31 August 2007

Not a Terrible Job

I am not generally inclined to give developers the benefit of the doubt. Ever. Scammin' greedsters all, as far as I'm concerned. But I have to tip my hat when things aren't going horribly wrong.

A condo complex has been going up at 149-151 Carroll Street near Henry Street in Carroll Gardens. And, looking at its near-complete facade, I have to concede: it doesn't completely offend me. It is four stories high, in keeping with the scale of the nabe. It's nicely set back from the street a few feet. The red bricks, of varying shades, appear to be of exceedingly good quality, and have been laid expertly (this photo does not do them justice). And the window have multiple panes and are top by decorative stonen lintels. This building does not shame the area.

I do not know the architect or developer. Perhaps they are reprobates worthy of disapprobation. But, to my naked eye, they have been respectful of their neighbors.

By George, I Think They've Got It

I have to take a moment here to point out an absolutely wonderful and engaging article on the Nat Sherman cigar emporium that appeared in the New York Times yesterday. Rarely is a piece of journalism so full of tasty information and yet so entertaining. Please, give it a read.

Of particular fascination to me is the fact that the Sherman family enlisted set designer Charles McCarry to assist in the design of the shop's new 42nd Street digs and that McCarry, as the Shermans' instruction, constructed the interior to resemble Henry Higgins two-tiered library in My Fair Lady. The article described the new store as being like a "library, with cigars instead of books."

McCarry also designed the previous Sherman store. That one was based on the themes perpetuated by Damon Runyon.

If only every business owner in New York instilled their architecture with as much personality and character.

Hilly Kristal Follows CBGBs to the Afterworld

It happens sometimes. A restaurant or club's host becomes so intrinsically entwined with the life of the joint, that it's impossible he should survive the death of the business. Sherman Billingsley died almost exactly a year after his Stork Club went under. And now Hilly Kristal is gone, just under a year since his grungy rock palace CBGB's was forced out of commission by a rent dispute. (And that, my friends, is the first and last time you'll see Billingsley and Kristal mentioned in the same paragraph.)

Kristal had lung cancer, of course, so I'm not saying that his landlord or the real estate market killed him. I'm just saying...

One silver lining. Neither Kristal nor anyone else will have to live to see the indignity of a CBGB's opening in Las Vegas, as he often threatened to do.

Queens Zoo: Mock Graves and Ape Fountains

The completist in me sent me out on a day trip the other day to visit the Queens Zoo. Yes, there's a zoo in Queens, out in Corona, on the edge of Flushing Meadow Corona Park. It's one of five in the city and probably the most unpatronized. (The others at the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and the New York Aquarium.)

Before I even paid admission, I understood why the Queens Zoo was so little known. It was impossible to find. Walking from the subway, it's hidden behind the Museum of Science. There are almost no signs indicating its presence and no one we asked seemed to know there was a zoo anywhere around there. I found it after a half hour, after seeing a sign that said "zoo" in tiny letters. (It's also called a "wildlife center" at time, to further confuse the issue.)

The zoo's remoteness does have the advantage of your not competing with tons of other people to view the animals. It's a small place, with one path that leads in an oval. There are some quite nice exhibits, including an interesting aviary, and nice examples of pumas, lynx, cranes and elk. It's most remarkable aspect, however, is not on the zoo map: a mock graveyard enumerating all the animals that have gone extinct over the past half-millennium. The markers are headed "1500," "1600," "1700" and so on, and list some of the beasts and birds that disappeared during that century. It's creepy and rather chilling—and starling to think that animals were dying out as early as 1500 because of the doings of man. If I was disturbed, I had to wonder what the effect was on a small child.

One other odd aspect about the Queens Zoo (and there are many). It's bookended by two fountains. The southern one is called, ahem, "The Fountain of the Planet of the Apes." And the northern one is named, double ahem, "The Fountain of the Planet of the Grapes of Wrath." Seriously.

They both used to be called the Fountain of the Planets. But recent Parks Commissioner Henry Stern decided to rename one of them after one of his favorite movies and, to balance out the animal theme, used the other to honor another movie with a plant in the title.

Worst fountain names ever.

29 August 2007

The Other Deli Man Named Katz

One might think the Second Avenue Deli is willfully isolating itself from its clientele by relocating to the nowheresville that is Third Avenue and 33rd Street. But, on second thought, the area is not uncharted territory, deli-wise. The famous Reuben's, of sandwich fame, lived out its life on Madison and 38th. And Murray Hill is still home to one of Manhattan longest-lived, though least sung, Jewish-style delis.

I'm talking about Sarge's. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised. Despite having been around since 1964, it doesn't get much press. When the papers and mags roll out their frequent New York Deli features, it's rarely mentioned alongside the Carnegie Deli, Stage Deli and Katz's. Not sure why. Maybe because of the out-of-the way location on Third Avenue near 37th. Maybe because the place lacks pizazz. Don't know. Until recently, I myself gave it a pass. But the recent loss of the Second Avenue Deli (it's coming back, of course, but in a real way it's still lost) and the rumors of Katz's possible demise made me check out this survivor for signs of worthiness.

The place has a fairly interesting heritage. As it's name suggest, it was founded by a cop, one Abe Katz (Katz!), who worked the Murray Hill beat for 25 years, and started the deli after he retired. He created a classic deli menu, with matzo ball soup, potato pancakes, stuffed derma, kugel and pastrami he cured himself. One of the restaurant's great virtues is its lack of vanity. It's not full of itself, like Carnegie and some others. It's a deli; not a deli museum. The decor is what you expect and want: a long meat counter up front; some tables, some booths, along the side and in the back; tacky, faux-Tiffany lamps. Waitresses are run off their feet. Diners are laid back and relaxed.

Trying to get a general feeling for the fare, I ordered a cup of chicken soup with kreplach, a side of corned beef hash, and a pastrami sandwich with fries on the side. The soup was good, the hash tasty if a bit overwhelming after a few bits, the fries crispy, greasy and fantastic, and the pastrami moist and flavorful. Was any of it the best such stuff I'd ever had in New York? No. But it was damn good. And the prices were much better than those at the more famous delis.

