B Is For Bistro

The Bittersweet Transformation of Avenue B

Four years ago the NYPD rolled a tank onto Avenue B to squelch the squatters' uprising on East 13th Street. Today it's not uncommon to see a Mercedes, a BMW, a Lexus, or a limo cruising the same block. In the summer of 1995, police in riot gear were a common sight in Alphabet City. Now this neighborhood, once infamous for its heroin and crack trade, is crawling with yuppies in search of libations and quasi haute cuisine in one of the many spanking new bistros and chic bars that have sprouted here in the last few years. Since Cafe Margaux opened on the corner of 11th Street and Avenue B in the fall of 1996, similar trendy upscale venues like Casimir (between 6th and 7th streets), Pierrot (between 2nd and 3rd streets), and Mesopotamia (also between 6th and 7th streets) have contributed their share of glitz to the strip south of Tompkins Square Park.

At least 21 new businesses have opened on Avenue B since last summer, including such high-end Soho-style shops as Amaran, the Indonesian furniture and housewares store that just appeared on the corner of 7th Street and Avenue B, where there's an antique Javanese doorway worth $68,000 on display. Then there are such pricey coiffeurs as Parlor (Avenue B, between 6th and 7th streets), where haircuts start at $70.

As local real estate veteran Bob Perl says, "The rough edge of this neighborhood is rapidly disappearing." And he's right. Symbolically enough, Charlie Parker's former residence on Avenue B is now a plaqued historic site. With its new population of suited professionals that can be seen walking their dogs before work on weekday mornings, Avenue B is showing signs of becoming as blandly homogenized as other successfully gentrified neighborhoods. It may have already lost forever that bohemian cachet that Jonathan Larson eulogized so nauseatingly in his smash musical Rent. The transformation of the Lower East Side has been happening in fits and starts for a long time. The Tompkins Square Park riots in 1988 made gentrifiers and various factions in the neighborhood public. But this latest wave of gentrification has been far less visible. This time, however, the neighborhood's cleaner face seems finally to have taken hold. But maintaining such improvements doesn't happen without sacrificing the neighborhood's formerly low rents, and forcing out those who can't foot the bill. In some ways it's a typical gentrification story. But the Lower East Side's population is too varied and has been through too many different turf wars for the process to go smoothly. Though most locals agree that their neighborhood is a better place to live in than it was four years ago, not everyone is happy about the upscaling of Avenue B or the influx of frat boys that seems to be coming with it.

Distress signals: local graffiti suggests not everyone is happy about the upscaling of Avenue B.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
Distress signals: local graffiti suggests not everyone is happy about the upscaling of Avenue B.

If you need proof of the changing times, just look at the once embattled squats at 535 through 545 East 13th Street, which have been completely refurbished and rented. Among neighborhood insiders they're known as just another "Capoccia property." Donald Capoccia, of BFC Construction, is the sharky developer responsible for razing and refurbishing a number of sites in the East Village in the last 15 years. Much despised and maligned by local gardeners for buying their lots out from under them to make way for new condos, Capoccia is referred to by East 7th Street's community gardeners as the "serial garden killer."

Capoccia is at the forefront of the East Village's latest and most talked about housing project: del Este Village. Del Este is a cluster of six brand-new buildings (comprising 98 condominiums) scattered between avenues A and C and between 10th and 14th streets. None of the sites is yet inhabited, but construction is almost completed at del Este site number three, on the corner of East 11th Street and Avenue B, and buyers will be moving in next month. Spray painted on one of the interior cinder block walls, you can make out the emphatic signs of residential discontent that have surrounded del Este since its inception. "Stop the destroyers. It's our city," screams one wall. "More homes, less corporate developers," chides another.

The cry for more homes is one that local politicians like Assemblyman Steven Sanders and City Council member Margarita Lopez have been raising for years on behalf of their poorer, mostly Latino constituents, who see del Este as a luxury product built for yuppie carpetbaggers. As Sanders's chief of staff Stephen Kaufman puts it: "People that have lived there a long time feel that if there's going to be new housing it should all be affordable, because of the scarcity of affordable housing. If you look at the demographics of the Lower East Side, particularly in the Latino community, you have a lot of single-parent families below the poverty level. This administration has . . . had a policy of selling off property without making the interests of the community a priority."

But when Kaufman talks about "the community" on the Lower East Side, it's impossible to know whether he's talking simply about the Latino community that has densely populated the area for the past two decades, whether he's talking about the various Jewish and Ukrainian working-class communities that once thrived here, or whether he's talking about the coterie of bohemians who came here as beatniks in the '50s and hippies in the '60s and '70s.

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