Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Then and Now: Christopher Street, West Village, NYC

A Tale of a Changing Neighborhood

David's Pot Belly Stove on Christopher Street
David's Pot Belly Stove, Christopher Street, New York, NY, in 1979.
Local joints are among my favorite topics to cover because they are at the same time completely insignificant to the world at large and yet loom large in our memories. They thus receive little attention despite the huge impact they had and have on local residents. 

A continuing theme of this blog is that tectonic social shifts in a big city can pass almost unnoticed if you aren't intimately involved. The buildings and streets remain the same, but everything around them and the way they are used can evolve in unexpected ways. Social changes form cross-currents around the more permanent parts of society that are made of steel and stone. They barely leave a trace unless you go looking for them.

Well, here we're looking at some of those changes. While going through old photos of Manhattan, I noticed the photo above and it caused me to reflect on how changing social patterns give a neighborhood its character. So, we'll take a then-and-now look at David's Pot Belly at 94 Christopher Street, NYC, from 1979 to the present.
David's Pot Belly Stove on Christopher Street
David's Pot Belly was not some earthshaking establishment that goes into the history books like a Lutece or a Four Seasons. It was just a burger joint that opened in 1971 near the corner of Christopher Street and Bleecker Street. The "David" in the name was David Levine. He quickly opened another David's Pot Belly (people now remember the name as David's Pot Belly Stove, but it's unclear if that was ever its official name) on Hope Street in Providence, Rhode Island, so perhaps his intent was to start a chain. If that was the plan, it failed, because both restaurants are long gone. However, the restaurants made an impact. Musicians David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth, for instance, worked at the Providence David's Pot Belly in the early 1970s and that led (very indirectly) to the founding of Talking Heads. Byrne and the others were attending the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD, pronounced "riz-dee") at the time. RISD has always attracted an artistic crowd that contrasted nicely with the more staid Brown U. crowd nearby. Incidentally, and this is getting way off track, but Byrne, who was really only interested in music at the time, got the job at the Providence Pot Belly after being fired from a hot dog stand for having hairy arms (true story). But, let's get back on track...
David's Pot Belly Stove on Christopher Street
The David's Pot Belly location was located in a classic four-story 1910 residential building that is typical of Greenwich Village. 
The owner and names of David's Pot Belly, David Levine, was volatile and ran a tight ship. The waiters and waitresses (mostly waitresses, the guy generally were dishwashers) had to move fast and remain presentable (probably a new experience for kids in the early '70s). A lot of students worked at his restaurants and, despite having Levine yelling at them from time to time, were usually grateful for the work. I know I was grateful for any side job while I was in school. Pot Belly was open late, so, if you wanted a hamburger with bleu cheese and anchovies or French Onion Soup after the bars closed at 1 a.m., you could head there. It was cozy and rustic for NYC, but it had a hip party crowd befitting the neighborhood and the after-hours crowd. There weren't a whole lot of after-hours diners in the '70s and '80s, so people who enjoyed the nightlife at Limelight or Palladium fondly remember the joints that could satisfy that sudden french-fry craving at 3 a.m. These included David's Pot Belly and nearby Florent on Gansevoort Street. There was a Haagen Dazs right next door, which was convenient if your companion had different cravings.
David's Pot Belly T-shirt
Gone but not forgotten: you may still buy David's Pot Belly T-shirts here.
Word is that Levine eventually soured of the restaurant business. Yelling at his employees probably didn't earn him a lot of friends, either. After a bitter divorce during which he lost custody of his child, David Levine became depressed and committed suicide, apparently in the 1990s. That likely led to the demise of David's Pot Belly, if they didn't close earlier. A sad story, but bad things happen in this world. Oh, and just to be clear about this, there apparently is no connection whatsoever between David's Pot Belly and the current Potbelly Sandwich Shop chain. Or, at least none that I could find.
Havana Alma de Cuba
Havana Alma de Cuba occupied the site at 94 Christopher Street before it, too, closed.
After Pot Belly closed its doors, apparently in the 1990s or shortly thereafter, it was replaced by Havana Alma de Cuba restaurant. That lasted a long time but now apparently, that too has closed. In 2018, it became a victim of rising rental prices, a common story for New York City restaurants. Christopher Street in the '70s and '80s was a center for gay nightlife, but the area has gentrified like so many other formerly fringe Manhattan areas (such as the nearby Meatpacking District) and now gets a lot less foot traffic than it once did. There used to be crowds of leather-clad folks on the street, but that is no longer the case. Even the Haagen Dazs is gone.
Havana Alma de Cuba
A photo of the location from September 2018.
The Christopher Street area has gone through a wrenching evolution in a very short period of time. Unfortunately, nearby Bleecker Street has lost a lot of its 1980s luster as a fashion center. There were dozens of designer stores nearby decades ago (Coach, Mulberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, etc.), but they've all gone as well-heeled residents have moved into the neighborhood because of its "vibe." Meanwhile, the artists (other than Hollywood celebrities who these days own many apartments nearby) have left. That, in turn, has brought a new vibe that is much different than what attracted all these new residents in the first place. At last look, the David's Pot Belly site was vacant and for lease, as are several retail locations nearby. Since upper-middle and upper-class residential neighborhoods are among the most stable of all Manhattan areas, the new status quo is likely to remain for a very long time.
Havana Alma de Cuba
The old David's Pot Belly location as of October 2019 (Google Street View).
I hope you enjoyed this wandering walk down the winding streets of Greenwich Village. The world around them may change, but the streets of New York endure. Please visit some of our other pages in this "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series!