But I think the thing I like best about Sarge's is its insistence of being open 24 hours, seven days a week. Though New York is supposedly a city that doesn't sleep, that schedule is actually a real throwback. There are plenty of clubs and bars where you can hang out until the wee hours, sure, but Manhattan was once a place of all-night, all-day, Edward Hopperesque businesses. I remember in particular a pharmacy with a soda fountain near the Waldorf=Astoria that never closed. There's no reason why Murray Hill should need a hot blintz at morning, noon and night, but Sarge's does it anyway.

Maybe Katz worked the night shift.

Apologies to Forlini's

When, as guest-blogger at Curbed.com last week, I wrote a little quasi-tribute to Forlini's, the Italian restaurant standby in deepest Chinatown, the last thing I intended was for my words to cause the ancient eatery distress.

But, as Fats Waller said, one never knows, does one. Seems my few paragraphs—posted on Curbed's sister site Eater.com—provoked New York Post's Steve Cuozzo to sick himself on poor old Forlini's. Reading the item, along with another Little Italy-related item on eGullet, Cuozzo deduced that the food blogs were suddenly touting the touristy area as reborn. (Such are the ways of logic at the Post.) Not having any of such nonsense, he charged down to Forlini's and found it lacking on the Cuozzo meter.

Steve: I never said it was the living end of Italian cuisine in NYC; just said it was venerable and worth a tip of the hat. And it still is.

28 August 2007

Media Wakes Up, Re: Red Hook, Columbia Street

OK, let's see if we've got the cycle right. Real estate brokers and developers lie; fooled newspapers believe lies hook, line and sinker; rents rise, fortunes are made; five years later newspapers wake up.

That's about how it's gone for Red Hook and Columbia Street, two Brooklyn neighborhoods that, in today's overheating real estate market, were going to be the next hot areas. Since 2000 or so they were going to be the next hot areas. Until everyone realized it wasn't actually happening that way.

I've lived near the two districts for a decade and, from the get-go, I never understood why people swallowed the hype. Now, I love Columbia Street, and I love Red Hook. But let's face facts. They're cut off from subway service, and bus service is erratic at best (hang your head low, B61). Large swathes of each nabe are, shall we say, less than attractive. There are few banks down here, no major supermarkets (until Fairway arrived), parks are small or bedraggled. And both are home to a kind of urban blight that isn't shaken off in a year or two. Construction is constant on Columbia. Much of the center of Red Hook (which isn't just Van Brunt Street, folks) is as sad and dejected a place as any in NYC.

And so I could only gape at the insanity of rents on one-bedrooms rising to $1,000, $1,200, $1,500, $2,000, $2,200—all based on the idea that the neighborhood was going to turn around, sometime, for certain. All the while, I'd tell people "Never gonna happen," and they'd look at me bug-eyed. Was I crazy? Hadn't I heard the Good News?

But then a funny thing happened. Rising rents and mortgages didn't work their inverse magic; they didn't makes stores arrives in drove, they didn't make restaurants thrive, they didn't make Columbia Street and Red Hook boomtowns. Instead, restaurants and stores starting CLOSING. And the remaining ones struggled. Why, why, why? the prognosticators cried! Because, stupidheads: it's Columbia Street and Red Hook! There are certain basic things about these areas that are broken in a fundamental way, in a way that won't be fixed just because brokers and builders want to make more money.

This lesson was finally learned the New York Post and the New York Times, and other publications, who were stunned over the past month to find out that the articles they wrote five years ago about Columbia Street and Red Hook's sunny futures were a bunch of moonshine.

The scales have fallen from our eyes. It's said, but ultimately healthy. Now, any wanna lower the rents a bit, so I can continue to live here?

Second Avenue Deli Gets Cozy on Third Avenue

If you asked me six months ago, I would have said "Never gonna happen." But it seems to be true: the Second Avenue Deli, onetime East Village institution felled by rising rents, will rise again on 33rd Street near Third Avenue.

The exact address is 162 E. 33rd Street, a few feet west of Third, the former location of a rather tacky-looking tapas joint. It's a charmingly ramshackle little block, a collection of aging and falling-down buildings. There are construction notices all over the windows of the restaurant and a lot of work going on inside. A workman confirmed that this was the future location of the famous deli.

It's a narrow space, a fraction of the size of the former Second Avenue address. It seems they've trying their best to recreate the old place's ambiance. They've put up a long counter on the right size. There's an ornate pressed-tin ceiling, painted silver. Tile has been laid on the floor and on the walls in back, where the seating will be. It looks cozy, if cramped.

Jack Lebewohl, whose family owned the Second Avenue Deli for decades, and who's son Jeremy will now run the deli, has said it will reopen "sometime in the fall." It looks like they will

27 August 2007

A Good Sign: Hotel Cavalier

The poor old Hotel Cavalier sign hangs over 34th Street near Third Avenue, broken but not bowed. The building has been a hotel since 1888. It's had the jaunty name of the Hotel Cavelier since 1940. Not sure if it's still working as a hotel anymore. There's a very nondescript entrance with little activity going on around it. The hotel's slogan used to be "A home away from home."

25 August 2007

More Depressing News About Red Hook Food Vendors

Reason it out however you like. You won't convince me. This last report of the Department of Health's behavior regarding the hapless, increasingly hopeless Red Hook Ballfield Food Vendors confirmed my growing belief that the City isn't out of to enforce health laws or make sure there's an even playing fields where park concessions are concerned. No, the DOH and the Parks Department have painted a target of the collective back of these Latino vendors. They want them out. This, my friends, is not bureaucracy. This is a hit.

Think I'm irrational? Well, read this piece in the Brooklyn Eagle (brought to my attention by Gowanus Lounge) and then talk to me. If I had a hundred thou, I'd hand it over the Cesar Fuentes, exec director of the Vendors, so he could buy the countless things the DOH are insisting the foodsellers buy, plus extra money to hire a lawyer and a publicist to sue the City's ass for harassment.

