Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Then and Now: La Unica Caridad Restaurant, NYC

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La Caridad Restaurant, Broadway and 78th, ca. 1970.
Life is not just epic events and huge buildings. One of the themes of this blog is the details of life matter. Corner joints may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but they serve a purpose and affect local residents in underappreciated ways. They give a neighborhood character, provide a place to meet people, and also often offer tasty treats for the discerning foodie. You also might spot a celebrity, you never know when that will happen in New York.

One such neighborhood eatery was La Caridad (technically called "La Unica Caridad"). Located on the southwest corner of Broadway and 78th Street, it was a neighborhood fixture for 52 years. Opened in 1968, La Caridad offered Chino Latino food, which blends Mexican and Chinese food. Here, we do a then-and-now comparison of La Caridad on the Upper West Side.
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La Caridad (then called "La Caridad 78 restaurant") in October 2007 (Michael Minn).
One of the things that endlessly fascinates me about New York City is that you can pick out a random photo from decades ago and it will have surprisingly recent echoes. Such is the case with the 1970s photo at the top of this page.
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The La Caridad takeout menu in June 2009. Note that this is the Cuban menu, the Chinese food menu was on the other side.
You might think that some old black-and-white photo from before when most of the people reading this were born is just some historical artifact. Well, it is, but the restaurant itself lasted until very recently.
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The name Caridad is a girl's name that is popular in Cuba. It means "Charity." La Caridad apparently had different names through the years at its iconic location at the corner of 78th Street and Broadway. Just a random search of photographs shows it being called La Unica Caridad, La Caridad, and La Caridad 78 Restaurant. It was always known as La Caridad, though.
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La Caridad changed over the years from the 1950s counter-seating diner setting shown in the top photograph to a more typical diner setting, with tables where you could eat and get in and out of quickly.
The delightful thing about neighborhood joints like La Caridad is that you could get good, cheap food that you'll never find at the big chains. Just pop in during a day of shopping and grab some quick vaca frita or sesame chicken, in and out within half an hour for under $10 per person. Try doing all that at the Golden Arches.
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La Caridad, May 2009 (Google Street View).
La Caridad's founder, Raphael Lee, was a Chinese immigrant who had lived in Havana. He developed a love for both Chinese food and local Cuban delicacies from that city’s Chinatown. While the food is called "fusion," however, they never really and truly melded. You didn't get fried plantains and chicken with cashews on the same plate. The restaurant had its ups and downs over the years - it was temporarily shut down by the Department of Health in 2016 when live roaches were found in the kitchen - but it lasted for five decades, and that ain't beanbag.
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Let's not get too rhapsodic about the quality of the food. To be blunt, the Chinese food was standard Manhattan Chinese American (want some General Tso's Pork Chops?), while the Cuban dishes were on a separate part of the menu. If you were looking for something exotic and an "experience," you could turn the menu to the Cuban pages and order some sancocho soup. Your companion, meanwhile, could stay in the comfortable Chinese menu section and choose the nice and safe Crispy Spring Roll followed by Sesame Chicken. But it was still a melange of styles, with large portions of interesting fare served without any fuss.
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La Caridad, June 2019 (Google Street View).
La Caridad closed in July 2020. Even the New York Times took notice, that's how iconic La Caridad had become. Again, you may never have heard of this random restaurant in the middle of so many other restaurants, but many neighborhood people develop a bond with these local joints and are sad when they finally disappear. They mean something to someone and thus are important for that reason alone. Plus, there are workers there who develop relationships and a sense of identity from working there and it's sad for them, too, when the place finally shuts down.

Whether the closing was related to the pandemic is an open question, though that likely had something to do with it. Local residents noticed employees emptying out the store in the preceding weeks and the owner did not disclose why he was leaving. Taking a wild guess, the cause was probably a combination of the pandemic and rising rents. Who knows if La Caridad will ever be back, sometimes these restaurants pop up in other locations where the rents are low like they were when the restaurant was founded. But the memories remain of the glorious takeout and ambiance of a classic local joint.
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La Caridad ca. 2020 (Robert K. Chin).
2021

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Then and Now: Jack's Discount Center, Coney Island NYC

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Jack's Discount Center, 1970.
Few New York City neighborhoods have gone through as many ups and downs over the years as Coney Island. The area we call Coney Island isn't actually on its own island (though it used to be kind of an island until Coney Island Creek was filled in during the 1920s/1930s) unless you count it being on Long Island. It is located on the western portion of the Coney Island peninsula west of Ocean Parkway.

Coney Island was a sleepy little town until 1878, when two major things happened to it. The huge Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion opened that year as well as the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railway, which opened on 2 July as the predecessor to the New York City Subway's present-day Brighton Line aka Brighton Beach Line. The original two-track line was acquired by the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation BMT in 1923, which in turn was folded into the modern subway system in 1940. The subway was the defining feature of the area, resulting in businesses being constructed along its route.

