Friday, December 19, 2014

Meet the Kentile K

When the Kentile Floors sign came down from the skyline of Brooklyn earlier this year, the beloved letters were stashed away, in an undisclosed location in Gowanus, where they await their new life.

Tonight at 5pm, you can get up close and cozy with the letter "K" -- and even have your photo taken with it -- at the Gowanus Alliance's "Kristmas" party.

A rep from Gowanus Alliance tells me:

"The letters are kept in a safe warehouse, waiting for donation paperwork to be completed and for final evaluation before repair work begins. Tonight, we only have the letter K to display--and to let everyone know that the Kentile sign is not forgotten nor forsaken. We hope to start the restoration process very soon, and look forward to community input on the sign's final location. It is not likely that the sign will end up on a roof of a building, due to current building codes and regulations. It is going to be installed in a public area, perhaps a promenade or a park. That decision will be brought before a community discussion forum. A website is in the works."

Joey Arias: Christmas with the Crawfords

The following is a guest post by Romy Ashby, who runs the excellent blog "Walkers in the City."

The Henry Street Settlement - Abrons Art Center has the best Christmas show in town right now with Joey Arias: Christmas with the Crawfords, dazzling audiences with a fabulous cast in the gorgeous old theater on Grand Street. When Joey, who has spent a lot of time on that stage, was asked not long ago to do something at Abrons this December, he suggested doing the show, which was recently summed up this way by The New York Times: “Joey Arias joins up with San Francisco's Artfull Circle Theatre to make NYC's Yuletide ever so gay in this all-singing, all-dancing, holiday extravaganza. Based on the infamous Christmas Eve radio broadcast from the Crawford family's Brentwood mansion, Christmas With the Crawfords features Joan, the children, and a stellar line up of Hollywood icons in a hilarious parody of -- and homage to -- the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood.”

Following is my short chat with the wonderful Joey Arias—a most down-to-earth and friendly star—done over the telephone:

In the Christmas show you play Joan Crawford. Were you a Joan Crawford fan yourself?

No not at all! I love her work, but I never read the books or followed her. So when I got the part I watched Mildred Pierce four times to study her movements, her face, her hands. I think Joan Crawford was groomed beautifully by Hollywood; the happy Hollywood story of going from nothing to something. And she went with it. She never stopped working until she died. Her daughter would say, ‘Stop! You’re a star and these movies you’re taking now are schlock!” But Joan would say, “It’s a role and I’m doing it. I don’t want people to forget me.”

The last time I did this role was in 2002 and I joined the Cirque du Soleil right after that. And it’s exciting to play this character. For the new generation, who doesn’t have a clue about old movies or most of these characters, it’s a light into the darkness to turn them on to what that world was like, to show that these were real people in addition to all the glamour and falsehood, the screen smoke and mirrors that were put on people’s faces who were groomed for the public. When Joan Crawford’s daughter wrote that book, Mommy Dearest, all the smoke and mirrors were shattered.

When you first came to live here in 1976, New York was a different city. What about it did you find most appealing?

I found the corruption, the drug dealers, the hookers, the city falling apart and the glamour—hand in hand—so thrilling! You were really able to fulfill your dream then, and whatever you wanted was really kind of at hand—if you worked hard enough.

And what did you want?

I wanted to meet Andy Warhol and change my life! I remember closing my eyes and saying, “City, whatever you want me to do, please guide me.” And of course I worked at it too. I wound up getting a job at Fiorucci, which had just opened, and I was right in the middle of all the hubbub. And my dream came true! Andy Warhol came in and he wanted to meet me! And from then on, everything just fell into place.

How easy was it to do shows without much money when you first came?

Oh, it was the old saying with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney: “Let’s go to the garage and put a show on!”

And were there plenty of free "garages" available?

Oh, yeah! Downtown, the Lower East Side, there was the Mudd Club and of course we had Club 57 on St. Mark's Place, which Ann Magnuson started with Susan Hannaford. It started as the Monster Movie Club once a week and everyone had such a good time we just continued with theme parties and shows, and it was our neighborhood hangout. That was where Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat got their starts, and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and Lypsinka, everybody started there.

Having kept the same apartment on 10th Street and University since 1976, is your house a time capsule of an older New York?

Oh it is! It’s very old New York! When Klaus Nomi passed away I got a lot of his furniture, and there are little things here and there, pieces of art by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel and Andy Warhol and Kenny Scharf, oh, my God, it really is a History House!