P.S.—As for the much-discussed need for running water and portable sinks, I was there today and spied at least four of them. They're plastic, they're ugly, they're there. Choke on 'em, DOH.

24 August 2007

That's a Wrap

Unless I get a sudden burst of energy, I believe I have submitted my final Curbed item of the week. The gents over there made it easy and were tolerate if my general technological cluelessness.

For the curious, my last batch of items included ruminations on Carroll Garden's own French Quarter, the old Italian holdout restaurant Forlini's, why Kenmare Street is still named Kenmare Street, Court Street very old wine, and What Columbia Street Once Was.

I also got to indulge in a South Brooklyn mini-news cycle involving a controversial Community Board 6 meeting and a Carroll Gardens Town Hall meet.

My final post was about the mysterious Luso-American Cultural Center on Henry Street. That's all she wrote. See you tomorrow at this address.

Bang, Bang, It's Alive!

Some readers are probably going to let me have it for paying tribute to a gun shop. And I won't blame there. Few subjects make me more livid than the resistance to gun control in the country, not to mention the NRA and the persistent, willful misinterpretation of the Second Amendment.

But what can I do! I mean, look at the place. The bold signage, the big prop gun pointing out into Grand Street space. Plus the name John Jovino is just too great. It's a classic. Founded in 1911, it claims to be the oldest gun shop in the U.S. It lives just kitty-corner from the old Police Headquarters on Centre Street—surely a good source of business once upon a time.

It's a gun shop. I hate gun shops. But it's old, it's got charm and personality. I say, it stays!

22 August 2007

Two Days to Go

I'm more than half way through my week of guest-blogging for Curbed.com and its affiliates Eater and Racked, and, frankly, I'm exhausted. Doubled blogging duty is hard work.

I've been hitting the Carroll Gardens beat pretty hard. For those who are interested, so far I've written about Columbia Street chickens, a mysterious building, an old arson story, Winn Discount, a possible sidewalk cafe, a really religious Dunkin' Donuts, and a highly energized Clinton Street decorator.

More to come, unless I expire

City Tells Red Hook Vendors to Do This, Do That

The City health inspectors are done with their drawn-out inspections of the beleaguered, harassed Red Hook Ballfield food vendors, who can't catch a fucking break from City Hall these days. And there's good news and bad news, according to a report on Gowanus Lounge.

Cesar Fuentes, who heads the Red Hook Vendors Committee and negotiates with the city, sent out a state-of-the-vendors update, saying the City is willing to let the vendors stay through the season. But the sellers still have to jump through several dozen flaming hoops. Fuentes writes:

DOH inspectors have been assigned to come down and observe our operation every weekend since these meetings took place. They have done so religiously, inspecting every stand and making on-the-spot corrections (about food prep. & handling) to each vendor as needed. A temptative agreement was reached between DOH and our committee, by which DOH would allow our operation to continue until the end of the season, provided all vendors(and their assistants) take a 2-day, 8 hour food protection course and be in compliance of the critical issues mentioned above. All vendors & assistants committed their time and effort to attending this course, which was set for 8/20 & 8/21. I am proud to report 60+ people attended & passed the required test.

And further on:

In complying with DOH regulations, these artisan vendors are now faced with the difficult task of adapting tradition in order to meet these standards. While some of these regulations are common sense and easy to comply, such as licenses & permits, some others--such as a possible requirement of heavy mobile equipment or push-carts for each vendor, or the provision of permanent running water--will be more difficult as it may require major capital investment that the vendors or our committee cannot afford. In addition, and provided we are successful in winning the Parks permit which would grant us right to operate our affair for seasons to come, DOH won't allow our affair in its current form and without every vendor and their assistants being fully licensed.

The running water thing bugs me. What hot dog or falafel vendor in NYC has running water? Why are the Red Hook vendors held to a different standard? This whole affair stinks. It has from the start.

Hit the Ceiling

O'Nieal's, the Grand Street restaurant near the old Centre Street police headquarters, has way too many vowels in its name. But it does have other things going for it. The space was a one-time speakeasy, and still has a tunnel underground that leads to the police station. It also has an awesome carved mahogany ceiling that dates from the original construction. I stumbled in the other day whey they were polishing it. "It takes a lot of care," said a waitress.

Good Sign City: Grand Street

Hoo-doggy! A motherload of good signs can be found within a couple blocks on Grand Street, a street that heartily insists that there still is a Little Italy in Manhattan.

Need ravioli? They've got it, and you can choose your favorite purveyor. I just want to swoon when I walk down this street. Every storefront is an aesthetic dream, every sign boasting a birth year of 1901 or 1920 or somesuch.

For extra ecstasy, check out the inside tile job in Alleva. That thing should be in the Met!

21 August 2007

Tobacconist Nat Sherman Close to Opening New Place

Now, here's a endangered landmark story with a happy ending. Nat Sherman, the legendary Manhattan tobacconist, had to give up its perch at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue a while back because of some jackass would-be development.

The shop quickly found a new location just down 42nd, between Fifth and Madison. According to Racked, the spot is nearing readiness and sports a super-spiffy copper Mansard roof. Yeah! Mansard roofs rock. Way to make the City shine, Nat!

20 August 2007

One Less Door on Smith Street

Here's an interesting sight. A partially brick-up, old door on a building at the corner of Smith and Union streets in Carroll Gardens. Very Edgar Allen Poe. That door's been there for years. Don't know how it's made itself so inconvenient that it has to be erased. Now, do they brick up the inside, too, or does it become one of those cartoon exits where someone opens the door and runs smack into a brick wall?

Yours Truly Guest Blogger on Curbed Aug. 20-24

The good folks at Curbed.com, whose items are often cited on this page, have asked me to be their guest blogger for the dog days beginning August 20 going on through Aug. 24. It should be loads of fun. So, if you're looking for whatever I may have to say about virtuous old New York City and its crumbling environs, it's best to check in over there this week. I may still post on Lost City once a day or so, but this blogger's only got two hands and a finite amount of free time. Besides, it's good to get away.

