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  • Category Archives NYC’s History
  • The Man Himself

    In 2002, I negotiated the sale of my business which operates under my own name. After extended negotiations between parties, the deal ultimately fell through. The sticking point? My attorney would not give the buyer exclusive and perpetual right to my name, the way the contract was drafted. When I asked why, she was so obstinate about this point. After all, they were buying the business, which was built around my name, were they not? She said there was extensive case law where former business owners were prohibited from opening new, unrelated enterprises utilizing their names. It was a good offer financially, and for years I have blamed myself for allowing my lawyer to “lose the deal.” Until this morning, when I read the story of Patsy Grimaldi.

    On February 9, 2011, I wrote Zero Minutes!, about my visit to the legendary Brooklyn Pizzeria, Grimaldi’s. The story title referenced the unusual and fortuitous lack of a line, which was typically hours long. Now visitors have a new option – Juliana’s, which operates from the same spot that Grimaldi’s once did. Grimaldi’s is located around the corner, located in the landmark building, One Front Street.
    I assumed that the new pizzeria, typically less crowded, garnered its traffic from those who mistakenly went to the original location, or, like I did last night, opt for a shorter line. Online reviews for Juliana’s were quite high, surprising, until I learned the reason why.

    In 1998, Patsy Grimaldi sold the naming and branding rights to Frank Ciolli. Disputes between Ciolli and the landlord led Ciolli to move Grimald’s to its current location at One Front Street, leaving the original coal oven behind. Regretting his departure from the business and seeing his name negatively portrayed in the media, Patsy reopened in 2011 at the original location. Unable to use either Patsy or Grimaldi in the name, he settled for Juliana, Patsy’s late mother.

    The pizza was delicious and the waiter very cordial. In conversation at the meal’s end, he informed me that the older gentleman walking throughout the restaurant was none other than the man himself, THE Patsy Grimaldi. Stunned, I immediately told him of my previous story on the pizzeria and asked if I could meet the owner. The waiter, in spite of a very hectic environment, made it a point to arrange a meet and greet. And so, a few minutes later and, after he posed with patrons for photos, I met Patsy Grimaldi. I complimented his pizza, and he told me a little about the back story  and how unhappy he was at the way events had unfolded in the Grimaldi saga. He suggested that I come back at a later date if I wanted to discuss the story at length. I told him I would come back and shoot video as well. He agreed.

    And so it was another New York moment, all due to a serendipitous sequence of events. After a day of touring in Williamsburg and Bushwick, I was ready to return home in Manhattan. My girlfriend, however, tired of eating in the same old haunts, suggested taking a chance to see how busy Grimadl’s would be. When we arrived at Fulton Ferry, it was the typical mob of patrons, which meant either trying Juliana’s or returning home. At Juliana’s, there was no wait, as we were immediately ushered in by an older man waring a cook’s smock with Patsy Grimaldi embroidered on it. I assumed it was a relic of the old Grimaldi’s and evidence of a competitor capitalizing on the location of a previous owner. But alas, I was wrong. We had, in fact, stumbled upon the real thing, run by The Man Himself :)

    Food Note: How’s the pizza? Excellent – one of the top pies in New York City. A signature coal-fired thin crust with the ingredients and toppings in perfect proportions – not too cheesy (and thereby oily), the bane of nearly every pizza in town.

    For more pizza, check out my list of the Best Pizza in New York, on which Grimaldi’s is included.

  • 40s or 50s

    I recall a visit to a local pub in England which dated back nearly 1000 years. I sat at a table adjoining a stone wall. As I ran my hand across the unfinished wall, it occurred to me that this very stone had likely been touched by someone 1000 years before. I questioned the waiter if, in fact, the structure did indeed date back to the time that I had read. As I ran my hand over the wall again, I asked if, in fact, this very stone would date that far. When he confirmed, I expressed my awe that it was incredulous and seemed almost unfathomable. He laughed and left, perplexed, I imagine, since the very old is very common in Europe, with reminders everywhere to be seen.

    America, however, is a very young country, and 100 years or even 50, is a big deal.
    In my case, 44 years, to be exact. That’s how long I have lived in New York City, and nearly all of it in Greenwich Village. My mind’s eye, however, like most, fabricates images as best it can from memorable scattered bits and shards. There’s nothing like a photo(s) to fill in the detail and bring to full resolution the sketchy sketches of the past. Today, I am featuring three antique photos of the Village from the 40s and 50s. And, since we’re not in an English pub, I really don’t have to specify which 40s or 50′s :)

    More antique photos: Blocks of Ice

  • Wo Hop

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    We always ordered bean sprouts with black bean sauce and vegetable chow mai fun. Incredible as it may sound, growing up in New England, I had never eaten Chinese before. Now, coached by our friend Dick, we were sophisticated. We knew what those menu items were, what to order, and most importantly, where to eat.
    Dick was a native New Yorker, introduced to us by Ferris Butler. He was much older and wiser, perhaps 25. He knew everything about New York City, because, after all, he was a taxi driver. And he assured us that the best Chinese in New York City was Wo Hop at 17 Mott Street in Chinatown. It never occurred to us to question him.

