We held two more Lunch Mobs. Group member Tom Klem got magicians from the famous Magicians Table to entertain diners on Saturday. On Sunday, the Bergen County Players presented scenes from Neil Simon’s “45 Seconds from Broadway." Tony and Emmy Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Dori Berinstein began filming a documentary about Cafe Edison and the fight to save it.

11/18: New York State Senator Brad Hoylman wrote a letter asking landlord Gerald Barad to give Cafe Edison a lease.

11/19:  Manhattan District 3 Council Member Corey Johnson got in the fight with a letter to Barad and a pledge of support to Cafe Edison.

11/20: We held a Dinner Mob with a klezmer band arranged by Save Cafe Edison group member and klezmer professional Eve Sicular.

11/24: NEWSical the Musical's producers made a video in support of Cafe Edison, starring "Liza Minnelli" and "Larry King."

11/25: The story went global on BBC radio.

11/29: We held a Small Business Saturday Lunch Mob with Liza and Larry.

12/2: Assemblyman Richard Gottfried sent a letter to landlord Gerald Barad.

12/5: Mayor Bill de Blasio joined the fight to Save Cafe Edison and promised that his team would do "everything it can."

12/7: We staged a rally and press conference at Cafe Edison with community members, politicians, and holiday carolers. Rousing speeches were made. The story went global on NPR's "All Things Considered." Ira Glass, from This American Life, started a communal letter to Hotel Edison's owner Gerald Barad, asking him to keep the Cafe Edison.

Dream Palace

Sherill Tippins' "Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of the Legendary Chelsea Hotel" recently came out in paperback. I asked Sherill a few questions.

What about the Chelsea Hotel was important to the bohemian city throughout history?

The Chelsea was created in defiance of, and as a corrective to, the Gilded-Age culture in which it was born. Originally a cooperative (in the old, idealistic sense), it was uniquely designed to accommodate residents with a wide range of backgrounds and financial circumstances--people who had in common only a willingness to experiment and a desire to simplify the basics of life –housing costs, home maintenance, etc.—in order to live a freer, more creative existence. Artists were attracted by the large studios on the top floor; actors, writers and musicians by the theater and the drama school that the owner established nearby; art collectors and philanthropists to the artists and intellectuals already in residence; and ordinary working people and out-of-town visitors by its convenient location in what was then the beating heart of the city.

So from its first days, the Chelsea became known for its open, diverse, creative culture, maintained in implicit opposition to mainstream New York. Its reputation as a place where Isadora Duncan danced and Antonín Dvořák’s students composed attracted more countercultural artists with each generation, particularly as its room rates dropped during the Depression years and beyond. Bohemians like Spoon River Anthology author Edgar Lee Masters and “ash can” artist John Sloan were willing to ignore bedbugs and worn carpets in exchange for interesting neighbors, a permissive atmosphere and a lenient landlord, and word spread to such younger artists as Thomas Wolfe, Willem De Kooning, Bob Dylan, William Burroughs, and Patti Smith that here was a haven from the city’s capitalist fever-dream – a place to reflect on the city outside and process its energy into useful art. This became a global process as American artists made connections overseas, bringing Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, the French Nouveau Réaliste artists and others into the Hotel Chelsea mix.

By the 1960s, the Chelsea became known as the Waldorf-Astoria of downtown New York – the respectable if slightly shabby headquarters for those bohemians who could afford it or who could travel up from the East Village for projects and events. It became a figurehead for bohemia, a symbol of the importance of bohemian values in both interpreting and tempering the worst excesses of the city’s market culture. In a sense, it served as a kind of conscience for the city, reminding the rest of us that New York wouldn’t be the city we loved without the diversity, acceptance, and willingness to experiment that its population has always exemplified.

What did the city lose when the Chelsea lost the Bards?

The Bard family, who took over the hotel during the Depression years as part of a syndicate of investors, quickly came to appreciate the hotel’s reputation as a bohemian nexus, not only as a cultural and historical asset but also as a financial one. It was this creative climate that kept the occupancy rate high, not spa services and 400-thread-count sheets. As long as guests were left alone to paint, write, rehearse, make love, throw furniture, or smoke pot in their rooms, and to occasionally postpone rent payments until money from a play or a painting came in, they would continue to flock to the hotel regardless of whether money was spent on upgrading the building.

That idea--that it’s creative energy, not money, that really powers New York --has gotten lost in the years since the “last Bard,” Hotel Chelsea co-owner and manager Stanley Bard, was ejected by the board of directors a half-dozen years ago. These days, hotel owners lavish their guests with rooftop bars and roped-off VIP spaces, while the city dispenses tax breaks to financial firms and absentee luxury-condo dwellers, all in the expectation that luxury breeds success. But without diversity– and without the creatives who feed on a diverse population and process its ideas – there is no New York.

