Ceci N’est Pas CBGB
by ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS
Stand at the corner of the Bowery and Rivington Street, and look around. In every direction, nearly as far as you can see, you’ll be greeted by awnings announcing “Restaurant Supplies”: Regency, to your left; APLUS, to your right; J&D, East Coast, and Admor Restaurant Supplies and Equipment across the street. They are functional, no-frills places, with concrete floors and pots and pans stacked on plain steel shelving units.
Now walk three blocks up the Bowery, just past the intersection with Houston Street. It might not look so different. Here is an awning reading “Pat’s Restaurant Equip.”; across the street is a large business with concrete floors and plain shelves that display simple copper pots. At this point, you have a choice: would you prefer to pop into the former to buy a $400 dress, or the latter for a $95 seafood platter?
The trompe l’oeil décor at Patricia Field’s boutique and Daniel Boulud’s DBGB restaurant, both established on the Bowery in the last five years, aren’t looking to fool you, necessarily, into thinking you’re several blocks further downtown, past the boundary of Bowery gentrification. Rather, they’re paying tribute to the history of the neighborhood.
“We weren’t looking at being kitsch and really trying to make this look exactly like a kitchen-supply house,” said Thomas Schlesser, the award-winning interior designer responsible for the cookware-lined interior of DBGB. “It’s more a matter of trying to capture the spirit of what a kitchen-supply house was about, and really celebrate that in the formal geometries of the restaurant.”
DBGB’s décor — and that of a number of other area businesses making similar design choices — represents an homage, then, to what the Lower East Side and East Village once were. Similarly, the John Varvatos store in the space formerly owned by CBGB, which has kept some of the graffiti from the rock club’s interior intact, is just offering its respects. “It’s something that I’ve noticed that’s existed for a while — there was just never a term that summarized the phenomenon,” said Lower East Side resident Elie Perler, who runs the neighborhood blog Bowery Boogie.
Mr. Perler might try “authentrification.” These businesses are doing more than just gentrifying the neighborhood: in their quest for authenticity, they’re seizing on elements that represent the area’s past and repurposing them as a design scheme. The tendency of new East Village businesses toward authentrification is less than popular among Mr. Perler and fellow observers of the neighborhood, who view the phenomenon as insincere.
The East Village resident who keeps the popular blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, and goes by the name Jeremiah Moss, sees it as something of a class issue. “You can think about it as imperialistic, this sort of, like, ‘We’re going to come in and we’re going to take over, but we’re going to decorate our spaces with totems of the culture we just destroyed,’” he said. “It’s sort of like, ‘We came, we saw, we conquered, and now we own this stuff.’”
Those who actually do own this stuff don’t see it quite that way; their intentions, they insist, are genuinely good. For Mr. Schlesser, the decision to decorate DBGB to look like a kitchen-supply house was a careful one. “We were very conscious of wanting to have a project that really fit with the neighborhood, and didn’t come in and announce itself or create an environment that was out of character with what you might have expected there before the gentrification really started to kick in,” he said.
Jeff Goldstein, the owner-operator of the Blue & Cream boutique at Bowery and East 1st Street (the second location of a store he originally established in the Hamptons in 2004), even goes as far as to praise his competitor. “John Varvatos is the best thing that could have happened to CBGB’s. CBGB’s was going to close, anyway. It was over.”
Mr. Goldstein chalks up CBGB’s closing to the unpleasant financial reality of a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood. “At least you’ve got a guy who preserved some of it… I’d rather the soul of it not be gone [than] there be, like, a Duane Reade there,” he says. “That’d be horrible!”
An anonymous East Village blogger (and twenty-year resident), who goes by the name EV Grieve, disagrees. “Something about it is kind of unsettling to me; I find it kind of ghoulish,” says Mr. Grieve of the efforts made by the John Varvatos boutique to preserve the spirit of CBGB. “In a somewhat strange way, God forbid, I’d almost rather have it turned into a yogurt store, or something completely different.”
Authentrification is not limited to the East Village. You can find it in Soho, where Birdbath Neighborhood Green Bakery chose to maintain the old façade from Vesuvio, the beloved 89-year-old bakery it replaced. You can find it on the Upper West Side, where an Urban Outfitters opened last summer with four distinct storefronts meant to evoke a hat store, a hardware store, a neighborhood bar, and a bodega — the exact kinds of businesses that chain stores like Urban Outfitters are pricing out of existence. You can even find it in the outer boroughs, at least on TV: an episode of 30 Rock found its protagonist, Liz Lemon, asking her friend why a hip Brooklyn boutique was peppered with decorative straitjackets. “Because before this was a clothing store, it was a mental hospital,” Liz’s friend replied. “It’s winky and fun.”
