30 January 2006

Buy That Building!

I was strolling around the Lower East Side this past weekend with my wife. We were pointing out some unorthodox (read: not in Midtown) tourist sights to some visiting friends from Italy. While doing so, we made brief stops at two cherished vestiges of the old LES: Yonah Schimmel's Knishery on Houston and Guss' Pickles on Orchard Street.

When I visit such landmark businesses, I can never hold back from asking the One Essential Question: Do you own the building? This is the key to survival in our vicious, ahistorial real estate market. If you're a lowly renter, you can be kicked onto the the sidewalk at any moment (see McHale's, Second Avenue Deli, CBGB's). Own the building and you can stay in business as long as someone in the family is willing to get up at the crack of dawn to "make the donuts," as it were. (This is also essential. The great South Brooklyn salumenia Lattacini Barese, founded in 1927, owned its Union Street building. But when owner Joe Balzano had a heart attack, neither of his sons were keen on rising each morn to make the fresh mozzarella. They sold the building in 2002. It's a real estate office now—natch.)

In both cases, the answer was depressing. Yonah Schimmel's doesn't own the the old tenement in which they're housed. "Chinese!," the counter woman gruffly replied. The woman behind the pickle barrels at Guss' laughed at the notion of ownership. This is bad news for anyone who wants Manhattan to have at least one shop turning out, as a specialty, knishs and pickles—two foods any self-respecting burg calling itself New York City should always produce.

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