At this point, what's in store for the future of the hotel?

The Chelsea’s new owner, Ed Scheetz, has expressed sincere passion for the history of the hotel and has announced his intention to recreate its original environment “conducive to individuality, authenticity, creativity, and community.” It’s difficult to see how one can transform a former utopian-minded cooperative turned bohemian enclave into a profit-making luxury hotel without sacrificing just that authentic spirit that Scheetz claims to want to preserve, considering the enormous financial investment required to bring the Chelsea up to par, but it’s an experiment worth watching. Reportedly, the new Chelsea will include a mix of room sizes and prices, a performance space and library on the ground floor, a fellowship program to house a half-dozen or so visiting artists at a time, and other features aimed at maintaining the hotel’s reputation as a haven for the arts. Can such artificially-introduced features take root in this new gilded age, as they did the first time? We’ll have to wait and see.

How do you think the new Hotel Chelsea fits in with the new Chelsea neighborhood?

The fate of the Chelsea resembles that of the High Line to a great degree, in my opinion. All evidence points to the hotel’s recreation as a shinier, more attractive, and much more expensive version of its older self. This has its advantages and disadvantages: tourists love safe, pretty, well-designed and efficient places, while locals tend to regret the “real” landmarks they knew and loved in the past, and resent the rise in prices as luxury properties proliferate.

I expect that the new Hotel Chelsea will serve as a figurehead for this new gilded-age stage in the neighborhood’s and city’s development – a symbol, once again, of the city’s cultural climate, and an indicator of its health as a creative nexus. If it turns out that the new Chelsea strikes many of us as sanitized, soulless, and overpriced, well, New York has always gotten the Chelsea Hotel it has deserved. In any case, I still have faith in the building’s ability over the long term to survive whatever changes come its way, and to bend gradually toward its purpose in spite of its owner’s good intentions. Economic booms and busts come and go, and with them new opportunities for innovation.

Is a Chelsea Hotel, filled with artists and eccentrics, still possible in New York City today? If so, where?

Certainly, in a borough where rents aren’t as high as in Manhattan, a “Chelsea Hotel” based on the Chelsea’s original precepts could be created, with serious effort and city support. One would have to return to the basics of a traditional cooperative – forming a “club” of founding members who would pool resources to purchase property, design it for their own purposes, and carefully select other residents and renters willing to respect a delineated set of rules. Some writers and artists have done something similar with small B&Bs, in Brooklyn for example. A larger cooperative would realize greater economy of scale and so could be even more effective. With Mayor De Blasio in place, and with the crisis of unaffordable housing so prominent in the city’s consciousness these days, now might be an excellent time for New York artists to study the Chelsea’s original plan and create something similar for this century. I say, follow the example of Hotel Chelsea creator Philip Hubert and ask ourselves, “Why not?”

Sherill is currently at work a book about the history and potential future of the New York Public Library. Find out more about her books here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

HUB Cycles


George Bliss has lived in New York City for 37 years and, for much of that time, he’s been a passionate bike advocate, credited with coining the term “critical mass.” Since 1995, he has designed, built, repaired, rented, and sold bicycles of all kinds. For the past decade, he’s run a shop in Greenwich Village, currently known as HUB Cycles on Charles Street.

I talked to George a couple of weeks ago when I learned from a reader that HUB will soon be closing, another victim of the city's corporatization.

Bliss blames Citibike.

*UPDATE: There will be a press conference today:

139 Charles St., btwn Charles & Washington St., The West Village
Contact George Bliss: 212- 965-9334 • Please Come and support the HUB"

photo credit: Emilie Ross

“I can’t do it anymore,” says Bliss. “Citibike is surrounding us and cutting into our revenues.”

Surrounded is right. There are five Citibike stations within five blocks of HUB, Bliss explains. And since Citibike came to town just a year and a half ago, the shop’s income has dropped by 50 percent.

Locals who used to rent the bikes at HUB now ride Citibikes, and there’s no trickle-down effect. It’s not just the rental business that has been severely impacted, HUB’s sales and repair services have also been hurt.

“It’s a monopoly,” says Bliss. “The city government has installed a monopoly. I can’t compete.”

“The New Yorker in me is affronted by this. It’s okay to have people carrying a corporate ad through the streets? It would be like having Walmart Avenue or McDonald’s Bridge or Google Park. What’s the difference?”

Bliss would like to see the corporate logos come off the bike share program and for the costs to be paid by fees, not by corporate subsidies that can rent the bikes at far below market value, making it impossible for locals to compete.

He says, “The small local businesses that built the bike culture should not be forced out by this weed. Citibike is an invasive species.”

