The Day the Village Stood Still: Happy Holidays in a Pandemic

By Roger Paradiso

As the holiday shopping continues online at a feverish pace, the brick-and-mortar stores in the Village watch in envy. These are supposed to be the days they make over 50-75 percent of their revenue for the year.

The streets are deathly quiet except for weekends when some decent crowds appear. But once the sun goes down, the shoppers flee and another crowd comes on the scene. These are the ghosts of the Village past—the homeless and displaced artists gather on the frigid streets to celebrate our digital revolution.

Those of us who are more fortunate are asked by our leaders to stay home and watch our televisions instead of going to a movie or a performance. Streaming, the digital transmission of film, performance, and some news content, keeps us entertained within our family units. But it is not the friend of the old Village with its shops, theaters, clubs, and restaurants that struggle to survive in this pandemic and digital environment.

I call up Jamal, owner of Village Music World on Bleecker Street, who is at home waiting to commute to his “record” store. Record stores, which thrived in days of old, are competing with new ones online and “digital” streamers of music. Jamal tells me, “A lot of places on Bleecker are closing forever and it is sad to see. I have noticed some fast-food eateries making money on take-outs. Other regular restaurants are not doing well.”

The Village was the epicenter of art and culture in the 1960s. That romantic period continued until Vietnam exploded and Nixon imploded with Watergate. The ‘60s were replaced by the “Me Generation” of the 70s, aka the disco years. Drugs, sex, and whatever else you wanted to do were on full display in the Village clubs. Times were flush and cash was king. Queens and dance clubs owned the day and night. Mom-and-pops survived though, as did the bookstores, record stores and cafés. There was just a different crowd. There was a noticeable change in the 1990s, however, as artists, cafés, and clubs were slowly displaced by high rents. And things started getting even more expensive in the Village in the 2000s. It was becoming “cheaper” to email friends, and social media was slowly becoming our new entertainment of convenience.

Nick, of Cinema Village (the oldest continuously running arthouse in Manhattan, dating back to the affordable year of 1964) is emailing with me. He is in trouble. He shocked me when he reversed his position of never selling the Cinema Village to possibly selling it, in order to save the Alpine in Bay Ridge, the oldest running movie house in NYC, and Cinemart in Forest Hills, a 97-year-old neighborhood movie house. “I have no choice. The city is killing me with its real estate taxes for these neighborhood movie houses in Queens and Brooklyn and the Cinema Village on East 12th Street.” Nick is a victim of our new digital age. He should get some relief from the city but the city is broke, “they” say.

When we morphed into the digital age in the 21st century, life got faster and more expensive. We kept moving towards a planned gentrification, which is a polite way of referring to social displacement. The working-class residents, artists, and shops of the Village were being displaced. Many of us were spinning out of control, though life was still kind to some. We even elected a landlord for president—because he was a reality show celebrity. And also, because he was a businessman. How did that work out?

Jamal called me back when he got to work: “I saw some business the last few weeks but nothing like normal business during a holiday. I’m staying above water. The good news is the landlord called me back and reduced my rent from December to April. This is better than nothing.”

With customers staying home trying to keep their social distance during the pandemic, shop owners and restaurants are dying. The pandemic is also bringing about business restrictions such as little or no indoor dining. We understand the need to keep the virus under control but it is destroying restaurants, bars, and clubs with live music.

“While we don’t know how many of the city’s 25,000 restaurants and nightlife establishments have officially shuttered because of COVID-19, we estimate the number is in the thousands. A recent report by the state’s comptroller estimated that one-third to one-half of the city’s restaurants and bars could permanently close during the next six-twelve months and this is why our industry needs support,” said Andrew Rigie of NYC Hospitality Alliance.

I visited Jamal of Village Music World the day before the city shut down. The mood in the Village and along Bleecker Street was dark. The governor and mayor had already made ominous statements about the virus. There were whispers of a lockdown. Really, the lockdown had already happened weeks before that day. Villagers had started staying home, afraid of the invading virus.

Standing in the empty record store that day in March, I’d asked Jamal how many customers he had. “None. Nobody on the street. What am I to do?” He could apply for relief, which he did. To date, the SBA has yet to respond to Jamal’s application sent in March.

Now, in December, I am still writing about the day the Village stood still. Some have estimated that dozens (if not over a hundred) of businesses in Greenwich Village could be destroyed by COVID.

Nick emails me back, “Banks are holding out on giving us loans for businesses remaining 100 percent on lockdown. We are facing bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. I can’t afford it anymore. And this is making room for corporations with money to pick up buildings with mom-and-pop operations in desperation, cheaply.”

Almost one year after the pandemic caused the lockdown, we are experiencing the second wave and the city will be shut down again. But wait—some good news, as two vaccines (or more) will save the country. Villagers are already being inoculated and it looks like we have finally found a match against the virus. And we have fired our celebrity president.

But life goes on for the weary mom-and-pops still surviving. “In order for small businesses to survive we need another stimulus package. It`s criminal that we are almost at Christmas with no sign of financial aid to the hundreds or thousands of unemployed hospitality employees or the landlords who house us,” said Tory of The Half Pint at West 3rd and Thompson Streets.

As we approach the holidays and another new year, I don’t know what to say to my friends in the small shops and restaurants. We need a Marshall Plan (not Trump’s version) to save our country. And though there is support from the Congress, there is no plan as yet.

As we go to print, the president (aka The Grinch) has threatened to veto the current relief bill unless there is $2,000 dollars per person provided. There are other disputed terms. The GOP has voted it down in the House, which has adjourned for the holiday. Will there be a relief bill before Biden takes office? Biden has said he will be making it a priority.

Until then, have a happy holiday. And to all, a better year in 2021.

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