31 May 2009

Don't Mess With This Uni-Sex Salon!

Protecting this otherwise nondescript Uni-Sex Salon on a sidestreet in Midwood is a cement eagle, wings spread, ready to strike. If the bird doesn't do the job, on the side is a lion, and two other large cats, their mouths painted blood-red.

(Sorry about the utter lousiness of these photos. Lost City's official camera has crashed, its camera-brain dead. Until it is replaced, I am resorting to cell-phone photos.)

30 May 2009

Vermont Market & Pharmacy Magically Comes Alive!

One of the weirdest, most stubborn mercantile conundrums in New York City is finally showing some signs of life. After ten long years of standing dormant at the otherwise busy corner of Henry and Sackett Streets, the Vermont Market and Pharmacy was buzzing with life Saturday, May 30. The front door was open for the first time since the Clinton Administration, people were moving in and out, and piles of dusty junk were being removed from the interior.

A little history first: The Vermont Market and Pharmacy, a folksy store that sold apple butter, maple syrup, organic products and such stuff, opened for business in 1996. A couple years later it closed, and that was that. No new store moved in, and the counters and shelving and merchandise inside just sat there, gathering cobwebs. The mystery grew so big that the New York Times dispatched a reporter a year ago to dig up the back story. The paper found out that the store and building's owner, Mark Stein, is a bit of a recluse who walks in the the street, and comes and goes during the night; that his father bought the building from some gun-runners; and that he was either unable or unwilling to let go of the property, even though he wasn't doing anything with it himself.

He told the Times he was thinking of opening the store back up, but was vague about his plans.

Well that plan seems to be underway now. I stopped and spoke to one of the young men working to clean out the space. He said the place was going to reopen soon as a kind of half-store, half-soda fountain. They would serve old-fashioned fountain-type sodas "using local, natural flavorings," egg creams, a variety of "tinctures" and teas. There is to be a kind of informal opening in late June, even though things would not be fully up and running by then.

As for Stein, the man said they had leased the space from him, but were kind of vague on whether he was or was not involved in the whole project. Whatever the nature of the enterprise, it sure seems to be happening in a hurry. I hope it really is a soda fountain. I could use a steady place to get a malted.

Institution of High Learning Shuts Down Book Shop

Machiavelli never had the chutzpah displayed regularly by NYU and Columbia, the two universities that basically own this town and, wearing a mask of virtue and higher learning, raze culture wherever they go in the name of profit.

Columbia's latest crime: the stomping of a neighborhood book store which has served Morningside Heights for 50 years. Columbia is landlord to Morningside Bookshop. Owners Peter Soter and his wife, Amelia Linden, have been forced to close, as they owe $158,000 in back rent.

Now $158,000 is not nothing—to a small book shop. It is, however, next to nothing to a money-making behemoth like Columbia. A spokesman for Columbia said, "We did everything we could to help them." But is that actually honest? In recent years, through an abuse of eminent domain, the City has helped claim for the university millions upon millions of dollars worth of property. In exchange, couldn't the school give a little something back to the community? How about forgiving that rent? How about not charging them so high a monthly rent in the first place? About 50 neighbors also have offered Mr. Soter at least $68,000 in unsolicited donations to help pay the rent to keep the store open. But Columbia can't do anything in terms of money?


Not the Eagle!

One of the best things about Jackson Heights, Queens, is the Eagle Theatre, an old single-screen movie theatre that, for many years, has been devoted to Bollywood films. The film house caters to the surrounding Indian population, but is popular with people of all cultures in the area.

Now, we learn from the AP, via Queens Crap, that the film industry strike in India has felled the good old Eagle. The Eagle traffics in first-run films, and the seven-year-old strike has played havoc with its schedule. The AP says the theatre is expected to reopen as soon as the strike in India ends.

Doesn't it seem sometimes that the mad desire for money brings to end all good things?

Reporters Don't Like It When Other Reporters Are Called "A Disgrace"

Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent much of Friday wishing he hadn't called New York Observer reporter Azi Paybarah "a disgrace," simply because he asked the Mayor a question about term limits.

What's left of old media circled the wagons around Paybarah, as if to say, "Hey, who YOU calling a disgrace." Writing up the incident were the New York Times, Newsday, the AP, The Daily News.

Of course, old, testy, shoot-now-ask-questions-later Bloomberg was forced to deliver an insincere apology later. This one, however, was delivered by proxy. A spokesman for the mayor, Stu Loeser said: "The mayor asked me to pass along his apologies to Azi for the comment after the press conference, which I did." Oh yeah, Stu. He's as good as Mike, right?

So, a quick poll. After having called reporters "a disgrace," and their questions "ridiculous" and "a waste," when epithet will our Mayor use against a reporter next? "Son of a bitch," "Bastard," "So's your Old Man" or "I know you are, but what am I?"

29 May 2009

The Owners of Theatre 80 Respond

In response the blogosphere furor yesterday about the Pearl Street Theatre leaving its longtime home at Theatre 80 in the East Village, leaving the fate of the theatre seemingly in doubt, the son of the owner sent me this message. (I notice he sent to same one to EV Grieve, who broke the story. No doubt he sent it to many.)

Be assured that the Otway family still owns and runs Theater 80. My mother is well and sends her dearest regards to all.

When we came to Saint Marks Place in 1964, there was not a tree on the block. My father planted the first three trees on this now tree lined promenade. At the age of eleven, I dug out the auditorium with my father and helped pour the concrete. We are not going anywhere. We helped to build this neighborhood one business at a time, and it can be lost one building at a time. We have held out against times when those who are tearing down the neighborhood seem to be winning. But, like many others, we intend to keep the East Village a vibrant arts community.

I am at a loss to understand the quote from Shepard Sobel that he is “… disappointed the East Village is losing a theatrical venue to commercial enterprise..." Theatre 80 has been the jewel of the off-broadway theaters since my father built it, and we opened in the mid 1960s.

Our theater saw the opening of "You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown", was the home of the Manhattan Festival Ballet, and was the first full time film revival house. For many years Noche Flamenca has performed to sold out audiences.

I have no idea the meaning or source of this information. As managing agent for the Otway family, owners of Theatre 80, I state categorically, we intend to remain a theater. We have turned down offers for other uses of this theater which would destroy the auditorium.

Please be assured that we welcome offers from theater companies to lease this theater. I can be reached by email at LorcanOtway@Gmail.com

Best regards
Lorcan Otway
Theatre 80

Drama Over: H&H Bagels Reopens

H&H Bagels, seized by the Feds for non-payment of taxes this morning, was back in business this afternoon.

