Thursday, February 8, 2007

Trees Fall: Seventh Ave. South between Charles and West 10th Streets

And I hear it
by David Crohn

With so many storefronts of all sizes dotting the typical downtown streetscape, it’s easy for the observer to forget that it isn’t faceless nature deciding what stays, what goes and the tenure of each occupant.
I mean, of course you know that there are people—people with fortunes, ambitions, and vicissitudes—behind the topography, but we’re rarely conscious of the fact. Most of the time our observations are steeped in the casual whimsy of the occasional consumer. And so we see the shuttered restaurant that once hosted a first date with someone we haven’t kissed in years and think, oh, that’s too bad.
The melancholy is in due course leavened by the anticipation of a stationary store that will replace the café; now we won’t have to trek uptown for that favorite pen or special grade of resume paper. And so, in the heart’s battleground, a very New York skirmish unfolds: the pragmatic versus the romantic, and the former wins. Anyway, mourning a single empty storefront would be like bemoaning a single fallen tree in a vast and dense forest.
But while surveying the streetscape on Seventh Ave. South between Charles and West 10th Streets this week, I noticed, really noticed for the first time, that the entire block was riddled with commercial casualties. Almost every business there has folded or changed hands in recent months. There’s an organic bakery replacing a copy shop, a vintage clothing store that moved elsewhere, a restaurant that morphed from a French bistro into a Moroccan tapas bar. Café Rafaello, a popular neighborhood hangout where I once saw David Johansen eating chicken wings and telling his family about CBGB, shuttered its doors. Like other paranoiacs, I do not believe in coincidences. There must be a reason for so much bad fortune all at once, some catastrophe or mustachioed villain behind my observation.
Not so, according to Andrew Pittel, of Pittel and Co.
“A bunch of leases just came up at the same time,” said Pittel, a broker who is familiar with the area.
Pittel is optimistic about the block’s future. He represents Kroman and Co., which owns another one of the commercial spaces that went out of business, a former pizza place at 131 Seventh Avenue South. He said he’s fielded interest in the 650-square-foot space from high-profile retailers and restaurateurs and looks forward to what he predicts will be a renaissance for the strip. With nothing but low-rise commercial establishments on the block, it’s like a miniature “mall,” he said, that could link up the two hubs—11th Street and the commercially thriving Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street—to the north and south.
Although restaurants have to compete against one another, entrepreneurs don’t frown on new neighbors. Said Pittel: “Competition breeds traffic, traffic breeds business.”
The only constants to survive the lease shakeup were Agave, a mid-priced Southwestern place; Tanti Baci, an intimate Italian bistro; and the generically named, ominously bland Village Cafe. It’s a trannie bar. If you’ve ever wondered what a linebacker in heels might look like, pop in. They’re open from 9pm to 4am. There’s an ATM inside.
It’s all commercial on this block. One block over in almost every direction though, the streets are lined with very old, very beautiful and expensive co-ops, ranging in price from $625,000 for a one-bedroom all the way up.
A good friend lives right around the corner, in a building that faces Seventh Avenue South on one side and Charles Street on the other. She will soon be able to enjoy an organic muffin and the sexually ambivalent (and ambiguous) company of the patrons at the Village Café anytime she wants. All that, for only $1,298 per month, which is not bad for a great West Village location. Her place is small, but it has huge windows with gorgeous views, and her rent is stabilized: she’s been there for about five years and the price has gone up in steady but small increments every year.
Residents and Regulars
Quentin Tarantino has a pied-a-terre on Charles, just east of Seventh Avenue South.
What Happened Here
Seventh Avenue South was built in 1917 to connect Seventh Avenue to Varick Street, which begins at Houston. This coincided with the building of the West Side Interborough Rapid Transit System—better known now as the 1, 2, 3 and A, C, E lines—and follows its original route. Many structures were demolished in the process, leaving behind the unusual triangular lots that characterize the Avenue below 11th Street.

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