    Wo Hop, love it or hate it, is an institution, established in 1938. Reading various reviews, I found that many shared the same sentiments about the place and the reasons patrons eat there.

    Many of the people who dine at Wo Hop go there just to be reassured. Reassured that the restaurant that they long ago decided was the best in Chinatown is still there, and that the staff still remembers them.
    It’s bland, hastily prepared and gloppy with sauce. There are huge amounts of it and you suspect a lot of it began life frozen. It’s unreformed, Americanized Cantonese cuisine from the World War II era. Many a foodie will tell you that this is some of the worst food in Chinatown. The devoted, however, tend to find the dishes that please and bring them comfort and stick to them. … It still retains a certain romance of a bygone Chinatown, when such food and surroundings would have seemed exotic. Everyone knows about Wo Hop. But it still feels like a secret.

    Brian Silverman of New York Magazine says:

    Popular with the bridge-and-tunnel crowd and glassy eyed civil servants, this tiny subterranean dinosaur serves all the classics you loved in your youth: egg drop soup, chow mein, egg foo young, subgum vegetables. Much of the food is simply prepared and heavily battered. And corn starch-thickened oyster and black bean sauces rule. But there’s something comforting about it. Maybe it’s because day or night, Wo Hop is there for you with a bowl of wonton soup, brimming with wontons freshly rolled by the kitchen staff, or soy sauce-soaked chunks of brown roast pork—and not the food-dyed red pork you’ll get at other joints. Whatever you order, you will not leave hungry: Portions are elephantine and the food dense. And if you charge in here, post-clubbing, you may just exit up the stairs when the sun is breaking in the east.

    We used to visit Wo Hop at all hours, day and night. There was one waiter in particular who appeared to be working regardless of the time we visited. We nicknamed him “24-hour man.” Early evening, late night, early morning – he was there.

    Yesterday, on a visit to Chinatown, I felt compelled to visit. I took the steps down into the subterranean depths for the first time in decades. I felt as if I recognized one of the waiters, but it is doubtful that any of the staff has remained in a span of 40 years. No, I’m sure it was just a wave of nostalgia clouding my memory. Here, in New York City, in such a highly stressful environment, old, familiar places are a palliative. For many, Wo Hop is one stop in The Comfort Zone :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • The Knell Tolls for Thee

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    The local news during the last several days could easily be called Ode to Joe’s Dairy as one publication after the next paid its respects to the passing of one of New York City’s icons. I felt so strongly about the importance of this small establishment that in February 2012, I made several visits, interviewed the owners, and made a short two-part video documentary – I have reposted them here.

    Joe’s Dairy, located at 156 Sullivan Street in this Italian area of the South Village/SoHo, is the type of place that gives New York its unique character. The real deal, a place family owned for eons. Although I referred to it as “stability in a world of change,” I knew full well that it was just a matter of time. The owner had told me, during my visit, that closure was inevitable. It’s a scenario replayed many times. Even when there are children, few wish to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

    The lure of money and everything NYC has to offer is much greater than spending long days making mozzarella. Often, parents want better for their children and discourage them from continuing the family business.

    Sometimes a detour is made, where, after a college education and work in the corporate world, a family member will return to continue the legacy of the family. This was the case with Nom Wah Tea Parlor. But this is the exception, not the rule.

    But let’s be fair. As Jill Eisenstadt so poignantly said, nostalgia is a heavy shovel. And, regardless of any romantic notions, who wants to slave over boiling vats trapped in a tiny kitchen, turning out over 1000 pounds of mozzarella, day after day? Watch my videos and tell me if you or anyone you know really wants to do this work. Nonetheless, as I passed by to photograph the shuttered storefront and read their letter of thanks posted on the window, I was saddened. It was, however briefly, a morning of mourning. Ironically, I had spoken to them only a year ago about the bells of St. Anthony’s across the street, how I had heard the sombre ringing for a funeral and had written a story, For Whom the Knell Tolled. And now, for Vincent and Anthony Campanelli, The Knell Tolls for Thee :(


    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • No False Promise

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    I am frustrated reading about fascinating places in New York City that are off-limits to the general public and seeing superb photo galleries from the brave and lucky souls who have visited. Places such as the abandoned City Hall subway station, inside the Domino Sugar Factory, North Brother Island, U Thant Island, and the top chamber in Washington Square Arch.

