City Ghosts: Gentrification, Dirty Old Town, Michael Jackson

Yesterday I attended the premiere screening of Dirty Old Town, a film shot in my hood starring people from my hood. The screening was in my hood as well—just around the way—at the Sunshine Cinema. The movie, from Jenner Furst, Daniel Blevin, and Julia Willoughby Nason, stars local heroes William Leroy of the Houston Street antiques hub Billy’s Antiques and Props, his partner in grime, Lorraine Leckie, former club god Nicholas De Cegli, and my man, Paul Sevigny. Another local hero, director Abel Ferrara, presents the flick. The story centers around Billy’s and its cast of real life and made-up characters. The plot is sort of irrelevant, like the plot in a porn flick. It’s a tale of Billy’s desperate attempt to raise loot to pay back rent, one that also features a hot junkie who steals, prostitutes, dirty cops, and robbers. All the usual and unusual suspects are on hand, including a bunch of the local dogs. The story seems a mere excuse for the sexy scenes of the streets— a life and a neighborhood—that is quickly being gentrified into folklore.

These sentiments are underlined as Billy laments, “How the fuck can you wear flip-flops on the Bowery?” as he watches the world go by. The texture of the neighborhood I live in now, Little Italy, is a Starbucks away from extinction. Some say it began when they started calling it Nolita so that yuppies wouldn’t be afraid of the gangsters. Others say the Ralph Lauren outpost at Prince and Mott signaled that the end was near. That turned out to be a false alarm, as the store blended in nicely, and the gossip, fears, and talks of migration ebbed. Then the new “bespoke” building at Elizabeth opened up a ton of conversions, and reconstructions brought the hood where it is today.

Today, “Nolita” hosts the old-world Italians, the hipster generation, and the newbie yuppies—all waiting in line for Ray’s Pizza, or side stepping European tourists who overrun the once quaint cafés and boutiques. For people like Clayton Patterson, who was the subject of the aforementioned filmmakers’ first flick, “Captured,” and a consultant on this one, gentrification of a hood, and its loss of character, is familiar. He and the other players and producers bring a street cred to this flick that is impossible to find. It is shot beautifully, capturing the essence of the street. It is more New York than any film I have seen. It’s much more street than Mean Streets, and makes Taxi Driver seem like it was shot in Ohio.

Old friend Nicholas De Cegli, who I know as Nicky D, lit up the flick as Billy’s good friend and cohort. A familiar face around town, Nicky D has been in a slew of films and has played pivotal roles in Abel Ferrara flicks like The Funeral and Bad Lieutenant. He almost steals the show, but that was left to Lorraine Leckie, who sings the folksy songs that tell the tale. However, my personal highlight was Paul Sevigny as Hans. Will Paul follow in the footsteps of Chloe, become an actor, and abandon us all, leaving us to bottle service bots and their Stepford waitrons? Will he be cavorting around in those hot red slacks that his character sported in the flick? Where does Hans begin and Paul end? I intended to ask these questions at the after party at Sweet and Vicious, or later, at the real deal after-after-party at Kenmare. But alas, the heat sent me packing to my air conditioned home to watch Fantastic Mr. Fox for the 12th time.

During the hop, skip, and jump from the theater to my pad I passed director Jim Jarmush, ex Collective Hardware honcho Stuart Bronstein, and a host of downtown denizens and legends, who where chatting about the film. As I passed Billy’s I realized that the sleeping carnival of clutter where I hang, and occasionally grab an unusual bargain, was the real star. Billy’s is one of those places that define all that is good about a place that I spend most of my life. You can’t help where you are born, but most of us can choose where we live. I choose to live in Little Italy, or Nolita, or whatever they may call it next. Whatever the name is, it will smell as sweet, but not last evening—it was garbage night.

Former Ben Sherman honcho, Dana Dynamite, doesn’t ask much of me. We occasionally catch a coffee at Gimme!, which lies just up the block. If a hood is going to be gentrified hard, its all good if they gimme Gimme! Coffee. Dana is pushing this Carrera Escape event over at Sky Club. It’s at 505 West 37th Street tomorrow and Sunday. It starts at 11am, goes into the evening, and there are spa treatments, stretching, and then a sunset soiree, with live performances. Carrera sunglasses, with their timeless, Steve McQueen chicness, will be peddled. Dana is fabulous, and if she says I must attend, then I must.

A year ago pop superstar Michael Jackson left us. He sold more records than anyone since, and the debts and financial woes that plagued him are quickly being washed away. Whenever one of his hits is offered by a DJ, we seem to be stunned at its perfection. It has become apparent, after life, that Micheal’s art will probably be the sound that defines this generation. He was the Jolson or Sinatra or Elvis or Beatles of our time, and all the rumors and innuendos and accusations that haunted him in life have become irrelevant in death. That’s not to diminish the gravity of the accusations, it’s just that, as time goes by, it’s his work that seems to be his legacy, and the circus seems to have folded up its tents for eternity. In a year, we have gone from seeing him as a genius freak to a genius lost, and we have come to realize that we are unlikely to bask in such genius again.

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