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Then and Now: Malibu, California

Fun at the Beach!

Jane Fonda in 1965
Jane Fonda is making a dash for the beach, 9 May 1965.
Ever wonder what celebrities do while their movies are being released that make them stars? Well, we have the answer to that for some big names here. At the same time, we're going to get a view into the past and compare that with how things look now and see what kinds of changes the decades can bring.

While this blog usually focuses on New York City because I'm from there and the Big Apple is very familiar to just about everyone, at times we stray further afield. This is one of those times, and we go all the way to the West Coast. Hopefully, though, this will still entertain you because it makes an interesting comparison then and now of Malibu, California.

Malibu in the 1960s

We get a rare insight into the life of celebrities because one of them took the time to record his activities for posterity. Actor Roddy McDowall knew almost everyone who was anyone in Hollywood during the 1960s through 1990s. He also was quite an amateur filmmaker of his own, though his works were done with a consumer-grade film camera and remained in his private collection until his 3 October 1998 passing. One of Roddy's films records a gathering at his Malibu Beach bungalow on 9 May 1965. That puts it squarely within the usual time frame we like to compare against. Let's see what has changed and what is different about the site of this epic gathering.
Julie and Emma Andrews in 1965
Julie Andrews gets a chance to see a Mary Poppins doll at Roddy McDowall's beach house on 9 May 1965. "Mary Poppins" had been released to theaters the previous year, while "The Sound of Music" opened a couple of months before this scene.
Beach parties at Roddy's house were nothing unusual, but this one was special. While there were quite a few luminaries at Roddy's party that day, two of them will help show what Malibu was like that sunny day. The first is actress Julie Andrews, who had just finished filming "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music" back-to-back and had just won the Academy Award for Best Actress a month earlier on 5 April 1965. In the clip below from Roddy's film, we see Julie and her two-year-old daughter Emma Walton leaving the party and driving down the road.
Julie and Emma Andrews in 1965
This clip shows Julie Andrews and her daughter walking southeast from Roddy McDowall's house to her car.
Our mission, as always, is to compare what was with what is. Let's set the scene by showing the road that Jule and her daughter walked down. It is Malibu Colony and it runs from northwest to southeast. In the above clip, Julie Andrews and her daughter are walking to the southeast (toward downtown Los Angeles).
Malibu Colony Road
Malibu Colony Road, looking southeast from roughly the same spot, in 2021 (Google Earth).
A comparison shows that the scene hasn't really changed that much despite the passing of almost six decades. Just to verify that we have the exact location (which we know anyway because we know Roddy's old address there, 23560 Malibu Colony Road), the white garage that is visible to the left as the Andrews walk to their car is still there in 2021.
Malibu Colony Road
Malibu Colony Road in 2021, showing the distinctive white garage visible in the 1965 film (Google Earth).
The same white garage is there in the center-right of the above photograph. Julie Andrews parked her Ford Falcon station wagon where that white pickup truck is parked over to the right in front of the tennis court. Whereas there were trees there in 1965, they since have been replaced by that tennis court. To the left in the photo, the white picket fence visible in the 1965 film has been replaced by a brick wall.
Malibu Colony Road in 1965
Roddy's video concludes with Julie and her daughter driving away to the north. There's an intersection up ahead where another car is just turning as Andrews is leaving. This same scene appears quite similar today.
Malibu Colony Road
Malibu Colony Road looking northwest in 2021, with the intersection up ahead. The top of the white garage is visible center-right in this view (Google Earth).
As can be seen in the 2021 comparison, the house on the left with the angled roof is still there. The same brown house is in the background to the right (minus the TV antenna!), though it is now hidden by trees.
Malibu Colony Road
Another angle on Malibu Colony, showing the brown house that is in the background as Julie Andrews drives away (Google Earth).
Our second celebrity is actress Jane Fonda. Her new film, "Cat Ballou," had just opened two days earlier in Denver and was awaiting nationwide release. We see Jane running off of Roddy's deck down to the Pacific Ocean for a quick dip.
Jane Fonda on Malibu Beach
While this may seem like a mundane shoreline view, it actually reveals a greater truth when compared to the same scene today.
Malibu Beach
Roddy McDowall's old Malibu bungalow, in the center with the curved third floor, in 2021 (Google Earth).
It's easy to see what has changed about the beach (the house actually hasn't changed, at least very much). The beach was much wider back in 1965. As a consequence, at some point in the intervening decades, they added large boulders to protect the houses. The drop from the deck to the beach also appears to have gotten much bigger. These changes give the setting a much different look than it used to have, though, of course, it is still lovely and exclusive. The old-timers who remember what the beach used to be like must be very worried about beach erosion. And that is the biggest change between then and now.

