Archive for August 2007

Ankling through Little Italy

August 31, 2007

In my previous post on the Lower East Side, I called Little Italy’s current status as an independent area questionable (I had earlier entered “laughable” but thought twice about it, and now I’m thinking of it a third time).  That sentiment isn’t original to me.  If you saw one of the very last episodes of “The Sopranos”, there was a little in-joke where two of the characters are walking through Little Italy plotting evil deeds and all of a sudden…they’re in Chinatown.  They do a bit of a double-take and the scene cuts away.

It’s sad, but Little Italy is almost gone.  Yeah, it’s there, but only in spirit.  For the couple of years I’ve been wandering through Little Italy, it’s been relegated to Mulberry Street only with parts of a couple of side streets.  Famous Little Italy streets such as Elizabeth and Mott…all are parts of Chinatown now.  Even Mulberry Street’s claim to Little Italy status is truncated.  Below Canal, pure Chinatown.  Above Broome, mostly non-Little Italy.  There’s just a couple of blocks left, but even they are no longer “pure” Little Italy.  I haven’t seen a Chinese restaurant open yet, but it’ll come.

But is it bad?  Nah.  The neighborhood is evolving and the Italians have moved on to greener pastures.  Little Italy will continue for a while simply because it’s a pure tourist attraction.  But I don’t think the Italian heart remains…except perhaps within the church near Canal.

Saturday on Mulberry Street.  Notice the decorations in the distance.  It’s the annual Little Italy Festival.  Not to be confused with the Feast of San Gennaro (now, that’s a spectacle in and of itself despite the vanishing of Little Italy).  This festival is muted and pleasant.  It does the traditional blocking-of-the-streets-to-all-traffic.  I think most residents of streets in that part of Manhattan would love to close off their streets, but only Little Italy seems to get it done on a regular basis.

Mulberry St. 1

And a nice historic little place:  Umbertos Clam House.  It calls itself the “Heart of Little Italy” and that’s not a problem for me.  But I tend to remember it for the biggest even associated with the murder of Crazy Joey Gallo in 1972 while he was there for a party.  I recommend Jimmy Breslin’s book “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight” for a humorous roman a clef about Joey Gallo.  But the real Crazy Joey was a murderous thug who may have been actual killer of Albert Anatasia and behind the shooting of Joe Columbo.  And who know how many others.

Mulberry Street 2

I’ve eaten at Umbertos.  It’s pretty good, and I won’t say that about a lot of other Little Italy restaurants.  (Truth:  I never found them memorable enough to bother remembering which one I went to; but Umbertos has history.)

And now the interesting part.  Google maps still says that Umbertos is at Mulberry and Hestor.  That ain’t true at all!  It’s up on Broome.  Apparently, after the murder of Crazy Joey, the restaurant was moved to escape the notoriety.  But Famous Ankles remembers…and apparently so does Google.

A nice shot of Mulberry and Hestor…

Mulberry Street 5

And finally, the last really authentic part of Little Italy:  the Church of the Most Precious Blood.  It’s apparently run by the Franciscans.  I don’t know if there’s an actual monestary associated with it, but maybe.

Mulberry St - Church of the Most Precious Blood

My best memory of the church is during last year’s Feast of San Gennaro (held each September so I’m going back soon!).  The streets get incredibly jammed with people and restaurants spilling out onto the street and pushcarts everywhere and the like.  You look at it and see a lot of money changing hands (good old fashioned capitalism).  When I got to the church, I saw a statue of San Gennaro next to a board with money tacked onto it (sort of like “The Godfather Part 2” and the statue going down the street, but this time the money was simply tacked to a board).  There must have been…$50 or $60, max.  The Church sponsors the feast, but doesn’t seem to get to partake in the commerce surrounding it (they try with some trinkets, but I didn’t see many borrowers).  I’m hopeful they got recompensed somehow and were able to use the money to good ends.  It sure doesn’t look like they spend it on luxurious digs.

Stay tuned for an update from the Feast of San Gennaro.


The Lower East Side and mighty good pickles

August 30, 2007

As good/wonderous/cool/interesting/artistic/gritty that the Lower East Side’s Rivington Street and Ludlow Street are; in my book, the real street in LES is Orchard Street.  Ya wanna see Orchard St? Go a bit further south than the Rivington St and Ludlow St area and cross Delancey St.  Physically and interesting-wise, Orchard actually parallels Ludlow St., but below Delancey, there’s no contest. First, Orchard St. has the historical Tenement Museum, which I would encourage you to visit if you have the chance. My favorite part of that was when I looked at one of the places they’ve restored to it “tenement” condition and saw how closely it resembles my own place (before I had it completely renovated).

But the real reason is the greatest, most wonderous, most awe-inspiring place for many a block around:  Guss Pickles.

Guss Pickles - closed

Sad to say, they are closed on Saturdays. The pickles are unbelievably good (get the spicy! Get the Spicy!! GET THE SPICY!!!!).  They sell them singly or by the small bucket. Note: this is not the place you’ll find if you google Guss Pickles. I’m told there are legal proceedings over the name and that this one on Orchard Street is the original.  UPDATE (9/8/2007):  I talked with Pat Fairhurst, owner of Guss Pickles on Orchard Street and she said the proceedings are resolved.  The other Guss Pickles has obtained the trademark, but the Orchard Street Guss Pickles can keep the name.  She re-iterated that they are the last of the “old-time pickle makers” in the LES, established in 1920 by Izzy Guss).

If you get there, you’ll discover that the storefront is a sham. You wanna buy pickles: they roll the barrels out into the street every day and you buy them there. GET THE SPICY!!!!!!!!!!!!

