Thursday, July 20, 2017

Goodbye Notes to Cup & Saucer

The Cup & Saucer luncheonette on Canal and Eldridge closed this past week due to the landlord nearly doubling the rent. After the shutters came down one last time, neighbors and friends hung posterboard and pens to gather goodbye and thank you notes.

click to enlarge and read

Among the heartfelt goodbyes and good-lucks, they ask to "Save Chinatown" and "Support the SBJSA," the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, the bill that could have stopped the closure of the Cup & Saucer, as well as many, many others.

It wasn't lack of love that killed the Cup & Saucer.

As I went to leave, a man in construction vest and hardhat walked up and stared at the notes. It's a familiar scene, the devoted regular who hasn't heard that his or her favorite place has shuttered, the New Yorker who shows up to find it gone. They always have the same look of confusion and loss.

"Did you eat breakfast here?" I asked the man.

"I used to eat breakfast here," he replied. "Guess I don't anymore."

We shook our heads. He turned to go and then turned back. He had something else to say.

"This is probably going to be some CVS or Duane Reade or some other useless fucking thing," he said, frustration in his voice. "I live in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and all the little shops are gone. There's nothing left. The rents are totally out of control."

I told him what the rent went up to on the Cup & Saucer: "Almost sixteen grand."

He shook his head and waved his hand, brushing it all away. And then he went, looking for another place like this, a place he won't be able to find.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

10 Years Later: The Voice

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of this blog, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate than with the news that I have found myself on the cover of the venerable Village Voice. A decade ago, I never imagined "Vanishing New York" would end up here. Many thanks to everyone for reading and supporting the blog over the years. I would not have this voice without you.

Pick up the issue on the streets today or read it online here.

Come celebrate at a launch party for Vanishing New York the book:

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
126 Crosby St., New York, NY
7:00 - 8:30PM
For more info, visit the Facebook invite

We're expecting a capacity crowd, so please get there early--and if you miss it, there's a second one in Brooklyn the following week:

powerHouse Arena
28 Adams St., Brooklyn (DUMBO)
7:00 - 9:00PM
For more info, visit the Facebook invite or RSVP at powerHouse

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cup & Saucer Goodbye

Today is the last day of the Cup & Saucer.

Last week, the Lo-Down announced the closure. Today the classic diner got its goodbye feature in the Times. They describe a neighborhood in the midst of being wiped out:

"The family jewelry and wholesale shops that once dominated the area are long gone, and more expensive restaurants and bars have moved in. This time, Mr. Vasilopoulos and Mr. Tragaras said, the rent increase was too steep for Cup & Saucer. Mr. Vasilopoulos and Mr. Tragaras have owned the restaurant since 1988, but Cup & Saucer has occupied the space since the early 1940s, Mr. Vasilopoulos said. In March, they learned their $8,200 a month lease would increase by $7,600 per month. Attempts to negotiate with the landlord, 99 Canal Realty, failed, they said."

If the City Council had passed the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, the Cup & Saucer might not be closing today.

It could have been saved.

If you're sick and tired of watching the city die, why don't you send an email to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and tell her to pass the thing already? You can send one to the mayor, too. It's easy--we already wrote the email for you, just click and send. You really have no excuse.

I went for my last meal at the Cup & Saucer on Friday. I had a BLT, fries, and a Coke.

The place was packed. More than usual, but the diner was always busy. Once again, don't say it closed because business was slow. Don't say it closed because "tastes have changed." It closed because the landlord nearly doubled the rent. It closed because small businesses cannot afford to pay nearly double the rent. It closed because hyper-gentrification. It closed because greed.

The Cup & Saucer did not close because it wasn't loved.

It was loved.

By the register, there's a page from the New Yorker magazine, an artwork by Maira Kalman. She writes of "The Optimism of Breakfast":

In the Optimism of the Morning, it is Wise to Get Going.
To be Confident, Expansive, Exuberant. If you find
yourself at the Cup and Saucer Coffee Shop--or
any Coffee Shop--with a Jelly Doughnut and a
cup of coffee, staring out the window at
the parade of passersby, you could do worse.
A whole lot

from the New Yorker

Kalman is right. We can do a whole lot worse--and we will.