18 August 2007

Meat Thermometer in Hand, DOH Descends on Red Hook Vendors

OK: Possible final weekend for the Red Hook Ballfields vendors, take #27.

So, I went to Red Hook Park this Saturday, because, once again, it seemed as though the vendors who work there might be approaching their final hour. This time around, the threat is not the Parks Department, but the Department of Health, which apparently only realized recently that the foodsellers were operating on the green— no doubt due to all the press generated by the Parks Department's recent decision to pull out the concessions rug out from under the hardworking Latino families. (They've been there for 30 years, FYI.) The DOH handed down a laundry list of demands the vendors had to meet by today, including portable hand washers/sanitation units and the rental of commercial grade kitchens to prep food.

There were long lines at the park, though this was probably due not to the DOH threat, but to a huge article that appeared in the New York Post today. The Martinez and Lainez stands boasted the longest waits. A blonde thing from NY1 was there with a camera looking for a story. (As a side note here, I'd like to mention that every time I ask a TV reporter if they like their job, they respond in the same way: "I love it!")

I first noticed the DOH inspectors while enjoying chiles rellanos at the Carillo Guatamalan stand. Two, slim, attractive and very young woman. One, who seemed to be in charge, was holding a meat thermometer, which she stuck in everything in sight, and then wrote down the reading. The other, in a vinyl DOH jacket (cool!), was armed with a notepad on which she never ceased scribbling. They smiled from time to time, supposedly reacting to various delicious smells and to jokes the vendors made, but most of the time were deadly sober. It seemed curious to me that food inspectors should be so skinny; perhaps their jobs have scared them thin.

I followed them for a few tents. They declined to comment when the NY1 reporter approached. I could learn nothing of their conclusions, but most of the vendors seemed to think they'd be back tomorrow. Let's hope so. But when I asked one vendor if, between the Parks Department and the DOH, it seemed the City was out to get them, he nodded his head heavily and said, "That's it! That's it!"

Peter Meehan of The Times had something more to say on the subject:

I asked the Department of Health spokesperson what would happen if the vendors had not met all of its requirements.

"We are hopeful that the vendors will comply with what is required,” was the response. “If they cannot, we will work with the Department of Parks and Recreation on dealing with the situation. However, we will assure that the risks to food borne illness are minimized."

17 August 2007

A Good Sign: Armando's

If this isn't a good sign, I don't know what is. Love the little neon lobster. Armando's is on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. Been there for some time.

Jerk of the Day

This has nothing to do with lost landmarks or even NYC for that matter, but what good is a blog if you can't vent.

So, I'm walking down a street in South Brooklyn with my six-year-old son when a small, but muscular and feisty dog runs up us and started barking up a storm. My son cowers behind me; he is afraid of dogs because, as he succinctly puts it, "I don't know if they're going to bite me or not." (Well said.) The dog won't let up. Then I hear one of three nearly stoop kings, each the shape of a giant meatball, say, "Don't worry. He's OK."

I say, just to explain my son's reaction, "He doesn't like dogs."

The stoop kings laughs. "Well, then he's going to have to move out of this neighborhood."

Ha ha ha. My kid is paralyzed, meatball, because you can't control your spastic mutt, and you laugh at and ridicule him?

I respond rhetorically. "Or maybe dogs can be put on leashes?"

Silence falls. They are dumbfounded that I offered a riposte and have criticized their mongrel. For a brief moment I think I am about to be pummeled. I turn and start walking. Behind me I hear, "Hey, this dog's live here for 20 years!"

How do people act like assholes and not realize it? This is the question that haunts me at night.

16 August 2007

Go East, Sick Man!

I've often passed an unusual, dignified building on the northwest corner of Clinton and Livingston in Brooklyn Heights that bears some plaques outside indicating that it is a doctors office. But the doctors' names have often stopped me in my tracks. The top of four plaques is for Horace Greeley M.D. The other three all have "Greeley" as part of their name. Could they be related somehow to the great, 19th-century publisher, statesman and politician, Mr. New York "Go West Young Man" Tribune himself? Or was it some whopping coincidence?

Determined to get to the bottom of it, I made a nuisance of myself, going into the office and bothering the receptionist with several questions. Yes, the four doctors listed are all of the lineage of the Great Man. Since the original Horace died in 1972, every succeeding namesake has gone into the medical profession. Their pictures line a corridor of the office.

Interesting and encouraging that the descendants of such an iconic New York figure should have remained in the city all these years later.

15 August 2007

Thesis: New Yorkers Possibly Nicer Than Midwesterners

New Yorkers are rude: that's the going cliche. And folks from the Heartland brim over with good will and cheerfulness. I was raised in the Midwest and have lived in New York the past 20 years, so I've had ample opportunity to test the truthfulness of these two bits of conventional wisdom. I've often argued against the former. When a tourist scratches a New Yorker, they usually find a helpful, conscientious individual willing to spend a minute assisting a stranger. Conversely, I've generally accepted the veracity of the latter assertion without question. Midwesterners will knock you down with their niceness, it's so persistent. Or so I've always thought. My recent trip to the Wisconsin, however, made me reconsider.

There's no denying the sweet dispositions of most Wisconsinites. They go out of their way to smile and not offend and keep their voices and enthusiasm tamped down. But this time around it seems like a veneer, one easily cracked. And behind it was barely concealed impatience, irritability and intolerance.

One day I was in line at a book and toy store, buying a present for my son. As I was being rung up, I spotted an additional item I wanted and rushed to the back of the shop to get it. When I returned, there was a woman at the counter asking the clerk some questions. I silently sidled back to my previous position and handed the clerk the additional item. "Sorry," I said, explaining why I had cut in front of her, "I was in the middle of a purchase." The lady told me not to worry, it was nothing. But then she looked at me in a steely kind of way, smiles and said, "You certainly seem to be in a hurry." I glanced at her. Her meaning was clear. She didn't like me.

