Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bye Bye Bruno's on Bleecker

It's been a tough week in the obituary column. Ingmar Bergman. Tom Snyder. Bill Walsh. In their work in film, late night T.V. interviews and the football field, they each created something unique that was widely acknowledged, praised and/or condemned. All will be missed. Life is short. Their life and death has created a sense of community because of their celebrity.

Mere men alone do not create community. It is the manifestation of the ideas of men (and women), and sometimes, the creation of a physical space to encourage the gathering of friends, family, colleagues, strangers for often nothing more than a cup of coffee and a pastry (often breakfast, lunch and dinner). Cafe Trieste in North Beach. The Onyx Cafe in Los Feliz. Bruno's on Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village. Well, the Trieste is still there at least. But Bruno's, like the Onyx and so many others, is gone.

Bruno's was never renowned as an intellectual or hipster hangout. Most of those places closed ten years ago. It was, however, a genuinely sweet place, with a particularly delectable fruit tart, a family-like atmosphere, awesome coffee and late hours. As a passing musician lamented, "This place used to be where you could get a cup of coffee at 2 in the morning. And now they're gone. New York is driving out all it's artists." Oh, you noticed?

Why is Bruno's closing? Greed (a.k.a. Rent hike). I don't know how much they paid, or what the rent went up to, but if a successful business like Bruno's is shutting down, it doesn't look like any small business on Bleecker still has a chance once their lease is up. In the words of Iris Dement, "So long, now/Kiss it goodbye." On West 4th street, not far from Bruno's, a Day Spa just closed. The new asking price for 1750 sq. feet? $30,000 a month! And Bleecker Street is so much more popular.

Last year, popular Bleecker Street grocery store Strawberry Fields closed. In its place? A Reiss boutique. The owners went to a great deal of trouble to make the nondescript place fit their hipper-than-thou requirements:

To begin the process, the firm stripped down the 5,000-square-foot space back to its bare bones and examined the interior’s existing traits—including its lackluster qualities. Ultimately, D_raw determined that balancing the industrial backdrop with organically-inspired concepts would result in a more visually-engaging space. In essence, their goal was to create an antidote to industrial overload by bringing in the natural elements of a garden.

Lackluster qualities? Industrial backdrop? Organically-inspired? How about the fact that you hardly see anyone in this hell hole of pretentious design? How many people who used to buy their eggs, milk, butter and bread in Strawberry Fields now shop there? Zero! In fact, how many people who live in the neighborhood shop there? None! Though--since I enjoy fiction so much--I'd love to see a survey.

It would be one thing to say that market prices are driving the little guy out of Manhattan's retail businesses. But the fact is, the market itself is being falsely created. Bleecker Street's reputation as being a cluster of flagship designer boutique stores, was actively solicited, with real estate brokers deciding to create a neighborhood at far above market price. And we let them do it because, by the time we find out it's happening, you see signs about greed on the window. But how long will these oh-so-cutesy designer boutiques last? How many will maintain a presence on Bleecker Street for 70 years, as Bruno's did, not to mention the entire span of there overvalued 10 year leases? Suffice it to say--and ya heard it first, folks--not many.

Things change, sure. But who is deciding how they change? In an effort to keep NYU from razing more historic buildings to install gaudy glass highrise condos, Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Historical Association is fighting the good fight. But he's saving the buildings, but not the businesses in them. Hmm... Got to do something about that.

The good news is that there's another Bruno's across town on La Guardia. The other good news is that Rocco's--that other renowned, late-night Bleecker Street bakery (which happens to be right next door to the former Bruno's--is still open and going strong. This summer, TRP has been gobbling down their delicious lemon ice at the rate of two a day ($1.50 for small, not too sweet, perfect for hot, humid conditions.

Here's a poem for Bruno's.

In Memory of a Bakery

I usually went to Rocco's in the old days,
when there was a choice. Not Bruno's.

It was nice to have a choice. But if I wanted
a fruit tart, it was Bruno's hands down.

Now there is no choice, or rather, only one.
Bruno's is gone. Bruno's is gone.

There's a sign on the window that
mentions something about greed,

and the destruction of a neighborhood
on the best block in the village.

While I stand in shock reading it, a
few people emerge from the basement

carrying the last of the giant mixers
they've just purchased at discount prices.

Well, Rocco's is still open. At least. So far.
And I usually go there anyway. So far.