    There are numerous guidebooks to NYC that purport to be not for tourists, offering an insider’s view or secrets of the city. But the aforementioned places are the REAL secrets of the city – places that are inaccessible, on private property that will require trespassing, or just very remote and little known, like Dead Horse Bay, The Hole, or Willets Point. Urban explorers daring and brazen enough to risk arrest or mishaps have visited all these spots, and their travails are documented on the handful of websites inclined to cover such as undercity.org, gothamist.com, and forgotten-ny.com.

    One of the most intriguing to me is the ship graveyard in the Rossville section of Staten Island. The area is largely abandoned and sits quietly, secretly, and out of plain view behind a long strip of corrugated metal fence on Arthur Kill Road. From the New York Times in 1990:

    As with the fabled elephants’ graveyard, ships go to die at Rossville on Staten Island.
    For decades the Witte Marine Equipment Company, the lone remaining commercial marine-salvage yard in the city, has given mothballed, scuttled, abandoned and wrecked ships of all sizes a final port. Through the years it has become, an “accidental marine museum,” as a nautical magazine described it, with one of the world’s largest collections of historic ships.

    After hearing about this place for the first time, I viewed numerous photo galleries online of those who had visited and documented the adventure. The images of decaying ships with weathering wood and rusting metal were beautifully striking and haunting. I immediately made a trip to the area. However, an impenetrable fence, a barking dog, stories of a mean man, and no obvious coastal access kept me from exploring.

    On a recent visit to this area of Staten Island, I noted a patch of yard where some ships were visible – a teaser to the real shipyard. I respected the no trespassing sign and took a handful of photos from the roadside. My good behavior was rewarded – the owner of the property introduced himself as Tony and welcomed me to access his private property if I wanted to take photos of the famed tugboat/ship graveyard. He said many photographers had come before me, even that very day, and he was always happy to accommodate those who respected his property in advance. I was elated at the opportunity and told him that I would return soon when I had more time to make a full excursion. He pointed out his home nearby and told me to just knock. I have done my research as to where and how and examined maps and aerial views. Soon, courtesy of Tony, I will go back to explore for the first time and bring you those images here. And that’s No False Promise :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • North Brother Island

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    I had made a rare surprise visit to my parents’ home in CT. However, the surprise was on me when I arrived to find that they were not home. I waited foolishly in their driveway wondering what I might do until they returned. It occurred to me that my surprise visit would be even more surprising if they found me in their home, which they believed to be locked and secured. It would also be the perfect opportunity to test and demonstrate the knowledge I had acquired from Lockpicking Made Easy by Eddie the Wire. I, like many curious boys, had been fascinated by locks and lock picking since childhood, but only as an adult was I able to really study them.

    I recalled that my father never locked his garage and there, I was able to find a few materials and tools and fabricate a crude lock pick. My first efforts at lock picking were a success, and soon, voila – I was inside my home. My family arrived soon after and applauded my cleverness.
    The book on lock picking was published by Loompanics Press, who specialized in “unusual and controversial” books. The subjects ranged from the underground economy, self-defense, revenge, guns, weapons, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, tax avoidance, privacy, fake ID, murder, death, torture, anarchism, survival, how to make drugs, counterfeiting money, and more.
    The Loompanics catalog ran hundreds of pages with hundreds of books. I once showed it to a friend who was an attorney. A quick perusal and he was aghast. He turned to me and said, are these books even legal?
    Good question, I replied, you’re the attorney. Many titles certainly skirted the law, claiming to be for information only with caveats galore that they be not used for breaking the law. Yeah, right.
    There were also more benign titles, such as How to Start Your Own Country and one of my favorites, Uninhabited Ocean Islands, with an exhaustive list of small uninhabited islands around the world, ripe for the taking. My dream was to have my own private tropical island and set up my own paradise. My near obsession with islands knew no bounds. I subscribed to Islands magazine. I cataloged the islands of the South Pacific. I read Fatu Hiva. I traveled the West Indies. Ironically, I settled on one of the most inhabited and least remote islands in the world – Manhattan. Nonetheless, it is an island and does feel like a world unto itself.