Another time, a woman was showing me around a lodge I was about to stay in. I asked several questions. I always ask lots of questions; I'm a curious guy. But after maybe the fifth question, she smiled big, looked down at my five-year-old son and said, "How do you put up with them?" Huh?

One day, The Wife spent the day at a nice cafe with wi-fi, because she had been suddenly called up to complete a writing assignment. She was there a few hours, spent money, got friendly with the people who ran the place. At one point she had to Skype without someone in Prague, and asked if the new-age music loop tape could be lowered a bit so she could hear. Now, mind you, this is a cafe that heavily advertises itself as a place for laptop users who can use it as a base to surf the internet all day. Anyway, the formerly nice counter person said, "I think what would work best for you is if you relocate." Which, translated from Midwestern, means "Get out!"

Then there was the smoothie altercation. The Wife went into a cafe that had thitherto proven very friendly and serviceable. She was after a smoothie for our hungry son. She observed that the counter person was about to make the smoothie with some sort of pre-fab fruit mix. Spotting some frozen bananas nearby, she asked if she couldn't have the smoothie made with fresh fruit. The woman became immediately flustered and angry. "I don't know how to make it any other way." My Wife explained how easy it was, one, two, three. "I can't do that!" the clerk answered. "I only can do it this way!" She made the smoothie as usual, slammed it on the counter and walked away in a huff.

There were other such incidents. My wife and I came to the conclusion that perhaps we were more New Yorkers than we thought we were. You know: demanding, particular, wanted our own way, blah, blah, blah. I try to watch out for those tendencies when traveling, but sometimes they seep out. But that couldn't have been the total explanation. We weren't asking for the moon, after all. Just a well-made smoothie. After some thought, I realized that these nice, kind Midwesterners were nice and kind because they were used to not being bothered or tested. People were accepting of whatever it was they were offering and asked nothing more. You smile, I smile, nobody's upset.

Our sin was that we asked questions, we requested things, we expected a certain kind of service. And we were disliked for it. In the Heartland, that's what's known as being "difficult." Everyone in line at every Starbucks in NYC is difficult by these standards.

Now I'm back in New York. I ask. I request. I inquire. The waiters and clerks don't smile necessarily. They're not "nice." But they try to give me what I ask for.

Now, that's nice.

Trader Joe's on Fast Track

It's safe to assume that Boerum Hill/Brooklyn Heights/Cobble Hill will see its Trader Joe's sooner rather than later. I peeked inside the old Independence Bank building at the corner of Court and Atlantic—Joe's new home—and there's a whole lot of debris in there. (I took the above lousy photo through the door window.) Looks like they're working like fiends. And there's also all kinds of messages scrawled on the wall instructing workers to "save" this and "save" that. Seems that want to keep that cozy, old-bank feel as much as possible.

Quote of the Day

From today's New York Times article about the seating list for Brooke Astor's funeral. Designer Kenneth Jay Lane, an invitee, commented "There’s no longer a Mrs. Astor in New York for the first time in 150 years."

Think about it. A chapter in New York history has decidedly ended.

14 August 2007

Margaret Palca Now Bakes on Court Street

Margaret Palca Bakes isn't exactly a New York landmark yet, but it is sort of a Red Hook/Carroll Gardens West landmark, doing business in that nabe when back when nobody would.

It appears the outfit is branching out. I passed by a corner storefront on Court and Warren Streets with its windows papered with notices that Palca was now working out of the space. The corner used to house another bakery/deli/bagel place so anonymous and uninteresting that I don't even remember its name.

The company will still retain its store on Columbia Street, the clerk said. It will also apparently retain the same flat-footed service it offers at the old location. Palca makes good stuff, but it often takes an eon to get it. Get the lead out, guys! This is New York.

What the Buck?

Has anyone else noticed that the stretch of Columbia Street between Degraw and Hamilton is starting to resemble a barnyard? To wit: what's with all the loose chickens lately?

I passed by a local community garden yesterday and noticed a rust-feathered rooster clawing about the grounds. He seemed quite at home, not lost or panicked. I had never noticed him before, having passed by the garden myriad times.

I mentioned this to the Wife when I got home and she responded "Is it the same chicken that I saw in the Art Lot?" The Art Lot is a open-air, ad-hoc rotating art exhibition surrounded by chain-link fence, at the corner of Columbia and Sackett. "Someone there has been feeding them." I went to check out this claim and, sure enough, not one but two handsome, healthy, black-plumed chickens were strutting about, content as could be. The Wife thinks the hens might be the work of the artists, a sort of silent protest of the poultry slaughterhouse that lies just down the street from the lot. But the card describing the current show lists five artists, each responsible for a different part of the exhibition; there was no mention of chickens being part of the show.

She also suggested the cluckers were possibly escapees from the slaughterhouse. I doubt that. If they were, the owners of said abitoire would have run down the block and retrieved them long ago. Whatever their origins, someone wants them there: a dish of food and water has been laid out for them.

The garden rooster looks more the escapee part. He's in sad shape, having obviously been pecked at quite a bit.

I read some time back that certain Red Hookers had the odd habit of keeping hens as pets, which is quite legal from what I understand. (Roosters, on the other hand, are not lawful.) But these birds have no visible owners and are living quite public lives. What's going on?

Oh, for the record, I have no problem with the chicks. I like them. I raised Bantams as a boy. Won some ribbons for them, I did.

13 August 2007

Brooke Astor Dies, Taking New York Society With Her

Brooke Astor has died. By the time this item is read (Tuesday morning), everyone will know that. She was a New Yorker through and through, but her death will be front page news in Wichita and Tallahassee. The name Brooke Astor was international shorthand for Old-style Rich Lady, the kind with good manners and jewels and fine hats, the kind who knew how to play the part.