Seems the tax thing was serious business. H&H owes the USA $100,000 in back taxes and has racked up many tax warrants and leins.

So, what happened? Did they just pull $100,000 out a sack and hand it over the IRS? H&H isn't talking. And the IRS is still wading through paperwork. High drama, folks!

"These Rezonings Are Scams"

This fine, incisive article from Gotham Gazette has already been highlighted by Queens Crap, but it deserves as much exposure as possible. The author teaches urban affairs and planning, is director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development and co-editor of Progressive Planning Magazine. Here's the lead, but do yourself a favor and go read the entire piece.

Zoning Without

By Tom Angotti

Amanda Burden, chairperson of the New York City Planning Commission, boasts that since 2002, the city has completed a record 94 rezonings, creating the most sweeping revision of land use regulations throughout the city's five boroughs since the Zoning Resolution was rewritten in 1961. This massive rezoning effort supports the development priorities of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2007 introduced PlaNYC2030, a long-term plan to incorporate almost 1 million more residents by the year 2030.

The city's rezoning frenzy, though, highlights two fundamental problems with its approach to our neighborhoods. One is that the zoning is not based on any comprehensive review of community needs and priorities or any long-range planning. In other words, it's zoning without a plan.

The second and related problem is that, while the rezonings mainly create short-term opportunities for real estate development in neighborhoods where there is intense speculation, the city's planners falsely promote them as being aimed at preservation. In the endless succession of community meetings that go into the rezonings, the city's experts offer colorful slide presentations and discourses on technical details in an effort -- often successful -- to obscure matters. In fact, though, these rezonings are scams.

Horrors! H&H Bagels Taken Down by the Tax Man

Sweet Mother of God, how can these things happen?!

Eater reports that the Tax Man has laid a knock-out punch on iconic Upper West Side institution H&H Bagels!!

At 10:15 am an official was posting a 'property seized for lack of payment of taxes' sign...bagels were piled high inside, employees inside, but store was closed by officials." A call to the main office confirms that not just one but both locations (the second is on West 46th St.) were shut down and they have "no idea" when they'll open again, but they're hoping to have it all smoothed out by this afternoon.

The "this afternoon" stuff is encouraging. Sort of. But how do things get to this point? Is H&H really that sloppy with its business dealings? Or, more likely, is the IRS desperate for cash in these hard times? Oh, there's going to be hell to pay if the Upper West Siders can't get their bagels on Sunday morning!

28 May 2009

Old Tribeca Hotel to Get a Bulkhead

Up for consideration before the Landmark Preservation Commission on June 2 will be none other that 125-131 Chambers Street, a hiding-in-plain-sight landmark that I wrote about only a couple weeks ago.

Now known at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, the white boxy building once bore that name Hotel Bond. But that's not the point. The point is this address has been a hotel since the 1860s, making it the oldest ongoing, extant hotel building in the city. Which is something.

The owners aren't up to anything heinous. But they are proposing that be allowed to "modify the entrance and construct a rooftop bulkhead." They also want to demolish neighboring 101 West Broadway, a nothing-special, two-story building, and erect a six-story replacement. None of this sounds too horrible, and doubtless 125-131 Chambers has been altered plenty in its 150-year-old life.

The LPC description of the structure is interesting, though, intimating that the building is older than previously thought. It was originally built in 1844-45, with additions built in 1852-53, 1867-68 and 1869.

Don't Ask Mayor Bloomberg About Term Limits

It's pretty clear now that Michael Bloomberg knows a good portion of the voting populace now loathe him for ramming his Tammany fist through the term limits law last fall just so he could stay sweet and powerful for another four years. The man does not like to talk about the subject, and will not answer any question concerning the matter. Which makes no sense, for how can anyone talk about Bloomberg the Candidate without talking about the term limit scandal. There is no Bloomberg the Candidate without the term limit scandal.

It's also quite clear that Bloomberg hates journalists. (Rotten little bastards: they're always asking probing questions!) When he's not browbeating disabled reporters for not moving quickly enough, he's labeling other writers "a disgrace." That's what he called PolitickerNY's Azi Paybarah, when the latter had the temerity to ask whether he had oversold the case for term limits being overturned.

It seems Bloomie was patting himself on the back recently because the city had received $32 million in federal stimulus money for job training. Appears he forgot that the reason he gave the world for needing to run for another term was that the economy was so bad that New York just needed him. Nobody else could do the job. But here's this $32 million. And Bloomberg says, of the economy, "I’m reasonably optimistic that we’ve turned the corner" on the recession.

Paybarah saw his cue, as a good reporter should. He asked, if we're so well off, what do we need you for anymore? This caused Mayor Mike to spew forth this piece of see-through sophistry: "The rationale for extending term limits is that the City Council passed it and the voters will have a chance on Nov. 3 to say what they want."

That's like a hunter holding a smoking gun saying, "The rationale for eating the deer is that it's dead."

Bloomberg then called the reporter a "disgrace." Oh, there was a disgrace in the room, but he wasn't the reporter. The reporter was a tribute to his profession. In any other reporter in town wants to prove themselves a credit to their publication and their city, they will ask Bloomberg about term limits every day until the election.

Theatre 80 St. Marks Loses Its Pearl

EV Grieve comes forward with the most saddening news of the day. The Pearl Theatre Company is decamping from its home in the East Village. This is not the terrible part of the news; the determined Pearl will soldier on as it always has, its next home being Stage II at City Center.

No, the upsetting part is that, for 15 years, Theatre 80 on St. Marks has been the Pearl's home. Now, the quaint former movie house is being turned over to...who knows what.

Founding Artistic Director Shepard Sobel said in a statement: "While we are disappointed the East Village is losing a theatrical venue to commercial enterprise, we are thrilled to be moving to the theatre district to usher in this exciting new era of The Pearl in this vibrant new community."

What the heck is that? Commercial enterprise? A restaurant? (Likely.) A bar? (More likely.) A Pinkberry? And why do this now, with the Recession is full swing?

The place is still owned by Florence Otway, the widow of the guy who started the space as a theatre back in 1967. Someone should ask her what's up.

Horrible Contrast Dept.

St. George's Ukrainian Catholic Church on E. 7th and the back of the revolting Cooper Union Academic Building.