I like them pickles.

I once took a bucket to work and some people complained that they smelled up the place. They still grabbed three or four pickles each, but that was beside the point.

GET THE SPICY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I now have a hankering for pickles. Soon…soon…


Leona Helmsley redux

August 29, 2007

After Leona Helmsley died, I did a post and mentioned that at least her will wouldn’t be contested with the same vigor and rancor that Brooke Astor’s appears to be gearing up to.

I may be wrong.  Very, very wrong.  If you haven’t heard, Leona left $12 million to her dog, zillions to her charitable trust, and zip for a couple of grandkids.

I’m betting on the dog.  It’s been known to bite.


Too long without a Harlem post?

August 29, 2007

Looking through some of my old pictures, I spotted one that I can’t believe I didn’t include.  Hey, in this case it gets its own post.

In my second visit to Harlem, I was just wandering around Lenox Avenue and spotted an awning with the world’s strangest slogan.

Harlem - Owens Funeral Home

“Where beauty softens your grief.”  The first time I saw it, I was stunned at the temerity of a place that would invite people in to prepare them to look their best at a funeral.  I thought it was a beauty parlor catering to the mourners.  Instead, it’s a beauty parlor catering to the dead.  Well, not quite just a beauty parlor.

Yes, folks.  It’s for a funeral home.  Actually, Owens Funeral Home at 121st and Lenox Ave.  I’m told it’s Harlem’s busiest.  Apparently they specialize in…putting the best face on a tragedy.  It’s just too weird.  You can google them and get some extra weirdness.  There are actually books put out showing their handiwork.  Just too weird. 

Welcome to NYC.


Wandering the Lower East Side (LES)

August 28, 2007

The Lower East Side is an old staple of mine.  I started visiting it well over a year ago and, until I started ankling my way around Harlem, I considered it the coolest part of Manhattan.

Despite Harlem’s cool status (and my somewhat dampened love of that place), LES is still cool.  It is also so all-over-the-place that it merits many posts over the future.  This post is just a quick jaunt to some old favorites that I’ve written about in my e-mails to friends and family.  Now, I get to add pictures.

Okay, LES (I don’t pronounce it as anything other than “Lower East Side”, but I don’t like to type that much) is known really for its historical position as the first stopping point for immigrants.  It still is, but not really.  Well, yeah; but not even close.  You see, it’s coolness makes it really expensive, but the edges are being filled in by Chinatown which has….no really evident coolness….but lots and lots of new immigrants.

Position wise, it’s on the east side of Manhattan and goes from Houston Street down to…Chinatown….which is eating it from below and from the west.  “Little Italy” (the subject of another post), is technically to the west of LES, but has now reached near invisibility status due to the Chinatown surge, but LES still seems to be hanging in there, at least mostly. Oh, on the east, LES is bordered by the East River. (Hey, that’s three “easts” in one sentence. Not bad.  Of course, I used variants of “cool” about five times so far in this post.  That’s bad, but not in a cool way.  Six.)

The whole point of the original LES was density.  It boasted the highest population density in the world during the great immigrations of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  And that’s with a relatively low-rise buildings.  They seem to usually reach maybe 3 to 8 stories.  Graffiti, noise, noisomeness, and still people are storming the ramparts to get a place in LES.  You see, LES is gritty and interesting and maybe a little bit wild; and each of those attributes is like catnip to the hipsters.  Well, LES may be “gritty” if you define gritty as dirty and graffiti-covered.  But, it is very interesting and has a strong connection with the arts.  I’m not really sure about “wild”, though.  I only bring it up because of a character I ran into some time ago who pointed out a place that I’ll save for another post in the future.  In any case, I really like LES and I think anyone who visits will leave with affection.  It’s just one of those kinds of places.

Anyway, I took the bus down to Houston Street and wandered over into LES.  I always think of three streets when I’m in LES:  Rivington, Orchard, and Ludlow.  Rivington goes east-west and the other two are north-south.

All of them are considered “cool”.  When I first started to visit LES, I spoke with a co-worker about Ludlow being “cool” and that I hadn’t known its reputation.  He laughed and replied:  “if you had a 15-year-old daughter, you’d have known.”  Here’s Ludlow Street on a Saturday morning.

LES 1 Ludlow St

LES 2 Ludlow St

And the architecture can be wonderful.

LES 3 Ludlow St

But, the gritty, artistic side still shines out.  There are places all over Manhattan that do stuff like this, but I find it more “natural” in LES.

LES 4 Ludlow St

Of course, they absolutely, positively must be ragged and torn and (most importantly) duplicated.

But, then, there’s Rivington.  Rivington has two places of note, at least for Famous Ankles:  Economy Candy and TeaNY.

Economy Candy is simply a big candy store.  In truth, a WalMart might physically have more candy, but Economy Candy knows that displaying candy from floor to ceiling is an absolute must.

LES Candy Factory 1

LES Economy Candy 2

In terms of “art”, Economy Candy is art.

TeaNY is a wonderful, but very small tea restaurant partially owned by musician Moby.  Usually, it’s jammed and I can’t get in.  However, there are lots and lots of different teas and I can attest to how good it is from experience.  Not cheap, but not outrageous.


I was astonished when I went by and saw that it was mostly empty.  TeaNY is never like that.  I wanted to go in and get some tea, but I had places to go (future posts!) and really no thirst.  I remember many times walking by and seeing the place jammed with people and really having a hankering for tea.  Ah, well…

I’m saving Orchard Street for another post.