Parting Ways with the Neighborhood They Helped Define

Photo by Scott Stiffler End of the Rainbows: After two decades on Eighth Ave., Rainbows &  Triangles will soon sell its last “Chelsea 10011” refrigerator magnet.

Photo by Scott Stiffler
End of the Rainbows: After two decades on Eighth Ave., Rainbows & Triangles will soon sell its last “Chelsea 10011” refrigerator magnet.

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  Lost leases, rent increases, a shifting residential dynamic and the influx of tourist and tech dollars are all playing their part in recasting the role of Eighth Avenue, between 14th and 23rd Streets.

Of the 115 ground level properties along that nine-block strip, nearly a third are chain stores, franchises or banks.

Starbucks has three locations. Subway, GNC and Chase appear twice — with single locations of Banana Republic, American Apparel, CVS, Rite Aid and Duane Reade occupying considerably more square footage than the narrow delis, salons, framing stores, florists and shoe repair shops.

This past weekend’s shuttering of the men’s clothing store Camouflage (at 17th), along with the imminent departure of gay lifestyle mecca Rainbows & Triangles (between 19th & 20th), are telling indicators that this patch of Chelsea has lost much of its magnetic pull. These days, new arrivals on the boulevard (be they foot traffic or businesses) are more likely to sport corporate logos than Pride stickers.

Photos by Scott Stiffler Read it and weep: A sign announces the Oct. 31, 2013 closing of Room Service, “due to the lease agreement” (their Hell’s Kitchen location, on Ninth Ave., btw. 47th & 48th Sts., remains).

Photos by Scott Stiffler
Read it and weep: A sign announces the Oct. 31, 2013 closing of Room Service, “due to the lease agreement” (their Hell’s Kitchen location, on Ninth Ave., btw. 47th & 48th Sts., remains).

While 2013 saw the opening of juice joints Liquiteria (corner of 15th) and Organic Avenue (at 21st) along with the frozen yogurt shop 16 Handles (at 19th), it also marked the departure of Paradise Cafe (20 years) and the Rawhide bar (34) as well as Ruben’s Empanadas, Donatella and the Thai restaurant Room Service (now confined to a singular Hell’s Kitchen location). Longtime remaining eateries include Flight 151 (24 years), Intermezzo (23), Rocking Horse Cafe (25), New Venus Restaurant (10) and The Dish (16).

In August, it was one last shower-drenched dance for the iconic go-go boys of Splash. When the bar/club/lounge arrived on West 17th Street in 1991, it sparked a great, gay migration and gave rise to dozens of nearby establishments catering to the “Chelsea Boy” lifestyle. Today, remaining gay-centric businesses on Eighth Avenue include three porn emporiums (Rainbow Station, The Blue DVD, The Blue Store) and a handful of menswear shops (including The Starting Line and EFOR). Once thriving and now gone: The Service Station spa and The Big Cup coffee shop, as well as Food Bar and Viceroy restaurants. Rawhide and View are no more, making Gym the Avenue’s only gay bar. But it was last August’s unexpected closing of Splash that may have dealt a fatal blow to the area’s reputation as a shop, schmooze and cruise destination (and its affordability as a place of residence has long been on the wane).

Photo by Scott Stiffler Rainbows & Triangles co-owner Steven Spiro: “We just tried to make a nice, affordable neighborhood shop.” For the past 20 years, they did.

Photo by Scott Stiffler
Rainbows & Triangles co-owner Steven Spiro: “We just tried to make a nice, affordable neighborhood shop.” For the past 20 years, they did.

RAINBOWS & TRIANGLES
“In terms of loss,” says Rainbows & Triangles co-owner Steven Spiro, “Splash was more of a psychological departure. It represented a big anchor for the neighborhood. Now there’s less foot traffic, in general,” he notes, observing that the current atmosphere has been a decade in the making. “The whole dynamic has changed, all the way from Sixth Avenue to the West Side Highway.” People are older, he says of his regulars (sixty percent of them from the neighborhood), “and their spending habits are different.”

The decision to close stems from the new building owner’s refusal to offer a new lease. Spiro says he and his business partner, Fernan Royo, won’t retreat into cyberspace or look for another brick and mortar location. “I have no regrets,” says the soon-to-turn-50 Spiro, “but I’m not sure the small business model works in today’s environment.”

After 20 years at the register, Spiro says he’s looking forward to a break from the daily grind of pop shop responsibilities (like salting the sidewalk, as he was this weekend when we approached him). But he’s proud to claim a few notable markers in the cultural ebb and flow of Chelsea. “We sold dance way before Virgin was in the U.S.,” he says, recalling when the store’s music collection made it “a gay destination, along with Splash and Roxy.”