Whatever comes after the Cup & Saucer will be worse, because it won't be the Cup & Saucer. It won't be the faded Coca-Cola sign that says LUNCHEONETTE. It won't be the 3-D letters washed by years of weather. It won't be the shapely swivel stools padded in orange-sherbet vinyl. It won't be the doughnut case lit in fluorescent light, or the cup and saucer inlay in the floor.

It won't be co-owner and cook Nick Tragaras singing softly to the music of metal spatula hitting grill.

It will, I promise you, be worse.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Sometime in the early morning hours, an artist known as #stickntwisted installed a "pop-up gallery" on an old fence on West 28th Street just off 12th Avenue. On Instagram, they write, "Come see The City Of Dafuture. Not sure how long it will last. Depends on the kindness of strangers."

In the rising luxury shadows of Hudson Yards, under a coil of razor wire, the miniature foam city known as Dafuture shows pipe-cleaner stick figures living their urban zombie lives, leashed to smartphones.

Colorful signs narrate the goings on, where "Technology is turning humanity into self-absorbed machines."

The mom and pop shops have been shuttered and the city has become big-boxed and homogenized.

A mega-store called Messy's has taken over and left behind high-rent blight.

On this piece, the artist writes: "What was once the town's fashion epicenter, Ma & Pa's Fashion Hut was wiped away back in the 90's when Federated started buying out all the local retailers and then converted all of them into Messy's...home of the forever on going 1 day sale. Now that they have put all the other stores away, they are closing the Dafuture store and leaving them with nothing. Thanks Messy's for being great neighbors."

There's a queer theme here, too. "In all the excitement in gaining equal rights in marriage," one sign reads, "we lost our self-respect and caring for our community."

In a gay sex club, stick figures in black chaps take selfies of their asses in front of pictures of stick-figure Tom of Finland posters.

In a lonely apartment, bedecked in pink, a resident celebrates alone, "Happy Birthday to Me." Next door, above a bank, the neighbor has hanged himself because he didn't get any social media messages.

The public library is "permanently closed," because no one wants books anymore. They want donuts instead.

A UFO appears to be taking a cow into space.

A homeless man advertises his GoFundMe page and his "Faceless Book" profile, but adds: "Don't follow me. I get paranoid."

Meanwhile, several citizens of Dafuture have fallen down a manhole, too absorbed in their phones to see the danger.

Go see it.

Before it's gone.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Events

JULY 27: Book Launch Party
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
126 Crosby St., New York, NY
7:00 - 8:30PM
For more info, visit the Facebook invite

AUGUST 3: Brooklyn Book Launch Party
powerHouse Arena
28 Adams St., Brooklyn (DUMBO)
7:00 - 9:00PM
For more info, visit the Facebook invite or RSVP at powerHouse

AUGUST 18: Book Discussion in Kingston, NY
The Golden Notebook presents Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing NY, in conversation with Sari Botton, editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY
Outdated Cafe
314 Wall St., Kingston, NY
6:00 - 8:00PM
Visit the Facebook invite here.

More to come. Check back for updates or follow on Facebook.

Cornelia Street Cafe


Yesterday, New York State Assemblymember Deborah Glick tweeted:

"I try not to curse but the Damn Landlord of the Cornelia Street Cafe sent an eviction notice to treasured 40yr old gem @BilldeBlasio HELP!!"

We've been hearing rumblings about the possible demise of Cornelia for awhile now. Just this month, the beloved cafe celebrated its 40th anniversary, "with some concerns," as the Times put it. They wrote:

"Mr. Hirsch [the owner] and his team are sweating now... Their rent for the restaurant and basement space, at $33,000 a month, is 77 times what it was when the club opened (that’s not adjusting for inflation — but, in the name of consistency, they’re not charging $77 for a croissant)."

