The crush of widespread narcissism and incessant modernity that inhabit every corner of my Yorkville neighborhood frequently bum me out. Constant scenes confront me as my wannabe-wealthy neighbors rush across our proscenium, playing their roles in their soon-to-be-released Movie about Me. Even the briefest saunter down many of its side streets provides relief, however. Better stage sets survive in our local plethora of antique storefronts occupied by businesses with no visible means of support.
I lived for 25 years on the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights until 1994, near various edges of the Columbia University campus. Though the streets were quiet and chic was rare, retail rents gradually rose, pushing out the numbers parlors and shade and glass dealers that populated even some parts of Broadway, as well as the shabby lengths of Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. Since their first build-up in the late 19th century, major parts of the West Side above 72nd Street were architecturally more elegant than contemporary parts of Yorkville east of Lexington Avenue: modest side street stores were unusual on the Upper West Side, while they abounded in echt Yorkville. These conditions continued beyond the demolition of the Second and Third Avenue elevated railroads (in 1940 and 1955, respectively), even as Yorkville’s facade changed rapidly, at least on the avenues. Despite the relentless onslaught of high-rise apartment towers, many bow-fronted storefronts linger to this day in the East 70s and northwards. I treasure each one like an aged grandparent. Each obliteration feels like losing one I love.
My all-time favorite at 305 East 84th Street disappeared only a few years ago. But don’t rush over hoping that the new use preserved the past. Unfortunately the space has been stripped of its hoary fixtures. The entry foyer of this dumb-bell tenement house is flanked by two commercial spaces whose interiors stretch back through the building, wrapping around the back of the stairs that provide access to the apartments above. The western storefront was long occupied by a tavern. By all appearances, it hadn’t seen a customer since 1975. After I moved to the area, I walked past this building hundreds of times, never failing to peek inside. Many’s the time I stared for minutes on end at a scene worthy of Miss Havisham’s sad parlor.
A long wooden bar ran the length of the front room, unwashed glasses and half-filled liquor bottles bedecking the scarred counter-top and mirrored shelves. Dusty Christmas lights hung lifelessly. A cash register stood silent, its last sale rung up mechanically in a little glass display window, the cash drawer gaping open to discourage burglars. Did some grave misfortune bring on the final pour? It was years before I figured it out. I never saw a soul in the space. Locked and chained, some time capsule seemed to have been sealed and buried in plain sight. It was sad to find out why.
One evening I passed and saw a light in the back. I stood stock-still and waited. Through an interior doorway I glimpsed a kitchen in active use, and within a minute an old woman appeared in her apron and house-dress, going about her evening wash-up. Two and two were obviously four: the widow’s late husband had been the barkeep, and perhaps they owned the building or were family of the landlord. After his death, she’d moved out of their home and made her bed as close to his as circumstances would permit. No longer behind the bar or in the back helping out, living behind the store would bond her close to his precious memory.
I saw her once or twice again, and several times peered through the glass, only to see an illuminated but un-peopled kitchen. Then, even that space went dark again. Many months later, a paper sign was taped to the outside of the storefront. My worst fears were confirmed. The barkeep’s widow had passed on. The wake would be at a local parish church. No further information was provided.
It won’t be always so, but it took only a moment of thought for me to point myself towards solace. I headed soon to East 76th Street between First and Second Avenues. The block retains much of its old world, déclassé flavor. Almost all the buildings were constructed well before the turn of the 20th century as tenement housing for the legions of brewery workers, factory operatives and domestic servants who filled these cold water flats. Nary a trendy dining spot mars the block. The storefront extension of Mo’s Caribbean Bar and Grill at # 306, the day spa and nail salon, and the cell phone store and pet grooming palace a few doors down are the only signs of modernity on a lovely, gritty piece of Yorkville. And at # 311, the Victory Star Club sweeps me back to wartime and before.
Healthy snake plants and philodendron fill the front window, one that in its archaic splendor cries out plate glass (as if there’s any other kind !). An ornate \certificate issued by the New York Secretary of State solemnly announces the incorporation of the Victory Star Club on November 12, 1943. My recent search of the State’s records in Albany indicates that this not-for-profit entity is still “active.” But active doing what ? I must have walked by this storefront twenty times, glancing from the corner of my eye at the spotless Formica tables and dining chairs that fill the front of the space.
A motley assortment of graphic art decorate the walls. Cheap chrome-framed prints of Munch and Chagall hang side by side with race horses and girlie calendars. The 1940s naugahyde of folding chairs and a barbers sofa bench gleam out at me. Visions of poker games held among reticent capos and Mafia hit men dance in my head each time I walk by. Seldom do I muster the courage to linger and stare, even if the space is dark.
A few years ago, I even searched the title to the property, trying to find someone to contact by mail and dig out the story. I don’t have the balls to just go knock on the door. Something tells me that my long hair and Jewish face won’t be received in a friendly way. I got the latest deed. Sure enough, a man with an Italian surname owns the little tenement building, apparently by inheritance. But my letters went unanswered. I’ve seen a swarthy little older middle-aged man going and coming from the store and the adjacent tenement at # 309. He’s either the owner or the super. Maybe I’ll get up my nerve and call the super (I now know his name and phone number from a lobby sign) and get to the bottom of things. But something holds me back. Knowing more of that force would save me a lot of future shrink bills, methinks. I’m not alone, preferring fantasy to real life…
Static crackled through my brain as I nosed up to the glass to examine the certificate framed on the inside of the Victory Star Club window. The excitement must have addled me: I immediately lumped together the post World War I expression “Gold Star Mother” with the club’s name, assuming that somehow the membership was made up of parents who’d lost their sons in battle. I couldn’t let go of my mix-up, even when I realized the folly of my assumption. Frustrated with the meager results of my internet search for official records, I turned to another potentially fertile source.
The NYC Municipal Archives at 31 Chambers Street hold a microfilm collection of the hundreds of thousands of photos of every tax lot in the City, a database created in 1939-41 in a giant make-work WPA project. Though many of the films are darkened with age and hard to appreciate, the collection is a priceless resource for those in need. And sure enough, 311 East 76th Street showed up. The Victory Social Club’s immediate predecessor was an Italian grocery with a Salada Tea advertisement prominently placed in the show window. The western storefront contained a candy and tobacco store. Otherwise the building looks exactly the same today as it did 65 years ago. Too bad I can’t peek inside those old spaces. I’ll bet the wall clock that still adorns the Victory Star Club’s back wall once hung above the grocer’s counter. Shelves and radiators probably stayed when the store was converted to its current use.
I can track down all the documentary leads possible and continue to dig it out, but there’s really no substitute for the best medicine for what ails me: I just have to get inside there…
I’ll report back.