In Which I Wonder About the Future of the LES

Today I fawned over a collection of old New York imagery from the late 1800’s through the end of the last century that The Museum of the City of New York recently released, wondering what corner bar now stands where an old city tenement had endured. The cache of images left me feeling wistful about the latest on the Lower East Side’s kill list, as it was recently announced that on top of Max Fish and Pink Pony’s imminent closings, Mars Bar will shutter in 2011 as well. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable was famous for her outspoken 1963 New York Times article on the demolition of the original Penn Station in favor of Madison Square Garden, called “How to Kill a City.” She wrote: “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” It’s hard to be both a New York nostalgist and also feel positive about change and progress in the city, but are the cookie-cutter developments set to replace Mars Bar things that we really want?

image (Via Curbed). The current plan in place for Mars Bar is a 12-story, 60-unit building by BFC Partners (shown above), who have solidified relocation agreements with the current Second Avenue residents, though they have not yet negotiated such a contract with Mars Bar. Plans may include a 2-year closure for the ramshackle bar, only to reopen as a glossy version of its former self.

While many have expressed concern for such a loss, one person gung-ho for the development is owner Hank Penza, who told the Times: “They won’t choke me, I didn’t get off the boat yesterday with a pound of spaghetti in my hand,” noting that he was likely to “ultimately get a space that’s three to four times the size.”

When explaining the lure of Mars Bar, Nate Freeman of the New York Observer states it best: It’s a bit of a sore thumb on Second Avenue. Mars Bar is garish and gross; it’s on a street that’s so clean you could have a blanket-less picnic with your tofu from Whole Foods, which is conveniently located right next door. Mars Bar is loud, dirty, and full of unapologetic malcontents, seemingly of another age; outside people pass by, quickly and looking down, on their way to buy a bottle of Riesling and some organic kale for the night’s salad. Mars Bar serves up cheap whiskey and cancer; directly around the corner, Daniel Boulud serves up House-Made Pappardelle “Gourguignon” at DBGB. Mars Bar is not a nice place, and this is what makes Mars Bar one of the best.


It’s one of those places I made sure to pass while walking with people who had never been south of 14th Street (or to New York in general) so I could get a decent read of them by their reaction (usually either “What a cool building,” or “Is this a safe area?”). Many people could never understand what a perceived eyesore like Mars Bar could mean to a neighborhood, but the loss seems more about the principle—a hallmark of change that belongs to every generation, whether they’ll learn from it or not. Demolishing Penn Station in 1963 proved to be so traumatic to New Yorkers that a preservationist spirit overpowered the modernist aesthetic of the time inspiring Mayor Robert Wagner to sign the 1965 New York City Landmarks Law, creating the Landmarks Preservation Commission we know today.

I’m not saying that Mars Bar should be preserved; I’m not one of those people who claims that the Lower East Side is dead, either. There is no comparison between tearing down one of the greatest Beaux Arts buildings in New York and shuttering a few crumbling venues—but a collection of these institutions add up and amount to the overall feeling that pervades a neighborhood, and ultimately, a city. I’m just wondering if we can experience hindsight, if the ongoing battle between preservation and modernity will once again influence how proactively New Yorkers become involved in envisioning the future of their ideal city, like they were once inspired to do (post-Penn Station projects that were halted by concerned New Yorkers included a parking lot in the middle of Central Park, and plans to build a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have paved over Greenwich Village and what is now SoHo). As one blogger writes in regard to the supposed modernity of Penn Station reconstructed all those years ago: “I’d like to go back in time, drag the architects into the present, and ask them: what, you thought we would all be wearing George Jetson jumpsuits, queuing patiently for the Atomic Express? The reality is a waiting room with insufficient signage, a great hall that isn’t, and a Hudson News thronged with balding guys, ties askew, furtively paging through battered porn mags.”