Mysterious Grandiosity on Coney Island Avenue

On a recent stroll down Coney Island Avenue (yes, I stroll down such streets), this grand four-story building at the southeast corner of Coney and Foster Avenues had me scratching my head.

Coney Island Avenue is five-mile-long thoroughfare of almost unrelenting ugliness, lined primarily with funeral homes and auto repair shop. (Fix your car. Fix your corpse!) This mansion-like structure, with its still downright beautiful roof, is entirely out of place.

Forgotten New York has previously wondered over the building, which is now filled with a variety of shops on its long ground floor. The old Coney Island and Brooklyn Railroad ran along the avenue, and FNY speculated that it might have been a roadhouse for weary travelers making the journey. It does have the look of a hotel about it. Why else have that roof with its palace-like turrets, and the fine, arched windows?

I can find no record anywhere of what this thing used to be, aside from a DOB Certificate of Occupancy from 1938 that says it had stores on the ground floor (like today) and single family residences on the two floors above. One has to imagine its life was something different around the turn of the century. Also, my hunch is the roof used to be symmetrical, with the green turrets on the south side matched by a similar pair on the north side.

Tough Talk in Midwood

Mazzola's Gets a Midnight Paint Job

Mazzola's Bakery in Carroll Gardens is mad for new looks lately. The place, which used to be dark brown, got a light cream paint job just a couple years ago. But last night, with the aid of some spotlights, workers were busy painting the place white. I assume the idea was to have the job done and the paint dry by the time they opened doors this morning.

27 May 2009

The Secret Bakery Goes Silent

One attraction in my neighborhood that I have never written about since beginning this blog three and a half years ago is The Secret Bakery.

That's the name my wife, my son and I gave to a small industrial bakery at 17 Carroll Street, near Van Brunt. Most days, except for Saturday, the roller shutter would go up on the plain brick building and the smell of bread baking would waft onto the street. It wasn't open Saturdays because the facility was kosher, producing the gourmet, kosher line of bread products called Healthy Delites.

I never blogged about it, because I didn't want to advertise—and thus, spoil—a neighborhood oddity that gave such pleasure to my family. You see, fairly often, when we felt sure The Secret Bakery was open, we would stroll over and stick our head inside the deep, narrow brick building. The Spanish-speaking workers inside were friendly and approachable. We found out early that they were willing to sell a hot loaf of bread, fresh out of the oven, on the premises. We would hand over $2 and they'd put a loaf of seven-grain bread or country white in a plastic band. It was so good, we would often eat half of it before getting home. (Not only was it fresh; it was also a bargain. Healthy Delite bread costs $4 at the nearby Fairway.)

I cherished the idea that a small sliver of Red Hook's industrial past still operated in our midst. Sometimes, we would take visiting relatives there and they would be delighted by the idea that such fine bread could be had through a simple exchange of money for goods, out of an unmarked building in the middle of a nondescript block.

Since Passover, however, the tiny bakery has stayed shut. I've checked it any number of times. I fear it may be closed forever.

Below is a photo I found on Flickr by another person who obviously liked the bakery.

Frankie & Johnny's Neighbors Destroyed for Nothing

The New York Times has printed a nice tribute to Frankie & Johnnie's, the Times Square steakhouse and former speakeasy that recently survived a hit on its life.

It's a lovely read. But it also contains a shocking bit of news. Frankie & Johnnie's landlord is the Shubert Organization. For years before Frankie & Johnnie's neighboring restaurants—Barrymore's, Sam's, Puleo's, all great theatre folk hangouts—were torn down, the public could learn little about the plans for the area. That a tower was going up on Eighth between 45th and 46th we knew. Beyond that, nothing. The Shuberts were mum. Then, earlier this year, we learned that Frankie & Johnnie's would survive the wrecking ball and had been given a new lease. Again, there was no explanation from the mighty Shuberts.

It took the Times to dig the facts out:

The deal that would have demolished its four-story structure to make way for a block-long office tower on Eighth Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets fell through. The restaurant still stands, next to a yawning empty lot whose former occupants were not as lucky.

Robert E. Wankel, co-chief executive officer of the Shubert Organization, which is Frankie & Johnnie’s landlord and also owns 17 Broadway theaters, told me: “Frankie & Johnnie’s will survive. The office building didn’t.”

So Barrymore's, Sam's and the others—they bit the dust for nothing. Such wanton carelessness, such disregard for the area's history, the needs of its theatre professionals (the ruined restaurants were favorites of working-class theatre types). And not even destroyed for the sake of a new shiny tower, but the promise of a tower, which will now never be. Instead we get a big dirt hole in the middle of the theatre district.

And what kills me is they would have torn down 80-year-old Frankie & Johnnie's, too, if the Boom had lasted just a few months more.

William Waldorf Astor's Porn Palace

In recent months, I've found myself glancing fondly at the old building on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue and 46th Street. It's a poignant sight, girdled with a sidewalk shed, its windows all punched out and half-covered with plywood, an old sign for a now-gone pizzeria still clinging to the side of the edifice.

I'm sure most people take one look at the thing, cringe, and pray for the day the wrecking ball removes the eyesore. And when they are told that, for the past 30 years, it's been the home of the most sordid sorts of businesses—porno video store, "massage" parlor, sex shops and the like—they'd no doubt further wonder at my lunatic affection.

But I'll be very sorry to see it go. Bit by bit, Eighth Avenue from 42nd up has become a canyon of glass and metal. 733 Eighth Avenue is one of the last prewar, low-scale, brick buildings on this Theatre District thoroughfare. Though it is undeniably worse for wear, it still gives me a warmer feeling than does the Platinum condo tower across the street. It's not a bad building, actually. If it were cleaned up, it would be quite handsome in a modest way.

Given the property's gritty recent past, it's wonderful to consider that, for 70 years, this address was the possession of the Astor family. From 1853 to 1921, the Astors owned this corner, as well as a number of properties on W. 46th. (The Astors once owned the building that now houses Barbetta.) They divested themselves of the area when it got a little too raffish for their tastes—and, not incidentally, when the property values skyrocketed. Lee Kamioner, Max Scott and Emanuel van Dernoot were the purchasers of 733.

A few years ago, during the Boom Years, a 46-story silver tower by Fegan/Berg/Architects PC was announced for this corner, a bookend tombstone to go with the Platinum. That's a rendering of it below. But a Stop Work order was issued by the DOB last year when the developers began tearing down the third to fifth floors of 733 without a permit. It's been still as the grave since then.

