B Is For Bistro

The Bittersweet Transformation of Avenue B

It's true that most of Alphabet City's Latino population has been excluded from the boom on Avenue B: they can't afford to drink in the bars, eat in the restaurants, or shop in the boutiques. Worst of all, they lost their beloved community center Charas/El Bohio Cultural at auction last July, a catastrophe that couldn't help but feel symbolic of the Latino community's eroding hold on the neighborhood. In a further blow, Charas's most outspoken activist, former director Armando Perez, was brutally murdered. Locals felt strongly that the investigation into Perez's death was mishandled from the beginning. As Kaufman says, "Some people in the community thought that this was intentional and politically motivated, because he was a political enemy of the city administration and a sharp critic of the mayor."

In a neighborhood that has seen its fair share of internecine struggles, the battle for real estate and influence is not cut-and-dried. This is not just a case of yuppies versus Hispanics, or homogenous locals versus outsiders. A lot of Alphabet City residents of all races feel that the interests of the community are being served by del Este and the new restaurants, bars, and boutiques that have grown up around it. In fact, according to del Este's promotional information, which is still available on the Web (www.delestevillage.com), del Este is not a bastion for the rich. All of the units, most of which are at least 1050 square feet, have already been sold for somewhere between $104,000 and $158,000, which is "at least 40 percent below the market price," says Tower Brokerage's Bob Perl. To purchase a del Este condo, each applicant had to have an annual household income between $30,000 and $70,950.

According to Capoccia, del Este buyers are not only not rich, they're also not outsiders. Sixty to 70 of the total 98 del Este condos were sold to community residents. The incomes of del Este's owners break down as follows: 15 percent have annual incomes of $30,000; 24 percent make $40,000 or less; 36 percent make $40,000 to $50,000; and 25 percent make $60,000 to $70,000. Again, according to Capoccia, del Este owners are also ethnically diverse. Forty-nine percent are white; 17 percent are Asian; 13 percent are Latino; 10 percent are black; and 11 percent are other.

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.

The same is true of most of Avenue B's new business owners: they're ethnically diverse, they're not rich, and they live in the neighborhood. Peter Dupré, for example— the former owner of the famous Upper West Side eatery Amsterdam's, who now owns Radio Perfecto, the wildly popular rotisserie and garden at 190 Avenue B near 12th Street— has been living on 10th Street between avenues A and B for the past several years. Radio Perfecto has been so successful that Dupré is expanding the dining room into the shopfront on his left, and plans to take over the space on his right for a coffee/juice bar/tearoom/lounge that he's calling Potion.

Likewise, Dupré's friends John Spingola, punk rock legend Handsome Dick Manitoba, and old-time villager Jim Marshall— owners of the recently opened Boxcar Lounge, Manitoba's, and the slightly older Lakeside Lounge respectively— all live in the neighborhood and want their bars to cater primarily to local regulars. Just to make the point perfectly clear, a few weeks ago Marshall posted a sign outside the Lakeside that said: "Hey frat boy! Keep on Walkin'." But admonitions to frat boys aside, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Boxcar and the Lakeside, like the rest of the new establishments on Avenue B, are not filled with working-class Latinos. So when Dupré, Spingola, and Marshall talk about saving their joints for neighborhood people, they're really only talking about the white-slacker and the young-white-professional contingents.

But finding the balance between the squalor that used to be Avenue B and the circus that is now Avenue A won't be easy. Many of these new businesses are operating out of buildings that were once drug-peddling bodegas. The reminders of those days are everywhere. Jason Chalk and partner girlfriend Nikki DeLongis, who both live in Avenue B's famous luxury high-rise, the Christodora House, opened their nouvelle American bistro 26 Seats a month ago. The interior betrays nothing of its former purpose, except for a dislodgeable brick that hides an old drug cubby near the kitchen ceiling. When he was cleaning out the backyard at Radio Perfecto, Peter Dupré also found evidence of the neighborhood's old ways: hundreds of syringes buried in the soil.

"I live and work in the neighborhood," says Manitoba, "and I miss some things about the old days, but I would much rather see a clean park with baby strollers than a bunch of bums, drug addicts, and scuzzy people."

Jason Chalk, who gripes that "bridge and tunnel crowds are like locusts," who descend, forage, and leave behind masticated remains, admits that the success of 26 Seats will depend, to some degree, on increased foot traffic in the neighborhood. But he also realizes that a large part of the reason for that foot traffic is a dramatically more prevalent police presence on the block. Residents have seen plainclothes policemen posted on various rooftops around Alphabet City. And who could forget the helicopters that swarmed over the neighborhood several years ago, shining their high-powered searchlights directly into apartment windows? Jim Marshall says that a cop told him about a surveillance camera, much like those mounted around Washington Square Park, that lies hidden in a light fixture on the corner of Avenue B and 11th Street.

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