The New Downtown: W New York Downtown Hotel Opens

What is Downtown? Is it a location or a state of mind? The new W New York – Downtown hotel is located so far downtown that if it went any farther south it would be swimming with Luca Brasi. Out of the ashes of tragedy, a new downtown is being born. It isn’t the old Financial District that’s being reconstructed, but a new vision, a new idea, a new city. As glass and steel is welded and manipulated into place, the W is focusing its energies on the soul of the area. For many, the area still brings back hard memories, but going there is also an opportunity to honor courage, and strength, and the reasons we all live here. The new downtown is all about residences and nightlife and amenities that just a few years ago were not available without going at least a good mile north. I used to live in Tribeca, just north of this developing district, but far enough south not to find what we are used to finding. Getting an OJ at midnight was an ordeal. Laundry, restaurants, and fun was a trip to another hood. The new downtown has almost all the services you would ever need, and every day what’s missing is being addressed. It’s becoming a self sufficient little burg. It feels like another city, until you walk into the W. Then it feels like home. I caught up with the grand dame of the WNYDH, the lovely Sofia Vandaele, and asked her what it’s all about.

You are the general manager of the W Hotel on Albany St. It’s W New York Downtown and our official address is 123 Washington St. We’re on the corner of Albany, just a block south of the World Trade Center perimeter, and two blocks away from Wall St.

I just got a tour of the hotel, and it’s spectacular. And I’m not just saying that—I think it’s absolutely beautiful. This area is booming now. The old is being washed away and the new is going up. How does the W Downtown, the WNYDT, intend to embrace this neighborhood? What are you trying to do here? Well, when you look at the neighborhood, the first feeling you have is a sense of energy, and we’re a part of it. There’s a lot of regeneration, a lot of revitalization happening in this area, and not just with new buildings and construction. I think it follows you in every aspect of life here. Whether you come to work, whether you come to live here, it’s the fastest growing residential community in greater New York. It’s a community for us, as a hotel, to reach out to.

For people looking for an apartment in New York, something I’m doing right now, this area has always been an area where you can find good rent, because there’s been nothing here. In the past, you couldn’t get groceries, you couldn’t get this, you couldn’t do that. There was nothing here, but that’s changing rapidly. Massively. You almost sense that people really come here to live in New York. You get an area where people live and work that has a fantastic Whole Foods close by, that has a phenomenal Bed Bath and Beyond, great restaurants in the Battery Park City area. Stone St. is going through a revival, South Street Seaport, and everything in between. Plus the area is accessible from anywhere in Manhattan, and it’s also accessible to niche areas, Governor’s Island, for example.

And there’s a waterfront. Are you basically servicing the guests in the hotel with your food and beverage strategy, or are you hoping that the neighborhood will feed you as well? Do you expect people from the traditional downtown, or other parts of Manhattan, to travel here? All of the above. With the 58 floors we’ve built here, WNYDT is a hotel, but it’s also 223 residential units. It’s really about being part of a residential community. Our BLT Bar and Grill is a 24/7 experience, because the person that works down here will come with a colleague for a drink. Then they might go for dinner at BLT Bar and Grill, or invite friends over for after-dinner. On the weekend they come back with the family.

This neighborhood is expanding. As I look out this window, the Deutsche Bank building is being taken down two floors a week. The neighborhood is growing exponentially. Can the hotel grow? Is there a roof? There are different parts of the hotel that will definitely be activated. Our key element is on the 5th floor. Our Living Room bar and terrace has no equal downtown. We will definitely tap into our connections to get the best possible drinks on the menu. We’ve worked with celebrity mixologist Charlotte Voce. She’s put a fantastic cocktail menu together. We have the outdoor space, a complete wraparound terrace on the 5th floor bar that really nobody else has. But at the same time, BLT Bar and Grill is our culinary provider throughout the whole building, and next summer they’ll have an outdoor space on our public piazza in the back on the hotel. We have our own DJ booth. We have a music director

Who’s your music director Michaelangelo L’Acqua

He’s an old friend of mine, he’s part of my family. So Ma, as he is known.

New York City is the only major city I can think of that has a waterfront but rarely uses it. You’re downtown, you’ve got Battery Park, you have these new developing spaces, Battery Park and Riverside Terrace. Do you believe that the water can be developed into a major attraction? We’re really at the tip of Manhattan. We’re surrounded by water, and I think that flux of energy in itself is felt. Whether you arrive from Brooklyn via water taxi, or you come around the tip of Manhattan, or you come to the World Financial Center, you have a little harbor here.