Back in March, DNAInfo reported that the cafe was struggling--especially with landlord Mark Scharfman, "a frequent fixture on various 'Worst Landlord' lists."

"If I'm 10 minutes late with my rent, he threatens me with eviction," Hirsch told the blog.

If Glick's tweet is accurate, the axe has come down.

photo: Wikipedia

I was unable to reach restaurant management for comment or confirmation, so we don't know the details of this case.

City-wide, in general, there are zero protections for good small businesses when it comes time for lease renewals. The landlord can refuse a new lease or jack up the rent so high, it's basically an eviction.

This is why the City Council must pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a solid first step. The majority of councilmembers support the bill--they just have to bring it to a vote. If we'd had it years ago, when it was first proposed, there would be a lot more left of New York's vanishing soul.

Books to Bean

After four years of leaving the former St. Mark's Bookshop space vacant, Cooper Union has finally filled the spot. The Bean coffee shop is coming soon, according to new signage in the windows.

A local mini-chain, it's certainly better than a Starbucks. (And with much better coffee.) But it's not that great bookshop, which should still be here, enriching the lives of East Villagers as it did for decades.

I still miss it. Every day.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cup & Saucer


For the past few years, now and then, I'd hear a rumor that the Lower East Side's Cup & Saucer luncheonette was closing. I'd run down there to discover that it wasn't. And yet it always was. It's been a place to often worry about -- an entry in my What to Worry About list, rapidly dwindling.

Now, The Lo-Down gets word that the Cup & Saucer's days have come to an end.

They write: "The reason for the closure is a steep rent increase, to $15,000 per month including real estate taxes. The last day in business will be next Monday, July 17."

Once again, it wasn't lack of business. It wasn't "people don't go to diners anymore." It wasn't "trends are changing." It was the rent.

Once again, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act could've saved this one. Once again, here comes more high-rent blight. Once again, another waste. Another little piece of New York's heart ripped out.

I thought the place would go back in 2007 when a condo started rising across the street. But it hung on.

One of the last of the greasy spoons. One of the very last of the long lunch counters, the swivel stools, the antique signage, the fluorescent-lit doughnut case, the short-order cook slinging hash and singing quietly to himself in his native language.

Greek, I think.

We have only a few days left. And this one hurts.

The Battler

Sal Albanese wants to shake up the system. “Some people say I was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders,” he says, sitting in the famous White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village.

It’s a hot, muggy summer day and Albanese is sipping a cold bottle of beer. Dressed in pressed khaki pants and a crisp, blue button-down shirt, he hasn’t broken a sweat. A Democrat and former City Council member from Brooklyn, this is his third time running for Mayor of New York City and he’s hoping three’s a charm. The odds—and the mainstream media—are stacked against him.

“I got ripped today by the Post,” he says, referring to an article by Steve Cuozzo claiming that Albanese needs to get a firmer grip on why so many storefronts in the city are sitting empty, an epidemic that has become known as “high-rent blight.” The problem, as Albanese sees it, is caused by big landlords who collect buildings; hike commercial rents, effectively evicting small businesses; and then leave the storefronts vacant while they write the loss off their taxes and wait for major chains or banks. “It’s not about mom and pop landlords,” he says. “It’s about portfolios.” He calls New York City an oligarchy run by a “new Tammany Hall” of lobbyists for big real estate, a class of powerful elites who back Bill de Blasio while they fill the city with glistening towers for the ultra rich and push out everyday New Yorkers.  

“Hyper-gentrification is driving out working people,” he says. “Do we want to become just a landing strip for billionaires? Do we want to become Dubai?”