26 May 2009

CB2 Board Member Takes Dock Street Dumbo Project to Wood Shed

Andrew Stengel, a member of the Brooklyn’s Community Board #2 and its Land Use Committee and Dumbo resident, and who opposes Two Trees' Brooklyn Bridge-blocking Dock Street Dumbo project, which, despite local protests, is on its way to being approved, has written an open letter decrying the decision to let the building go forward. The letter was first printed on DumboNYC. I reprint it in full here, because it's so damn good, and it tells everyone what they need to know about this deeply wrong development, and the deeply perverted process that led to its getting the green light.

An Open Letter on the Proposed Dock Street Dumbo Project:

I am a Dumbo resident who sits on Brooklyn’s Community Board #2 and its Land Use Committee. I oppose the Dock Street Dumbo project, and when the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application was before the our committee I proposed a resolution—that passed 10-1 with two abstentions —- to limit the development on the site to no higher than the 75-foot-high Brooklyn Bridge roadway, as the community board decreed unanimously in 2004. I am also the person who made the Freedom of Information (FOIL) request that resulted in the release of several troubling documents by New York City’s School Construction Authority (SCA).

The Dock Street developer and their high-priced lawyer-lobbyist-public relations retinue have claimed the project’s opposition is limited to a few people whose views of the Brooklyn Bridge are threatened. That is false. (For the record, my apartment does not face the Brooklyn Bridge.)

The opposition is about appropriate context in an area immediately adjacent to a National Historic Landmark where there are currently one- and two-story buildings, as well as large appropriations by New York City, i.e., taxpayer money, without what any sane person could claim is due diligence.

The Dock Street proposal is 18 stories tall, two stories higher than the 2004 version, and would rise to over 200 feet with mechanical. In addition, $400,00 in lobbying and undisclosed campaign fundraising by intermediaries raise the potential and ugly issue of pay-to-play politics.

I was heartened to read the coverage of the recent New York City Council hearing on Dock Street Dumbo and the attention paid to the documents I obtained from SCA. For those who are unfamiliar with FOIL, the law’s intent is actually written into the statute: “The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.”

I filed the FOIL request because, as a taxpaying resident of New York City, I want to know how DOE allocated nearly $44 million to a public middle school and why it chose Dock Street Dumbo as the best site, as written in its Five-Year Capitol Plan released in November 2008.

Note to members of the New York City Council: be careful what you vote for because you may get it—without having all the information necessary to make your decision.

The FOIL request, which was made five months ago almost to the day, was actually two similar requests of the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and New York City School Construction Authority (SCA). I asked for all documents relating to a new middle school in Brooklyn’s District 13 or a new middle school at the Dock Street Dumbo Site dating back to 2004.

Why did the Council hearing not focus on documents from DOE? Because DOE did not turn over a single page of material relating to my request. Instead, DOE sent five pages of correspondence relating to a middle school in District 14. That is despite the conclusion in DOE’s Five-Year Capitol Plan (page 23) that: “The analysis indicates that five districts in Brooklyn will see growth over the next five years. District 13, contains a substantial surplus of space given current enrollment levels but is projected to need a school building in the DUMBO/Navy Yard/Fort Greene area. This is primarily due to projected housing growth.” And, the plan allocates $43.83 million to “PROJECT #1 @ DOCK ST.” (appendix C-7).

DOE obviously based this on something. The question is what and what are they potentially hiding?

And, thanks to SCA’s FOIL response, we know that the developer made SCA “a best and final offer” on May 20, 2008. (As an aside, Jed Walentas attempted to self-invoke one of the few exceptions to FOIL in that term sheet; at least SCA had the common sense to ignore that bogus claim.) That was the oldest document that SCA offered despite my request dating back to 2004. If that was the “best and final offer,” where are the records of prior negotiations? Are we to conclude that SCA did no due diligence as to alternative existing sites prior to entering into negotiations?

SCA has continually made the claim of a cost savings at Dock Street because a “core and shell” is being provided by the developer. But, when pressed at the recent hearing, SCA vice president Ross Holden admitted he couldn’t calculate it. Even if cost savings were not phantom, it would be moot if existing vacant buildings are considered for a middle school. Holden also admitted, “No one at all came to the SCA with a recommendation that would provide us with the…school at minimal costs.”

Contrary to SCA’s attitude it is their responsibility to find the best location for a middle school at the best deal for the City. Again, contrary to their assertion, several members of the community identified alternative existing sites for a potential school that SCA did not consider, including: One Brooklyn Bridge Place, which is in Brooklyn Bridge Park; the recently closed St. Charles Borroemo School on Sydney Place; and 470 Vanderbilt Avenue, which has over 700,000 square feet of vacant space. (One paper claimed that One Brooklyn Bridge could not house a school because that use is not included in the park plan. While correct, neither does the current zoning at Dock Street allow for a school, hence the need for the zoning changes. Just as Dock Street is going through ULURP, the park plan can be amended by the state.)

The required timeline for a agency response to a FOIL request is 20 days. Both DOE, which ignored my query, and SCA responded late. FOIL also allows for an appeal for denial of access to records, which I made on March 3. Agencies have 10 business days to reply to an appeal. The only response I received was from DOE on April 23, noting that it would conduct another search with a response for May 25.

DOE and SCA have yet to comply fully with my original FOIL request. However, the timeline for ULURP requires a vote in the City Council 50 days after the receiving the report by the City Planning Commission. That would be on or about June 12. I have now taken the last step under the law to compel DOE and SCA to respond. The silence from DOE and SCA leave the impression that they are trying to run out the clock until after the vote.

Sunday’s New York Times featured a column from Jim Dwyer that pointed out campaign contributions to New York City Councilwoman Melinda Katz, Chair the Land Use Committee. Dwyer wrote that the contributions were made: “Just before new rules severely limited campaign contributions by companies doing business with the city.” While there are new rules that limit the campaign contributions by individuals who are “doing business” with the City, there remains a giant loophole.

Under the City’s “doing business” restrictions phased in over 2008, those who are seeking City contracts or have filed a ULURP application are limited to a contribution of $400 for a citywide office like mayor, comptroller or public advocate, for the primary and general election combined. Everybody else can give a maximum of $4,950 for a citywide office. However, there is nothing that prevents those who are “doing business” with the City from fundraising on behalf of a candidate, which is commonly know as an “intermediary.” And when intermediaries raise money for candidates in the City, the disclosure requirement is virtually meaningless.

