Sunday, January 12, 2014

Gray’s Papaya

Empty letters on the façade above taped over windows. Sad, forlorn outlines reminding us something that we knew well is gone forever 

Used to be such a lively place, always lots of customers, take out or scarfing down some hot dogs with beverage. A place to pause for nourishment while in this city on the go.

Gray Papaya had great hot dogs. For the longest of time they sold two for 99 cents. You could eat lunch for two bucks through the 1990s. The hot dogs were loved for the garlic overtones. I liked them, I never really ate there but only because eating hot dogs is not a high priority. I’m more of a pizza slice guy.

But those who loved them really loved Gray’s. A friend tells me when her friend from Philadelphia visits, she insisted on Gray’s for one lunch. Another friend mentioned her days as a club kid, stopping at Gray’s after a long night of partying before getting on the PATH. I remember taking classes and walking a fellow student, she always stopped there to get her hot dogs before heading home. My sister told me of eating Gray’s before this event she went to – she needed something cheap and fast and while they may not have been the healthiest food item, they were great hot dogs.

All just memories now and the hollow frames where bight yellow letters that once tempted your taste buds into straying from your diet now remind us of not just a country that used to be, but how the wealthy class is transforming our surroundings to suit their purpose, and making the life we knew go away.

Gray’s Papaya on 8th street closed without notice to the public. The social media outcry alerted me and while I was far from a regular, the news was another incremental heartbreak about what is happening to Greenwich village. Gentrification is an insufficient term to describe the accelerated transformation from an historic bohemian and working class enclave to a glossy and shallow massive college campus and student quad for the next generation of the privileged class.

Last year, I recorded the passing of the beloved Barnes& Noble, right across the street. The soon to be out of work employees told me that a lot of these buildings were owned by a single landlord who had recently denied, the family sold them to NYU who is jacking up rents because they have a vision of what the 21st century village should look like, which I guess is to resemble as close as possible a food court in a the most upscale Shopping Mall in Dubai.

Facebook scuttlebutt confirmed the scenario described to me during the final days of 8th street B&N. Gray’s Papaya rent was raised a whopping $20,000, forcing this outlet of the local franchise to close. It’s not that Gray’s Papaya was not a successful business. A valuable service – affordable food – was provided to a community – about a dozen people were employed and a profit was made – by both the owners of the enterprise and the owners of the property and lease.

But here’s the rub. The goal of the stage of capitalism we happen to be living is that profits must be maximized. It is not enough to just make a profit; and in fact, what is a reasonable profit is no longer specifiable. Greed is the objective. How else to justify an increase that doubles and triples a rent.

Even that explanation falls short of fully telling us why the 8th street Gray was terminated. A sign says some kind of Bubble Tea (as a die-hard tea drinker (I never drink coffee) bubble tea is an acquired taste I’ve yet to acquire) emporiums is promised, although it is unclear that if this will include Gray’s and the adjacent now closed hat store (a great store that sold affordable headwear, closed around the same time as B&N and still shuttered) or if Gray will become what I can only gather from internet scuttlebutt to be some hideously sounding beverage place called : Liquidteria (does that sound awful or what!)

I find it dubious that these food & BEVERAGE chains, who sound as if they have a trendy and international sheen, will be drastically more profitable than Gray’s. Gray’s had a steady customer based – the place seemed always packed and lively – and was probably the cheapest lunch for a three block radius (there are inexplicably no pizzerias close to this corner, but even getting slices may be slightly more costly than the Gray hot dog special, they certainly are not less expensive). Of course, this is a prime corner, residents, workers, tourists, NYU and New School students and of course those who ride the PATH and consider this neighborhood another environ in our lives. It’s busy, so almost any establishment has a shot generating revenue just because of the potential revenue from the vast numbers of people passing by here any day.

Those same numbers were there for Gray’s. Will the enticement of Bubble Tea so significantly outweigh the proven demand for Gray’s that Bubble Tea generated revenue will cover the jacked up rent, provide a “reasonable” profit to the owners of the franchise, and employee the same number of people (that and their wages are of course, an ignored metric!)

I’m… to under-state my opinion… doubtful. If normal business practices and concerns still prevailed, the gamble of getting the jacked up rent from similar (F&B) businesses verses the infeasible rent increase that forced a proven and well established business to close seems like an unwise choice. There is no sort of rent control for commercial businesses; once the lease is up, property owners can do as they see fit. Residential laws are different, mitigating sudden displacements of populations from an area they call home. This contrast results in the urban experiencing of finding yourself living in the same home yet everything you used to know and love being here one year and gone the next.

Gray’s didn’t get killed because it was an outmoded business and “Liquidteria” isn’t moving here because it is some kind of superior business model. The degree of profitability is not the issue at all. Like the closing of B&N (a year later, the building is still fallow) the entire block – actually more than the block – is being transformed into some NYU vision of the village as a massive college campus. It does not take an unjustified leap of imagination to conclude the ultimate financier of this urban planning are the excessive college loans students require to pay for their education, a digression I’ll avoid. Gray’s – a business believed by students but not part of this vision – is only the latest causality. The leases and agreements with the business going into the space will not be made public, and there’s no recourse addressing how justifiable the rent increase was. It’s not like the corner of 8th street & 6th Avenue is up to plebiscite. One F&B business is the same as the next to a city’s Planning Board.