Brooke Astor is one of those irreplaceable New Yorkers, like Bobby Short and Kitty Carlisle Hart. You won't find another like her, so don't bother to look. To my thinking, she was the last wealthy person in New York who understood the now-largely-forgotten ideal of Noblesse Oblige. She had money, and she knew that came with a catch. You had to try triply hard to justify your posh existence. And so she gave, and gave, and gave. She gave like a Carnegie, without Carnegie's motivation of having enormous sins against mankind to make up for.

With her passes the idea of New York high society—at least any version of it that still merits honor and respect from the man on the street. The folks who frequent the dinner parties along Park Avenue and the fancy benefits at the Met and Lincoln Center seem to me to be just well-fed, feckless moneymakers in garish dresses and badly fitted suits. They give money because they want their (usually ugly) name on some wall, or they want their friends to wonder at how grand and generous they are. They're place-holders, necessary plutocrats needed to keep the city's cultural infrastructure in place. Trouble is, no genuine article will be coming along to take their place. There's no Brooke Astor in New York anymore, and no one remotely like her.

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Primitive Living Still Possible

Journalists and sociologists like to go on about globalization and how the world is ever shrinking. It's all a bit exaggerated in my opinion. From my experience, it's still quite possible to cut yourself off from the modern world with very little effort.

Take my recent day trip to Washington Island, a Manhattan-sized isle in Lake Michigan, just off the tip of the Door County peninsula. The island has one grocery store, one school, one everything. Until recently, it's single gas station had no competition. And it only received its first ATM two years ago (and let me tell you, it's a primitive one, sounding a bit like an old fax machine as its churns into service). One of the few public phones listed on the map turned out to be touch-tone phone attached to an old GTE phone box, usable only if you had a credit card number to dial in.

Building costs are very high on the island, since all materials must be brought over from the mainland. Many buy prefab homes for this reason, but ferrying them over to the isle will run a cool $30,000 or so.

In the winter, there is only one ferry a day to the island, with room for only 17 cars, two of which must be the grocery truck and the mail truck. You must make reservations in advance both from and back to the island and the trip, owning to ice, could take anywhere from 2 to 11 hours. (It usually takes a half hour.) Because of this, people board the ferry equipped with food, water, warm clothes and a good book.

Spend just a few hours on Washington Island, and it's easy to forget the rest of the teeming, striving planet.

12 August 2007

Bootlegging Wars of Red Hook

Sometime back, I posted an item about an art exhibit at the open-air "Art Lot" on Columbia Street. It featured old newspaper clippings about the rough and tough goings-on in the Red Hook area during the first decades of the 20th century. Shootings, drunkedness, mobsters, death, etc. And there was one particularly juicy series of articles of a number of area deaths caused by a batch of bad bootleg liquor.

A reader, who chooses to be Anonymous, wrote Lost City recently with more info about Red Hook's violent past. I can't do any better than to quote him in full and let you sit back and enjoy the trip down Brooklyn's bloody memory lane:

There had been a bootlegging feud going on in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the early 1920's. On election night in 1922 there had been a pistol fight between Gregorio Lagana and Joseph Busardo at Tosca Gardens Cafe on Columbia Street. When police arrived they took Busardo who had been shot three times in the back to LI College Hospital as a prisoner. Lagana died. Busardo was later acquitted of the crime as there were no witnesses. On February 8, 1923 Jack Buccafusco and Charles Cucchairo had been visitng Vincent Busardo at his home on Homecrest Avenue. Two men in masks entered the home and killed Cucchairo. Police arrested Busardo & Buccafusco because they did not believe their story. They were released. On April 6, 1923 Vincent Busardo was shot in the back while walking on
DeGraw & Columbia streets. While half conscious on his hospital bed he identified Umberto Anastasio & Guiseppe Florino as his shooters when police brought them to his hospital room. Vincent Busardo died that evening. On April 29th 1923 two men were gunned down on Sackett Street. One man Biagi Giordano died and the other man UAnastasio was in critical condition. This shooting was said to be a vendetta for the killing of Busardo a few weeks earlier. Umberto who became Albert Anastasia and Joseph Florino were linked to many crimes including the disappearance of Pete Panta, a dock worker.

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: A Good Sign: Florian II

Door County, Wisconsin, has no lack of great, antiquated signage. This piece of neon used by the Florian II Lakeshore Rib & Steakhouse (that is its full name) in Bailey's Harbor is particularly priceless. The business is family owned and has been there for 50 years. It's cheap breakfast buffet is apparently famous, though I've never met anybody who indulged in it.

What ever happened to Florian I, I don't know.

Kosher Bakery Solidarity on LES

A reader writes to tell Lost City that the late lamented Gertel's kosher bakery lives on on the Lower East Side.

Moishe's bakery on Grand Street, a surviving LES kosher bakery, has a sign in the window indicating it will carry Gertel's products in the future (Gertel's still does wholesale work out of Williamsburg). For this I say: Way to go, Moishe's. I would imagine that these two bakeries were competitors to the teeth in the past. It's nice of Moishe's to show support for its fallen comrade, and to give Lower East Siders an easy outlet for Gertel's goodies.

09 August 2007

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Find a Fish and Fry It

Fish plays a big role in Wisconsin's culinary (if I may use that hoity-toity word) traditions. In Door County—the bucolic, touristy peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, and ranks as a sort of Midwestern Cape Cod—the Fish Boil reigns supreme. A ritual since the 1940s, it involves a heap of fish, new potatoes and onions dumped into a cauldron of boiling water fueled by gasoline until the flames reach 30 feet in the air and the water rolls over the sides of the pot. It's then served on paper plates with coleslaw and a slice of cherry pie, and is quiet excellent. Also, very healthy—a rare thing in Wisconsin dining.

But the seafood tradition that blankets the state in general if the Fish Fry. Generally a Friday night tradition, you can find a good one in almost every small town in Wisconsin. A few pieces of lightly breaded, deep-fried lake fish (Perch is best), a side of fries, coleslaw, and you're there. For decades, the Fish Fry represented fine dining in Wisconsin. There was no need for anything fancier.