David and Jed Walentas, the developers of Dock Street Dumbo, serve on the Finance Committee for Melinda Katz for New York City Comptroller (see attached invites for 2007 and 2008). Members of campaign finance committees typically act as intermediaries raising money from friends and associates.
Have the father-son developers raised contributions for the comptoller candidate and if so how much? The statute is written so loosely that neither they nor the campaign is required to disclose the amount, if anything.

The 2007 law that created the “doing business” contribution limits, defined an intermediary as not including: “…any hosts of a campaign sponsored fundraising event paid for in whole or in part by the campaign. Where there are multiple individual hosts for a non-campaign sponsored event, the hosts shall designate one such host as the intermediary.”

In other words, if somebody raises money for an event that is paid at least in part by a City campaign, the intermediary is not required to report the funds raised. And, if the event is private, where there are multiple hosts, only one intermediary is named—even if that person did not raise all the money. That is the equivalent of defining a duck as duck, unless it walks like a duck or quacks like a duck.

This conspicuous loophole in the City’s campaign finance law, intended or not, should be closed. Connecticut, which banned all contributions from the equivalent of those who do business with the state after a number of corruption scandals, also banned fundraising by those parties. The City should extend the “doing business” contribution limits to intermediary fundraising and require complete disclosure.

In conclusion, I do not support the Dock Street Dumbo project for the reasons I outlined. I hope that the public, and more important, the City Council, will receive all the information from DOE and SCA about the site selection and budget process for Dock Street Dumbo before the final vote.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies wrote that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Unfortunately, much of the process around Dock Street Dumbo has proceeded mostly when the only light is that of the moon.

Andrew Stengel

P & G Alive and Well in New Space

NY Barfly informs us that the P&G Cafe, which was forced to flee its longtime nesting ground at 73rd and Amsterdam earlier this year due to a rent increase, has successfully transplanted itself to 78th and Columbus.

The new digs on 78th and Columbus (in the old Evelyn Lounge space) are at least 3 times the size of the former haunt. The setup is not only an improvement of the old P&G; it’s a new bar altogether. They kept the dive spirit very much alive in the transfer, but still managed to spruce things up a bit. The space comes equipped with two pool tables, a small stage for live comedy and music, and a kitchen (soon to open). Their iconic old bar now serves as a shelf in one of the billiard rooms. If crusty old bars could talk.

What's more, the iconic signs are on their way back! How's that for good news?

Mondo the Midget

Tom Folsom, the author of "The Mad Ones," a new tome about Brooklyn gangster Joey Gallo, dropped me a line recently, letting me know they he'd be heading a series of "Gangster Walking Tours" around Carroll Gardens and Red Hook this month. Now, I've stated before that I have next to nil interest in the lives of uneducated sociopaths who make their living through a organized system of intimidation, stealing and killing—no matter how colorful they might be. Joey Gallo led a valueless life, in my books, and he doesn't get extra points for having cracked Camus, hung out in Greenwich Village and struck up a friendship with Jerry Orbach. I like my bohemians without a body count attached.

Still, I am interested in local history, and you can't really delve into Red Hook's life and times without bumping into the Gallo brothers sooner or later. So I tailed along for Folsom's final walking tour, on May 24 (that's him above). The man knows his stuff, and related in full detail the mob wars that took place on the block of President Street between Van Brunt and Columbia, between the Gallo gang and the Profaci mob. This included the Gallos basically holing up in their mother's house, at 49-51 President, for two years, while waiting out a death blow from the Profacis.

This was in the early 1960s. No trace of what that block was then now remains, including the original Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, which stood on President near Van Brunt and is now the site of Mother Cabrini Park. (Cabrini did indeed teach and pray there.) In its place are facing rows of affordable row housing known as Columbia Terrace and built in 1987.

One site that had survived from those days, and was park of Folsom's tour, was 99 President Street (below), the home of Mondo the Midget. Living in this area as long as I have, I've heard many stories of the midget gangster who worked for Joey Gallo. People told me it was his job to walk Joey's pet lion, which was used to intimidate Gallo victims. One local told me that Mondo was a nasty thing, pissed off at everybody, and basically angry at the world owning to the miniature height fate had dealt him. People laugh at the idea of a dwarf gangster, but I'm betting Mondo was pretty scary. And when a guys got a gun in one hand, and a lion's leash in the other, who cares how tall he is?

I hadn't known where Mondo lived, though. Right next door to what used to be Cafiero's Italian restaurant. I guess we can assume that Mondo was a regular customer.

The Original Green Lantern

The matter of Law & Order can be such a cut-and-dried, unsentimental matter. And, perhaps because of that, I have always loved the antiquated, completely unnecessary, yet faithfully observed, tradition of two green lanterns bordering the entrance of every police station in New York City.

Every set of lanterns is quite different. Some are older, some newer and some quite ornate. I found this pair, outside the Midtown North precinct building on W. 54th Street, to be quite admirable. If you look closely, the detail on the metal work, from the stand on up, is quite intricate. The legs are long and stately. The feet are, by necessity, bolted down, to deter theft.

The tradition of green lights dates back to colonial times.

According to the NYPD website, "It is believed that the Rattle Watchmen, who patrolled New Amsterdam in the 1650's, carried lanterns at night with green glass sides in them as a means of identification. When the Watchmen returned to the watch house after patrol, they hung their lantern on a hook by the front door to show people seeking the watchman that he was in the watch house. Today, green lights are hung outside the entrances of Police Precincts as a symbol that the "Watch" is present and vigilant."

I'm curious as to whether there's any sort of penalty in honor if the lights ever go out. You know, the way you're never supposed to let an American flag touch the ground.

25 May 2009

A View From Abroad

Last week I was interviewed by a Swiss journalist, who had taken an interest in Lost City, and was visited New York for a week.

We met at a Cobble Hill cafe. She was accompanied by a photojournalist with whom she had collaborated on several books, including some about Africa. The two talked about the lamentable politics to be found in many African politics, and the terrible way in which many of Africa's corrupt leaders exploited the people and held on to power at all costs.

Toward the end of the conversation, I was at pains to explain my opposition to the policies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration, how his advocacy of non-stop, unfettered, and largely unsupervised development was antithetical and, actually, downright hostile toward preserving the unique and historical character of the City.