Spiro and Royo also established a loyal customer base with their unapologetic stocking of poppers, leather and lube (first in the U.S. to carry Eros!) alongside Pride merchandise, refrigerator magnets, greeting cards and coffee table books. Customer Jimmy Lam, 50, who overheard our conversation, chimed in: “This is my favorite store, since I arrived in the states 23 years ago [from the Dominican Republic]. It’s the place where I come to buy my gay identity paraphernalia.”

“This was one of the first gay businesses that felt comfortable with selling adult video,” says Spiro. “We always gave our customers honest answers.”

Although the store has no official closing date, it will likely remain open for another month or two, at the most. “We’re running a Closing Sale. There will be a point where so much merchandise is gone that it won’t be worth it to open the door. That’s when we’ll be done. But we had a great run,” says Spiro, “with fantastic customers, friends and stories. We went through the worst years of the AIDS crisis to the years of crystal addiction, to seeing people enter into recovery. We made it through 9/11 and Sandy. No matter what happened, we just tried to make a nice, affordable neighborhood shop, which I think we did.”

Affordability weighs heavily on Spiro’s mind, having shaped the Avenue’s new dynamic just as much as changing demands and tastes. “I see lots of empty places,” he says of casualties that couldn’t make the two- or three-fold rent increase — and although he acknowledges that access to free adult video online and changes in the music business have added to his margin pressures, Spiro says the deciding factor for many small businesses is the combined burden of real estate taxes, rent and insurance. “At the end of the day,” he notes, “you’re working for the landlord and the city.”

ARCADIA SPA & HOME
With an expected closing date of March 25, owner Jay Gurewitsch (a 20-year resident of Chelsea) says that Arcadia has “suffered in the same way as Camouflage and Rainbows & Triangles, from the one/two punch of the Great Recession and the changes that have hit Chelsea over the last ten years.”

In 2011, Gurewitsch moved his store to 249 West 23rd Street, after six years on West 19th and five years in the former home of The Big Cup (located between 21st and 22nd, it’s now NY Lovely Nails & Spa). That expansion into to the Big Cup space was intended, says Gurewitsch, “to serve a community that disappeared during the recession. But they never came back.”

During his years on Eighth Avenue, Gurewitsch learned firsthand “the real reason why independent retailers close up all the time, either once their lease is up or abruptly in the middle of their lease.” His real estate bill (included in the rent the first year) went from $16,000 in the second year “to an insane $72,000 the year we moved out. As the tenant, we are not legally the taxpayer — the landlord is. So we cannot appeal NYC assessments, but of course, we are obligated as part of our lease to pay the tax bills.” With residential non-stabilized rents in the area greatly increasing “as more tech people moved in and more apartments were de-stabilized every year, the assessment on the building we were in skyrocketed. But the landlord had no interest in appealing it, because she doesn’t pay her tax bill.”

Gurewitsch’s lease obligated him to pay 50 percent of any increase in taxes over the base rate. “The numbers quickly became unsustainable,” he recalls, noting that’s what led him to apply for storefront space in Chelsea Gardens, a co-op on West 23rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

“Every apartment and retail space pays its fair share of the total real estate tax bill for the building,” says Gurewitsch, “so the store’s share was a miniscule few hundred dollars per year, and my lease specifically includes a maximum cap in the increase in real estate taxes the building can pass along to me.”

But insulation from “insane tax bills” weren’t enough to shield him from dynamics at work within his client base. First, there was the loss of core customers who, “while not rich, were ready to spend significant money ($100-500) on a fairly regular basis for gifts for friends and family and for decorating their own homes. The recession chased a significant portion of those folks out of Chelsea and in many cases out of NYC entirely.”

The newer tenants that have moved in over the past five years or so are also “far less tied to Chelsea as a distinct neighborhood and community.” These overwhelmingly young residents eye Chelsea more for the area’s centrality than its gay identity or proximity to the galleries — and they’re more inclined to shop online. Unlike those who arrived decades ago, bought into the market when it was cheap and remain to this day, new arrivals employed by Google (and soon, newly announced West 17th Street tenant Twitter) “fall into two very different and opposite categories: one, barely able to pay rent and keep food on their tables so all they can do is buy greeting cards (which don’t exactly pay Manhattan retail rent) or two, making so much money that, I kid you not, Arcadia is just not expensive enough for them. I have heard it repeatedly, especially in the last few years: ‘Your prices are too low.’ This at the same time I am dealing with customers complaining about my cards being too expensive, even though the prices on my cards haven’t changed in many years, and they are generally cheaper than the cards at CVS.”

