Friday, March 18, 2011

The Last Candy Store

If you grew up on the Upper West Side between 1950 and 1980 in the West 70s near Columbus Avenue you belong to a small tribe. You also recognize the following name as a trigger for memories of a neighborhood long gone: Joe's Candy Store.

A Verizon store now stands at the corner of West 75th Street and Columbus Avenue where Joe's commanded the block for almost three decades. Peel back the years, tear up the floors and strip away the many coats of paint, wallboard and fixtures and you might see what this little storefront was like thirty years ago.

Everyone made a stop at Joe Leibowitz's candy store at least once a day and everyone left with a lot more than just a sweet snack. It was the place to rush into for a newspaper then linger around the stacks of Daily News editions and New York Posts to catch up on neighborhood gossip with Joe and Mrs. Leibowitz. You might get updates about who died, news about a rent-controlled apartment being sublet for cheap, hear a joke, learn about someone's graduation, someone else's promotion. If you bought a new car, this was the corner to park and let regulars at Joe's, "The Neighborhood," ooh and ahh and maybe tease you a little bit: "A Jaguar, look at the big shot. Can I borrow a few dollars." "A Fiat! You mean a fix-it-again-Tony. Good luck!"

If it was a hot day it was the place to cool off at the magazine racks while getting yelled at - "What is this, a library." Egg creams were sipped at the formica counter lined with battered red stools. On rainy days neighbors would duck in, complaining about the weather, while shaking out umbrellas on the chipped tile floor. Damp newsprint filled the air on those days along with the scent of bubble gum, violet candies, rubber bands and everything else that made an old candy store feel so familiar.

In one way the corner of West 75th Street hasn't changed - it's still about communication. Today's version involves Verizon employees addressing your cell phone issues. A few decades ago it was Joe helping neighbors stay connected. Neighbors would leave messages for each other at the store and Joe made sure those messages were picked up. The old wooden phone booths in the back were filled with yellowed phone books and received a steady stream of crank calls but they also helped store patrons stay in touch. Someone might call to see if a friend was in the store. When Joe answered the caller would get a straightforward answer. If one of the neighborhood teens that made Joe's their hangout answered between rounds of playing street hockey, the caller would get an earful of silliness. Those boys - Joe, Louie, Jose, Meatball, Kenny, Jocko and more - loved, argued with, joked with and protected Joe Leibowitz and the old man returned it all with gusto.

The bartering system was alive and well along that strip of Columbus Avenue when Joe's Candy Store was around, a fact I discovered while helping my high school sweetheart fill in for Joe and Mrs. Leibowitz on occasional weekends. Simple things, like holding keys, providing change for laundry or holding that special parking space on the corner for a neighbor would be returned generously. Cheescakes from Miss Grimbles arrived with frequency as did gourmet sandwiches from the cheese shop a few doors down, pints of ice cream from the first Haagen Dazs in NYC, free t-shirts from a boutique on Columbus Avenue and an open invitation to borrow rollerskates any time from a sliver of a storefront next door.

Joe's Candy Store couldn't survive the commercial rent increases that gentrification brought to the Upper West Side in the 1980s. Efforts by Ruth Messinger, councilwoman for the Upper West Side at the time, were furiously backed by neighbors and fans of the Leibowitz's but in the end the store's rent jumped 300%. The Upper West Side lost it's last candy store and a neighborhood lost the simple little store that held its heart.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Little Rain, Much Architecture: The Highbridge Bronx Tour

When was the last time you strolled in the rain around a Bronx neighborhood looking for architectural gems within a few blocks of Yankee Stadium? A group of 12 weather-proof preservation conference attendees did just that last weekend, basking not in the sun but in the company of likeminded "history buffs and detail geeks." William Casari, assistant professor at Hostos Community College and a Bronx resident, was accurate when he defined himself and our group as such. He led us on a tour of Highbridge in the West Bronx that offered a close look at a borough's past and present through the prism of architecture.

The tour included a stop at Macombs Dam Park, which is now the site of the new Yankee Stadium. Next, we enjoyed an informative talk about Jerome Avenue’s finest buildings then a visit to Park Plaza Apartments, a building rich with Art Deco details and Mayan motifs. A climb up Jerome Slope offered a panoramic view of Highbridge plus the opportunity to explore the area further.

Every step seemed to offer an architectural detail to capture in a photo or a nuance about life in the Bronx. A stop at a “step street” became even more interesting when a man at Diaz Superette mentioned that an out-of-control car had once launched down its full length, landing in a pile on the sidewalk below. At Noonan Plaza, a series of 7-story apartment buildings designed by Horace Ginsbern and Marvin Fine, residents carried groceries and children past a group of visitors talking about what seems like an ordinary building. In a window a little girl sat peering down at a bare quadrangle that once boasted a waterfall, a reflecting pool, swans and a Japanese-style bridge.

Several times, neighbors stopped to ask with curiosity what we were looking at then offered hospitality – by opening a locked door or by offering permission to enter a lobby. Local residents seemed unaware of the not-so-obvious treasures in their communities but Morgan Powell, a guest on the tour, is making an effort to change that: he leads walking tours in the Bronx especially designed to inform and inspire residents with updated local history.

The variety of architectural styles found on every street in Highbridge was a source of constant delight during the tour as was the element of surprise. Again and again, behind the facades of worn buildings, Mr. Casari would reveal elegant marble vestibules, Art Deco mirrors, antique signage, terrazzo floors and, in one case, the luxury of open space in a double height lobby.