So, for a first timer, how do you know you're at a good Fish Fry place? Well, here are a few tips. If the restaurant looks too done out, too slick, you're in the wrong place. Fish Fry purveyors don't care about decor. Great places generally look like somebody's house. There's a sign outside, provided by a beer distributor, but little else. Inside, the seating should be functional. Square tables with plastic tablecloths, lackluster chairs. If there's anything on the walls, it's a few old photographs or mirrored beer signs or something having to do with the Green Bay Packers.

On the table will be a plastic basket filled with nothing-special dinner rolls and a smaller dish of squares of individually wrapped butter. You see, it's the Fry that matters. That's why people come. They know it's special. To do anything to point out that it's special would just be too embarrassing for modest Wisconsinites.

A legendary Door County Fish Fry that meets all of the above standards in the Sister Bay Bowl, in Sister Bay, Wisconsin. As the name indicates, the place does not even advertise itself as a restaurant—a classic sign that you're in a good place. Anyone who drove by the place, which sit on top of a hill overlooking Sister Bay, would think it a bowling alley. And it is that, as well as a bar. The dining hall (and it is just that, a spare, ugly dining hall, like you might find at a Lion's Club) is through a door at the left as you enter. Though large, it is regularly packed.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, the Fish Fry is offered. There is a version with Walleye and Shrimp, but as the waitress told me, "It's the perch you want." The perch I got and the perch I ate, moist yet firm and absolutely perfect. Hokey crinkle-cut fries on the side; only in Wisconsin are crinkle-cut fries still popular and "fun."

I talked briefly with the daughter of the Bowl's founder. She said, when dad bought the place in 1950, there was no restaurant, just the bar and a very popular dance hall in the back. Hotel rooms were available on the second floor. In 1958, he tore down the dance hall and built a six-lane bowling alley, which is still there. Six years later, the restaurant opened in a space that used to be where the Willems family lived. The 1964 menu featured roughly five dinner choices, including prime rib. So the set-up has remained ever since.

08 August 2007

City Continues Evil Persecution of Red Hook Vendors

What the hell is wrong with City Hall? Does it hate good food, intrinsic culture and The American Dream?

Are they now doubly pissed at the poor, hard-working, great-cooking Red Hook Ballfield food vendors, because the Parks Commissioner's plan to unleash the field's concessions gig to open bidding was met with wide public opposition and gave the City a big bad-press black eye? (The people assert their will? How dare they?)

According the Porkchop Express, the City has now sicked a new agency on the vendors, in the form of a sudden inspection by the Department of Health. "Hey, if we can't shut them down one way, we'll try another!" Well, the raid didn't work, at least for now:

Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez was alerted. She immediately called the Mayor's office, and arrived to monitor the inspection in-person. In so doing, she defused a potentially big bomb. Rather than threatening closure, the DOH simply offered a list of "suggestions."

Foremost amongst these: no running water at the fields. So today (Tuesday) at 5:15 pm, Cesar was contacted about a "big" meeting Wednesday with the Deputy Commissioner of Health. Pressure has intensified, City Officials are again flexing muscle, and the implied bottom-line is rough. Worst-case scenario, the Vendors will have to shut down operations stat to comply with DOH mandates. But we wont know anything until tomorrow afternoon.

Next up: a surprise visit from the Fire Department to check for fire hazards ("Hey, they're using fire to cook the food!"), and the Police sweep the area looking for any illegal immigrants ("Those vendors look like they were born in another country!"). A goverment of petty putzes.

UPDATE (Aug. 9, 10 AM): According to reports this morning, re Eater and Porkchop Express, by Sunday August 19th the vendors must:

· store more ice in coolers
· acquire portable hand washers/sanitation units
· wear sterile gloves and change said gloves regularly
· have a source of running water to wash hands, tacos, etc.
· rent commercial grade kitchens to prep food, or prepare everything on-site

And, "Most significantly, The Powers That Be want everyone who works at a stand to be licensed. Anyone associated with a tent – from corn shuckers to pupusa stuffers – must undergo a training session to obtain a mobile food vending license. At present, only 12 tent operators are licensed; this number will (must) more than quadruple."


NYC Building Dept. Not Just Bad, But Also Anti-Good

The NYC Department of Building, not content with green-lighting scads of ugly super-developments and looking the other way while developers skirt zoning laws and knock down a landmark structure here and there, have started filled out their schedule throwing roadblocks in the way of people who independently try to preserve New York architectural culture.

The Daily News reports that the City bureaucracy has put the brakes of the plans of that nice Wyoming man who wants to cart the Moondance Diner off to the Equality State. Vincert Pierce bought the eatery, one of NYC's last free-standing diners, with the idea of bringing the thing to the small town of LaBarge, which badly needs an address at which to chow down on burgers and such.

The move has been put off for at least 24 hours, because, said a city Buildings Department spokesman, the dept. needs a "clarification" from the new owner "explaining how he plans to move the diner and demolish the foundation." (Definition: The rich guy who wants to develop the property called the City and asked them to put the squeeze on Mr. Wyoming, because he doesn't want to get stuck paying for the destruction of the foundation.)

"Disappointed - I don't know. It's frustrating," said Pierce. We know how you feel, Vince.

07 August 2007

Sitt's Coney Island "Dead in the Water"?

It could be the beginning of the end for Joe Sitt's Vegas-tastic vision of Coney Island or could just be some City Hall yahoo shooting his mouth off. Either way, The Daily News yesterday reported that "a city ranking city official" called Sitt's Coney resort-condotower-hotel-shiny-shit conception for a New Coney "dead in the water."

That article stated:

Officials are steaming over the developer's plan for 350 time-shares at the envisioned hotels. The developer came up with the time-share scheme after it vowed to cut a luxury residential component from the blueprint.

Thor's push for $100 million in city subsidies - and fears that the developer might just turn around and sell the property once the zoning is changed - also irked City Hall. "It was clearly designed merely to try to get a lucrative zoning change and massive city funding without genuine regard to Coney Island's future," the city official said. "It's atrocious."

