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.

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.

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.

Rob Rosa, whose family has owned the legitimate bodega on the corner of 12th Street and Avenue B for 15 years, also appreciates the police presence, if not the potential Big Brother menace it entails: "I used to have to call the cops every day to get the drug dealers away from the front of my store. Now they're gone for good."

Unfortunately, the new Avenue B, with its gaggle of upscale businesses and condos, has increased more than the number of plainclothes policemen on Avenue B: it has also made the property values skyrocket. David Brockman, who opened Honeymoon Antiques on Avenue B near 7th Street a year ago, says: "I still think the East Village has the same grimy unpleasantness that it had before, but rents are really high now." He tells a story of moving out of his $450-per-month apartment three years ago, and then moving into the same size apartment across the hall one year later— paying two to three times more. As Tower Brokerage's Bob Perl puts it: "To buy an apartment in this neighborhood, unless you've bought in del Este, you'd have to be earning six figures a year."

Perhaps Lakeside's Jim Marshall put his finger most pointedly on the bittersweetness of gentrification on the Lower East Side when he said: "Avenue B is dead as a creative entity. I can't say it makes me happy to see that disappear."

Avenue B runs through the heart of a neighborhood that has perhaps seen too many waves of immigration, too much armed conflict, and too much mass exodus. The Lower East Side is one of the places that gave the term "melting pot" its original meaning, and as such it spawned a vibrant, densely multicultural environment. But that culture, which has slowly but surely been all but lost under this most recent push toward gentrification, will likely give way to something far more vanilla and blandly all-American. So, as building and commerce proceed apace on the new Avenue B, nostalgic onlookers mourn the impending loss of a neighborhood that is both flowering and in danger of losing its soul.

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