30 April 2008

Lost City: New Haven Edition: Two Good Signs

Kebabian on Elm Street contends it has been there since 1882, though I'm guessing the sign came in during the 1930s. What is it about New Haven's utilization of great signage to proclaim humdrum businesses?

The Pizza House, meanwhile, is a bit west of the center of town on a fairly quiet corner. They've been doling out pie since 1963. There's a long lunch counter inside, but no one sits there, except to wait for their take-out order. They cut their pizza in squares, not slices, and make toasted grinders, too.

Absurd Juxtaposition on Third Avenue

New York City, by it ever-changing nature, is a City of odd, jarring and sometimes compelling architectural juxtapositions. But this one of Third Avenue near E. 6th must count as one of the most egregious and sick-making side-by-sides in burg history. Let's see: Three-story brick building; enormous, convex, glass-and-metal jackknife into the sky; four-story brick building. I get queasy just looking at the grouping. Talk about not taking the surrounding environment into account.

If I were the squat, dormer-window affair to the left, I'd be nervous. I mean, Jesus Christ!, am I seeing things or isn't the Cooper Square Hotel missing a big chunk of it base? Where's the rest of it? Somebody stick in the missing puzzle piece before it all topples over!

What a horrible, horrible building. I wonder if the architect has any inking that the tiny, 200-year-old house that now lives in his skyscraper's shadow is 100-times better a structure than his invention can ever hope to be?

UPDATE: A reader tells me the small building is owned by the hotel and will be torn down. I got a better idea. Still it in that big hole in the hotel! It'll just about fit.

Other Great Plans NYU Has for the City

Witnessing how well its idea to dump a ton of new bricks on the historical Provincetown Playhouse went over, New York University this week rolled some of its other plans for the town. Among them:

*Remembering that, historically, painter John Sloan once camped out on top of The Washington Square Arch with a bunch of his buddies, NYU will build on that idea by installing two dorm rooms and a bulkhead at the top of the arch.

*To create yet more dorm rooms, an enormous treehouse will be built among the branches of the centuries-old "Hanging Elm" in the park.

*Toll booths will be placed at Fifth Avenue, LaGuardia Place and all other entries points to Washington Square to regulate traffic and provide a steady source of income for the university.

*The university will enter into a partnership with restaurateur Keith McNally to turn the Minetta Tavern into a student cafeteria. Joe Gould goulash will be served every Wednesday.

*NYU will build a tall glass building that will spoil, er, enhance the view of the Washington Square when looking down Fifth Avenue. Wait! They already did that.

*NYU will be a monstrous towering dorm over the corpse, er, facade of St. Ann's Church. Wait! They already did that.

*NYU will tear down a former home of Edgar Allan Poe to build a new law school...what's that?...goddamn it!

*The school will propose to City Council changing the name of the metropolis to New York University City.

*Taking on Columbia University as its running mate, NYU will run for Mayor in 2009. Bloomberg, it is expected, will endorse the two institution's candidacies. City Hall to become a dorm. Gracie Mansion a gymnasium.

29 April 2008

The Last Remnant of Kiev Comes Down

Two gentleman were busy Tuesday dismantling and altering the facade of the restaurant space at the southwest corner of Second Avenue and E. 7th Street in the East Village. The good news is they took down the horrifically garish signage belonging to the American Grill, the lackluster eatery that took the place of the great, old-school Russian diner, Kiev. The bad news is they were also taking down the great Kiev sign, which the owners of American Grill, out of laziness, had left on the second-story corner of the building.

The industrious duo, seemingly connected with the new eating concern which will soon occupy the address, attacked the sign with screwdriver, hammer and other implements of destruction. They opened it and ripped out wiring that had once made possible its illumination. I peppered them with questions, but they either did not understand English or pretended not to. The American Grill sign parts were collected on the sidewalk.

I let them be and returned to check on their progress three hours later. I feared I might never see the Kiev sign—a classic—again. It was still there, but hollowed out; you could see right through it. My friends were now busy painting the facade a loverly shade of, um, black. They seem like a particularly unsentimental bunch, the new owners.

