The cost of our city’s contradictory dedication to both bohemianism and unchecked greed is exposed in two new docs. David Sigal’s defiantly buoyant Florent: Queen of the Meat Market tracks the life and death of iconic Manhattan Meatpacking District restaurant Florent, while photographer Josef Astor’s Lost Bohemia offers a bleak blow-by-blow of the Carnegie Hall Studios’ transformation from creative haven to cubicle farm.
Worse news first. Astor was among the artists inhabiting the subsidized live-work studios above Carnegie Hall when, in 2007, its corporate and city government masters evicted most of the occupants in order to replace the apartments with office space. Astor documented the process over several months using an inexpensive video camera, and incorporates local news coverage of an ineffective resistance effort led by actor John Turturro into his footage. Lost Bohemia’s real power, though, is in the impromptu interviews Astor conducted with his neighbors, including fellow photographer Editta Sherman, singer Jeanne Beauvais, the New York Times’ Bill Cunningham (this episode was also briefly covered in Richard Press’s recent Bill Cunningham New York), and, most wrenchingly, Star Szarek, a homeless ballerina and studio squatter. The blinkered privilege Astor betrays by framing the studios’ demolition as a cultural near-apocalypse—plenty of New York artists live and work without institutional support, after all, and Cunningham for one makes a living wage—is forgivable under the circumstances: The majority of the disenfranchised are well into their 70s and 80s, and tossing them out in the last years of their lives amounts to nothing less than a moral crime.
Real estate mania triumphs in Florent: Queen of the Meat Market, too, although its opponent doesn’t go down without making some noise. Florent Morellet, owner of the 24-hour Gansevoort Street eatery that bore his name for 23 years, lost a 2008 rent battle as filmmaker David Sigal was in the midst of shooting a doc about the restaurant and its doggedly cheerful owner, staff, and clientele. Florent is an elegy purely by accident, then, and that helps it avoid becoming a morose lament for lost cultural totems (“New York is about change,” as Morellet acknowledges) in favor of a briskly paced, unself-consciously edited celebration that matches the giddy vibe of its namesake. Like Astor, Sigal has a gift for letting his subjects speak for themselves, and the result is an intimate portrait of a place where NYC’s LGBT community, neighborhood locals, not-infrequent celebrities—Julianne Moore, Isaac Mizrahi, Christo, and the Voice’s Michael Musto, among others, provide commentary—and just about anyone else could hang out (literally, in a couple of shots) and get some kicks. Florent’s closing, which culminates in a week-long, nose-thumbing party pegged to the five stages of grief, is nowhere near as upsetting as the repurposing of the Carnegie Hall Studios, but if it doesn’t strike you as a hit to the city’s once-legendary inclusiveness all the same, you probably got here too late.