    But my fascination with islands remains, and recently, I purchased The Other Islands of New York City to see what secrets I might find. I have already featured the small outcropping in the East River, U Thant Island, here on September 15, 2010. But my investigation has led me to the discovery of much bigger and more mysterious islands in the waters of New York City. North Brother Island was now in my crosshairs, and on September 22, 2012, I studied maps for the best vantage points, climbed into my car with cameras in tow, and went on an excursion hoping to see and learn more about North Brother Island.
    The best spot was Barretto Point Park in the Bronx. It was here that I spotted the Floating Pool Lady. There it lay, in the East River near Riker’s Island and Hell Gate, wild and uninhabited. Abandoned for 50 years, the island is an explorer’s dream. However, the island is now a bird sanctuary, currently abandoned and generally off-limits to the public. The most disappointing news was that, undaunted, other urban explorers have managed to visit. A number of websites, including Gothamist, have run photo essays.

    North Brother Island has one of the richest and most fascinating histories in New York City. The island was uninhabited until 1885, when Riverside Hospital moved there from Blackwell’s Island and was used to quarantine patients with typhus, TB, cholera, yellow fever, leprosy, smallpox, polio, venereal diseases, and heroin addiction. Its most famous resident was Typhoid Mary, who spent 30 years confined there. North Brother Island was also the site of New York City’s greatest loss of life prior to 9/11. In 1905, over one thousand people died when the General Slocum steamship went ablaze near the island. After World War II, the island housed war veterans who were students at local colleges, along with their families. The island has been abandoned since the 1960s.

    I have learned most recently that it is possible to visit the island with special permission from the Parks Department and not during heron season – March to October. A private boat needs to be chartered, and there is no dock. A friend who is well connected to city officials said he could easily arrange such a thing for me. However, after multiple inquiries, I have heard nothing.  I hope one day to finally set foot on North Brother Island

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • The Domino Effect

    I am willing to take risks, however, I am not interested in being arrested or going to jail. Unfortunately, this means it is unlikely that I will get firsthand the types of photos had by trespassers who visited the abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg as reported by the Gothamist. The series of illicit photos can be seen in their article. A 2010 media tour did NOT include access to the refinery interior. According to the insurance companies, as reported by the Gothamist,

    “the majority of the buildings are filled with large machinery, much of which spans multiple floors. Also, the majority of the buildings do not have solid floors, and instead, machinery is connected to walls and pillars with cat-walks and metal flooring.”

    This type of environment is a dream for many a photographer, what some are calling “ruin porn.” I recently toured the area and photographed the property street side, keeping to the outside of the chain link fence.
    Incredibly, this massive sugar refinery was in operation for over 150 years and only closed as recently as 2004. The plant was built in 1856, and by 1870 it was processing more than 50% of the sugar used in the United States. Who would fancy that this 11 acre, 5 block, industrial site with its iconic Domino Sugar sign would sit along the East River all in plain view from Manhattan? A large mixed-use residential and retail development is planned for the property. The Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) sold the property to Two Trees for $185 million in 2012.

    The image of sugar has been tainted for some time. On the one hand, sugar is synonymous with sinfully sweet goodness; on the other hand, it has over the last decades been pointed to for many health-related ills. Diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, etc. Whether by William Duffy, author of Sugar Blues, published in 1975, Gary Taubes of the New York Times’ article “Is Sugar Toxic,” or by Mayor Bloomberg with his recent ban on large sugary drinks (over 16 ounces) in New York City, the white crystalline substance has been likened by many to a poison.
    As I toured the Brooklyn property, I came across a large sign with the classic Domino packaging. The words “Pure Cane Granulated Sugar” brought back memories of the pure white ingredient of candies and confections, not poison. The complex of industrial properties in Williamsburg, like sugar itself, is likely here to stay. That’s the enduring power of The Domino Effect :)

  • Hope Springs Eternal

    One World Trade Center, 9/11/2012

  • Coney Island at Sunset

    Things look better or worse at different times of day or night, season or weather conditions, particularly New York City with its very uneven landscape. It is especially unattractive on hot, humid summer days when the dirt, litter, and grime become foreground and little beauty remains. When blizzards blanket the city, it can be seen with a rare pristine quality – everything unsightly is hidden from view, leaving a fresh, new, white wonderland where everything is enhanced. In the spring, we share the feeling of renewal with our country brethren. In the autumn, cool weather and clear skies provide a welcome respite from a hot summer in the city.