28 April 2008

Hidden in Plain Sight

Taking up space at the corner of Russell and Nassau Streets in Greenpoint, with views of McGolrick Park (not that its inhabitants care about views) is the Palace Cafe, one of the best old dives in the City and one that for 75 years has done a good job of staying out of the news.

Aiding its anonymity is the fact that there's no sign on the brown, cornerside, double doors. To further confuse folks, there is a sign—a full awning, in fact—that says Palace Cafe around the corner, leading to a door that is not the main entrance. Also befuddling is the joint's stubborn refusal to change its name, even though it hasn't served food as a restaurant in many years.

Those who do figure out that it's OK to go inside are in for a treat. The heavily-timbered room, ramshackle assortment of stools, cheap beers and huge horseshoe-shaped bar are mighty homey-making. It feels like the bar at an old Elks Lodge, or your uncle's basement den. One wants to linger forever. In my book, in has a place alongside the great old bars of Gotham.

This is my corner bar and is regularly called the Heavy Metal Bar by Williamsburg-area hipsters.

Lost City: New Haven Edition: Modern Apizza

Modern Apizza is the only one of New Haven's three great pizza palaces to have evaded me to date. I've been to Frank Pepe's and Sally's Apizza, which are both on the same street, Wooster, in New Haven's Little Italy (very little). Modern has always been a harder assignment because it's a little out of town, a goodly walk from the main square.

On this visit, however, my New Haven friend was intrepid and agreed to the necessary trek. It helped that he, too, was annoyed at never having visited the place, despite living there. Compared to Frank Pepe and Sally's, Modern is relatively unsung. It wins some polls, but, unlike its competition, is relatively unknown outside New Haven. Visiting Modern at lunchtime was a breeze. No wait, though it was bustling. Unlike its New Haven pizza rivals, Modern pies are not misshapen, but the usual round items; they're not overly hung up on the circular shape in this town. But like the other pizzerias, they offer a clam pie. We didn't go that way. We order two small: one half plain, half pepperoni; one a white pie, half spinach, half artichoke.

It was all good, but the artichoke slices were particularly savory and creamy, and the artichokes were fresh. The pepperoni was excellent, spicy and zesty. The verdict? Frank Pepe's is probably the best of the three. But Modern scores many points for being a much more low-key affair. You don't have to wait in horrendous lines, and the place is not stuck on itself. It's lack of airs is refreshing.

27 April 2008

A Good Sign: New Haven Edition: Perkins Rubber Stamps

This choice pair of signs on Elm Street in New Haven belong to an improbable, one-of-a-kind business: a 132-year-old independent maker of rubber stamps and other "marking devices"! They also make mugs, small signs, awards, buttons, nameplates, decals and a bunch of other office knick-knacks. How can such a business have survived for so long in the world of Staples? Perhaps people are helplessly attracted to the beauty of the old signs.

A Good Sign: Smolenski Funeral Home

Not just a great sign, but a clock as well! In Greenpoint.

Lost City: New Haven Edition: Yankee Doodle Did and Died

I often visit New Haven, Connecticut, since I have friends there. It's a city I like. Either because of a sense of tradition lent to the area by the influence of a centuries-old university (Yale), or because urban blight and economic stagnation—so common to cities in this state—halted progress to a large degree, a great many wonderful old New Haven businesses have persisted for many years.

For years, I pledged to myself on every visit that I would get around to bellying up at the counter of the half-century-old Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop on Elm Street. The narrow, slip of a place—just a corridor, really, with a counter and a row of 12 stools— had been there since 1950. It's a beloved local institution. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were regulars during their college years. It is known to locals as The Doodle. I had a hard time getting there because of its limited hours; it was a weekday lunch place, and I was always in New Haven on the weekends.

Alas, I waited too long. I arrived this past weekend to find it had shuttered for good on Jan. 28, 2008. The great neon sign, with its long-legged, white-clad serving man, is good. All that's left to indicate it ever existed is a plaque.

