Pam’s Pictorama Post: If you are going to live in a city like New York you should have a pretty thick skin about change. After all, cities are constantly evolving, building new on top of old and on a relatively small island like Manhattan the land grab means constantly shifting vistas. Having said that, change is somewhat anathema to my nature – I have a catlike love of continuity and routine. Therefore, in some ways, I live in a state of discomfort here. And, until recently, Yorkville the tiny post-German enclave hanging over the edge of the Upper Eastside was somewhat beneath notice. However, it has started to catch up with us.
With some dismay I have been watching and waiting for the dissolution of the southwest corner of 86th and First Avenue in favor of ridiculously expensive condos. (York Avenue is undergoing a similar demolition at 86th, curling around a building housing a diner and a newsagent, 86 on one side, York on the other.) For the handful of you how follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you have seen some of these photos as I started to record it.
When I first moved to the ‘hood, back in about ’88, the diner shown here on the corner was my diner and in many ways it stayed my neighborhood diner. (To be clear, I also have a diner near work and perhaps some day I will outline this complex relationship which is very special. Kim once visited and remarked that it was like I was Mayor of a small town there.) In those early years when I was cooking for a living and this diner was a daily stop for a (large) pre-dawn breakfast before a day of cooking in midtown. In Manhattan (and perhaps elsewhere, but I have never really lived elsewhere as an adult) your diner is the place where they know you on sight and generally know how you like your coffee and your eggs. As a recent grad new to the city this seemed like a miracle of friendliness. The owner once asked me on a date in those early years which took me quite by surprise – I was more easily surprised at that age. I said no thank you. I believe I was already dating the crazed fellow chef as mentioned recently in my post of Catskill remembrance, The Wigwam.
This diner actually moved to Second Avenue as the dissolving of the corner began, taking over an existing lesser diner’s spot and it’s name, and where they are enjoying the long anticipated Second Avenue subway boom. Although I have not needed a local diner for a long time I have fallen into the habit of meeting a friend there on weekends and, low and behold, the waiter remembered our orders this weekend. Nothing short of a miracle. Seems I have a diner in the neighborhood again.
The corner in question has been where Christmas trees have been sold in recent years. (When I first moved here they were sold on an empty lot on First – can you imagine an empty lot! Highrise there now.) I especially enjoy when the Christmas tree folks set up camp for a few weeks. They come right before or immediately after Thanksgiving. Their fragrant pines create a temporary forest. Part of me objects to the idea of growing these trees just to cut them down and serve them up for a short-term sentence of decoration in someone’s home – but the smell is glorious and our out-of-town guests a nice change of pace.
Beyond that, heading across 86, was what had been our grocery store for years, a Gristedes. I cannot really mourn the loss, it was poorly run, grimy and you always had to watch the register and your change for mistakes. However, there was (and I am so very sorry not to have a photo of it now) a VERY large green pear (we’re talking human-sized) attached to the front of the store which christened it as the Pear Store in the Pam/Kim vernacular of daily life, as in “Yeah, I’ll pick it up from the Pear Store on the way home.” Replaced in our house largely first by Fresh Direct, then Fairway and then the addition of a Whole Foods, we also cling to a Gristedes on York for general grocery needs. However, this store is a wondrous single story – yep, nothing above it, a row of brownstone walk-ups peering over it. We knew we were on borrowed time as Manhattan hates nothing so much as the opportunity to build upward, and I understand the air rights went for a mint. In general, the loss of this corner will mean a loss of light on the ground for us daily denizens of the neighborhood, as what is likely to come will be hulking and light obscuring for sure.
Inching further down the block I will add that there once was a splendid hole-in-the wall Russian restaurant on the far side of the grocery store. It must have housed about eight tables. They made heavenly blini for a bargain price. If you weren’t careful however, they gave you large servings of kasha with your entree and the middle-aged Russian proprietress would yell at you if you didn’t finish it. I didn’t realize that kasha was a smell from my childhood – Russian Jewish grandparents on my father’s side, Sunday lunches – and I hate it. Probably hated it as a child too. No kasha for me. (I had my last date with my ex-boyfriend Kevin there. We ate there frequently and had gone there after returning from a trip to a wedding in Maine where he broke the news that he was calling it quits after seven years.) The storefront has since become a high-end drugstore and I believe is not being torn down.
Zipping back around to the First Avenue side of the block, there was briefly a rather interesting store that sold nothing but pickles and olives. They relocated to Lexington Avenue where frankly they seem to do a better business. Then there was a sort of pop-up dollar store where Kim purchased some dubious readers (eyeglasses I mean, you can still see the sign for it), a fairly traditional barbershop, a bar, and most recently a sort of city-run residential halfway house of some kind. While I do not especially bemoan much along that stretch, I will mention that the apartments above the diner on the corner were long coveted by me. Corner views are always especially nice and look at that top floor – that must have been lovely – there are skylights and a glassed in room at the top. Sigh. Can’t really envy it now because if I lived there I would be looking for a new perch here in Yorkville – and unlikely to afford it!