There's a lot to learn from old films, especially amateur clips, if you do a little comparing. I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please check out some of the other articles!

Below is Roddy McDowall's home movie from which the clips were taken.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

1935 Beverly Hills in Color

Tinseltown in the Thirties

Wilshire Boulevard in 1935
Beverly Hills in the 1930s. Do you recognize that vehicle? It's a Rolls Royce. My guess is that it was a 1935 Rolls Royce Phantom II Limousine Hooper Coach. At least one has survived until today in perfect condition, maybe that exact one. That was owned by somebody.
So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly... Hills, that is. Swimming pools, movie stars.

Let's take a cruise down Wilshire Boulevard in 1935 (film at bottom of the article).

In the year 1935, there was a global Depression that had begun with the stock market crash of 1929. It lasted until 1939 and wasn't truly through until after World War II. People lived in shacks in Central Park and sold apples on street corners to make a few pennies. However, the Great Depression's effects were not evenly felt everywhere. There was a pocket of wealth was in California, specifically, in a town called Hollywood. The 1930s were a great decade for the film industry. Money flowed from across the country and world to the West Coast as people crowded into movie palaces to escape their dismal plights. This created enduring stars like Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, James Cagney, and Carole Lombard. It also created this film.
Wilshire Boulevard in 1935
If you look over to the extreme left, you will see that gasoline was nine cents a gallon. Even with inflation, that would make it only about $1.80 in today's money.
All of that wealth is apparent in this beautifully restored footage of a drive down Wilshire Boulevard ca. June 1935. The usual restoration tricks have been applied to make the old black-and-white original footage more palatable to the modern eye. The sharp-eyed will spot many telling details throughout this footage which likely was considered exceedingly mundane and fit only for rear-projection purposes at the time it was filmed.
On the left is a tow truck pulling an unfortunate accident victim. Yes, they most definitely did have traffic accidents back in the day, perhaps aided by the fact that there were no traffic lanes.
Needless to say, Wilshire Boulevard looks nothing like this today. For one thing, then there were no lane markings on the roads. Drivers just went where they wanted and were expected to stay on their side of the road. You would be driving quite properly if you simply straddle the line running down the road. Not quite an honor system, but far from today's highly regimented traffic rules.
Wilshire Boulevard in 1935
If you wanted a cheap room on Wilshire Boulevard, you could get a "beautiful single apartment" for $30 per month. Even in today's money of about $600 that would be cheap.
There are many little vignettes in these types of films. You pass a car lot full of the latest Packard sedans, a woman dressed all in white including a bonnet, empty fields - all quite normal in 1935 Los Angeles.
Wilshire Boulevard in 1935
The Warner Bros. Beverly Hills Theater had ample parking right next to the entrance if you wanted to catch the matinee. Today it is "Oil for the Lamps of China," starring Pat O'Brien, which was released on 8 June 1935. Doesn't look too popular today, though. Well, times are tough, it's 1935, you know and money is tight.
Even people who are very familiar with Wilshire Boulevard will have a difficult time placing most of these locations. The entire area has changed radically over time, particularly during the years immediately after World War II. Jack Warner opened the Beverly Hills Theater in 1931. 
Beverly Hills Theater ca. 1935
Jack Warner's Beverly Hills Theater ca. 1935, directly ahead at the end of the road.
The Beverly Hills Theater lasted until 1975, after which it was purchased by a bank and then demolished. Perhaps the most striking thing that you don't see in this 1935 film are homeless people, tents, or panhandlers. You would have seen them all across the country in 1935 and in 2020s Los Angeles, but not on this drive down 1935 Wilshire Boulevard.
Wilshire Boulevard in 1935
Just drive on the lines, it's okay in 1935!
Anyway, I hope you are like me and enjoy these old films and restorations. It's a window into another time and place that came and went and will never be repeated. Whether that's good or bad is your decision, but it's always fun to take a peek into the past and see where we came from.

