By Jane Heil Usyk
Here’s what a neighborhood is to me: it’s a few square blocks with homes or apartments, a grocery store or two or three, a shoe repair, a laundry, a cleaners, a hairdresser, a park, a library, maybe a stationery store and–most important of all–a bar or restaurant with good cheap food and drink, where you can go and meet people, and find your neighbors, say hello, sit with them or near them, and be part of a small group— the neighborhood. The waiters and managers are always friendly and interested in you.
Those places ought to be arranged by city planners, but they’re not, they’re left to landlords and shopkeepers and rents and chance. My only cheap neighborhood place is closing now, so our area is no longer a neighborhood. It’s Silver Spurs, a place where, over the years, I’ve met friends, met neighbors, played Scrabble, had brunch with my cousins, had coffee and conversation with my favorite NYU professors, greeted the lady who comes from somewhere uptown to plant flowers in the corner garden at LaGuardia and Houston Streets. She used to have a dog, but the dog died recently, so now she is “the lady with the dog” without the dog. We warmed ourselves in the sun outdoors on Silver Spurs’ terrace in warm weather.
Years ago, Sammy, a resident of Thompson Street most of his life, except in his youth when he was in the Spofford home for troubled boys, used to eat there every day at the counter. He died many years ago, but I still remember him; he had an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball and was a nice guy overall.
There are some people in Silver Towers who never made a meal for themselves; they got all of them in Silver Spurs. They are old now; what will they do?
Is a neighborhood still a neighborhood if there is no place for people to meet? No central area, open to all, where you can be yourself and order whatever you want? Silver Spurs made a wonderful onion soup, slathered with gruyere cheese; they also made an excellent rice pudding, and onion rings, and a wonderful hamburger that was a few dollars less than all the other hamburgers around, and just as good if not better.
Try going to Arturo’s and getting out for less than forty dollars. And Lupa? Tomoe Sushi? Carbone’s? Come on. You’ve got to bring real money to those places.
The Hudson Diner also closed recently. That was also a neighborhood place, good for coffee and hot chocolate, desserts, muffins, omelets. It was an excellent caravanserai, or oasis, on our long trip to the river, which we made several times a summer. You could also sit outside there in warm weather, enjoying an iced coffee and watching everyone go by.
That is an art the French know so well: sidewalk people-watching. The French position their outdoor chairs facing the street, because they know the most important element in eating outside is watching everyone who goes by. So they position the chairs for the customers to do that without twisting their necks or making it obvious.
We in America haven’t reached that point of development yet. And at this rate, I don’t know if we ever will. Where will I go for onion soup and coffee now?