By W. Russell Neuman
Jeremiah Moss came to town in 1993 at age 22 and fell in love. He fell in love with the gritty, noisy diversity of the East Village. He saw himself as a poet although, over time, his career morphed into that of a social worker, therapist, and very active blogger at vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com. He bemoaned the loss of authentic diners, dive bars, and mom-and-pop bookstores as they were replaced by bland and mostly upscale national chain stores. The blogging morphed into a new book released by Harper Collins this past summer—Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul. It is a must-read for West Villagers who care about what has traditionally given our community its reputation. Most of us would prefer that our corner of the City not be referred to as the place artists, eccentrics, and creative types used to live but can’t afford to any more.
Moss tells the story of venturing under the pink and green lights of Fedora’s battered sign on West 4th Street to a dusty, subterranean, hide-away restaurant which offered a $13.95 dinner special—a full-course meal that might contain antipasto with iceberg lettuce, chicken tetrazzini, and homemade pie. The food was nothing special, he reports, but he didn’t care.
“It was the place that mattered, the feeling of it. You knew it was special the minute you sat down to be greeted by George, the acerbic veteran waiter who snapped, ‘Give me a hundred minutes,’ because, ‘I’ve only got two hands’ (on a later night, he would bark at me to, ‘Eat your beets’ adding sympathetically, sotto voce, ‘I hate beets’). You knew the place was special when Fedora Dorato, the restaurant’s namesake and owner, made her nightly entrance, an event for which everyone put down their forks to give a delirious round of loving applause. She was a star—white-haired, slightly stooped, and elegant, Fedora would make her rounds, greeting everyone, many by name.”
But the place was sold. The walls once covered with dusty memorabilia, Playbills, and photos of handsome young men in mid-century black and white were scrubbed clean and replaced with diamond-tufted leather banquettes and Richard Avedon prints. The red sauce Italian was replaced by upscale French cuisine. Now, the featured cocktail, called the ‘Fedora Dorato,’ (aka ‘The Spirit of the West Village’) a mix of Grouse Scotch, Cynar, and Cocchi Americano, costs 12 bucks, almost the price of Fedora’s dinner special.
Moss has a theory about why the New York he loves is vanishing. It’s a process he calls ‘hyper-gentrification’— “gentrification on speed, shot up with free-market capitalism… a global pandemic, a seemingly unstoppable virus attacking much of the world.” But, he argues, the process is neither natural nor inevitable. It is man-made, intentional, and therefore stoppable. At the conclusion of the book, Moss provides an actionable wish list of 12 steps toward protecting the New York many of us have come to love, including: truly empowered community boards, zoning and rent regulation reforms, and a vacancy tax on landlords who create high-rent blight.
In a recent telephone interview with WestView News, Moss went beyond the book to share another theory he had about the upscale stores on Bleecker Street. He has been puzzling over how these high-profile stores can sustain themselves with rents of $40,000 or $50,000 per month despite the relatively high-profit margins on their fashionable wares. He postulates that these stores are loss leaders. “Billboards,” he calls them. A presence on Bleecker Street is prestige signal. Moss’ concern, however, is that after they have established their eminence at great expense, they will pack up and go, leaving landlords wondering why so many of their Bleecker Street properties are vacant.
Jeremiah Moss’ well-researched prose, acerbic wit, and zealous nostalgia is fun reading and will reward readers who follow his tales of the scruffy Mars Bar in the East Village (closed in 2011), up Bleecker Street and the High Line to the outer boroughs, which are still largely untouched by high-rise corporate gentrifiers. But don’t buy it on Amazon. Support a local bookstore like Three Lives & Company at 154 West 10th Street (at Waverly Place) or bookbook, which is still surviving at 266 Bleecker Street (near Morton Street).