Rain and high winds didn’t hamper 12 intrepid New Yorkers last week. Our enthusiasm was well-rewarded in a borough whose significance and beauty are frequently overlooked.

The following are images from that tour. Enjoy then visit and for details about upcoming tours and events.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Part II: Strategies and Fervor at the 17th Annual Preservation Conference

Part II

Just when the auditorium at St. Francis College was starting to feel overly warm and most of the audience seemed in need of a good stretch after three information-packed presentations, the featured speakers of the 17th Annual Preservation Conference took the stage for a round-table discussion.

Any thoughts of stepping out of the session for a short break evaporated the moment Otis Pearsall, who was key in assuring that Brooklyn Heights achieved historic district status in 1965*, asked how many people in the audience that morning were from Brooklyn Heights. The answer, zero (other than he and Carol Clark, a respondent who is associated with both Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture and Pratt Institute’s Graduate Program) was exactly what he had expected. “Even in the birthplace of the New York preservation movement there is no longer a sense of preservation…there is no fervor left!” he boomed. His words sent a charge through the room.

“The revolutionary fervor of the indigenous population is an absolute requirement to accomplish historic districting.” Mr. Pearsall said. His record as an effective, award-winning preservation advocate and his own demonstrated fervor made his words resonate as both wisdom and fact. “They’re (developers) are talking about jobs and we’re talking about aesthetics – who do you think will win.” In order to convince developers of the value of preservation, he continued, advocates must, “develop the sustainability story” and focus the arguments on economic benefits.

A lively round-table discussion led right into a networking lunch where attendees exchanged preservation goals and strategies. At one table, Judith Berdy, President of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, renewed this writer’s faith in the power of one after she shared an anecdote about a trolley kiosk** that became one of many NYC preservation success stories.

Kate Wood, Executive Director of Landmark West!, an organization that has worked since 1985 to achieve landmark status for buildings and historic districts on the Upper West Side, presented a history*** of the organization she spearheads while outlining the strategies that are most effective today. Her presentation ranged from the benefits of using social networking - “A great friend to advocacy.” – to the need for establishing early dialogues with key decision makers; building strategic alliances throughout a community and creating messages that incorporate the economic and sustainability benefits of preservation. Another key point of her message, the fact that preservationists are "Keeping the past for the future." came with a note of caution: “Don’t take for granted that any building is permanent” even if it has been landmarked: preservation is an ongoing process that “only ends when a building is demolished.”

Anti-preservationists worry that historical districting can lead to economic stagnation or lend a stullifying "preserved in amber" atmosphere to a community. A walk along the streets of Brooklyn Heights dispells that concern. On the Saturday afternoon of the preservation conference, thousands of locals and tourists bustled along sidewalks and a promenade protected by the efforts of a small but mighty preservation community meeting only a few blocks away.

Part III: A Preservation Weekend Tour of Highbridge Architecture in the Bronx

* Brooklyn Heights: The Story of New York’s First Historic District

** A trolley kiosk made in 1909 now serves as the Roosevelt Island Historical Society Visitor’s Center thanks to efforts initiated by one advocate.

*** History of Landmark West!, the Upper West Side and its preservation movement

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Part I: NYC's Preservation Community Gathers in Brooklyn

Morning in Brooklyn Heights seemed to promise a perfect New York Saturday. The spring-like weather was already drawing early risers to Brooklyn Bridge Park and Montague Street as preservation advocates arrived at St. Francis College for the Historic Districts Council’s 17th Annual Preservation Conference. After a brief session of networking over a continental breakfast the event began with an introduction by Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. Hismessage underscored one of the main themes of the day: “Private property is a public good.”

Francis Morrone, a historian and cultural journalist, introduced his presentation on the politics of preservation in New York City with a humorous look at the daunting task before him, “Covering forty years of history in forty minutes.” With that he was off, moving swiftly through the tumultuous events that shaped a metropolis once recognized as, “The most powerful city in the world by every measurement.” As he spoke he seemed to embody the physicality, passion and precision of an orchestra conductor. Laughter filled the auditorium when he described the rebranding of New York into “Luxury City” - a process that has recently involved, “Policing anything that might offend a visiting hedge fund manager.”

The founder of the graduate historic preservation program at Pratt Institute in New York City was the second speaker of the day. Eric Allison, Ph.D, had a subdued presentation style that only sharpened the emotional impact of his words. He revisited some of the city’s most heartbreaking preservation losses. Gasps could be heard around the auditorium when he shared an image of the Helen Hayes Theater in mid-demolition, as if seeing the photo again renewed the shock of losing the treasured landmark. Silence and stillness met the images that followed - Luchow’s at its peak; the Central Park Children’s Zoo in its original, whimsical state. As the presentation continued tears were furtively brushed away from behind glasses and hushed sniffles could be heard throughout the audience.

A complete history of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city agency mandated to designate and regulate New York’s historic buildings and sites, was delivered by Marjorie Pearson, Ph.D, an architectural historian and historic preservation consultant who served for 20 years as director of research at the LPC. The presentation covered what was arguably preservation’s Golden Period - those early years when impromptu meetings could take place between the preservation community and the LPC – then moved to the present, a time when “refusals to meet are frequent and demolitions take place while landmark preservation hearings are being held.” The news about the current pro-development status of the LPC was not encouraging but Ms. Pearson’s review of landmark history brought to the fore the many times that a vulnerable New York City building has been championed and then saved by the efforts of just a single advocate – a great reminder of the power of one within the preservation movement.

Part II: “Fervor and New Strategies for the Preservation Community”