The place was run by three generations of the Beckwith family: Lew, Lew, Jr. and Rick. The last one closed it due to "economic reasons." That is, the rent was too high, and New Haven had become to gentrified for a tiny coffee shop to make a go of it. The website still exists, for what it's worth. You can't buy any souvenirs through it, and the phone number isn't working, but it's there. (There is an ongoing effort to reopen the place, spearheaded by patrons, but it's unclear if anything will come of it.) For the particularly mournful, there is this perverse YouTube video of a fife and drum corps playing outside the shop. Touching, and bizarre.

What it used to look like:

26 April 2008

Work Gets Underway at Trader Joe's

Following months of anticipation regarding Trader Joe's taking root in the old Independence Bank Building at the corner of Court and Atlantic in Brooklyn, and rumors that the deal had been scotched, work finally got underway inside the cavernous old stone barn.

Oh, sure, plenty of work was done last fall. The inside was gutted of everything that ever indicated it used to function as a bank. But then the interior became a ghost town for months on end. A spokesman at Trader Joe's told Lost City a couple months back that work would begin in spring. But then more weeks passed, and hope began to face.

Walking by the space in Friday, however, the doors were wide open for the first time in ages. Some sort of powerful truck was parked outside with power cable leading inside the building. New equipment was in evidence and workers were walking about. Yes, indeed! There was life in the old place. Trader Joe's may be on its way after all.

25 April 2008

Some Stuff That's Interesting

360 Carroll developer is petty and hates love.

Minetta Tavern will close May 6 for its Keith McNally redo.

Plans were revealed for the $75 million Lakeside Center that will replace the Wollman Rink in Prospect Park. As someone notes, kinda looks like an IKEA.

The City will let dead bodies be dug up for any development project. First Washington Square Park. Now the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church.

Activists have temporarily halted the privatization of part of Union Square Park.

Is the building boom over? Oh, God, given the above examples of building, let's hope so.

24 April 2008

Ahead of the Curve

This curvy specimen from the Belmont section of the Bronx is an uncelebrated wonder, as far as I'm concerned. Look at the grace with which its castle-like form banks that corner, ridding the City of one of its harsh corners, and the lovely line the roof traces against the sky. It's altogether a pleasure. What developer today would go to the bother of creating anything so stylish that didn't take full advantage of the lot's footprint?

The Iconography of the Candy Store

This is how the New York Candy Store lives in the collective subconscious of the populace, in the imaginations of Edward Hopper, Berenice Abbott and Richard Estes. Bold black letters on a white background: "Candy Store Films - Toys." A Coca-Cola sign. An sunburnt awning. A rusted roller-shutter. A parking meter. Angular shadows.

Pure American iconography. Sitting there, actually existing, on 187th Street in The Bronx. If we saw this image in a museum, we'd gaze on in on profound contemplation and appreciation. If we see if actually standing on a working sidewalk, we want to tear it down.

This, in essence, is what's wrong with the times we are living in.

NYU Thinks Up the Unthinkable

Here's a simple history test even an ignorant dunderhead of a New Yorker could pass. The Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village where Eugene O'Neill, the father of modern American drama, produced many of his first plays—worth preserving or eminently dispensable?


Well, NYU isn't as smart of your average dunderhead. It wants to tear down the Macdougal Street landmark (which isn't officially landmarked, of course) and develop the property for its law school. When I first saw this article in the Villager, I checked to see if it was April 1. It seemed like one of those April Fool's Day joke stories. It couldn't be true!

Excuse me while I go berserk for a minute.

WTF! WHAT THE FUCK?! What the everlastin', God-fearin' fuck are they fucking thinking, those monstrous, vulgarian, institutional mother-fucking fuckers. If they touch one brick I'm going to go down to Washington Square and rain a torrent of blows on their greedy, unthinking, unworthy heads!

OK. I'm better now. Still furious, though.

Reads The Villager article:

New York University proposes to demolish the four-story buildings on MacDougal St. where the Provincetown Playhouse first produced the plays of Eugene O’Neill, and redevelop them to include new space for the university’s law school as well as a new theater.

Although not protected by city landmark designation and modified several times over the past nine decades, the row of four buildings and the 170-seat theater have iconic cultural significance.