To ask the opposite question of what you found most appealing, what do you feel most sorry about in New York as it is now?

I’m sorry that there is greed and corporations, that that Giuliani flipped it over to make it clean and accessible to that generation of people who are afraid to walk in the mud. The corruption is still around, but corruption wears ties now.

Despite the sad changes, do you have a favorite thing to do in New York?

I love to walk the streets and just bump into people. I love to meet people in the street—people that I know and strangers—and have conversations standing on the street corner. I love that. I’ll go out to the store to pick something up and then find myself just going for a walk. And the next thing I know, I’ll be having a conversation with an old friend or a new friend on the sidewalk. And now that I’ve become known, strangers stop me and say, “I love you! You’re so exciting! I came to see you, and that’s why I’m in New York!” And I’ll think, Oh, they’re just like me, the way I was with Andy Warhol! Now I find myself in that position; as the keeper of the flame.

Years ago, when you were publishing little interviews with interesting characters in Paper Magazine, I laughed at one of your questions to Debbie Harry (and her answer) which I will ask you now: What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?

Make coffee.

What did Debbie say?

She said “Pee.”

Christmas with the Crawfords runs through December 27th, and stars Joey Arias as Joan Crawford, Chris March as Christina and a stellar cast of co-stars featuring Sherry Vine and Chris Mirto.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Save New York

For the past dozen years, more than ever, New York City has been dying. It's getting murdered by rising rents, suburbanization, rampant development, and an unrestrained flood of chain businesses. Bloomberg actively encouraged this. Bill de Blasio promised to heal the tale of two cities, but nothing has yet been done to protect our small businesses from the filthy, bottomless greed of landlords.

New York's small businesses have been dropping like flies. We are losing the city block by block. The stunning loss of Cafe Edison, after a major fight from community members and politicians, including the mayor, shows us that we are powerless without legislation to back us up. If we can lose Cafe Edison, we can lose everything. And we are losing everything.

Shopping local only goes so far when landlords routinely double, triple, and quadruple commercial rents, or simply deny a lease to their long-term business tenants. We can buy all the books, booze, and bowls of matzo ball soup we want, but without legislation and regulation we are powerless against the landlords. And forget about appealing to their "humanity." It does not exist.

We must start organizing--not just to save one small business, one at a time, but to protect them all at once. We must demand that the City fix this problem immediately. No more waiting around for it to get better. No more denial. No more asking nicely. No more bullshit.

Stereotype Design

Here are a handful of steps that I believe will help:

1. Pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act to create fair negotiations of commercial lease renewals, so landlords can’t use insane rent hikes to evict dependable and beloved business people.

-Read more about the bill here
-Click here to find your local council members -- call and write, tell them to pass this bill NOW
-Tweet your local council member, @NYCCouncil, and @MMViverito every day telling them to pass SBJSA

2. Start a Cultural Landmarks program. While general commercial rent control may be unworkable, we can protect what little remains of the city’s oldest and most beloved small businesses by creating a selective rent control program. Rent control can be gifted to businesses that qualify for Cultural Landmarking. Local communities can nominate the businesses they want to protect. San Francisco is leading the charge in this department--see SF Heritage for how they're doing it.

3. Control the spread of chain businesses. Again, City Hall must follow the example of San Francisco, where the city controls “formula retail." If Giuliani could keep adult businesses from operating near one another, then de Blasio can keep national chains from doing the same. A few chains are not a problem, but New York is strangling in them. They drive up rents, contributing to the eviction of small businesses, as they destroy the unique character of the urban landscape, turning the city into Anywhere, USA.

-See what San Francisco is doing here.

4. Take the million-dollar tax breaks away from Big Business and give them to Mom and Pop — and to Grandma and Grandpa.

Businesses that own their buildings, like 110-year-old DeRobertis Pasticceria, are not safe either. Let's stop fooling ourselves with that one. They struggle with sky-high water bills and a Kafkaesque Department of Health that is lousy with corruption. They often don't know how to market themselves in the new age of social media, and they're being bled alive by encroaching chains. Tax breaks, lower fees for violations, and help with creative marketing would go a long way.

On the DOH issue: Why are small businesses penalized at the same rate as multinational corporate chains? Penalties should not be one size fits all. The system is rigged. Fix it.

5. And give fines to landlords who leave commercial spaces vacant, creating blight and blocking out small business people while they wait for the right sky-high price.