Still, the East Village does seem to boast the highest rate of authentrification per block. The peculiar history of the Bowery, and the area immediately surrounding it, makes it uniquely suited to this kind of treatment. Those who would hearken back to a “real New York” won’t find a place much more “real” than the Bowery: its Gilded Age brothels and disreputable bars, its mid-century identity as New York’s Skid Row; its place in history as the exact spot where the punk movement was born.
Jeff Goldstein is particularly interested in the last of these eras — what the Bowery represented in the 1970s and ’80s. His Bowery boutique doubles as an art gallery: Mr. Goldstein has arranged for a permanent exhibition of photos, taken by the legendary nightlife photographer Patrick McMullan between 1978 and 1985, to grace the walls of his store. “I have this incredible photo. It’s called City in Disrepair, from Patrick McMullan, which is, you know, a huge square block… just destroyed, like, late ’70s: rubble, with a car on fire, and the garbage cans. And just what New York was — this city in disrepair,” he said.
“And I fully romanticize that, as a New Yorker,” Mr. Goldstein admitted. The photo reminds him of skateboarding in the city, at age eleven or twelve. “This is something that we want to kind of hold onto.”
Blue & Cream, John Varvatos, Patricia Field’s, and DBGB are all located on a two-block stretch of the Bowery, between Houston and Bleecker streets. But cast your net a little further and you’ll find more: Beauty and Essex, a restaurant that also houses a pawn shop; Rag & Bone, a high-end clothing store whose Houston Street outpost replaced Café Colonial, an East Village fixture, last July. On its Elizabeth Street wall, Rag & Bone posted a note: “Rag & Bone bids farewell to Café Colonial, a neighborhood landmark.”
“That note really struck me as patronizing; it really, truly did,” Mr. Grieve said. “In some ways it’s better not to say anything, rather than to constantly remind people what was there.”
The wall that housed the note was immediately tagged by a graffiti artist, who wrote “YOU WOULD” in capital letters underneath. Other taggers followed suit. In September, the store’s owners and manager gave up repainting over the graffiti and decided to hold a public contest for local artists to create a mural to replace the sign. Artist Josh Villatoro won, with a design featuring a stylishly dressed woman emerging from an egg. His mural has since been replaced, though you can still make out bits and pieces of what came before.
“Rag & Bone, that’s from a line that’s from a Yeats poem,” Mr. Moss remarked. “The line is, ‘The foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’ Which, it kind of sounds like the old Bowery, right?”
He took a moment to look up the poem, Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” and read a few lines aloud.
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till…
“So it’s sort of almost like, again, taking something of the poor, of the downtrodden, the rags and the bones, and using it to sell something very expensive,” Mr. Moss said.
Rag & Bone store manager Kamika Yankov said the response she witnessed to the original tribute was a largely positive one. “Even people that didn’t want to shop in here, did just pop their heads in and be like, ‘Hey, we really appreciate the sign,’” she said. No one complained — at least not to her face. “I think most of the negative comments were left online,” she said with a laugh.
But even critics of the original sign seem to appreciate the new approach, which some residents see as a gesture that is more legitimately connected to the neighborhood. “It’s a good idea,” Mr. Perler said. “Because they’re looking into the community for to have input into what they’re doing. They could have just as easily put up some stupid whatever, and it would have meant nothing. But because they brought in some unheard-of artist to do this thing, it’s kind of cool.”
No one who has a vested interest in the authentrification of the East Village and Lower East Side — either its defenders or its detractors — is naïve about the way New York neighborhoods work. “Change in neighborhoods is inevitable, and New York, of all cities, is predicated on the dynamics of change that come and go through various neighborhoods,” Mr. Schlesser, the DBGB designer, said.
“Change is inevitable, you know, things come and go,” Mr. Perler echoed.
“John F. Kennedy said ‘Change is good, change is good, and we can’t fight it,’” Mr. Goldstein said. “Sometimes I want to feel like the comfy blanket of how things used to be, but everything in New York has changed, and we’re not going to be able to stop it. So what we’re doing here is kind of plant the flag, tell our story, and be true to ourselves as much as possible.” He paused. “I didn’t mean to make that sound like a speech.”