The official said Thor must toss its current plan and come up with a more acceptable plan before the city will even meet with the developer. "Thor's proposal is dead in the water," the official said.

Gowanus Lounge thinks the official is either New York City Economic Development Corp. director Robert Lieber or Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff himself.

Or course, this won't make Sitt give up the fight, any more than the world's opposition to the demolition of The Wall Street Journal made Rupert Murdoch shrink away. Moneymen want what they want. Their hearts won't be swayed. They're the idealists, you see. We're all a bunch of cynics.

06 August 2007

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Don't Visit Racine on a Sunday

Not interested in Racine, Wisconsin? Well, sorry. When I travel, I write about where I am at the moment. And cultural landmarks are disappearing in every state and every time zone (though, I grant, not as fast as they are in New York).

I originally hail from Wisconsin, but it didn't necessarily occur to me how strongly the state adheres to its traditions and customs until I left the state some 20 years ago. The clock has an easier time standing still here. You notice that right off when you enter the state and can't get anything by Boston and Foghat on the car radio.

In the past few months, I have grown somewhat obsessed with the idea of visiting Racine, particularly after I learned from Roadside Architecture that it was the birthplace of Kewpie Hamburgers. In the early days of fast food, Kewpie was a chain of some strength. It was founded in the 1920s in Racine (although some say it was founded in Flint, MI) and there were once 200 outlets nationwide. Now there are only five: one in Lansing, MI; three in Lima, OH (huh?); and one in Racine. The chain has a certain place in history, because Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's, stated that, as a young man, he was inspired by Kewpie's way of doing thing—in particular their square burgers.

And, yes, their somewhat-queasy-making mascot is the Kewpie Doll.

Anyway, something so obscure, so centered on unexciting, mid-sized cities, captured my imagination. So I made a pilgrimage on Sunday.

What did I learn? Don't go to Racine on a Sunday. Ever.

The city, apparently very religious, shuts down. My beloved Kewpie was closed. All I could do was look at it and take a couple shots. The townfolk appear to know the place well and treasure it.

Hoping to salvage my trip, I decided to pick up a Kringle. OK, WTF is a Kringle? Well, it's that special thing: an intact local delicacy. Racine was once the Danish-American capital of the U.S., and Kringle is something they brought over with them. The large pastry is shaped in a circle, topped with creamy icing or glazed sugar, and filled will any number of things, mainly fruit and nuts. It's flakey in texture and very fattening, being full of butter and eggs.

There are a couple bakeries that are renowned (locally) for their Kringles: Larsen's Bakery and Bendtsen's Bakery. (O&H is also mentioned a lot, as well.) Larsen's and Bendtsen's are located directly across the street from each other on Washington Avenue. I like to imagine the owners getting into frequent street fights over who holds supremacy in Racine's Kringle world.

But, godammit, they were both closed tighter than a drum! Don't Racine-dwellers want fresh Kringle after church? The upshot: I left Racine a very frustrated man. And a hungry one, too.

Jade Mountain's Last Stand

The family who ran Jade Mountain, the Second Avenue monument to old-school Chop Suey, has been relatively non communicado on the subject of their defunct business, brushing aside the public and press' inquiries about the closure. Very little has been learned since the restaurant suddenly shuttered last January.

Apparently, the interior of the joint has remained untouched until recently. The Villager reports that the family held a sort of estate sale on July 21, selling all the goods inside, including plates, cups and the famous fishtank. Here's a nice photo of the sad event from Vanishing New York. Wish I could have been there. I would have like a menu or some such momento.

But what about the most valuable thing Jade Mountain owns: the iconic neon sign. Well, according to the Villager, "A family member said that someone had wanted to buy the Jade Mountain sign and resurrect it for use at another restaurant located out of state."

Out of state. Just like the Moondance diner. "New York: now coming to a city near you."

04 August 2007

Lost City: Chicago Edition: A Good Sign: Malloy's

Liquor stores in the older suburbs of great metropolitan areas are dependable sources of fine signage. The signs are usually pretty big, with a dash of style, and have stood untouched since they were erected some 40 to 75 years ago.

Here's the sign for Malloy's Finest Wines and Spirits in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn. It has "served DuPage County" since 1933, the depths of the Depression—and just after Prohibition was repealed. So that's about as old as a liquor store can be in America, since, with the Volstead Act rendered every booze shop illegal.

03 August 2007

Lost City: Chicago Edition: A Good Sign: The Seven Dwarfs Restaurant

Lot of colons in that headline, huh?

Well, I couldn't pass this one up. I found this sign in Wheaton, IL, a western suburb of Chicago. Don't know how long it's been around, but by the look of the sign (weathered), it's some years. The restaurant has a Snow White theme. Can't imagine why a restauranteur would think that the characters from that Disney film would be a draw to folks hankering for coffee and a sinker, or a plate of hash browns, but here it is. The emphasis on "Patron Parking" is delightful. And extra points for spelling "Dwarves" wrong and never corrected it!

Naked Boys Stop Singing

The Actors Playhouse, home to the long-running show "Naked Boys Singing," among other attractions, will shut down after 62 years on lower Seventh Avenue near Bleecker. A helpful reader wrote in to inform us that a steadily rising rent has forced the theatre out of business. It's only the latest Off-Broadway commercial theatre to go under.

The Actors Playhouse has never been my favorite downtown temple of Thespis. It's always been a bit shabby and unattractive, and it's fare has tended to the embarrassingly campy: shows with titles like "Howard Crabtree's Whoop-Dee-Doo," "The Property Known as Garland," "Making Porn" and, or course, the eternal "Naked Boys Singing." Not exactly the Provincetown Playhouse.

Of course, a theatre that has stuck around this long can also lay claim to its share of theatre history. Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy" began life there. And a number of actors who went on to fame did some early work there. The owner of the property is planning to turn it into something other than a theatre.

02 August 2007

Got Clams?

Coney Island does.