In 2008, writing on the death of bohemian Greenwich Village, author Christopher Hitchens put it well: “On the day when everywhere looks like everywhere else we shall all be very much impoverished, and not only that but — more impoverishingly still — we will be unable to express or even understand or depict what we have lost.”

It is time to take action and to demand action from our city government. Save New York!

Start now:
1. Copy and paste the text from this post, edit it to your liking, and then mail it, email it, tweet it to Mayor Bill de Blasio and your local councilmember. Send it to Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and to Public Advocate Letitia James

Councilmember Corey Johnson, State Senator Brad Hoylman, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried are strong allies in this fight. Contact them and let them know you want these changes NOW and you will give them your support in this fight.

2. Join the Save New York Facebook page to start organizing with other New Yorkers today.

3. Use the hashtag #‎SaveNYC‬ when you tweet. Change your Twitter and Facebook profile pic to the image below.

4. Get angry!

(ripped from a Time Out New York cover)

How Do You Sleep?

This note was left on Cafe Edison's counter last night. It was written by an unknown writer and, while s/he gets the addressee wrong, it's clearly written to the owner of the Edison Hotel, Gerald Barad:

The writer says (slightly copyedited): "Today is Wed., Dec 17, the last time the Theater Workers will eat in here. It's too bad you had to do such a greedy thing. That is why owners do these things, right? We send theater people before the show here all the time. Why? Because it's good and affordable. The new restaurants are never affordable anywhere! We will make sure not to recommend the new place. This was the place to go, but not anymore. It was a landmark until you got greedy. One more thing: How do you sleep at night knowing what you have done to all of Broadway?"

Maybe we can add this one to Ira Glass' collection of letters to Gerald Barad.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cafe Edison Is Closing

I am heartbroken to have to share the news that the fight to save Cafe Edison has not been successful.

Their last day of business will be this Sunday, December 21. They say they'll stay open that night "until the last person leaves."

photo: Tim Schreier

I just spoke to Jordan Strohl, grandson and son and of the owners. He told me that the owner of the hotel, Gerald Barad, is not responding at this point and they have no choice but to shut down. "People are walking out of here crying," he said of his customers, who have been hearing the news over dinner tonight. He said that the city government tried its best, but in the end, "There's nothing they can legally do. We are out of options."

His family is optimistic that they will find a new space. "We lost the fight," he said, "but we did not lose the battle. Six weeks ago, we would have just shut down, but the campaign to Save Cafe Edison re-inspired my family. We are committed to reopening in a new space, and to bringing our food and our family warmth back to the city. A thousand thank-yous to everyone. We cannot say thank you enough."

He adds, "This is not goodbye. It's see you later."

We fought hard, but the forces of greed are too strong in this city, and our small businesses are completely unprotected. The soul of New York, once again, is being destroyed, piece by piece.

It's true that the City can do nothing legally to protect Cafe Edison--or any other small business. And that's why we must change the laws. Without legislation to protect our cultural landmarks, we are powerless to preserve them. They will keep vanishing. Even when we break our necks to save them.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the fight. You all made a difference over these past weeks. And, yes, we will have one last Lunch Mob.

Here's how it happened:

11/6: Thanks to two tipsters, I broke the news here about Cafe Edison's forced closure. The story spread far and wide, and many followed up, from the New York Times to the BBC. Jason Bratton launched a petition, now with nearly 10,000 signatures. The #SaveCafeEdison hashtag appeared on Twitter.

11/8: First Lunch Mob at the coffee shop--600 supporters showed up. People brought signs and showed the city that we were serious. The mob was covered by the press, including NBC News. That night I started the Save Cafe Edison Facebook group--now with nearly 600 members, including a core group of creative, active people who regularly share ideas and make things happen.

11/14: Thanks to group member Kathleen Vestuto for reaching out, we got a letter of support from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, asking landlord Gerald Barad to give Cafe Edison a lease.

11/15 and 11/16: We held two more Lunch Mobs. Group member Tom Klem got magicians from the famous Magicians Table to entertain diners on Saturday. On Sunday, the Bergen County Players presented scenes from Neil Simon’s “45 Seconds from Broadway." Tony and Emmy Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Dori Berinstein began filming a documentary about Cafe Edison and the fight to save it.

11/18: New York State Senator Brad Hoylman wrote a letter asking landlord Gerald Barad to give Cafe Edison a lease.

11/19:  Manhattan District 3 Council Member Corey Johnson got in the fight with a letter to Barad and a pledge of support to Cafe Edison.

11/20: We held a Dinner Mob with a klezmer band arranged by Save Cafe Edison group member and klezmer professional Eve Sicular.