I also explained how, because the rule of law had not been honored, we were being forced to accept Bloomberg as our Mayor for four more years. How was this possible, she asked, apparently unfamiliar with Bloomberg's successful efforts to turn over the referendum-imposed two-term limit for NYC mayoral candidates. I explained how Bloomberg, confronted with the end of his tenure, and not wishing to put the two-term law to the test of another referendum, knowing the public would reinforce it in large numbers, had found a way to push a law permitting a third term through City Council.

The Swiss journalist smiled, and nodded. She understood. "Oh," she said. "Very much like Africa."

Mul-T-Ple Mul-T-Locks

I've been noticing these Mul-T-Lock signs outside hardware and key-making stores a lot lately. Perhaps they're been there a while, but it seems to my eyes that they're been proliferating in recent month. I mention it, because I like the look of the signs. They're simple, and the way they hang at a perpendicular angle from the storefront reminds me of the old ways of advertising in New York, when many store signs were hung at such a pivot, the better to catch the eye of the potential customer down the block. I also like them because they're advertising such a simple and necessary product: locks and keys. Many of them are illuminated at night, long after the stores have closed.

I did a little research and found that—homely image aside—Mul-T-Lock is far from a homely little company. It's an international concern. Begun in 1973 near Tel Aviv, it now has subsidiaries in the US, Canada, UK, France, the Czech Republic and Argentina. It merged with some huge Swedish lock outfit in 2006. (Who knew locks could be so corporate?) Whatever. I still like the signs.

24 May 2009

New York Times' City Section Gone

Back in March, there was a flurry of stories stating that the New York Times' Sunday-only City Section was headed for the dustbin, the victim on the pinched budgets and dwindling cash flow over at the Paper of Record.

The Times, however, refused to comment one way or another. And the City Section just kept appearing, filled, as always, with quirky and interesting tales of Gotham seen on an extremely local level.

Today, however, it can't be found. On the Times website, the City Section used to be fairly easy to locate on a Sunday. Sometimes it won a spot on the Home Page. More commonly, all you had to do was click on N.Y/Region, and it led you to a page where you could spot an obvious link to the City Section. Today, there are just a lot of multimedia slide shows and blog links where the City Section link used to be. I've searched the site far and wide and can't find the section. When I did finally locate the City Section link (by tracing it through a previous City Section story), it led me to last Sunday's line-up of stories. My fear is that May 17 was the final edition of the section.

The City Section was created in 1993, meaning it had a 16-year run—not bad, when all is said and done. I'm sad to see it go. For many years, it was my favorite section of the Sunday paper. It had those flavorful, small-scaled reports that gave you an idea of the kind of town New York really was; it told you the big picture by zooming in on a lot of small pictures.

Since beginning this blog, I have at times been more impatient with the editorial approach of the section than I had been in the past. My feeling was that it was missing the boat the wide-scale demolition of small businesses and the cultural fabric of neighborhoods instigated by the pro-development, pro-wealth, anti-preservation policies of the Bloomberg administration. Still, it was still capable of unearthing wonderful stories of New York's varied cultures and rich history. It's a loss for the paper, and the City. No way around it.

A Good Sign: Gatti & Lopez, Inc.

On W. 52nd Street near Eighth. The business is defunct. They were masonry contractors.

22 May 2009

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Brooks 1890 Restaurant?"

With Brooks 1890 Restaurant in Long Island City, the "Who Goes There?" feature I write for Eater ventures for the first time into Queens. (Manhattan has been covered fairly well, so far; Brooklyn has been the focus twice; The Bronx and Staten Island not at all. Suggestions are welcome!)

Few old New York restaurants look more like a movie set than Brooks 1890. One can easily imagine Big Tim Sullivan, smoking a big cigar, adjusting his derby, his huge stomach straining against a fine tweed vest, walking through the entrance and down the stairs of the boxy, red-brick building.

For whatever reason, Brooks 1890 has never been as celebrated, or even noticed, as much as its fellows of the same basic era—Peter Luger, Old Homestead, Keen's, P.J. Clarke's. You can barely find much evidence it even exists on the Internet. It has no website, and, in this day of Menupages and the like, there's no copy of its bill of fare on the web. Curious.

Here's what I found out:

Who Goes There? Brooks 1890 Restaurant

On approach, Brooks 1890 Restaurant can look like the Last Restaurant on Earth, so lonely and isolated does it appear on its dark corner of Long Island City’s Jackson Boulevard. But sitting inside, looking at the grand Long Island City Court House, clearly visible through the windows, and watching the commuters emerge from and descending into the 23rd St/Ely Avenue stop of the E and V lines—which lies directly alongside the north end of the building—one can imagine how, decades ago, this dark-wood bar and eatery reigned as the designated chop house of back-room Queens politics.

It still gets its share of jurists and local union officials, but they come mainly for lunch, when the trade is enough to fill out the larger dining room accessible through a door to the left of the bar. (There is a “Jurist’s Special” at lunch.) At dinnertime, the lights are switched off in that room, and the place is quiet as a graveyard, with a few loyal customers eating solo, and a handful of regulars holding up the bar. Traffic dies down so, that most nights, Brooks rolls up the sidewalk around 8 PM (though the management doesn’t complain if some wish to hang out a little longer).

The bill of fare is simple—burgers, sandwiches, Italian dishes, various cuts of meat. Portions are generous and prices are reasonable. The only exotic aspect of the menu is the offer to prepare any meat dish “Brooks style.” This involves the deployment of plenty of onions, oregano and lemon, and is not a bad way to embellish your dish. There’s also a “Bobby Burger” (fried onions, bacon and blue cheese), named after a frequent diner who likes his patties that way.

The bar room has all the Gilded Age touches you’d expect from a joint founded in 1890—tile floor, tin ceilings (painted a unique and engaging combination of ochre and sagebrush), touches of stained glass—but is more snug that is usually the case. The slightly elevated, L-shaped dining area is separated from the bar by a series of dark wooden pillars. The walls are unusually free of the typical historical paraphernalia you see in these sort of places—no plaques or old photos; just one newspaper clipping.

Which brings up to the most frustrating aspect of Brooks 1890 Restaurant. Its origins are an unsolved case, one which nobody working there seems very keen on cracking. Mr. Brooks (actually Bill "Brooks" Gounaris) bought the place in the 1970s and stuck his name everywhere—on the sign hanging from the building, even on the sidewalk outside the entrance. But what went on in the place during the 70 years before that is anybody’s guess. The letters “K” and “N” are part of a beautiful, stained-glass canopy behind the bar. These likely stand for the last names of the founders of the restaurant, but nobody knows who “K” and “N” were.
Did they serve pork chops “K & N Style”? Could be.
—Brooks of Sheffield

21 May 2009

Bulb Changing Time at the Winter Garden

Working bulbs on the "Garden" side. No bulbs on the "Winter" side. Ladder in the middle. A job half done as of noon. But you can bet that, at curtaintime, the "Mamma Mia!" fans will be the full-wattage benefit of the Winter Garden's marquee.