    Recently, friends from Kansas were visiting the city. As is typically the case, their prior visits were dominated by the attractions in Manhattan. I volunteered my services and suggested a personal tour of Brooklyn. One member of the family had a long time interest in seeing Coney Island. Perfect – it was a beautiful summer evening, and I would time it for sunset. On the trip back, I would make certain to travel via the Belt Parkway, with vistas of the Verrazano Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and spectacular views of Manhattan from the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. We also toured Dumbo and returned via the Brooklyn Bridge. Such an itinerary is guaranteed to elate any visitor and affords prime photo opportunities.

    Coney Island has been in decline since the 1950s. Recent efforts at revitalization has improved the area, however a seedy pall still hangs over the area, and depending on time and one’s mood, the amusement park can still be depressing. The boardwalk, abutting the Atlantic Ocean, is a constant positive, as are some of the historic rides, such as the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone. We took a ride on the Wonder Wheel – always a joy with spectacular vistas of the ocean, boardwalk, the Manhattan skyline, and, of course, the amusement park itself.

    This particular outing was my first in the evening, and we were blessed with a extremely spectacular sunset. The dimming light was just perfect to obscure the area’s blemishes while the bright lights of Nathan’s and the various attractions turned the entire environment into a menagerie of lights, all bathed in a red aura with deep blue sky and pink/orange highlights and clouds. We were all taken by Coney Island at Sunset :)

    See my complete photo gallery here.

  • Page or McCarren

    If I was a lucky boy, I was given 20 cents and could go TWICE. Two swim sessions of childhood bliss. Each session at the Page Park Pool in Bristol, Connecticut, was 10 cents and lasted one and a half hours – two sessions back to back meant 3 hours. There was a 3-meter diving board and an area that was marked DEEP, 9 feet and 11 feet in the center of the diving area.  The pool was gifted to the city of Bristol in 1950 by Dewitt Page, industrialist and philanthropist. It was 110 feet by 75 feet – quite huge by any standards and for a small town, a rarity and nothing less than a dream come true.

    We swam every way imaginable. We threw our brass locker tags into that pool to see who could retrieve it first. We swam under water with our eyes open and looked around. We did tricks. We held our breath as long as possible while swimming under water, pretending we were any of a number of ocean creatures. We swam laps. We lay on the bottom of the pool, under 11 feet of water looking straight up. By the time the whistle for the session’s end was blown, our eyes were bloodshot. My hair was so thick from chlorine-rich water that for a day or more, I was unable to run my fingers through it, even with shampoo.

    We climbed and jumped off the 3-meter diving board. Standing at the edge of a board at such a height was frightening, and the jump, for all to see, was a job well done. The 3-meter board is no longer there – only a single 1-meter board. There was a viewing mezzanine where I enjoyed watching as much as my parents enjoyed watching the antics of me, my sisters and friends. There was an evening session for adults. And, of course, there was a concession stand.

    We splashed as much as humanly possible. In fact, we endeavored to turn jumping into water into a science, doing cannon balls, swan dives, belly flops, and our tour de force, the can opener or Jack Knife, which, when done properly, can create an enormous geyser.

    Growing up without air conditioning left few options for relief from the summer’s heat. There was running through the sprinkler if Mom was gracious enough to set it up and turn it on. But everything paled in comparison to that pool. Once I moved to New York City, I confined my swimming to the ocean, something I had grown up without, with visits to Fire Island, Jones Beach, Rockaway, and Coney Island.

    There is something a tad creepy about the public pool, particularly in New York City where, much like the shag carpeting of a cheap motel, one wonders what acts have been committed, the former hygiene of its occupants, and what really is in that water. Best not let the imagination run wild.
    On June 28th, 2012, the enormous McCarren Pool reopened after a 50 million dollar renovation. The public pool, on the Greenpoint/Williamsburg border of Brooklyn, opened during the depression under the administration of Mayor Fiorello Laguardia and parks commissioner Robert Moses. It had lay dormant for 21 years, and used alternately as a performance venue:

    McCarren Pool was the eighth of eleven giant pools built by the Works Progress Administration to open during the summer of 1936. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia attended the dedication on July 31, 1936. With an original capacity for 6800 swimmers, the pool served as the summertime social hub for Greenpoint and Williamsburg. The building’s vast scale and dramatic arches, designed by Aymar Embury II, typify the expansive and heroic spirit of New Deal architecture. The pool was closed in 1984 but in 2005 the site was resurrected as a performance space, first through a modern-dance performance by Noemie Lafrance, and subsequently as a world-renowned music venue that saw many high-profile concerts until the summer of 2008, when Parks began work to renovate the pool.

    Sadly, and some would say expectedly, within a week of the pool’s opening, enthusiasm was dampened by a fight between bathers and lifeguards, necessitating police action. Other incidents have occurred. Harsh critics predict the pool will see a slide back into its former decline.