As mayor, one of his first orders of business would be to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a “commonsense piece of legislation” that would help protect small businesses from crippling rent hikes on lease renewals. The bill is sponsored by a solid majority of the City Council, and advocates have been trying to get it passed for 30 years. So what’s the problem? Albanese believes “the power of big real estate over our political system has kept it bottled up.” He dismisses the opposition’s argument that the bill is unconstitutional. Back in 2009, the City Council’s legal staff officially proclaimed the constitutionality of the SBJSA and the city’s own legal department has never said otherwise. Albanese would like to see the Council bring the bill to the floor for a vote and finally “let the courts decide” on the question of constitutionality. But this doesn’t look likely when so many council members, Albanese argues, take their funding from the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), the powerful lobbying group behind the Jobs for New York pro-development PAC.

To those who might peg him as an anti-growth NIMBY, Albanese insists he’s not against development. “I’m anti-unfettered development,” he says. He wants balance. And he’s got a plan for how to get there. In addition to the SBJSA, he also likes the idea of a vacancy tax to stop high-rent blight, and a pied-a-terre tax that would redirect wealth to affordable housing. He’d reject all of de Blasio’s rezoning proposals, which he believes favor the mega-developers. As mayor, he’d appoint an entirely new City Planning Commission and “go back to the drawing board” with a new plan for bringing affordable housing to less dense parts of town by allocating city-owned land to small and non-profit developers—with significant input from local communities. “The city has to grow,” he says, “but it has to be done with good planning. Right now we’ve got rezoning without planning.”

But the deep root of New York’s unaffordability problem, to Albanese, is the tight grip that big business and big real estate have on City Hall, thanks to their significant donations. He proudly claims to take zero percent of his funding from big real estate and lobbyists, and he wants to reform campaign finance, ushering in the Democracy Vouchers plan recently launched in Seattle, a program that would give every registered voter four twenty-five-dollar vouchers to donate to the qualifying candidates of their choice. “New York City,” he says, “should be a real democracy again.” He also wants to reduce tuition at CUNY, his alma mater.

If all this sounds like a new New Deal for New York City, that’s no coincidence. Albanese’s favorite mayor was Fiorello LaGuardia. He also calls himself “a big Jane Jacobs aficionado,” praising the urban activist’s argument for a human-scale city.

Outside on Hudson Street, just a few doors down from the White Horse, Albanese stands before Jacobs’ former home. The ground-floor storefront is now occupied by a realtor’s office. Laughing ruefully at the irony, Albanese says, “Jacobs would be rolling over in her grave.” He looks down the block, to a pair of vacant shops for rent. They look like they’ve been sitting empty for a while, and their vacancy puts a damper on the energy of the street. This is where Jacobs wrote about the “sidewalk ballet,” the importance of vibrant street life. It’s a dance familiar to Albanese from his childhood in working-class Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he was the Italian immigrant son of a disabled father and a mother who served as breadwinner, working in the garment industry. Back then, he recalls, the streets were full of mom-and-pop shops. You knew the butcher and the baker. It was a community. Today, the city streets feel anonymous and impersonal.

“Real estate is doing what it always did—only now it’s on steroids,” he says. “A small business guy is just cannon fodder.”

On Bleecker Street, he walks past more shuttered storefronts. There are 19 vacancies in the five blocks between Bank and Christopher Streets, some lined up in rows. Back in 2001, there were about 44 small businesses on these blocks. They sold books, antiques, affordable gifts. Then Marc Jacobs moved in with multiple shops, followed by Ralph Lauren, Intermix, and dozens more luxury chains. Within a single decade, all of the small businesses were gone, largely pushed out by astronomical rent hikes. In one case, the rent shot from $4,000 to $40,000 per month. Albanese is stunned by the number—and by the fact that many of these shops sit empty for years. Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren have walked away.

“This is counterintuitive,” Albanese says, shaking his head. “Not only does it destroy neighborhoods, but these landlords are devouring themselves. It’s out of control and something’s got to be done about it.”