Coney Island reached its peak in the 1930s through the 1950s. It was the preferred way for city residents to "beat the heat" in the days before the widespread use of air conditioners. Even though the beaches were far away for most people and insanely crowded, they were still better than sitting in a sweltering apartment. However, by the 1960s the area fell into a steep decline.

Anyway, I spotted the photo above from 1970 of a typical old-school "dollar store" before they were known as such. This one was called "Jack's Discount Center," and it was located at the current street address of 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Coney Island. So, I decided to do a comparison of Jack's Discount Store in Coney Island then and now.
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A shot in 1978 taken from the subway platform gives a little more perspective. Note the top of the subway car in the foreground.
The property, located at coordinates 40.5772094,-73.9818174, was originally built in 1930. Located a few blocks from the beach, it already was starting to look run down by 1970, and things didn't get any better during the 1970s. These types of discount stores used to be much more common in New York City than they are now. While you may still some scattered in various places such as Jackson Heights in Queens, the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and the South Bronx, they've largely been supplanted by gentrification, exorbitant rents, and smaller, more focused chain retailers.
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Undated, but the same site perhaps ca. 2000. Note that this version was called "Mermaid Horizon Discounts" in honor of the street location. Now it became a "99 Cent" store.
These days, businesses have to be real money machines to survive. That's why you see so many of these quaint old businesses disappearing, to be replaced by bank branches, pharmacies, and Starbucks establishments. Nothing wrong with that, it's what the people who are voting with their dollars want.
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The new McDonald's in 2012, boarded up for Hurricane Sandy.
Around 2008-2009, the building, which was located on two parcels. Fiserv Mastermoney was drastically renovated and replaced with a McDonald's restaurant. While it certainly looks like the building was completely torn down, complete tear-downs don't happen too often in New York City for tax reasons. You want to keep just enough original structural elements to be able to classify it as a "renovation." But, basically, the old 1930 building disappeared around that time.
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A recent photo of the location. Note that this angle gives you a little perspective, showing a sliver of the massive elevated subway line that is just across the street.
That area of Brooklyn has become a rough area over the years, and there was a fatal stabbing at that McDonald's on Easter Sunday 2014. That's just a reflection of the neighborhood, which has never completely recovered from its steep decline during the 1960s and 1970s.

However, lest you be left with the wrong impression, the McDonald's gets an "A" grade from the NYC Health Inspectors, though, so it has that going for it. It gets onto Coney Island's "Ten Best Eating Establishment" lists, which probably tells you as much about the current state of Coney Island as it does this particular burger joint. The world needs fast food, and this looks like a great location for one.
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This capture from Google Street View in November 2019 gives a little more context. The subway line is revealed right across the street. One can imagine that the original Jack got a lot of business from the subway trade, thus explaining all of his garish signs facing in that direction.
The story of this parcel of land really speaks volumes about the evolution of New York City. The small, independent businesses in their colorful but ramshackle buildings had their day, and now it is a time of chain restaurants and sleek architecture and everything served to you the same way it is served to people in Florida and Nebraska and Wyoming. The uniqueness, the individuality, the quirkiness is gradually but inexorably disappearing. That's what the people want, so that is what they are getting. There are some constants such as the subway lines, however, that maintain the structure of the city even as everything around them changes. Really, the story of this particular little plot of ordinary land in a remote corner of New York City speaks volumes about larger trends that are at work.

I hope you enjoyed this little walk through the past in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of our other entries!

2021

Monday, February 8, 2021

1920s Paris Cafe Society in Color

Cafe Chic!

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A beautiful day in Paris during the sunny 1920s.
Let's go out today, love. It's the perfect time to visit the choice cafes in 1920s Paris. We can stop off at the Cafe de la Paix, the Cafe du Dome, and other fashionable places to be seen. That's the whole point of going, right?
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The streets are bustling.
Yes, I know it will be crowded. It's Sunday and the sun is shining, the streets will be packed. But don't you worry, love, I know all the maître d'hôtels and we'll get only the best tables.
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Say, isn't that Madame DuBarry? She's looking quite chic in that hat and fur, she's always so stylish. But that young swain with her, that's not her husband, is it? I think that's one of her violin students... We'd better not go and say hello, she looks like she doesn't want to be recognized. But you really should ask her tomorrow where she got that precious mink stole.
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What is that couple eating over there? Looks delicious, though she doesn't look too happy about something. Let's order the same thing. Love the hat, too, but she could use more jewels.
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Oh look, there's Jacques. He always did have an eye for you! I don't think his date notices that he's suddenly distracted. She should have worn a hat to keep his attention. And maybe some mink.
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We'll wind things up with a dance at Robinson's in the park. Oh, what a delightful day!
I hope you enjoyed our little visit to the past. These restored films are becoming more and more common as algorithms improve. I understand they still require quite some time to render and finalize, though. If you liked this one, visit some of our other pages. And thanks for stopping by!