Requiem for a Thoroughly Nondescript Block on the Upper East Side
In town for the first time in six months, I’m immediately reminded of Nora Ephron, who once said that the old saw—“New York is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there”—is completely wrong. The opposite is true. “Things change in New York; things change all the time,” she wrote. “You don’t mind this when you live here. …But when you move away, you experience change as a betrayal.”
No shit, Nora!
I am looking across First Avenue, on my way to Eddie’s for a quick quart of milk. The deli, right there on the corner of 80th where one family ran it for several generations, is shuttered!
Impossible. They own the building—they can’t raise their own rent!
I scan the rest of the block, to 79th. It’s one of the last remaining pieces of old Yorkville, a row of grimy, nondescript, architecturally-undistinguished, utterly charming, four-story brownstones: ground-floor retail, walk-up units above, most of them rent-regulated, no doubt—old school urbanism in the very best sense of the word.
The block is home to: my pizzeria (complete with a poorly lit dining room in the back, featuring a surprisingly good chicken marsala for $14.95); my Chinese take-out, and, of course, Eddie’s. The block also includes a dry cleaner, a discount drug store, and the site of my old coffee shop (owned for years by my downstairs neighbors), now sadly vacant.
More than half of the stores on the block are empty or nominally “for lease.” The entire block is in the process of clearing out. Every New Yorker knows what this means. (For me, it’s a clear sign that I need to get back either a lot more or a lot less often.)
I decide to check in with my friends at the pizzeria, Italian Village, one store down from the padlocked Eddie’s. The owner, a guy whose face I’ve seen from behind the counter at all hours for more than 20 years, is kneading the dough, preparing the first pies for the day.
“What happened to Eddie’s?” I ask him, almost indignantly.
“They sold the building for fourteen-million dollars!” he says, in a thick Italian accent that I will not try to reproduce phonetically. (I’m just glad it still exists on the island of Manhattan.) “They’re putting up a condo on this block.”
I’m almost afraid to ask. I’m not ready for a Manhattan without Italian Village (it’s bad enough Ephron and Mike Nichols died). “And where are you going?”
“We’re moving down to 78th Street,” he says. “We’re taking everything with us, even the ovens. I told them they should have stayed. They had twelve apartments that they could have charged a lot more for. Fix those up nice and you can rent those for three-thousand dollars a month!”
I stand in front of the Plexiglas counter, staring at all of the pizza toppings, the onions, the peppers, the pepperonis, the waiting globs of extra cheese. “I don’t know,” I say, doing the development math in my head. “Fourteen million seems like a pretty good deal to me.”
And who knows if $14 million is the real figure? (Boys do like to boast.) But, given the rezoning of Manhattan during the Bloomberg years and the rising land values in the neighborhood following the opening of the Second Avenue subway, it is possible, especially if Eddie’s was the last holdout, the only obstacle between a row of empty, century-old buildings, and a condo tower of unspecified height.
There are several empty lots in the neighborhood right now, awaiting development, waiting on banks and lawyers and presumably architects. A day earlier I saw three people in hardhats emerge from an empty lot over on Second Avenue, a site that lay fallow for years during the subway construction. “What’s going up here?” I asked. “A gorgeous, classical, red brick, building,” one guy said. “You’re gonna love it.”
I doubt that, I think, and ask instead what I always ask: “Who’s the architect?” It’s a firm known largely (at least to snobs like me) for designing some of the Upper East Side’s most banal buildings. “How high?” I ask, like someone getting a quote from a plumber. “They’re not sure yet,” he says.
Oh, boy, I think, with more than a touch of urban paranoia, the lawyers are probably buying up adjacent air rights!
This is not new, just vastly accelerated in recent years. Yorkville always had fewer innate protections, due to its working-class roots. The humdrum buildings lining the avenues weren’t as beautiful here as, say, the buildings on Broadway, so the preservation issues were either less fraught or, in most cases, nonexistent.
It’s not like we’re going to man the barricades for Eddie’s, especially since Eddie’s relatives have probably already moved to Florida to avoid paying state taxes. And when the block is finally cleared, once and for all, what will we have lost—besides some cheap apartments, a livelier street, a sliver of sun, a bit of history?
I make a mental note: buy a slice before leaving town! By now my friend (I don’t even know his name after all these years!) is bouncing his huge wad of pizza dough on his knuckles, stretching it out, getting ready for the ritualistic toss. I’m 23 days shy of my 63rd birthday, and still I love this move. I wait a moment longer, to watch the comic wobble of the dough in mid-air. Then I cross the street, still in search of milk.
Featured image by Alex Pedersen.