HUB will close shop this month. From there, Bliss plans to put his energy into organizing the city’s local bike shops—to put an end to the rolling blue billboards.

Bliss also spoke to The Villager newspaper--read there for more.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Kasoundra Kasoundra

The following is a guest post by Romy Ashby

For a long time, New York City was a treasure box of rarities and uncommon beauty, where no two blocks were alike. The ambiance of each neighborhood was made of all kinds of things and the many colorful people—the oddballs, iconoclasts, the funny intellectuals—who populated the streets. So many of those colorful people have disappeared with the relentless scaling up of the city, and usually nobody notices what happens to them. I feel sad when I come across the contents of someone’s life out on the street for the trash. A pervasive nightmare scenario in New York is the one of being poor, no longer young, and alone, and then losing one’s apartment. This happened to the artist Kasoundra Kasoundra in a terrible way. I would like to see her situation reversed, because it can be, but not without help.

Kasoundra, 2006, photo by Romy Ashby

Kasoundra lived for many years in a rent-controlled Upper East Side apartment. It was full of art and interesting objects, many of which she made. Many other things she found, or had been given, and each object had a story. She made a lot of her own clothes, read a lot of books and did volunteer gardening in Central Park. She had kitties who she loved. On her next birthday she’ll be eighty. She has a crystal clear, youthful mind and a wonderful, original intelligence. Her story is particularly frightening because, having been swept into a vortex of legal and bureaucratic incompetence and indifference, she not only lost her apartment, her pets and her belongings, but she lost her very freedom as well. She’s been stuck in a nursing home where she doesn’t need to be, far outside the city, against her will, separated from her friends, for almost three years.

How could this happen? After an illness and a lengthy hospital stay, Kasoundra recovered. As she explained to me today on the phone, the hospital offered to assign her a legal guardian. She understood "legal guardian" to mean an advocate who would help her get her finances and affairs in order after her illness, so she agreed to have a legal guardian assigned. “I thought it meant someone who would actually care about me,” she said. “I never imagined that a guardian was someone who could put me away against my will. But he did. He was a disaster.” Kasoundra’s right to live a full life was taken from her. She’s not allowed to leave the nursing home, she doesn’t have any of her own clothes or know where they are, and the courts did nothing to protect her from an appointed legal guardian who caused her immeasurable harm. Eventually that guardian was replaced by another one who is even worse.

In the Chelsea Hotel, late 1960s, photo by Liza Stelle

Kasoundra came to New York in 1960. She took jobs illustrating for the New York Sun, baling newspapers to drop at newsstands off the back of a truck, and she even worked as a mechanic. She lived above Puglia’s restaurant in Little Italy for a while, and for a long time she lived on 12th Street before moving uptown. She met all kinds of people, seeking out the most eccentric and interesting characters to pounce on and keep as friends. She worked with Harry Smith, who she adored and refers to as The Cosmos for his exceptional ability to understand everything and anything. She worked with Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias as an illustrator. She befriended Alice and Ray Brock of Alice’s Restaurant (she was later in the movie), and through Alice she met Liza Stelle, the daughter of jazzman Eddie Condon. For years she was a regular fixture at Eddie’s apartment on Washington Square, which was always full of musicians and Village characters. There she met Hank O’Neal, an ex-CIA agent who had traded his old life for a new one of making jazz recordings, writing books, and taking pictures. One day, Kasoundra found an old wooden telephone booth on a sidewalk. She dragged it to Hank’s recording studio on Christopher Street, and said, “You cannot get rid of this.” Hank kept it, and he photographed people sitting in it for a long time to come.

On the phone, Kasoundra described visiting Salvador Dali’s studio to look at his work. “He sat there twirling his mustache,” she said, “and I knew it was waxed!” She told him which of his paintings she liked most and wished she could own. “It was a loaf of bread split in half,” she said. You could see every pore in that loaf. You could almost take a bite out of it, it was so real!”

She told me how she’d found Hermione Gingold in the Manhattan telephone directory and called her up. “I love your movies!” she said. “I think you’re just thrilling!” And Hermione Gingold said, in her deliciously funny voice, “Well, you must come up and have tea, dear.” After their first meeting, Kasoundra visited as often as she could and always brought her flowers. She made herself laugh doing her own very accurate imitation of Hermione Gingold, who, she said, “had the most wonderful, lyrical way of being nasal.”

Well-known people were much more accessible years ago, and Kasoundra knew many. But status has never mattered to her. She’s an absolute egalitarian. If a person could converse on interesting subjects, they’d have her. She’s always had great appreciation for distinctive people, and they in turn appreciate her. There’s no one more distinctive than Kasoundra.