SV:Hotels are increasingly being driven by hospitality. Most hotels are being hospitality retro-fitted. You built this hotel around hospitality. How important is hospitality to a hotel? It’s the core. What’s so unique about the positioning of W is that we build everything around the core of our “Whatever, whenever” service. We strive for that passion, that personality within our people that will consistently deliver that “whatever whenever” service. It’s in small little things. We had such an amazing experience this week. There was a young boy here who just had surgery, wasn’t feeling well, and our doorman, Richie, took it upon himself to actually build a rapport. He said to managers, “I really want to do something for this kid.”

What did he want? Charleston Chews. The candy. Oh, they’re amazing—don’t have them, or else you won’t stop. So you know, the kid said, “That’s my favorite candy.” So we got them and sent him a note with the sweets that said “From your buddy Richie. That’s whatever, whenever. You go that extra mile. It’s the core hospitality spirit. It’s small things, sweet simple things, or it’s big wow experiences. You can book a chopper or a helicopter to go to your house in the Hamptons. We’ll get it arranged for you

You people know where to get Charleston Chews in this town? We actually found them in a small deli close by.

Are hotels the future of New York nightlife? I think they have been for a while, and I think they will continue to be an important part of the nightlife. We don’t just offer the bar or club experience. You can come and have a fantastic dining experience. You can have great drinks, but you also have the music, you have fashion. It’s much more about the 360 degree experience.

You’ve got the Ace Hotel, you’ve got the Standard hotel, you’ve got the Gansevoort Hotel, and of course Ian Schrager. Gotta give Ian credit for starting the boutique hotel. That’s what people say, anyway. How did the industry change after this? W brand is evolving. What did you borrow, steal, learn from the experiences of these other NY brands that have broken so well. The Standard, in particular, had a way of regenerating the Meatpacking District. We really feel the W has led the pack of these lifestyle hotels for 12 years already. When W Union Square came to that area, it added something, and we really feel that WNYDT, as a hotel, will be the catalyst to assist people like the downtown alliance and other partners that are so critical to the success of downtown. We will definitely be a catalyst to help them succeed in putting downtown, as a destination, on the map.

How did a nice girl like you come to this? Well, for me hospitality, literally, comes from within, it comes from the heart. It’s something that I grew up with. My mom and dad they were in hospitality industry In Belgium. It’s something that I have always embraced as a passion. I’ve been with Starwood for close to 15 years. When I started in hotel operations, it was like a tailor-made jacket. And then I got an opportunity here in NY, so it was a designer jacket that I got to put on. It’s an amazing brand to be with.

You’re a busy gal. Where do you go out and play? I live near Nolita, so my neck is definitely East Village, LES, Nolita. I love Madame Geneva, I think it’s a great. It’s the back of Double Crown. Everybody knows double crown! I’m Belgian, so I love steak frites, which is my national dish, and I go to Lucien for that, which is on 1st and 1st. Lucien is great, and the Pink Pony is obviously another one.

New York: Top 10 Late-Night Dining Destinations

imageBecause sometimes a diner just won’t do.

10. Rusty Knot (West Village) – For those butter and salt cravings. 9. The Box (Lower East Side) – A memorable meal for sure; whether you trust what’s on your plate and/or feel like eating after watching the show is another story.