The redevelopment of 133-139 MacDougal St. will be the first test of the N.Y.U. planning principles adopted in January with the support of the Community Task Force on N.Y.U. Development and Borough President Scott Stringer. The principles were adopted with the hope they would bring a new era of harmony between the university and its Village neighbors.

Oh, yeah. This'll breed harmony for sure. NYU! The village just gave you holy Hell for wanted to shut down a Met supermarket! Do you think this proposal makes for a good follow-up?

Here's the ugliness they're after. Purty.

NYU President John Sexton's e-mail is: john.sexton@nyu.edu. Write. Write. Write. Make his computer crash. Make his life miserable.

NYU sucks. NYU sucks. NYU sucks. NYU sucks. NYU sucks. Repeat ad nauseum.

23 April 2008

Happy Passover, From...Arthur Avenue?

I'm all for supporting tolerance and understanding and togetherness wherever I see it, but this airborne tiding, strung over ultra-Italian-Catholic Arthur Avenue had me doing a triple-take.

An Image From the French Countryside?

No. A house on Sycamore Avenue in Riverdale, The Bronx.

Put it on a postcard, though, and no one would be the wiser.

A Good Sign: Sante Fe Grill

It's the side wall of this Bronx restaurant that has the signage appeal.

Though it's not practiced that often anymore, wall sign-painting—raw paint on a raw brick wall—still retains a certain visceral aesthetic appeal. The bold lines; the textural feel of the bricks coming through the paint; the sense of an individual, human—rather than machine—effort; the possibility of idiosyncratic expression and of endearing mistakes—it all adds up to something a factory-made plastic awning can't begin to approach.

Bonus points: the way vines have begun to grow over the landscape of desert shrubland.

On Broadway near 242nd Street.

Wakey, Wakey

Wishing to get away from all the mishegoss of the Pennsylvania primary and the upheaval at the Department of Building, I made tracks today for the idyllic and underappreciated Bronx beauty spot Wave Hill. Which is a hell of a long way to get a little respite.

It was tulip time there, and quite pleasant. The views of the Hudson can't be beat. By the way, the frog pictured is not a statue, though it sure looks like one. It was very real and very still.

From the Rich Irony Department

Hey look! Next week is the Department of Building's "4th Annual Construction Safety Week." How's that for weird timing?

Guess Patricia Lancaster—doubtless the founder of this festival—won't be around to oversee this one. Well that's no excuse for us all not to have a good safe time! I will be sure to be there on May 1 for "Crane Safety: New Regulations You Need to Know." Seating is limited, they tell us.

Lancaster, the Scapegoat

Don't misconstrue the title of this post. Patricia Lancaster got exactly what she deserved when Mayor Bloomberg yesterday accepted her resignation/canned her ass as head of the Department of Building. She may have made some inroads in streamlined and organizing an "agency in disarray"—as the New York Times, with agonizing fairness, never ceases to point out—but she approved hundreds of construction projects knowing her agency was not sufficiently staffed to keep proper tabs on the project; coddled developers; looked the other way when building infractions came rolling in; and ignored the complaints and cries of concerned citizens. Under her, the agency's name was taken quite literally. It was the DEPARTMENT OF BUILDING. Lots of building. It was not the Department of Building Supervision and Regulation.

That said, Lancaster is a scapegoat. She was operating just as Bloomberg and his former Machiavelli Dan Doctoroff instructed her to: sign off on as many development projects as possible and "don't sweat the small stuff," as the Voice put it in a recent article. Bloomberg has positioned himself in such a way that he gets off scot free (as he usually does), taking no responsibility for the construction accidents and deaths which are basically his fault. First, he completely distanced himself from the horrific east side crane accident that got the recent ball of DOB criticism rolling. Lancaster took all the heat, and Bloomberg remained at a safe distance, writing poetry and such. Then, when he saw the press, public and politicians weren't going to let up—that the issue wasn't going to blow over—he began to condemn Lancaster.

