Wednesday, December 28, 2011
A Sharp Focus
I once was expressing my interest in traveling to Singapore to a friend, born in Taiwan and knowledgable regarding Asia. It seemed to be a beautiful destination - both tropical and pristine. However, said friend said that she would never go to any country that did not have an art museum (there is at least one art museum now). This reminded me of conversations in my early days in New York City - an echo of the sentiment against the well-manicured lawn and gentrification.
Puzzling, because I have always liked a beautiful lawn, as well as bonsai, topiary, and clean and tidy places. And conversations in my youth about gentrification also left me perplexed - I would always be pondering, what is wrong with an improved neighborhood?
Appreciation and patronization of very unique businesses that could only survive where rents were low began to give me a clue as to why people would vehemently object to gentrification. But it would be many decades and the loss of some of my favorite iconic businesses, such as Vesuvio's Bakery, before I would finally understand how the march of "progress" would typically mean the loss of not only the bad old things but also the good old things. Gentrification also means increased cost of housing, leaving neighborhoods all but unaffordable to virtually everyone except the super affluent. Soon, neighborhoods defined by ethnicity and their culture become defined by economics.
I began to see that clean and tidy in Manhattan usually came with sanitization, conformity, upscale tenants, and the closing of the small independent merchant in a niche market, unable to afford rising rents. So I have run to see the last of these best of breed. A number of the places I have written about in the last six years have already disappeared - Space Surplus Metals, Vesuvio, National Wholesale Liquidators, Ray's Pizza, etc. Others on my to-do list have closed before I had an opportunity to visit for photos and a story, such as Grand Machinery Exchange.
A handful of special, unique businesses still survive, many of which I have written: Joe's Dairy, Raffetto's, Schoen Trimming and Cord, Jim Murnak, Alidoro, il Laboratorio del Gelato, Cones, Faerman Cash Register, the Music Inn, and Matt Umanov Guitars.
I try to keep a keen eye out for those which I have not written about before it is too late, some renowned in their niche, such as Henry Westpfal & Company. Westpfal is located in the garment district at 115 West 25th Street. With a decor hearkening back to the 1950s, the place typifies the best of Olde New York where content is king. They have been in business since 1874 and have been managed by Cam Weinmann for the last 50 years. It is considered one of the best places (and few remaining) in New York City where virtually anything that has a blade can be sharpened - scissors, knives, straight-edge razors, and other tools. According to Cam Weinmann, "If you can't cut a tomato, you know your knife needs sharpening." At Henry Westpfal, for 137 years, the secret to small business success has been a sharp focus :)