28 June 2006

I Walk Along the Street of Sorrows

I was wending down 57th Street, the sometimes glorious, sometimes unlovely crosstown artery, when I noticed that developers had had their way (again) and were busy tearing down the former Automat building between Sixth and Seventh avenues on the north side of the street. Activists had tried to save it, arguing that the white-tiled, two-story edifice was the most visible architectural relic of the now-fabled self-service eats chain.

Built in 1938 in the Art Moderne style, the building was Horn & Hardart flagship store. According to web postings, jackhammering began before a permit was even secured. There's a certain rude urban poetry in a money-mad real estate baron tearing down what was once a dining haven for working class New Yorkers.

Walking further west on 57th, I realized the strip is strewn with sad stories of lost wonders. Near Carnegie Hall, the late, lamented, sui generis Russian Tea Room awning still stretches over the sidewalk, it's lettering stripped off but the outlines of the words still visible. The hours for the restaurant are still there on a gold plaque near the revolving door, and a gold relief sculpture of a couple dancing dears hovers yet above the entrance. You can still peek through the glass of the revolving door and glimpse the bad oil paintings on the walls and the fire-red d├ęcor. (To complete the picture, I swear two old women speaking Russian passed by me as I was peering inside.)

Now, here's my question: If the place had to close, why then does its corpse just sit here for years on end to make the passerby's heart hurt?

Ditto for Uncle Sam Umbrellas across the street. This is one of my favorite (if that's the word) mercantile ghosts. The small storefront was the last New York store dedicated to selling umbrellas and canes exclusively. (You can still find such shops in London—natch. James Smith is the outstanding example.) It shuttered more than six years ago. And yet, it's never been outfitted as another store, and the red, white and blue sign remains perched above the door.

Maybe developers like to close nice, old shops for fun, not just profit.

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