    In 2010, I returned to Page Park and was pleased to see the pool refurbished and still in operation. The attendant was very gracious, allowing me into the locker room and pool area while fully dressed. As I took photos, I reflected on those glorious days where the pool was the highlight of my summers. I had always sensed as a child that this pool was a great gift to have in one’s hometown. As I grew older, I saw how truly special and what a privilege it was to have grown up with such a public amenity, affordable to all in the community. I hope those children in New York City, as well as elsewhere, will have fond memories they will carry for life of a summer pool, whether Page or McCarren

    For another variant on the public pool, go here.

  • The Engine Room, Part 2

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    The Pratt Cats (see Part 1 here)

    The Pratt Cats

    As we entered the very first Pratt building, I was greeted by a cat slinking from a classroom into the hallway. A curious sight, I was informed by our guide Leslie that this was one of the Pratt Cats. Pratt Cats? I was intrigued.

    Later, when we toured the Engine Room, we encountered another cat. My attention was drawn to a windowed wall in the engine room where there was an entire display of championship ribbons from the numerous awards won by Pratt cats at cat shows. Nearby was a collage of photos, names, and descriptions of a number of these cats – Nicky, Willy, Higgie, Art School, Teddy, Prancy, Big Momma, and Lestat.

    Chief Engineer Conrad Milster informed that each cat tended to be somewhat territorial, occupying a particular building or area. The cats are fed and tended for privately. As I left the East Building and the Engine Room, I encountered Conrad outdoors, who pointed out the lilliputian Feline Staff Entrance at the base of the building’s exterior wall.

    The naming, championship ribbons, poster, informative article, and the small entrance made it clear that the feline population at the institute is not a loosely associated, changing population of strays. Quite the contrary. These cats are well-known amongst the student population and have names, identities, recognition, and social status. They have a bit of attitude, expected of any New Yorker, particularly when associated with one of the world’s finest design schools. They’re not just any cats, they’re The Pratt Cats :)

    More cats: The Catman, Urban Mitts, Lost and Found, Kitty

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • The Engine Room, Part 1

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    A Meeting With Conrad Milster

    I recently spent a day exploring Brooklyn with two longtime friends, Leslie and Greg.  I had desperately wanted to revisit and introduce to others both the Wilburg Cafe and Salerno Service Station, which I recently featured. The cafe offered a great brunch menu, and Salerno Service was one of the most remarkable businesses I have been to in New York City. I now had two victims willing to retrace my steps. On our ride towards Williamsburg, we approached Pratt Institute. Leslie, a regular reader of this blog and subject of the story White By Design, offered a guided tour of some special spots within a few of the buildings. She had spent time as a student doing graduate work at Pratt. Visiting the school at this time of year turned out to be a great suggestion. It was a hot summer day and the campus was quiet with virtually no security, and so, our tour of the interior of some of the university’s buildings went unfettered.

    I have been to Pratt a number of times for the annual juggling festival, and my experience there was limited to the exterior grounds with their sculptures and the ARC Sports Complex. On this outing, I toured the campus, a number of buildings, and the library with its magnificent stairwell. But, in the East Building (bottom photo), there was a treasure known to most students but only to a handful of outsiders – the engine room. I had been told that the room was noteworthy, however, I was quite taken upon actually entering.

    The place exuded old world charm and history. A gallery surrounded the dark-red reciprocating steam engines. The power plant is one of the most historic in the region and has been designated as a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The three generators, which burned number 6 oil and produced 120 volts of direct current, were installed in 1900. They were some of the last operating in the United States. The plant ceased generating power in 1977, remaining for standby emergency power until very recently. It is now fully retired.

    At one end of the room, a lit office behind a windowed door beckoned. As I approached, I saw hand lettering on the glass which read: Chief Engineer C. Milster. It was the perfect photo op – an older man sat in direct view framed by the lettering. His demeanor certainly spoke engineer, but given the age of the facility and the door’s typography, it seemed rather unlikely that this man was the very same C. Milster. As I stood outside the office for a moment contemplating, the man waved for me to enter. I went in.

    Conversation ensued, and I quickly learned that my gracious host was, in fact, Conrad Milster, now 76, who has run the facility since 1958. Conrad now maintains the school’s mechanical systems. As we chatted, it became abundantly clear that Conrad was quite passionate about the engine room and answered any and all questions.