Sorry Arby's, You Can't Desecrate Gage & Tollner, Sez Commission

Big surprise! The Arby's fast food chain had a really plan for the landmarked interior of Brooklyn's Gage & Toller restaurant.

Actual surpise! The Landmarks Commission actually rejected the lousy plan.

Wrote Brownstoner: "A majority (six) of the LPC commissioners voted to send the Arby's team back to the drawing board, taking particular exception to their plans for a light-colored floor and the size and structure of the booths and ordering counter; in addition, the commissioners didn't care for the proposed removal of a portion of the mirrored arcade and the addition of certain illuminated signs."

Here's betting that, rather than work a little harder and care a little more, Arby's says "Fuck it" and walks away from the deal.

Lost City's Guide to Tribeca

The recent news about the coming possible loss of Bazzini's nuts and dry foods store on Greenwich Street got me to thinking that it was time to take a tally of what history is left in Tribeca that lives and breathes and isn't just a handsome stone shell housing ritzy condominiums. Well, there isn't much. A lot of beautiful architecture. But few slivers of functioning history. So many of Tribeca's living landmarks, including El Teddy's and Montrachet, have died in recent years (and even they weren't of such phenomenal importance). And the nabe's days as an industrial and warehousing center, where New York went to get much of its foodstuffs, are well in the distant past. In other words, if you're looking for Old Tribeca, go to Hunts Point. For what's left, look here.

We'll start on Broadway and Chambers Street. The old headquarters of the New York Sun (the first one), which ceased publication in 1950, wouldn't be worth a mention if it weren't for those wonderful clocks latched to the north and south corners of the structure. Each bears the paper's name and its motto "The Sun Shines for All." The southern ornament is a four-sided clock; the northern one tells the temperature. Both were broken for many years, but recently have been in good working order much of the time. I hope they're never taken down.

DUANE READE: Walk to the block of Broadway between Duane and Reade Streets. Here stood the future pharmacy giant's first warehouse. That's right: it got its name from a couple of random streets. (A block north and it would have been called Thomas Duane, which still sounds like someone's real name.) Nearly 50 years after its founding, it's still got a stranglehold on the city.

ODEON: Walk north to Thomas Street and turn left to West Broadway. In Tribeca, 30 years is an eon for a restaurant. Odeon was the "21" Club of the 1980s, the joint where all the hip, hot, young writers hung out. You may not have thought much of McInerney, Ellis, Janowitz and the like, but theirs was a literary scene like we haven't seen since and probably won't see again. They were the Last of the Fitzgeralds. (Bookwriters don't generate social scenes anymore.) Logic would dictate that Odeon should have faded with the careers of its habitues. But somehow it's survived and thrived. Before Odeon came along, this was the old Tower Cafeteria.

COSMOPOLITAN HOTEL: Walk south to Chambers Street. Here is the boxy, spartan Cosmopolitan Hotel, favorite of young, visiting European tourists. It was once the Hotel Bond. According to some sources, this is the oldest, ongoing, extant hotel building in the city. The address has been used for that function since 1861, when the Civil War began.

BAZZINI: Go west on Chambers to Greenwich Street and travel three blocks north to Jay Street. Want to know what Tribeca was like a century ago? Imagine a hundred stores like Bazzini, warehouses selling of nuts, fruit, eggs, cheese and whatever along every street. None of them looked as nice and slick as this 120-year-old company; Bazzini stayed in business by converting its factory into a gourmet store. Recent reports are that current owner Rocco D'Amato wants to get out and call it quits.

STAPLES STREET: Walk a half block east along Jay to Staples Street. This narrow passageway runs two blocks from Duane and Harrison. (Duane Harrison!—another good name for a drug store!) Once, here is where you went to get eggs, cheese, milk—staples, in other words.

HARRISON STREET HOUSES: Walk north on Staples, turn left on Harrison and cross Greenwich. Here are a lovely set of beautifully preserve Federal house, dating from the early 1800s. Wouldn't you like to live in one of them?

TRIBECA GRILL'S BAR: Walk one more block north to the corner of Greenwich and Franklin. Robert DeNiro's vanity restaurant doesn't interest me, though the food's OK. What's interesting here is the bar, which used to belong to a better and far more famous restaurant: the one and only Maxwell's Plum.

WALKER'S: Walk to North Moore and turn right two blocks until you hit the corner of Varick. I've always had a bit of a problem with Walker's claim that it's one of the oldest bars in the city. What it is is an old building that's often been used as a bar since the 1890s. But not the same bar. And sometimes not even a bar: it was an Irish restaurant in the '40s, then a Spanish eatery in the '50s. Jerry Walker, who also owns the Ear Inn, brought the place bar to its original purpose in 1987. Oh well. In Tribeca, you'll take historical patina where you can't get actual history.

FOURTH PRECINCT, NYPD: Head up one block north to the corner of Varick and Ericsson Place. This Renaissance Revival building is the 4th Precinct of the NYPD. Used to be the 1st precinct. The facade says both 4th and 1st.

ST. JOHN'S LANE: Look across from the precinct house, to the block bounded by Hudson, Varick, and Laight Streets and Ericsson Place, and heave a sigh. This was once St. John's Park, a private park as elegant as Gramercy Park, surrounded by red brick Federal row houses and anchored by St. John's Chapel. It died in 1866 when Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the park and constructed a freight warehouse for the Hudson River Railroad. The Holland Tunnel was then built in 1927. A little further east is a small alley called St. John's Lane—all that's left to remember the area's bucolic past.

AT&T HEADQUARTERS: Take Ericsson east to Sixth Avenue between Walker and Lispenard. An immense Art Deco gem, completed in 1932, with a fantastic lobby, if you can find a way to see it. The guards aren't that friendly. AT&T is long gone.

CAPSOUTO FRERES: Walk back to Greenwich, go five blocks north (right) to Watts and turn left one block. Nice restaurant. Been around about 30 years. But it's in this survey for two reasons. One, it's housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in Tribeca, a neo-Flemish beauty done up in hues of orange and gold, built back in 1892 when someone apparently thought that this grimy neighborhood of warehouses deserved a lovely building. Two, there's an old wooden phone booth in the basement, near the bathrooms.