Gowanus Lounge put it as well as anyone could this morning:

On Monday, Mayor Bloomberg said "I don’t think anybody should be fully satisfied with the Department of Buildings’ performance." The statement was disingenuous at best and self-servingly cynical at worst. The construction boom and DOB's laissez faire attitude have happened under Mr. Bloomberg's watch and the placement of the agency under former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff's purview for most of his administration symbolized the back seat that regulating building took to encouraging development. The city's worst kept secret for much of the last six years has been the fact that DOB was expected not to interfere in major ways with development. If this meant looking the other way while safety, work hour and other regulations were violated with impunity, well, that was a small price for one of the biggest building booms in New York history.

That statement, the oft-quoted "I don’t think anybody should be fully satisfied with the Department of Buildings’ performance," was weasely, back-stabbing, scapegoating, political double-speak at its worst. It was bottom-of-the-barrel stuff and anyone who's a student of the political art would recognize it as such. You can bet as Lancaster watched Mayor Mike utter that line on television, she was muttering "son of a bitch" under her breath. Bloomberg was plenty satisfied the Lancaster and the DOB—it was doing exactly what he wanted it to do, with as little money as he chose to give it—until its corrupt performance began to impinge on his image as an infallible leader.

Lancaster's departure is a good thing. She's was a feckless puppet of the development cabal. She was no public servant. The problem is her successor will be selected by the same man who chose her.

22 April 2008

Oh Dear

The Oh family's Trusting Tailoring and Cleaning—a Cobble Hill business whose destruction at the hands of the booming real estate market and one voracious landlord in particular was widely covered in the press—has been thoroughly cleaned out and is ready for inspection by interested parties. Witness the two large signs advertising its vacancy. I hearby encourage no one with a conscience to call this number, unless you want to curse the landlord out by way of his slimy real estate broker.

A Good Sign: Star Deli and Bakery

A bold and boldly red sign, complete with that Polish eagle so common in Greenpoint signs.

Bulletin: It's Happened!!

There is justice in New York City. Read on:

Bloomberg’s Buildings Chief Resigns

By Diane Cardwell

Facing mounting pressure and dwindling confidence from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg over her handling of the Department of Buildings, Commissioner Patricia J. Lancaster resigned on Tuesday.

The first woman to lead the troubled agency and one of the only commissioners to leave the administration under a cloud, she is departing as a series of high profile construction accidents and bureaucratic problems have embarrassed the agency and the mayor.

Mr. Bloomberg announced at 12:10 p.m. that he had accepted her resignation. He had hired Ms. Lancaster, an architect, to modernize the 1,286-person agency, which issues permits, oversees construction and enforces the building code. But the agency had come under increasing criticism.

This year, there have been 13 fatalities at construction sites in the city, including seven in a March 15 crane collapse, compared with 12 during all of 2007. In another case, investigators found after the death of two firefighters in an Aug. 18, 2007, fire at the former Deutsche Bank building near ground zero that building inspectors had failed to detect numerous violations, including the dismantling of a standpipe that would have carried water to firefighters at the top of the building.

The announcement on Tuesday afternoon included a statement from Mr. Bloomberg:

This morning, I met with Patricia Lancaster at Gracie Mansion and accepted her resignation as New York City’s Buildings Commissioner. Over the past six years, Patricia has moved the Department of Buildings a long way forward by fighting corruption, strengthening inspections and oversight, increasing the public’s access to information, and bringing increased levels of professionalism and integrity to all levels of her agency. Patricia led a comprehensive overhaul of the City’s byzantine building code, the first in 40 years, which will make the construction of homes, schools, stores and offices in New York City safer, more affordable and more environmentally friendly for years to come. Patricia leaves a strong foundation of reform and improvement for her successors to build on, and I thank her for her dedication to making New York City a far better place to live, work and visit.

It also included this statement from Ms. Lancaster:

Today I submitted my resignation, which Mayor Bloomberg accepted. It has been an honor serving in his administration and I thank the Mayor for this opportunity. After six years in public service, I made this decision because I felt it was time to return to the private sector. I am proud of the groundbreaking work the department has done during my tenure to root out corruption, increase transparency, overhaul the building code and increase safety for workers and the public alike. My message today to the talented and capable staff at the Department of Buildings is to keep up the hard work: you’ve made so much important progress. It has been my distinct pleasure working with you.