    I felt quite privileged to meet him – Conrad is more than an employee. He is a legend and integral part of the fabric of this wonderful antique environment. But I also had noticed that other things were afoot, and I was to learn, as you will in Part 2 of this story, about the curious nature of inhabitants of numerous buildings of Pratt and The Engine Room

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • A Place for Cappuccino

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    I am one of few inhabitants of planet earth that has never had a cup of coffee. How and why such a thing could be is as much a mystery to me as to anyone else, So, my enjoyment of coffee and all its seemingly endless variants, has been vicarious. I do, however, love a good cafe, and New York City, could arguably be the epitome of cafe society in the United States. I have had ample opportunity over the decades to accompany many a coffee lover to the numerous cafes of the city.

    In the late 1970s and early 1980s, my sister and her husband made frequent trips from their home in Connecticut to the city. My brother-in-law had what could be fairly said to be a serious coffee addiction, and there was no better place to fuel such a habit. At that time, not so very long ago, there were no Starbucks and in Connecticut, and there were no cafes either. Something like cappuccino was a real specialty, a rarely found beverage, perhaps available in the best of Italian restaurants, virtually nonexistent where they lived in central Connecticut. Their returns home were always wrought with sadness, knowing full well that they were returning to the cultural and cappuccino black hole of the burbs.

    Even gourmet beans, now a commodity nearly everywhere, were much harder to find out of the city – my sister and her husband would purchase ground coffee from specialty merchants such as Gillies in the Village and transport them back home. Visits to New York for my sister and her husband were pilgrimages to the mecca of cuisines, and their days here were punctuated by coffee stops. On one visit, we made a visit to Caffe Reggio, which I had learned was New York City’s oldest cafe and located on MacDougal Street, only a few blocks from my home. I recall that we were very disappointed with the desserts. To most neighborhood residents, this block of MacDougal is to be avoided, owing to its very trashy character, over crowding, and plethora of poor quality food establishments. It is perhaps the most touristy block in the Village. I learned my lesson, never to return to Caffe Reggio.

    Last night, three of us were caught in a rain storm on MacDougal Street with neither umbrellas nor any interest in going home. Our ritualistic nightly Washington Square Park stroll appeared to be rained out. We stood under a shop canopy and began looking at indoor options. My companion pointed out Caffe Reggio, which loomed large conveniently right across the street. I was very averse to visiting, but, given few other nearby options, gave way.

    The lure of this cafe is obvious. Apart from its location, one step inside and one can feel old world charm literally exuding from the walls.This is the Village’s (and the city’s) oldest cafe, established in 1927. In a short time, I unwillingly succumbed to its ambiance.  The lighting was superb for photography and even served my point and shoot camera well.

    Reading online and the cafe’s literature, I learned a number of startling things about Caffe Reggio. The walls are covered with an array of artwork, some of which dates back to the Italian Renaissance period. Among the works is a dramatic 16th century painting from the school of Caravaggio. There are antique benches, all of which can be sat upon, and one of which belonged to the Medici family bearing the Florentine family crest.

    The centerpiece, however, and Reggio’s claim to fame and pièce de résistance, is a magnificent espresso machine made in 1902 and used for years to make cappuccino.  Its ornate chrome and bronze exterior houses an impressive marriage of engineering and design. Cappuccino first became popular in Italy at the beginning of the last century, and soon after was introduced in America by the original owner of Caffe Reggio, Domenico Parisi. This explains the meaning of the store signage and motto “Original Cappuccino,” which I have seen for decades, yet the meaning of which I never really pondered. For most visitors, its history is of no interest and remains unknown. It’s somewhere to get out of the rain, an historic fixture in New York’s cafe society, and, of course, A Place for Cappuccino :)

    More cafes: Tangerine Dream, When Your Name is Mud, Gotta Get Out, Think Coffee, Olive Tree Cafe

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • There Was Cream

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    If you’re looking for that small, quaint, authentic, great place known only to neighborhood regulars in New York City, most likely you are not going to find it. The nature of communication as well as print and electronic media makes it nearly certain that such a place would be discovered quickly both by patrons. And, savvy owners/management will learn all too quickly about the value of buzz and will market and promote it to near death. Or at least develop an attitude and arrogance, fueled by the lines to get in.

    This is the unfortunate reality. Nonetheless, I, like many, do seek out the “secret” New York and the special places that may have at least some of the old world charm that many of us love. Places at least not overrun by tourists. Admittedly, most of these quests are driven more by nostalgia and the belief that things were Better When.
    In a world of instant gratification and a city of endless eateries, snacking on the go, particularly ice cream, has become the norm. There are numerous high-quality artisanal makers of ice cream in New York City, many of whom I have written about – Cones, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck, Amorino, etc. Most business is takeout or from trucks.

