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June 13, 2007

Too Late/Not Without a Fight

Side One
Last week the New York Times profiled Sion Misrahi, a child of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, who has grown up to become that area’s resident powerbroker. The article, which charts his rise from young clothing shop proprietor to older building owner to middle-aged real estate dealer, details his change in attitude toward the neighborhood he grew up in. It describes his attempts in the early 1990s to get the city to refashion the Lower East Side as a historic district — something along the lines of the South Street Seaport. The plan failed, but as gentrification began to set in later in the decade, Misrahi saw the Lower East Side’s incredible economic potential and repositioned himself to help spur the process along. The result, as anyone who has been to the area in the last several years knows, has drastically refashioned the neighborhood.

Gone are many of the Lower East Side’s old hallmarks: Orchard Street’s discount clothing shops (once, in an era of New York City Blue Laws, the only stores open on Sundays); and most of the old-world–style Jewish food purveyors — dairies that served baked farmer’s cheese and bakeries that sold the knotted pumpernickel bagels often rhapsodized about by writer Calvin Trillin. Gone, also, are many of the newer hallmarks — the alternative playhouses, thrift shops, and record stores that came in the ‘90s: the bohemian first-wavers that often precede the full swell of gentrification. Many have been replaced with other businesses, such as bars, but whole buildings have been demolished as well to make way for progress. Misrahi’s biggest time-commitment in the last several years seems to have been brokering real estate deals for others, helping to wholly reshape the Lower East Side landscape. With high-rise buildings replacing one-story shops and parking lots, the skyline itself has changed. Aging tenement buildings are now overshadowed by their new neighbors: high-end hotels and apartment buildings bearing a distinctive, contemporary architectural style that looks dated almost as soon as construction is completed.

The Times article ends with Misrahi eating at Katz’s, the 119-year-old delicatessen that is surely one of the area’s most enduring businesses. Recently, rumors have circulated that the restaurant’s owners are considering selling their property — many real estate developers see vast potential in razing the one-story building at the corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets. Misrahi seems horrified by the idea. As he says in the article, “The soul of the Lower East Side will be ripped out” if Katz’s closes. He seems interested in brokering a deal that will allow Katz’s to remain as a Lower East Side establishment.

But the truth, as almost everyone watching the proceedings knows, is that it’s too late. Even if he manages to help stay the execution for a time, Katz’s will eventually close. At this point, there’s too much money to be made. And Misrahi may be the only one who fails to see that Katz’s closing — the ‘ripping out of the neighborhood’s soul’ — will be a direct result of the very changes that he has brought about.

Side Two
Another sign of how things are going in New York came last week, too. On Tuesday June 5, word spread quickly that this may be the last season to get Latin American food at the Soccer Fields of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Every weekend — for at least ten years, but perhaps even thirty — immigrants from various Latin American countries have set up temporary food stalls along the perimeter of the Red Hook Recreation Area to sell fruit, drinks, and freshly prepared food to the soccer players gathered there for league games. The horchata, pupusas, quesadillas, baleadas, and other delicacies available are some of the best Latin American food I have ever had in New York. Moreover, the atmosphere there — the mixture of people from different cultures, the intermingling sounds and smells as you wait for your food in the blazing summer sun — is unparalleled. Its overlapping of cultures may be the greatest evocation of New York’s true essence. Since first visiting several years ago, I now make the pilgrimage across Brooklyn to stuff myself often — about once a week during the season, which normally lasts from the last weekend in April until the end of October.

Naïvely, I now realize, I thought it would go on indefinitely.

According to reports by New York Magazine and The Village Voice last week, the Department of Parks and Recreation will not be renewing the food stall vendors’ Temporary Use Agreements, which have allowed them to set up in the park until now. Instead, the vendors will be allowed to stay only until September 8, and then the Department will open up bidding on the concession licenses. The implication, of course, is that the highest bidders — the companies with the most money to throw around, not the individual families who have been selling there for years — will win.

In retrospect, of course, I really should have seen this coming. Low mutterings have issued for several years about the great changes creeping into semi-desolate, out-of-the-way Red Hook. First the high-end Fairway Supermarket arrived, and then real estate prices crept to surprising heights — especially for a neighborhood off of the MTA subway system. And IKEA, the international retailer, tried for several years to establish a location in the neighborhood. Its store is now under construction on a quiet street three blocks from the bustle of the Soccer Fields.

Moreover, changes came to the Fields themselves. With more coverage in the local press last year, it was no surprise to see more visitors every weekend. To a certain extent, this is a good thing — although it means longer lines, and waits, it also ensures getting the most freshly prepared food, and means the vendors are making more money. But the Soccer Fields’ raised profile and steady crowds are probably what caught the attention of the city. This year, Opening Day was delayed by a week, and the vendors were directed to set up in a different place than in the past. Though these were small clues of the Department of Parks and Recreation’s intentions, the evidence now suggests the greater change ahead.

When the news broke last week, the city’s misguided meddling seemed like an attempt to control what had developed organically over time. By offering vending licenses to the highest bidder, the department would effectively sweep out the food vendors who had regularly brought large crowds to Red Hook. The mistaken belief that these crowds would continue coming — or that they would be replaced by legions of IKEA shoppers leaving the temperature-controlled megastore behind for a hot dog, a latte, and a relaxing stroll in the park — suggests a high degree of bureaucratic cluelessness.

Still, the situation in Red Hook, despite initial appearances to the contrary, might not be unsalvageable. Within hours of the news breaking last week, Soccer Fields fans had spread information on how to appeal to city officials about the situation across New York food blogs and internet message boards like Chowhound. If the city was going to try to drastically alter the Red Hook Soccer Fields, it was not going to happen without a fight. Because the park is a publicly held property, some people maintained, a large public outcry could affect the outcome.

Unsure of the park’s future, a group of us went to the Soccer Fields on Saturday afternoon to get in as many meals as we could before September 8. We were surprised to find short lines and no game in progress — the park seemed emptier, as if many regulars had already abandoned it. It took us a few minutes to realize that a big group had clustered in one area of the park. Relieved, we bought baleadas and wandered over. The commotion was actually a press conference by Senator Chuck Schumer (a Brooklyn resident), who was speaking to reporters and TV news crews in support of the food vendors.

As a U.S. senator rather than a local politician, Schumer may have little direct influence on the situation. Still, the quick mobilization displayed in getting his support — and the resultant media attention — suggests that the Soccer Fields might yet have a chance. It’s too soon to know how this will all turn out. But even with the changes that have already come to the neighborhood, Red Hook is not the Lower East Side. With enough public outcry, the Soccer Fields could still be saved.

About June 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Luxury Eats in June 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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