Both statements are utter, mealy-mouthed crap, of course. You knew Lancaster's days were numbered when Bloomie stopped supporting her at press conferences. Still, I'm amazed Mayor Mike admitted to any fault in his administration.

Not to be smug, but this blog was the first I know of to call for her resignation in the wake of the crane accident. But congratulations to all the NYC blogs out there who kept the heat on the issue of rampant overdevelopment and the DOB's shoddy, corrupt performance, and finally forced the print dailies to take notice.

Now, let's see if Mike has the courage to appoint someone who will actually clean up the department, look out for the citizenry and keep developers in line. Let us not forget that whatever Lancaster did, she did with the tacit (or even explicit) approval of her boss.

Lancaster the Scapegoat

Cheyenne Diner Saved by...the Son of a Developer

I guess the only thing that can save development from itself is...development itself.

Just the other day, the west side's Cheyenne Diner was set to go down to dust, the victim of a rival diner who owned the structure and wanted to erect a nine-story building there. Would no one save the 68-year-old Cheyenne?!!

Yes, it turns out, someone would. Mike O'Connell, son of Red Hook developer of note, Greg O'Connell, who owns about a million things in South Brooklyn. The scion, head of O’C Construction, purchased the diner for $5,000 will now work on securing permits to transport it to its new home in sunny Red Hook. The Cheyenne will be refurbished and returned to its former glory by a diner specialist. All this was brokered by preservationist Michael Perlman, who formed the Committee To Save The Cheyenne Diner, and seems to spend his life preserving New York diners. Gotta hand it to him. He gets things done.

21 April 2008

Barbie Cast Down!

Readers of this blog may remember, about last year at this time, an item about a curious display built into the facade of a Boerum Hill home. At 229 Dean Street, a rectagular space once reserved for an air-conditioner had been faced off with glass in the fashion of a display case. Inside was place a statuette of the Virgin Mary and—the severed head of a giant plastic Barbie doll! (See below.)

The bit of strangeness was picked up by other sites at the time and much commented on. Perhaps too commented on. Because, one year later, Barbie has been banished! The Blessed Virgin is still there. But she has no foxy roommate anymore. Instead, she's framed by two tacky religious candles (above). It makes for distinctly less arresting eye candy. Otherwise the building looks exactly the same.

Next Scheduled Old Sign Discovery: 2035

As South Brooklyn folk know, the old St. Clair Restaurant at the corner of Atlantic and Smith was recently given a redo, complete with shiny new sign. Between the time when the old sign was being taken down and the new one installed, an even older sign (see far below) was briefly revealed. Such "reveals" are quite common in these days of widespread construction and renovation. Old signs, it seems, never die. They're just covered up.

Walking by the diner recently, I peered closely at the space between the new sign and the awning and—sure enough!—it became clear as day that the builders has not taken down the very oldest sign. They just left it there and built over it.

That means that some day in the future, when the latest owners of the St. Clair decide to renovate the restaurant anew, Brooklynites will once again be stunned and surprised by the uncovering of the original brown-and-cream-colored metal sign. The cycle continues and the archaeological dig that is New York City takes on one more layer.

Some Stuff That's Interesting

Exxon helped sponsor the Go Green Greepoint event over the weekend. File under Unmitigated Gall.

Cobblers are happy and busy in Hasidic Williamsburg.

I don't mind the new Perry Street Hotel, which, by today's design standards, is a work of genius.

The Old College Restaurant?

I've passed by the diner that I know as the New College Restaurant on Fourth Avenue and Union Street many times over the past decade. (Lately I'm not sure what they call themselves, since the "New" and "College" have been removed from the facade.) But it was only the other day that I noticed that the place had hung a sign from the corner of the building.

It's an interesting touch. Though, as the sign indicates, the diner has only been around since 1992, with this sign they are clearly going for that landmark, Olde New York look. Fine by me. I think it looks great and lends the place some distinction. I'd like to get a gander at it at night when it's lit up. Bet it looks fetching from the cab or a passing semi.