Journalists Felix Zeltner and Christina Horsten are the brains behind NYC12x12, a project in which they move to one New York City neighborhood each month, living in different areas of the city for one year. They’re blogging for Curbed during their journey, sharing insights and anecdotes from their travels through the five boroughs. Read on for Felix’s fourth dispatch, and check back for more insights from their NYC exploration.
Our neighbors are a crucial part of our project. Not only do they help us get acclimated, but they also provide context to a part of town we only experience for four weeks at a time. With that in mind, today we’d like to introduce you to four of the people we’ve met throughout our journey, and share the stories of their neighborhoods—and how they’ve changed.
Eric Fertman, an artist, has lived and worked in East Williamsburg—where we stayed for the month of November—for the past 20 years. Our apartment is on the second floor of a small building on Humboldt Street; we invited Fertman over for our monthly neighborhood dinner, which we have hosted in each of the four neighborhoods we have lived in so far.
“It’s just as shitty as it’s ever been over here,” he says. “The only thing is, there are young people here now. That’s nice, because it was really depressing before. There were no restaurants here—just a pizza place and a White Castle.”
Eric’s woodworking studio occupies the ground floor and the basement of our building. “When I moved in, I thought I’d stay for a year,” he explains. “It used to be a deli. It had been abandoned, with all the food in it, for two years. It was full of cockroaches, rats, even squirrels. It was disgusting.” He ended up staying because it was affordable (though he doesn’t divulge what he pays in rent now).
All of East Williamsburg was pretty much artists and older Italian folks at the time, he says. His landlord is an Italian tailor who used to have a factory on the same street, making dresses for Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and the like. He says there was only one raise in 20 years—right after September 11. “The negotiation was like: ‘Eric, you know I treat you like family’, and then: Bam! He raised it by a lot,” Fertman says. “He is a very sweet guy, but he will fight with you like crazy. To him, it’s just negotiating, like: ‘I’m gonna f*ing kill you!’, and the next day ‘Eric, how are you? You look great! Great doing business with you.’”
But as the years have gone by, younger, newer residents have brought more stores, more restaurants, and more life. But Fertman thinks gentrification hasn’t turned East Williamsburg completely around yet—not like “Williamsburg proper” as he calls the other side of the jam-packed Brooklyn Queens Expressway.
While living in Long Island City, the first stop on our journey, we read about sisters Tish and Snooky in the book New York Originals, and learned that their famous Manic Panic brand was located only steps away from our apartment. “What? Manic Panic is right here? They were the most important thing for me all my punk years!” our neighbor Matte said when we told him. The sisters started off as background singers for Blondie, and have since become both punk heroines and two of the most successful women in the cosmetics industry.
Manic Panic’s headquarters is located in a large brick building in the industrial part of the neighborhood, next to a Fresh Direct warehouse and a veterans’ housing complex. Every floor is packed with long-standing arts and craft businesses. On the fourth floor, the doors opened into a crowded office whose walls are plastered with pages ripped from magazine, photographs of famous faces, and punk memorabilia. A dozen or so employees, all with brightly colored hair, were working when we visited.
Nearly 40 years ago (on July 7, 1977), Tish and Snooky opened their first store on St. Marks Place in the East Village, but got priced out in 1989, eventually landing in Long Island City. “This place was so different then”, Snooky says, explaining that the now-gentrified waterfront—with its high-rises and manicured parks—was more like “a jungle”. She continues, “we discovered a hidden bar by the waterfront—that’s the only reason we would go over there.” But today, that bar is more popular than ever, neighboring the studios of artist Matthew Barney.
Long Island City once served as a hideout for many creative types, but as the neighborhood has changed, even the successful ones are being priced out. Despite running a global business with stores and warehouses on both sides of the Atlantic, Tish and Snooky’s long-term lease is coming to an end, and the future is uncertain. “At this stage of the game, we should actually be doing the fun stuff,” Tish explains. “But we don’t know whether they will be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood.”
When we moved from Long Island City to Chinatown, we learned there was a whole different kind of change going on in the neighborhood. Young Chinese-Americans were coming back to revitalize their family’s businesses. Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, Wing on Wong, and Wonton in a Million are a just a few examples.
A friend introduced me to Paul Eng, a photographer who, together with his wife and two daughters, attended our Chinatown neighborhood dinner. “I just came back—I did ten years of photography in Russia,” Eng told us. “Now that I’m back, it’s [all about] tofu.”
Eng’s family runs the oldest tofu manufacturer in Chinatown, named Fong Inn Too. His grandfather started the business in 1933 after emigrating to the U.S. from China through Cuba. The store is located on Mott Street, a small, beloved neighborhood fixture with a red awning. Still, “it’s a challenging environment,” Eng says. “We never expanded beyond Chinatown. We’re still local. We make tofu every day. If you want it, here is a box or a bucket. We never packaged it and put it in supermarkets.”
When Eng returned to Chinatown from Russia, where he met his wife and started a family, he wanted to continue his life as a photographer. But he realized the store’s profits were dwindling and decided to try to reinvigorate it, even if he is new to the tofu business and his relatives will retire soon. “My family, this is their pension,” he explains. “The business—and the buildings.”
Like many in Chinatown, Eng’s family owns the building, along with a few other warehouses in the area. But the buildings are not made for housing, and renting them commercially has proven difficult. Eng, born and raised here, is now searching for a future for his family, their business—and the neighborhood. “The store is not in good condition. We will probably have to close down,” he says. But he also remains hopeful that “it can be reborn somehow.”
Now, dear reader, we would love to hear from you. What’s your neighbor whose story should be told? Let us know, either in the comments or through our website. We will follow up here, on Instagram and in our newsletter.