Monday, April 30, 2007

Reflections on overgrowth...

In the past couple of weeks I've led tours in Woodside, Queens; Borough Park and Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; the western Bronx (Morris Heights - West African, Mexican, Dominican); Irish Woodlawn; and a section of Astoria that tourists don't generally get to. My heart was broken in Brighton Beach to see that some of the old bungalows are being knocked down and replaced with hideous apartment buildings that not only ruin the visual context of the area but also erase its history and tradition. The architecture doesn't even try to blend in. Within a few years, I suppose more of the blocks between Neptune Avenue and Brighton Beach Avenue will be similarly transformed. So it goes throughout many neighborhoods like this.

Anyway, foodwise here are a few observations:

Mrs. Stahl's Knishes closed a couple of years ago after failed attempts to revive it, but, alas, the location is now a Subway fast food outlet. Yuch. But, truthfully, I never found the knishes especially good, particularly when they were over microwaved. (Does anyone have information on the original Mrs. Stahl?) But I had really good kebabs next door at Eastern Feast, an Uzbek place. I had thought Eastern Feast was Muslim-owned and served a halal menu, but this time I saw pork listed and the owner said his customers want pork, so he serves pork.
Eastern Feast served great kebabs for years, but I gather the high rentals this neighborhood now commands forced it out. Alas, the next-door replacement for Mrs. Stahl's is a Subway fast-food franchise.

Gourmet Plaza, the market at Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue across the street from the Washington Mutual Bank, has transformed yet again since I was there last summer. They've absorbed a produce market on the corner and now occupy almost all the retail space. It's ramped, has more cash registers, and is a much better shopping experience because a lot more of it is self-serve and you can get in and out faster. (I found Lionni's mozzarella cheese for $3.99/lb. - about half its price most other places.) Interestingly, M&I International on Brighton Beach Ave. by Brighton 2nd Street, remains packed with folks willing to wait on line for their favorites... no self-serve here. I remember over 20 years ago when M&I occupied 1/3 of the space they have no - no upstairs, no sit-down cafe, no outdoor patio. It's wonderful to see how it's grown, and the owner, Sophia Vinokur, has been very kind to me when I've brought groups there. She is a plain-looking, unassuming woman - and brilliant. Her operation also owns the National Night Club one block over.

The owners of Cafe Gleichik on Coney Island Avenue just off Brighton Beach Avenue opened their restaurant within months of arriving in the US, and quickly turned a profit. It's always busy, with really great food. I sometimes wonder at how much Russians can take in, when I see the crowds in the restaurants and markets!

My one M&I story: In the 1980s, I was leading Hungry Pedalers Gourmet Bicycle Tours to Brighton Beach, and one year I'd seen a tea cannister of "Royal Wedding Tea" with images of newlyweds Princess Di and Prince Charles. I'm not a huge tea drinker and didn't buy it, but had second thoughts when I visited the next year. Alas, there was none. I asked the counterwoman if they had it somewhere, and she looked at me and shrugged. Her response: "No vedding, no tea!"

What will happen with Coney Island in the next few years as a new developer has "plans" for condos and hotels? Actually, I'd love to see Bed & Breakfasts in Brighton Beach; not so sure I'd want to stay overnight at Coney Island, though! It would be cool to hop on the Q train, have a great meal (shrimp kebabs and pilaf would be just fine!), stroll on the boardwalk, and then plop down in a cute little room overlooking the ocean and then have breakfast there the next morning. I've been to Brighton Beach early on a Sunday when it's quiet and utterly gorgeous.

Oh yes - Melrose Caterers, the last kosher market on Brighton Beach Avenue, has closed! So it goes with the old Jewish community of Brighton Beach. Of course, there are plenty of synagogues in the area still, but I believe the congregations are aging, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years... Will the beachfront apartments start to attract a new wave of yuppies with kids???

...and speaking of new waves, this last visit was the first time that I can say something good about the Oceana Condominiums that replaced the old Brighton Baths about a decade or so ago. (The baths themselves had been closed for years, and developers had to overcome litigation to build.) For a long time, I felt that the buildings were hostile to the community, gated in and facing away from the avenue. But now the "back yards" of the condominia have opened as public green spaces, and they're attractive and popular. It was refreshing to see people of many generations enjoying the space, and it positively complemented the activity on the avenue. Meanwhile, my favorite building in all of NYC (and I'm NOT prone to exaggerating!) is an Art Deco place next to Oceana, with the most beautiful facade and a gorgeous lobby that someone is clearly taking care of with great love. If it weren't 1:53 AM I'd go to my AIA guide immediately to see if it's there, or, at least, give the address.

Borough Park now has a Starbucks-like (kosher, of course) cafe-restaurant called Spoons on 50th St. & 13th Avenue. Zion Deli, the Yemeni market I love, has moved to 38th St. and 13th Ave. I was leading a custom group on Sunday and couldn't get to the new location, alas. I hope it's bigger - it's one of my favorite places in the neighborhood but has always been crowded, with aisles made for skinny people. (Fortunately, though I'm not skinny, I can negotiate the store with no problem.) The new address is two blocks further away from the Yemeni synagogue on 44th St. and 12th Ave.

BTW, we noticed that the branches of a small tree in front of an apartment building on 48th Street were full of dozens of pacifiers - a "binky tree," as a neighborhood woman told us. She said these were binkies that had been found on the street, and I guess one binky led to another. It was original and colorful. I took a picture and should certainly add it to this blog. (I'm still new to blogging...) The branches had little buds and I suppose the binkies will be hidden by the leaves in another couple of weeks. But I guess this is the Chassidic counterpart to Christmas ornaments.

Speaking of Borough Park (but not of food just now), I took a double-take when I realized that the beautiful Temple Beth-El on 14th Avenue had been demolished by its new owners - a Chassidic group (I don't know what sect) who replaced it with a more modern structure. Actually, this change was brought to my attention by a local guy; I had realized something seemed "wrong" in my orientation as I took folks around. The earlier temple was a classic 1920s structure, and I knew that it had been sold, because Borough Park no longer has a Conservative Jewish community, and even the modern Orthodox shuls have dwindling, aging memberships and are being replaced by Chassidic communities. But this was somewhat shocking - that an entire particular Jewish heritage was erase. Ironically, the tiny Borough Park Progressive congregation on 46th Street manages to hold on somehow; the average member's age is something like 75, but I gather survival has to do with merging with a similar congregation in Flatbush, and they chose to come to Borough Park.

Gotta go...

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