8. Pink Pony (Lower East Side) – Always an interesting crowd at the perpetual hipster-cum-starving-artist hangout, where you can order reliable French-Moroccan bistro grub or just linger with a book and coffee. 7. Henry’s (Upper West Side) – A Columbia University fave, this American bistro’s walls are decked out with culinary poster art from Herman Miller Company’s Summer Picnic Series — a relaxing backdrop for some late-night comfort food fare (mac & cheese, warm goat cheese salad, and pressed sandwiches). 6. Delicatessen (Soho) – Rejected from GoldBar? Shunned at Southside? Retreat to this bi-level spot’s subterranean bar, where you can nosh on artichoke dip while a DJ spins (midnight-2 a.m., Tuesday-Saturday) in the background. 5. 718 (Astoria) – I’ve learned that tipsiness and taking the subway aren’t always a good match. Besides lost cell phones, dropped money, and falling down an escalator, there’s a heightened likelihood of missing your stop and ending up in another borough. N or W train-takers, don’t fret; if you accidentally end up in Astoria, sober up with surprisingly affordable tapas at 718 before giving public transportation another shot. 4. Pastis (Meatpacking District): No matter the hour/day, this eatery is so perpetually packed that there’s often a doorkeeper to control the crowd vying to indulge in good eats with a side of people watching. 3. Elizabeth (Noho) – A fireplace for when it’s cold, a back garden for when it’s warm, a cozy front bar, and a whole lot of black give this spot its sexy, late-night, Carine Roitfeld-esque vibe. 2. Jadis (Lower East Side) – Like ‘inoteca only better, because your panino won’t come with an hour-long wait for a table. 1. Cafeteria (Chelsea) – This oldie but goodie keeps reeling in the Chelsea revelers with spot-on comfort food (yet more mac & cheese, fried chicken & waffles), a downstairs bar, and unbeatable 24/7 hours.

Gang Gang Dance’s Lizzie Bougatsos on Making Music in NY

Sometimes when you’re interviewing somebody, and they laugh, to evoke such a primitive, unconscious expression of amusement in the transcript, you might throw down something like this: [laughter]. For the following interview with Lizzie Bougatsos, lead singer of the New York experimental music fixture Gang Gang Dance, just imagine one of those laughter markers at the end of each answer. In her spacey, makes-you-wanna-pinch-her-cheek voice, the Long Island native was in great spirits, despite fighting off the flu. I’m not sure if she’s just super jazzed that her band’s new album Saint Dymphna is coming out soon, or giddy about their upcoming tour with Of Montreal, but Bugatsos couldn’t stop herself from giggling. It was endearing as hell. Here she is reminiscing on the New York music scene, the global appeal of her band’s new album, and getting hit on by Hasidic dudes in vans.

Are you going to France? Yes, Brian has an art show there, and then they’re flying out a member of my other band to play the opening, so everyone is going to be there for my other musical project. Its called I.U.D.

What’s that stand for? Well, we put periods in between it. An IUD is one of those methods of birth control that you use to block the sperm. It’s a really horrible method of birth control in the 1970s that they used … its terrible and I don’t know, a lot of girls use it.

So are you excited about the new album? Yes!

When can we expect it? It comes out October 21, but we have some singles that have come out before.

I read an article that called your last album, God’s Money, an “almost-masterpiece.” Have you guys made a masterpiece this time around? I was worried because so many people loved God’s Money, and I feel like they wanted us to — everyone was expecting this follow-up album, but you can’t really plan how music is going to sound. You can’t really say like okay, let’s make a pop record, or you know, we’re going to make like an ambient, fuck-noise album. You can’t really plan out music, just like you can’t plan out life.

Did you go into the studio with a specific idea of what you wanted to create? I think we tried to go into the studio with pretty loose expectations, because you can’t pinpoint something that you didn’t even create yet, you know what I mean?

And so what kind of record do you think you ended up making? Let me see. I think we made like a global awareness record

Sounds like a genre that I’ve never heard of before. I know, I just feel like it’s a really universal-sounding music, and I think that people from all over the world can relate to it.

Have you done something new on this record that you haven’t done before? Well, we had an MC spit on it, like when you rap, its called spitting, so we had this really cool young MC on it. His name is Tinchy Stryder. He’s my little prince.

So were you born in New York? Yea, I’m a Long Island Lady.

And when did you move to the city? Well, I was kinda coming in all the time. But I guess in 1997 I got my first apartment in Williamsburg. It was very, very different then.

How was it different? It was very barren then, there were no shops, and it was scary. There were all Hasidic men driving around in vans late at night, trying to pick me up. It was horrible! I looked kind of arty then, a lot of people think I look arty now, but I really looked arty then. I looked like a Beastie Boys backup dancer. Like I had a bowl haircut, and I was dressed in a lot of fluorescents, like very new-wave. I feel like a lot of people would egg people that looked like art kids.