    Old-fashioned ice cream parlors are another matter altogether. Here, a number of factors conspire against their survival – trends, competition, a more mobile populace, escalating rents and costs, and high-quality packaged products available at stores everywhere.

    Most searches to find old and authentic business establishments will take you out of Manhattan into the outer boroughs. A recent journey to Brooklyn for a birthday celebration led me to search for an after-dinner dessert place. Ironically, unbeknownst to me or my dinner companions, the place I located online, Anopoli Ice Cream Parlor and Family Restaurant at 6290 Third Avenue, turned out to be the very same place they had frequented 40 years before, around the corner from where they had lived in Bay Ridge. It was quite the walk down Memory Lane for them – I love expeditions with NYC natives to the places of their youth. It’s a window to a world gone by.

    Anopoli was not just a restaurant or cafe, it was an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, which suited all of us quite fine – after all, who does not like ice cream? Searching for an old-fashioned ice cream parlor in New York City is nearly an exercise in futility – nearly all have disappeared. Only a handful survive in all five boroughs (including Eddie’s in Forest Hills, Queens), and this is one of them.

    As a topping, the owner, Manny, was on hand. Manny Saviolakis took over the place with his father Steve in 1995. Anopoli celebrates 115 years in business in 2012 – the business still has some elements of the original decor. Anopoli has not succumbed to the ill effects of being a living legend or enjoying iconic status. The atmosphere is decidedly casual and old-school. The prices and portion sizes are a great value, particularly by Manhattan standards. The service was good, and we were not rushed – unlike a trendy place, where one feels a tremendous pressure to vacate and make room for the masses of patrons waiting to get in. Here, I chatted with Manny and our waitress, who was a family friend.

    It was a very pleasant way to spend an evening. Everywhere you looked, whether frozen, whipped, or as wall decor, There Was Cream :)

    Related Posts: When Your Name is Mud, il Laboratorio del Gelato

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • You Can’t Quit

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    I was of conscription age during the Vietnam War. At the time, I was enrolled at NYU, a hotbed of political activism, radicalism, and antiwar protest. Everyone was terrified at the prospect of serving in a war that seemed to be a machine for taking boys, training them as soldiers, and returning them in body bags. The war and military defined the day and was first and foremost in everyone’s mind. A gruesome, disturbing poster hung on my dormitory room wall – the iconic color photograph of the My Lai massacre. At the top of the poster, the the question was posed:  Q. And babies?  At the bottom, the answer: A. And babies.

    Many would say that it was a time of unparalleled cowardice. Perhaps it was. Certainly such an unpopular war gave the best ammunition in defense of draft avoidance and draft evasion. By the war’s end, few defended it. Sadly, even returning soldiers were shown disrespect. I recall the glee when it was heard that the on-campus military organization, ROTC, was removed and their office destroyed.

    I had received a college deferment – common at the time for full-time students. However, in 1971, college deferments were terminated, and I was informed that I was now eligible for the draft. A lottery system had been instituted – numbers were assigned at random and then chosen for induction. The days of the year were represented by the numbers from 1 to 366. Numbers were then called in order – the higher the number, the more unlikely one was to be called. I, however, received number 37 – a virtual guarantee that I would be called. I was.

    I recall the week before my Monday appointment for a pre-induction physical. I was on pins and needles, and through some miracle of divine intervention, on Friday, one business day before the appointment, I received a letter notifying me that the appointment was cancelled – the military draft had been ended, in lieu of a new all-volunteer system.

    Given that history with Vietnam, the concept of volunteering for the military was inconceivable to me and my peers. Here, at the Times Square Armed Forces Recruitment center, we marveled at the audacity of such a presence, the choice of location, those willing to consider such an option, and the courage to enter its doors. I still am perplexed at who would choose to enter the center while at Times Square. Apparently, quite a few – historically, it has been the most active recruiting station in the United States. But it’s another time, and for many, the military is one of many career options, offering a paid education, employment, and benefits.

    The U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station has been a fixture in Times Square since 1946. In 1950, it was replaced with a new structure. In 1998, it was upgraded for a look that was more apropos for the neon glitz of Times Square.  The four branches of the military are represented, each with their own desk. The 520-square-foot building is situated in the traffic island bounded by 42nd Street, Broadway, and 7th Avenue, the busiest intersection in the United States.
    There are many opportunities in New York City. If you want to enlist in the Armed Forces, for your convenience, you can join right amidst the theater district and neon extravaganza of Times Square. Just remember, do it while you’re sober and after careful consideration, because You Can’t Quit :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

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