The Australian theorist Germaine Greer dedicated her book, The Female Eunuch, to five friends including Kasoundra when it was published in 1970. “For Kasoundra,” the dedication says, “who makes magic out of skins and skeins and pens, who is never still, never unaware, riding her strange destiny in the wilderness of New York, loyal and bitter, as strong as a rope of steel and as soft as a sigh.” Germaine Greer’s description of Kasoundra still fits, 45 years later, but against the present context of her life it is heartbreaking to read.

January 1, 1974, photo by Hank O'Neal

In the forced confines of the nursing home she tries to keep her sense of humor as best she can. She teaches art to other residents for something to do. But it’s very hard for her to not feel sad all the time. She’s an animal lover not allowed to have a pet. Her apartment on the Upper East Side was emptied out not long ago after years of legal limbo, and she has not been told where her belongings have gone. She’s very worried about her art. Her life’s work was in that apartment, and she considers her works of art to be her children. She wonders about personal treasures, such as her gypsy fortune telling machine and her “Napoleon Desk,” along with the rest of her furniture, her various collections, her clothes, and her many books.

When I asked her today what she wants most right now she said, “First of all I’d like my freedom. I’m sick of being stuck in this place, paid for with my government money, and I would like my property returned.” She would also like a place to live, in the city, where she can see her many friends.

There is no logical reason why Kasoundra should be trapped so far from the city. What she needs now is a good lawyer willing to help right this wrong. Recommendations are welcome.

Some years back, Penny Arcade and Steve Zehentner of the Lower East Side Biography Project featured an episode devoted to Kasoundra and her art, filmed in her apartment uptown. You can see an excerpt of that here.

Romy Ashby writes the blog Walkers in the City. To learn more about Kasoundra, and if you can help, please contact Romy through her web site, RomyAshby.com.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Back Fence to Bark

The Back Fence, offering music on Bleecker and Thompson since 1945, was sold by a developer for $7 million, rent-hiked, and shuttered in 2013. It was a place filled with history, where folks like Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, and Allen Ginsberg walked across the sawdust and peanut shell-covered floor.

So what's become of it, now that the plywood has been removed?

photo: Gog in NYC

It's a Bark, says our friend Goggla, who sends in this photo. "Bark," according to Bark, "is the chef driven and environmentally mindful American fast casual restaurant from chef/owner Joshua Sharkey. Opened in Brooklyn in 2009." You might remember them from Bobo Bergen.

The menu comes with a "farmers and artisans" information sheet. It's hipster hot dogs--smothered in baked heirloom beans and oak barrel aged sauerkraut.

"All of our condiments are house made," they say, "except for Heinz’s Ketchup, French’s Yellow Mustard & Hellman’s Mayonnaise. Some things are just American Classics."

Some things like the Back Fence, dating back to World War II and helping to launch the folk music explosion in Greenwich Village. But, oh well, there's a vintage shot of the old bar on their "Coming Soon!" page.

B&N to Banana

The original Barnes & Noble flagship store on 5th Avenue closed this past January. It had been there since 1932.

The Banana Republic that is taking its place has a message for us: "Good things are worth the wait."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Grande Monuments


Grande Monuments has left Williamsburg. They've been in business there since the 1940s or thereabouts.

Joy Garnett posted the following on her Facebook page:

photo: Joy Garnett

The windows are covered over with brown paper. Joy writes: "I noticed this state of affairs last weekend, and today they were working in the space. The little sign says 'Rose Tattoo.' That could be a tat parlor, a bar, or a cinefile library. Hey, there's an idea."


You might recall that this gravestone shop also sold Italian bread. They told WNYC in 2011:

"...what we do is we put the bread in the window here at Grande’s, right next to the Blessed Mother, so the bread is like the mother and the son, and we got the blessing from Father Verrano, it’s not a desecration or anything. He cleared it will all the signoras in the neighborhood. So it’s now about three years in the making and the bread is here by popular demand, and it’s also here because of the notoriety of Grande monuments. Grande monuments has been around for such a long time that when we put the word on the streets that Grande monuments is selling Italian bread, old-fashioned brick-oven bread, 300 people showed up at the door because we service the community with their loved ones."


Yes, gravestones and bread. In one shop. Only in Brooklyn.

Joy recalls: "The first time I bought bread there, a meeting was convening inside--bunch of folks sitting in a semi-circle on grey metal folding chairs. Guy got up mid-sentence to help me choose a loaf. I wanted prosciutto bread but they were sold out. He suggested the rosemary ciabatta."

And it was good.

Jesus and bread prices, 2013

Free Williamsburg noted the closure last month, along with a sign that said the shop is moving to 7803 17th Avenue, 718-782-1800. But--will there be bread?