And now everyone looks like that? Yea, everybody does. I don’t fee like it’s eggs anymore, maybe water balloons, or paint guns. Or maybe machetes, which is really scary.

Has New York inspired your music at all? Yeah, I would say so. There’s a lot of activity, and I feel like things really fly in New York that don’t fly other places, you know what I mean? You can get away with a lot, and I think that’s inspiring.

Do you see yourself as part of the long lineage of New York, experimental, underground artists? I do, yeah. Because we did form in New York, and at the time when we formed, we shared a practice space with two other bands that also formed here, and there was very much of a community at this time, and now it still exists, and we still meet here in New York and see each other play.

What are some of these other bands? TV on the Radio? For sure, they are really old friends of ours.

What’s it like coming up with these bands, getting your starts around the same time, and finally seeing everyone get the recognition they deserve? I remember the first show I ever played in New York. Nick Zinner was in the front row, from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and that was in Williamsburg. Josh, my guitarist, used to work at the Pink Pony, a coffee shop next to Max Fish, which is still there, but it’s totally different now. It used to be owned by the woman that owns Max Fish, and it was very much a bohemian, beatnik hangout kind of place. Taylor Mead was always there, and a lot of really rare, free jazz music. It was a really intense, poetry, music hangout. And that’s where guys from TV on the Radio would work, at Max Fish. So that’s how we met them; we were really really close.

What about Animal Collective? I love Animal Collective. They’re probably one of the only bands that I listen to in New York.

Have the art and music communities changed in New York? We don’t have Tonic anymore. It was this club that a lot of experimental acts could just like wail out and go crazy. It would be like a member from Animal Collective with a member from the Brazilian Girls. Like very random collaborations, people playing together. And it was really the only place in New York that you could really see that. Before that there was this place called the Cooler that was kind of cool, but Tonic was the coolest. But it’s changed in good ways too. There’s this new club called Santos’ Party House. I love it. My best friend Spencer Sweeney opened it up.

Are you able to support yourself on your art now fully? When I make work, yeah. I feel like sometimes I don’t have that much time to make work, so when I do make work, I have to pop it out really, really fast. But I’m doing okay, individually and with the band. I mean, a lot of people don’t believe me, because a lot of the times we’re extremely broke and its really, really hard because we’re perfectionists, so people don’t believe that we’re broke. But we actually really are. Really broke. But that’s only because we live in New York City.

So what’s your favorite venue to play in New York? Right now, Santos.

What do you like about it? I didn’t play with Gang Gang Dance, I played with I.U.D. But I really can’t play anywhere else now, we’re addicted to the sound system there.

That’s what does it for you, the sound system? It’s so good, its wall-to-wall sub, and it’s the sickest bass I’ve ever heard in my life. For Gang Gang, I like Bowery Ballroom, and I like Webster Hall a lot. I like the balcony, cause then like my family can come and sit down and have table!

Do your parents like Gang Gang Dance? Yeah, they love it.

Are they also music, art people? Well, my mom’s a writer and my dad, he’s a cobbler. He fixes shoes for a living, but he was a singer before he had me. He wanted to be a singer, and his dad made him play professional soccer. So … he like booked himself at a nightclub, and they bought him all these suits, and he came home with this suit one day, like a white suite, and he had big hopes that he was going to be a singer, and then his dad said “No, you’re going to play soccer for a living”, and then he became a professional soccer player … but my roots go deep, you know.

So what are you doing tonight? You’re going to stay in and recover? I’m going to do my laundry, and then I have to go to my gallery. Yeah, I’ll probably be drinking some whiskey later on.

Yeah, that’s the best way to get over a flu. Yeah, I dunno, we’ll see.

Where’s the gallery? My gallery is in Chinatown, close to my house.

What’s the gallery called? It’s called James Fuentes Gallery. And there’s a great show there now, it’s Agathe Snow? You should go see, it she’s really great, she’s one of my favorites.

How long is the show on for? I think a few more weeks.