8th street used to be so lively. Now, many storefronts are dark. Besides the cap store, there was the Silver Age Comic Book shop and 8th Street records, which had a great bootleg selection and other funky shoe stores and clothing boutiques. All gone. The replacements have yet to arrive. I noticed this last year and I purposely walked the street again for this blog and those same storefronts are still dark. An entire year – and obviously more – of no business being conducted, no jobs being created.

All these businesses were profitable, met their lease agreements but when that lease was up for renewal, the increase was purposely too high for those existing businesses to afford. How can owners of property sustain what by all appearances seem to be years of revenue loss.

Because the profitability of Gray’s and the jobs it created and the service provided to the community are inconsequential to the NYU goal of global change. Higher education, especially in the private realm, now that is a money making racquet. No oversight to value delivered or limit to prices charged, students take out six figure loans, augmenting the wealthy spawn enrolled; adjuncts, who teach most classes, get coolie wages while presidents and deans make high six figures. (nearby Cooper’s Union is charging tuition for the first time in its 100+ year existence). The bigger picture is inconceivable to us mere mortals bemoaning the loss of a venerable and landmark hot dog stand. It’s not just abut the corner, or even about 8th street and what it will become) it is about the entire swath of the isle of Manhatto from 14th to Houston. Individual businesses and jobs, the fabric of what non-students, non-faculty members and other non-college employees once thought helped define the quality of their lives has been or soon will be eliminated. The business of higher education now dominates what once was a working class haven and bohemian refuge.

It sucks. It was not inevitable. It can still be changed, but there’s no counter plan and next to no hope.

Two economic news items ended 2013 and greeted 2014.

1)      The Stock Market had its best year in like 17 years or something, a year resembling not just a pre-recession financial crisis year, but a 1990’s boom year.

2)      Unemployment did not go down in any significant way and the jobs created pay about half as much as they did in the 1990s. 2013 ended with 20 people looking for every job created.

How can those two economic trends exist?

Easy. Companies can have increased sales but are under no obligation to create jobs in the United States. Corporations receive no tax breaks or other incentives for job creation. It’s not news that manufacturing is done overseas because workers are paid slave wages and working conditions are unsafe. It’s also not news that the tax laws and other economic policies favor the investor class, who now can pool larger resources to create a chain of F&B dispensaries the stock holders make dividends, a manger of several stores can work his or her ass off for the bottom rung of a middle class salary and everyone else makes minimum wage. Even franchises where there is an onsite owner/manager is an outmoded business model. If you’re an independent business owner, who took a risk on a neighborhood and became one of the stabilizing influences that midwifed the transition from urban decay to urban renewal, you get slapped in the face with an impossible to meet rent hike. If the corporation comes up with a F&B business conducive to the entire transformation of a city into a campus, there’s no risk for the chain’s investors or the investors guiding the ruination then reinvention of 8th street.

This isn’t capitalism any more. The forces of supply and demand are not work. An empowered investor class intent on increasing investment derived revenue is not some function of an invisible hand. Those who have won will win again and those losing will not just lose more, but grow in number.

The nation’s economic wealth is not longer measured by job growth. In fact, lack of job growth enhances the stock market. Companies cut pay roll to become more profitable and those left work harder, use more technology and when it comes to the hard work of actually making something, that’s all done in other countries.

Those responsible, those making those decisions, they never ate at Gray’s.

Well, you don’t read Dislocations for economic lessons but this was an exception.

Remember Grapes of Wrath, when they push Muley off the land and he asks who is doing it, and he’s the Shawnee Land & Cattle Company, but and it is not a who, but a company, but the company is owned by the Bank in Tulsa, and that manager is just taking orders from banks “back east,” and Muley wants to know who to convince him to keep his land, “who to shoot.”

The man giving him the conviction notice, says “I don’t know who to shoot, if I did, I ‘d tell ya.”

Later, the cats – the large tractors – come by and plow the little shack away but he threatens the driver, who he knows, with shooting him and asks how can you do this against your own and he replies, “$3.00 a day,” telling Muley that everybody is their own look out and if you shoot me they’ll hang you for sure and there will be somebody here tomorrow to finalize the eviction, to remove a way of life, to ensure the profitability of the investment.

That early scene in both the novel and film came to mind as I took pictures of the renovation inside of Gray’s Papaya. The sink still working, the clock still telling the time, but everything else a dismantled mess, a crumpled sign still promising Tabs – you could run a Tab at Gray’s

This corner is as much a part of the life of many Jersey City folks as many corners in our own city. Gray’s is within our orbit, we share in the loss.

Cities change all the time. One person’s shock is another’s gradual process. I hate the idea of being a cranky old man croaking about how life was so much better back in my day.

What is happening now though – and Gray’s Paypa no longer being on 8th street is the latest example of this – is upheaval. Our society’s priorities are now entirely to make rich people richer. Income inequality is being raised, the new Mayor of New York is a progressive, President Obama seems to fight the good fight but all to willing to settle for incremental victories.

The change that is needed is comprehensive. The New Deal got us out of the Great Depression by creating the Middle Class, but it was more than just a series of complex economic policies. The New Deal happened by  a change in attitude about the role of government in structuring the economy, a role that beginning with Ronald Reagan and finalized by George W. Bush has so unraveled that any solution now seems unattainable.

We can no longer buy affordable delicious hot dogs and there’s nobody to shoot.



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