20 May 2009

Lost City Interview on Who Walk in Brooklyn

Brian Berger, the inventive, thoughtful, and sui generis author of the blog Who Walk in Brooklyn, recently invited me to be interviewed. I don't exactly get interviewed every day, but I must say this was without a doubt the most fanciful and unusual interrogation I've ever received, replete with questions both highly perceptive and entertainingly oddball. The man knows how to construct an entertaining talk. (This is not an easy task, mind you. I've conducted hundreds of interviews in my day, and rendering them into good reading is often heavy labor.)

If you have a spare half hour, here's the link. Brian has also accompanied the Q&A with several engrossing videos, photos and documents.

Indy Record Shop in Park Slope to Close

Say goodbye to another shard of independent shopkeeping along Park Slope's Fifth Avenue.

The landlord of The Record and Tape Center, a shop which has sat near Ninth Street for 38 years (I blogged about it recently), is kicking old owner Tony Mignone, 73, to the curb. The loutish landowners are threatening to take the poor old guy to court if he's not out by May 31. Typical genteel landlord behavior. Something about owning property triggers the "thuggery" section of the brain.

If you want to tell the landlord what you think of his behavior, the family owns the Deli and Smoke Shop next door. Go inside and give them an earful—and then decline to buy anything. Ever. Again.

Geez, how long does Mignone have until he retired of his own free will? Let the guy stay a few more years and them close the place in dignity.

Painted Target Ad Painted Over

One day there's a handpainted Target on the side of a neighborhood store. The next day there's a big red rectangle.

The quasi-folksy ad, the creation of which I documented last month, is gone. It was there on Hicks Street near Union last night. This morning, it had vanished. Apparently, Target only rented the wall for a month. Once the month was up, the landlord of the building got out his bucket of barn-red paint and obliterated the thing. Must have done it by the light of the moon.

Here's the thing: That ad took about four days to paint, and wasn't completed until April 23. Today is May 20. The only way that works out as a month is if the landlord was counting the rented month from the very first day the painter set up his ladder.

Target: you have met your match in tight-fisted stinginess.

UPDATE: EV Grieve reports that the same thing has happened to the Target ad in the East Village.

19 May 2009

The Fast-Vanishing, Welfare-Endangering Union Street Bike Line

There's been lots of good news for bikers lately. City Hall seems to be encouraging the increased use of bicycles to get around and about. One of the ways they have been helping matters is in multiplying the number of bike lanes in the metropolis. It seems a new lane crops up every couple months or so in my neighborhood, on Kane Street or Congress Street or Columbia.

All that notwithstanding, I still have found something to complain about. One of the first (and, for a long time, one of the only) bike lanes in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens was the Union Street path, running from Henry Street all the way to Prospect Park. But, while other new lanes are busy being painted, Union Street has gone neglected in the most abominable fashion.

Between Henry Street and Court Street, you can barely see the white lines marking the lane. They've long ago been rubbed away by weather, wind and too many tires. The same goes for the bike-rider symbols. The one pictured below is one of the few that can be made out by the human eye at all.

What's more, the lane is utterly riddled with potholes, and various half-assed attempts to fill them in. You can literally hardly go a yard or two without encountering not just one pothole, but a cluster of them. The lane is simply not passable. One must weave in and out of the lane, and into the traffic, in order to achieve a smooth, safe ride.

The mysterious thing about this is, there are very few potholes on Union Street proper; they're all clustered in the bike lane. It's enough to provoke conspiracy theories. Did the city use lower quality asphalt in the bike lane than it did in the car lane?

160 Imlay Casts Back the Veil

160 Imlay, the monstrous, off-white, New York Dock Co. building in Red Hook, has cast back the dark veil it has worn for several years.

Covered in black netting since well before Obama was elected, the huge structure can now be seen in its full sepulchral glory. I'm sure this has something to do with October 2008 ruling that swept aside for once and all the legal challenges that has blocked 160 from being converted to residential use.

But what next?

Karl Ehmer Lives

Two months ago, I posted the image of a postcard advertising the old Yorkville restaurant, the Bavarian Inn. I marveled at the time at the line of German storefronts then lining 86th Street: Dei Lorelei, another very popular German restaurant of the time, was right next door, and Karl Ehmer, a German butcher, was on the other side.

I, of course, assume Ehmer's business was long dead and buried. But today I was shopping in the Red Hook Fairway and what do I see, next to the Schaller & Weber meat products, but a package of cooked bratwurst made by...Karl Ehmer. "Since 1932," read the logo.

There was a website address, so I looked it up and, whaddaya know, Karl Ehmer didn't go out of business. The Ehmer family (two grandsons now run it) is still churning out sausage in Ridgewood. Oh, certainly, that 86th Street store is gone, as are many others. Ehmer has have a manufacturing plant in Ridgewood since back in the 1940s. He would team up with store managers to co-own Karl Ehmer stores throughout the city and beyond. Karl would put up the money, and the managers would run the shops, carrying fine Ehmer products. It was a chain, and they were franchises, basically. By 1970, there were 30 Ehmer stores; by the late '70s, there were 50, some as far flung as Florida and Pennsylvania. His stuff always cost more, but it was better quality; the pigs came from his own farm in the Hudson Valley.

Due to changing demographics, the number of stores eventually shrunk. There are still a few left, apparently (one's in Ridgewood)—just none in Manhattan. Mainly, Ehmer producers are carried by other stores, like Fairway.

Hey, another reason to visit Ridgewood.

Ting's Gift Shop

It's hard not to like Ting's Gift Shop, the bright red oddity at the corner of Pell Street and Doyers.

When, on a recent trip to Chinatown, my son was growing ever more bored by the minute, I knew where to head: Ting's cramped storefront, where there's just enough room to turn yourself around in a survey of all the quirky little thingamajigs your scant money can buy. Back-scratchers, finger traps, squirting toy slot machines, joy buzzers, little pieces of ceramic statuary, tiny Buddhas, plastic snakes, yo-yos, old Chinese newspapers, paper fans, tons of incense, paper lanterns. Just shelves and shelves of weird, weird, weird. And all for 15 cents, 65 cents, a dollar, a dollar fifty. The really expensive stuff will set you back three dollars.

It's all crap, of course. But when you put so much colorful, oddball crap like that together in a tight space, it's wondrous.