Random Musings: Then and Now: Christopher Street, West Village, NYC

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 randommusings.filminspector.com
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 randommusings.filminspector.com
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 randommusings.filminspector.com
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 randommusings.filminspector.com
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 randommusings.filminspector.com
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 randommusings.filminspector.com
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 randommusings.filminspector.com
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!

2021

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