If you like this excursion, please consider taking a few more from the following selection:


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Then and Now: Broome and Thompson Streets, NYC

The More Things Change...

Berenice Abbott 1935 Broome Street
This 1935 photo by Berenice Abbott shows 512-514 Broome Street, Manhattan, New York.

That lady knew how to take photographs!

While this blog usually looks at photos from the 1960s through the 1980s, occasionally an older photo intrigues me enough to do a little research on it. Such was the case with the above photo by pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). She began her career in Paris but moved to New York in 1929 - just in time for the Stock Market Crash. After scratching out an existence for the next five years, she happily was picked by the city to contribute to a project called “Changing New York.” Funding was allocated by the U.S. Government commissioned through the New Deal art projects WPA Collection. This was one of many similar efforts to employ artists of various types during the Great Depression, and Abbott rewarded the city by taking some of the most evocative shots of the city ever, both before and since.

Abbott took the photo above of some dwellings at 512-514 Broome Street in 1935. Her choice perhaps was influenced by a friend, Professor Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who asked her to focus on antebellum buildings. In any event, Abbott's photograph of the Broome Street buildings is stunning and shows a deep understanding of all aspects of photography.

In Nathan Silver's classic "Lost New York" (1967), he references the above photo and claims that the buildings "are now gone." Well, maybe not exactly, Nate. We are going to do a then-and-now comparison of the corner of Broome Street and Thompson Street in NYC.

Peter Sekaer Broome Street
Another photo of the same scene in the 1930s, around the same time as the Berenice Abbott photo (Peter Sekaer).

While the photo doesn't show it, the buildings were made of red-painted brick. These were typical buildings from the pre-war - pre-Civil War - era and typically were twenty-five feet wide and two or three stories tall. They were two rooms deep - city tax laws favored narrow but long residence buildings - with pitched roofs and dormers. 

So, let's look at the same site "now."

512-514 Broome Street July 2022
512-514 Broome Street July 2022 (Google Street View).

As New Yorkers may know, Broome Street lies in the neighborhood of SoHo, which stands for South of Houston Street. It now is one of the more fashionable areas of the city, but it wasn't in the 1930s. The large warehouse in the background was a Grocers Warehouse Corporation building on Thompson Street. At some point subsequent to the historical photographs the owners installed windows in its south facade facing us during the conversion into residences. That building takes up about one-third of Berenice's frame, so worth mentioning. That is 52 Thompson Street and is located in SoHo between Broome and Spring Streets. Seven stories tall, 52 Thompson Street has 11 units inside, including two residences. They are massive, luxurious residences, and most likely at least one is owned by someone you have heard of.

52 Thompson Street NYC
This may help place the location in context. We are looking south on Thompson Street with Broome Street directly ahead and the World Trade Center in the distance. The two low buildings photographed in 1935 would be just around the corner to the left, the large brick building on the left was the warehouse in the background (Google Street View).

If you're wondering how all these old buildings survived, well, partly it is due to serendipity. They all, however, just missed being included in either the Soho-Cast Iron District or the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District, so it seems the city wasn't doing anything to save them.

There was a lot of construction on that corner in 2008. Below is how it turned out by 2009.

512-514 Broome Street April 2009
512-514 Broome Street April 2009. Note that the buildings have been significantly spruced up and made presentable. The low building on the right keeps getting little changes to make it work for new purposes (Google Street View).

However, the tax laws favor remodeling and renovating old structures rather than completely replacing them, so the city actually did have something to do with saving them, albeit indirectly. That's why a grungy old warehouse will be left standing and have windows cut into the walls for new apartments rather than just tearing down the entire thing.

512-514 Broome Street NYC July 2022
The same area looking from the side. It appears there is a community garden with a basketball hoop on that corner now where there used to be a debris-strewn vacant lot. All the greenery along the street reflects the city's new priorities in terms of landscaping (Google Street View).

The former warehouse in the background at 52-54 Thompson Street is said to have been built in 1900. That's just broker-speak, however. It probably means it was built at some uncertain point in the late 1800s. It was converted to condominiums at some point, but not just ordinary cookie-cutter condos. There are six floors with condos in the building, and each condo takes up an entire floor. A current listing as of this writing in 2021 shows a 10-room unit for sale for $13 million. So, there's money in those old buildings if you know what to do with them.

As these photos show, New York City is an evolving place with its roots firmly anchored in the past. While needs change and styles come and go, buildings often are not simply disposed of as many people think. Instead, they are repurposed and reimagined. Those grungy old buildings from the past were not old soldiers destined to fade away, but instead are survivors that withstood the destructive forces of time and outlived almost all of their former owners.

I hope you found this article interesting. If so, please visit more of our entries in this "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Thanks for visiting!