Neon Lights, Cold City


LAST THURSDAY NIGHT’S MUNICIPAL ARTS SOCIETY WALKING TOUR of East Village neon was not what I expected, on several counts. How cold was it? Couldn’t-feel-your-toes cold. Still, I thought there’d be at least a bit of a crowd for such an intriguing event. But just three of us showed up — myself, my sister, and a woman from Virginia. Plus our leader, Tom Rinaldi, the 34-year-old author of New York Neon (Norton), a near-comprehensive book of pre-1970 neon in NYC. I’m glad a member of that generation is interested in documenting what remains of these 20th century artifacts, because they’re going fast. Since Tom’s book came out last year, there are even fewer of those mellow retro neon signs that once characterized the New York night.

Just last week, DiRobertis Pasticceria, on First Avenue near 11th Street, closed down after 110 years in business. Now the block is dark, where once their pink signage cheered the scene. To my shock, the Variety Photoplay Theatre on Second Avenue near 13th, with its Deco-era neon marquee, was no longer there. I’m sure I knew in the back of my mind that it had disappeared some years ago, but I had evidently blocked the knowledge and was looking forward to seeing it. As we walked, I grew increasingly depressed at the realization that very little great neon endures. It is, as Tom called it, ‘an endangered species.’

In our circuit of the neighborhood, from our meeting place in front of Block Drugs, below (obviously), on the corner of Second Avenue and 6th Street, to our final stop at Katz’s Deli on Houston, here’s what we saw.

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Above: The business goes back to 1884; the signage, Tom told us, about 1945.


We ducked into a sports bar/pub on Second Avenue, mainly to warm up, and discovered a vintage Bar & Grill sign inside, above, with a great ampersand. Tom told us it had been moved here from elsewhere.

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Tom helped my sister and me figure out the best ways to photograph neon. Above, the one remaining Italian pastry shop in the East Village, the venerable Veniero’s. But we were on a mission and did not stop in for cappuccino and cannoli.


Heading down First Avenue, a window sign in a coffee shop, above, the rounded A’s indicating its age.


Popped in to the Theatre 80 St. Marks — their dignified signage, above — and discovered a warm and inviting bar in the lobby. Hot toddies made with absinthe. Note to self.


An appliance store sign on First Avenue, above, had a couple of letters out, but the GE logo looked swell. Those rounded A’s take me right back to childhood.

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Then on down to Houston Street, and two classics from the era when the Lower East Side was a bastion of Jewish food: Russ & Daughters Appetizing, above, and Katz’s Deli, below, a neon extravaganza inside and out.  Both businesses are still going strong in the 21st century. As long as people keep eating smoked fish and pastrami sandwiches, we can assume their neon signage, lovingly maintained, will endure.

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Photos 4, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 18, 21: Stacie Sinder


Down Memory Lane

THIS OLD-HOUSE FIXATION OF MINE is nothing new. I came to Manhattan at 17 to attend NYU and lasted one year in a dorm. Since then, I’ve never lived in a modern building, only 19th century relics — a series of mostly crummy downtown flats which I kept trading for something slightly less small, dark, or noisy.


That’s 17 Downing Street between Sixth Avenue and Bedford Street, above. I paid $157/month for a ground-floor studio in 1969, tiny and dark. There was an old-fashioned pharmacy called Avignon on the corner, and an Italian luncheonette, Pietro’s, where you could get a bowl of minestrone for less than a dollar, both long gone.


399 West Broadway, corner of Spring, above. I remember standing in a real estate broker’s office on a rainy night in the fall of 1970, while she shuffled through a box of index cards. She pulled out a card for a 900-square-foot loft at $175/month. “Where’s West Broadway?” I asked. It was remote in those days, but cacophanous, with the Hoffman boiler factory clanging away across the street. Later, the racket coming up through the floorboards from the new Spring Street Restaurant downstairs made living there impossible.

I even worked in old buildings, including 640 Broadway on the corner of Bleecker, below. The large semi-circular window marks the space occupied by the Law Commune, a firm specializing in draft dodgers and drug busts. (Abbie Hoffman was a client.) I was a legal secretary earning $4 an hour, which I thought was terrific, and I made my own hours. usually 1-9PM.


52 MacDougal Street, between Houston and Prince, below, lasted about three years. A clerk at the Law Commune was leaving his tub-in-kitchen, $100/month apartment, and I took it over. West-facing, on the third floor, it had a decent amount of sun in the living room (the minuscule bedroom looked into an air shaft). Some of the apartments had toilets in the hall. This one had a toilet inside the apartment, which made it a real prize. An elderly Italian lady, dressed all in black, lived on the top floor. She must have been 95, and she probably got to be by climbing five flights every day.



All the buildings are the same as they ever were — in fact, cleaner and with new windows.

I met up with my sister at Souen for a virtuous macrobiotic lunch. Then we wandered up MacDougal for cappuccinos at the atmospheric Cafe Reggio, which I’m very happy to report is still there.