A recent Village Voice piece under the category “My Rant” takes aim at the latest sign of what seems an irrevocable change in the demographic of the East Village: an Avenue B drinking establishment/atrocity exhibition yclept billy Hurricane’s — note self-conscious lowercase name, as if self-deprecation is at all possible if followed by the red-hot pitchfork capital that announces the storm’s arrival. Blogs like EV Grieve and Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York document this gentrification with nostalgia for old-school businesses and frequent disgust for the homogenization that continues to replace a vibrant commercial landscape. Every city deserves a project like James and Karla Murray‘s landmark Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York.
Store Front was originally released in 2008 as a massive coffee table book. Gingko press has now released a mini version, handsomely bound but easily carried around in your backpack as you take it around the city and gnash your teeth at what used to be. Even in 2008, a third of the storefronts documented in the Murray’s survey were gone. At this date who knows how many are left? For every Strand Books, whose proprietors own the building that has housed one of the world’s great bookstores for over 50 years, there are a dozen 12th Street Books, which left the shadow of the Strand for what it hoped were greener pastures in Brooklyn; renamed Atlantic Books, they shuttered their doors just last week.
The Murrays, who have also photographed the even more ephemeral work of graffiti artists in New York and Miami, began the Store Front project in 2001. 35mm camera and audio recorder in hand, they documented not only the public face of disappearing New York but record owners’ stories for posterity. The bold and sometimes eccentric typography, often hand-painted; the butcher shops with smoked meats hanging in the window (which were the reason the Murray’s neighborhood butcher had to close); these are more welcoming than another goddamned froyo or cupcake shop. Will future blogs, or whatever the medium is when we are all permanently wired to the grid, lament the lost Starbucks and CVS’s of the past?
I recently reviewed two films that also, in very different ways, look at the lost metropolis: 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, a document of the South Bronx in the midst of its bombed-out late 1970s devastation; and The Last New Yorker, a contemporary look at the changing city that does nobody any favors by creating for its mouthpiece a patronizingly written, befuddled old man. You don’t have to be a geezer to lament the passage of time. If you are at all interested in what’s happening to New York or any urban landscape, pick up Store Front, and a Gem Spa egg cream, while you can.