11/24: NEWSical the Musical's producers made a video in support of Cafe Edison, starring "Liza Minnelli" and "Larry King."

11/25: The story went global on BBC radio.

11/29: We held a Small Business Saturday Lunch Mob with Liza and Larry.

12/2: Assemblyman Richard Gottfried sent a letter to landlord Gerald Barad.

12/5: Mayor Bill de Blasio joined the fight to Save Cafe Edison and promised that his team would do "everything it can."

12/7: We staged a rally and press conference at Cafe Edison with community members, politicians, and holiday carolers. Rousing speeches were made. The story went global on NPR's "All Things Considered." Ira Glass, from This American Life, started a communal letter to Hotel Edison's owner Gerald Barad, asking him to keep the Cafe Edison.

Dream Palace

Sherill Tippins' "Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of the Legendary Chelsea Hotel" recently came out in paperback. I asked Sherill a few questions.

What about the Chelsea Hotel was important to the bohemian city throughout history?

The Chelsea was created in defiance of, and as a corrective to, the Gilded-Age culture in which it was born. Originally a cooperative (in the old, idealistic sense), it was uniquely designed to accommodate residents with a wide range of backgrounds and financial circumstances--people who had in common only a willingness to experiment and a desire to simplify the basics of life –housing costs, home maintenance, etc.—in order to live a freer, more creative existence. Artists were attracted by the large studios on the top floor; actors, writers and musicians by the theater and the drama school that the owner established nearby; art collectors and philanthropists to the artists and intellectuals already in residence; and ordinary working people and out-of-town visitors by its convenient location in what was then the beating heart of the city.

So from its first days, the Chelsea became known for its open, diverse, creative culture, maintained in implicit opposition to mainstream New York. Its reputation as a place where Isadora Duncan danced and Antonín Dvořák’s students composed attracted more countercultural artists with each generation, particularly as its room rates dropped during the Depression years and beyond. Bohemians like Spoon River Anthology author Edgar Lee Masters and “ash can” artist John Sloan were willing to ignore bedbugs and worn carpets in exchange for interesting neighbors, a permissive atmosphere and a lenient landlord, and word spread to such younger artists as Thomas Wolfe, Willem De Kooning, Bob Dylan, William Burroughs, and Patti Smith that here was a haven from the city’s capitalist fever-dream – a place to reflect on the city outside and process its energy into useful art. This became a global process as American artists made connections overseas, bringing Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, the French Nouveau Réaliste artists and others into the Hotel Chelsea mix.

By the 1960s, the Chelsea became known as the Waldorf-Astoria of downtown New York – the respectable if slightly shabby headquarters for those bohemians who could afford it or who could travel up from the East Village for projects and events. It became a figurehead for bohemia, a symbol of the importance of bohemian values in both interpreting and tempering the worst excesses of the city’s market culture. In a sense, it served as a kind of conscience for the city, reminding the rest of us that New York wouldn’t be the city we loved without the diversity, acceptance, and willingness to experiment that its population has always exemplified.

What did the city lose when the Chelsea lost the Bards?

The Bard family, who took over the hotel during the Depression years as part of a syndicate of investors, quickly came to appreciate the hotel’s reputation as a bohemian nexus, not only as a cultural and historical asset but also as a financial one. It was this creative climate that kept the occupancy rate high, not spa services and 400-thread-count sheets. As long as guests were left alone to paint, write, rehearse, make love, throw furniture, or smoke pot in their rooms, and to occasionally postpone rent payments until money from a play or a painting came in, they would continue to flock to the hotel regardless of whether money was spent on upgrading the building.

That idea--that it’s creative energy, not money, that really powers New York --has gotten lost in the years since the “last Bard,” Hotel Chelsea co-owner and manager Stanley Bard, was ejected by the board of directors a half-dozen years ago. These days, hotel owners lavish their guests with rooftop bars and roped-off VIP spaces, while the city dispenses tax breaks to financial firms and absentee luxury-condo dwellers, all in the expectation that luxury breeds success. But without diversity– and without the creatives who feed on a diverse population and process its ideas – there is no New York.

At this point, what's in store for the future of the hotel?