The mayoral hopeful knows he’s got an uphill battle ahead of him. He needs to raise $250,000 to even have a chance at beating the incumbent Bill de Blasio. He doesn’t have the financial backing of the city’s power elite, and he’s not sure if he can “entice enough people to contribute small amounts to take their city back.” Or to even get him on the same debate stage as de Blasio, where these critical issues can be raised. But the people of New York can surprise you. They voted de Blasio into City Hall by a landslide when he promised a fiercely progressive agenda and an end to the vast inequality he called a “Tale of Two Cities.” Many New Yorkers believe he has not delivered. Maybe they’ll look to Sal Albanese to complete that promise. He’s an idealist, after all, a man who sees New York as a global leader in democracy--at a time when democracy is on the ropes.

“New York,” he says, “is a city that elevates people. And what we do here has a ripple effect across the world.” 

Albanese wants to reform not just City Hall, but the idea of what the city is supposed to be, to get back on track with the progressive agenda that New York spearheaded through much of the twentieth-century—and lost in the 1980s—an agenda that places the power to shape neighborhoods in the hands of its people. He insists that he’s not just a critic, nor a man tilting at windmills. He’s got a plan. And if he’s elected mayor, he intends to use it.

“I’ve been a battler all my life,” he says. “You have to be. Why get in the arena if you’re not going to fight?”

- To support Sal, make a donation of any size.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Shifting City

From the Times, the view of gentrification from Cherry's Unisex in Bed-Stuy:

“Gentrification is always on the periphery, always in the negative space of so many conversations that take place here. The wave of money and development is transforming Bed-Stuy along Fulton Street, and there are no guarantees that Cherry’s won’t be washed away with so many others. Little distinguishes it from any other shop on the strip except for how long it has been on Fulton, and the woman for which it’s named.

'When you call the police, they come,' Cherry said. 'Before, there was no policing at all. But now? Not only do they come, they’re arresting everybody.'"

Photo: George Etheredge for The New York Times

In the 2000s, black New York neighborhoods are becoming markedly less black (and brown) and more white -- as well as less poor and more rich.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called the suburbs a “white noose” around America’s cities. Today, it's “Vanilla Cities and Their Chocolate Suburbs,” as author Jeff Chang calls it in his essay of the same name. He writes of these new “geographies of inequality,” where the colorized suburb now receives the brutal treatment the inner city has--neglect, predatory lending, and paramilitarized policing that too often ends in the murder of black people. “The fate of Brooklyn,” Chang writes, “tells us about the fate of Ferguson.” The violence of urban hyper-gentrification ripples outward.

Author Alan Ehrenhalt calls this demographic shift the “great inversion,” as the affluent (often white) flood into urban centers and the poor (often people of color) are pushed to the suburbs.

Also in the Times, Reniqua Allen writes of black millennials giving up northern cities for the South. Is the Great Migration reversing course as white flight has done? How much of it is a choice?

As the color (and class) of neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Harlem, and Crown Heights changes, it’s important to understand that displacement can be direct, like eviction, or indirect, what Peter Marcuse calls “the pressure of displacement.” In his 1985 paper “Gentrification, Abandonment, and Displacement,” he writes, “When a family sees the neighborhood around it changing dramatically, when their friends are leaving the neighborhood, when the stores they patronize are liquidating and new stores for other clientele are taking their places,” etc., then it’s only a matter of time before they move out, “rather than wait for the inevitable; nonetheless they are displaced.”

So when people speak of lower- income people of color “wanting” and “choosing” to move out of their neighborhoods, or out of the city, we have to think more deeply about that. What might look like a choice may actually be surrender to the pressure of a rapidly changing and increasingly alienating environment.

From the Times article on Bed-Stuy:

“Black people have never been obstacles to white people moving into their neighborhoods,” Mr. Parker said. He says his rent has more than doubled since he moved in, but with more white and Asian people now living in the neighborhood, there’s a newer, stronger police presence. There’s more to do in the neighborhood. “But there’s a problem if white people come in thinking Bed-Stuy is theirs,” he said. “This is a black community.”

Mr. Parker said the white and Asian people moving to Bed-Stuy weren’t the only recent arrivals. There were also what he called “new black” — African-American doctors, lawyers, business owners and young professionals are also moving into the area and living in the new luxury apartments.

“No one ever notices or talks about them,” he said.