The Chelsea’s new owner, Ed Scheetz, has expressed sincere passion for the history of the hotel and has announced his intention to recreate its original environment “conducive to individuality, authenticity, creativity, and community.” It’s difficult to see how one can transform a former utopian-minded cooperative turned bohemian enclave into a profit-making luxury hotel without sacrificing just that authentic spirit that Scheetz claims to want to preserve, considering the enormous financial investment required to bring the Chelsea up to par, but it’s an experiment worth watching. Reportedly, the new Chelsea will include a mix of room sizes and prices, a performance space and library on the ground floor, a fellowship program to house a half-dozen or so visiting artists at a time, and other features aimed at maintaining the hotel’s reputation as a haven for the arts. Can such artificially-introduced features take root in this new gilded age, as they did the first time? We’ll have to wait and see.

How do you think the new Hotel Chelsea fits in with the new Chelsea neighborhood?

The fate of the Chelsea resembles that of the High Line to a great degree, in my opinion. All evidence points to the hotel’s recreation as a shinier, more attractive, and much more expensive version of its older self. This has its advantages and disadvantages: tourists love safe, pretty, well-designed and efficient places, while locals tend to regret the “real” landmarks they knew and loved in the past, and resent the rise in prices as luxury properties proliferate.

I expect that the new Hotel Chelsea will serve as a figurehead for this new gilded-age stage in the neighborhood’s and city’s development – a symbol, once again, of the city’s cultural climate, and an indicator of its health as a creative nexus. If it turns out that the new Chelsea strikes many of us as sanitized, soulless, and overpriced, well, New York has always gotten the Chelsea Hotel it has deserved. In any case, I still have faith in the building’s ability over the long term to survive whatever changes come its way, and to bend gradually toward its purpose in spite of its owner’s good intentions. Economic booms and busts come and go, and with them new opportunities for innovation.

Is a Chelsea Hotel, filled with artists and eccentrics, still possible in New York City today? If so, where?

Certainly, in a borough where rents aren’t as high as in Manhattan, a “Chelsea Hotel” based on the Chelsea’s original precepts could be created, with serious effort and city support. One would have to return to the basics of a traditional cooperative – forming a “club” of founding members who would pool resources to purchase property, design it for their own purposes, and carefully select other residents and renters willing to respect a delineated set of rules. Some writers and artists have done something similar with small B&Bs, in Brooklyn for example. A larger cooperative would realize greater economy of scale and so could be even more effective. With Mayor De Blasio in place, and with the crisis of unaffordable housing so prominent in the city’s consciousness these days, now might be an excellent time for New York artists to study the Chelsea’s original plan and create something similar for this century. I say, follow the example of Hotel Chelsea creator Philip Hubert and ask ourselves, “Why not?”

Sherill is currently at work a book about the history and potential future of the New York Public Library. Find out more about her books here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

HUB Cycles


George Bliss has lived in New York City for 37 years and, for much of that time, he’s been a passionate bike advocate, credited with coining the term “critical mass.” Since 1995, he has designed, built, repaired, rented, and sold bicycles of all kinds. For the past decade, he’s run a shop in Greenwich Village, currently known as HUB Cycles on Charles Street.

I talked to George a couple of weeks ago when I learned from a reader that HUB will soon be closing, another victim of the city's corporatization.

Bliss blames Citibike.

*UPDATE: There will be a press conference today:

139 Charles St., btwn Charles & Washington St., The West Village
Contact George Bliss: 212- 965-9334 • Please Come and support the HUB"

photo credit: Emilie Ross

“I can’t do it anymore,” says Bliss. “Citibike is surrounding us and cutting into our revenues.”

Surrounded is right. There are five Citibike stations within five blocks of HUB, Bliss explains. And since Citibike came to town just a year and a half ago, the shop’s income has dropped by 50 percent.

Locals who used to rent the bikes at HUB now ride Citibikes, and there’s no trickle-down effect. It’s not just the rental business that has been severely impacted, HUB’s sales and repair services have also been hurt.

“It’s a monopoly,” says Bliss. “The city government has installed a monopoly. I can’t compete.”

“The New Yorker in me is affronted by this. It’s okay to have people carrying a corporate ad through the streets? It would be like having Walmart Avenue or McDonald’s Bridge or Google Park. What’s the difference?”

Bliss would like to see the corporate logos come off the bike share program and for the costs to be paid by fees, not by corporate subsidies that can rent the bikes at far below market value, making it impossible for locals to compete.

He says, “The small local businesses that built the bike culture should not be forced out by this weed. Citibike is an invasive species.”

HUB will close shop this month. From there, Bliss plans to put his energy into organizing the city’s local bike shops—to put an end to the rolling blue billboards.

Bliss also spoke to The Villager newspaper--read there for more.