Although he says closing negotiations with The Chelsea Gardens co-op have been “completely amicable, the bottom line is that if any business is to stay alive long term, it needs to keep changing or it will die.” After his brick and mortar days end in March, Gurewitsch plans to revamp his website (arcadianyc.com), eliminate shipping charges for some items, increase social media outreach and “focus more tightly on those products Arcadia has that no one else sells.”

Photos by Scott Stiffler Movin’ out, moving on: After 38 years, Camouflage vacated its corner space, on Eighth and 17th.

Photos by Scott Stiffler
Movin’ out, moving on: After 38 years, Camouflage vacated its corner space, on Eighth and 17th.

CAMOUFLAGE
This past Sunday, workers were wheeling out empty display cases, and other final remnants, from the store Norm Usiak founded with his business partner, Gene Chase (who succumbed to AIDS in 1996).

When Camouflage made its 1976 debut on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 17th Street, Usiak recalls, “what was so wonderful about Chelsea and the West Village was that it didn’t matter who you were. You were accepted. The whole area was an idea factory. It used to draw innovative, young people who came to New York to start their careers. You had so many actors, writers, production designers and theater people. Everybody was friendly, as long as you abided by the law and didn’t hurt anybody. In the 70s, it [Eighth Avenue] was predominantly straight. I’m straight, Gene was gay, and we were best friends. We always said that Camouflage was a clothing store for men. We didn’t care what they were.”

Although many say the migration started with the opening of Splash in 1991, Usiak traces the Chelsea’s rainbow population explosion to the 1994 Gay Games New York. After that, he says, “there was a tremendous flux of gay men into Chelsea. It became incredibly popular.” So popular, in fact, that a second store, Camouflage Downtown, was opened in 1987 — two doors down, but meant to “represent a new look, of what everyone south of 23rd Street was wearing; a bit more tight-fitting, tailored shirts, no pleats. Back then, jeans were becoming acceptable to wear with the sports jacket.”

One change that’s kind of nice: Nasty Pig (“innovative clothing and edgy products for the masculine, sexually self-assured man”) is moving to 259 W. 19th. “Coming Soon,” promises a sign in their 265A W. 19th St. store (seen here in its 2013 glory).

One change that’s kind of nice: Nasty Pig (“innovative clothing and edgy products for the masculine, sexually self-assured man”) is moving to 259 W. 19th. “Coming Soon,” promises a sign in their 265A W. 19th St. store (seen here in its 2013 glory).

In August of 2013, Camouflage Downtown closed. Last weekend, so did the original. “I gave that [Downtown] up for the same reasons I am giving up this one up, which is rent increases,” says Usiak, who notes the monthly asking price for the corner store went from $7,000 to $24,000 — a decision made by the building’s new co-op board. “They really never gave me an explanation. From what I’m told, the building needed more income and the only way they could get the income was increasing the retail rents or increasing their maintenance. I never had real estate taxes, but with the new lease, I would.” Still, he notes in a surprisingly upbeat tone, “If you own the building and somebody walked up to you and offered 23, and somebody offered you 24, I think 98 percent of the people would take the 24.”

Usiak, who turns 65 this year, says that rather than open at another location (estimated cost, over half a million), he’d like to do some consulting work and maybe “teach young people about retail and how to stay alive for 38 years, which is very difficult when you don’t own your property. I’m disappointed that I m leaving Chelsea, but to start a new business with the type of product I have, it’s just too expensive. My store is not the type you can put between a block. These [corner] windows have been my source of advertising.”

Right up to its final days, Usiak recalls, Camouflage remained a destination for  “those who want to feel the fabric, and see the quality,” and would spend the necessary amount for a product that has physical stylistic staying power. “I wouldn’t sell clothes that you can’t wear five years from now,” he says, noting it wasn’t uncommon to hear from customers “who came here in the late 70s, who bought a beautiful Perry Ellis coat they still own.” He does, however, acknowledge that by and large, “The Twitter and Google people, they buy online.”

As for the prohibitive rent increase, Usiak says the story of his store, and so many others forced to move from Eighth Avenue, are casualties not of the great gay migration, but of the trickle down tourist invasion. “The High Line had a lot to do with that,” he reasons. “When you bring in five to seven million tourists, the commercial landlords understand that means more people walking by their property. They calculate that as a reason why they’re raising the rent to these levels.”

With so many of his friends having left, Usiak says it’s the right time for him to part ways with the neighborhood he helped define. “But I can’t thank the Chelsea community enough in their support of my store and the friendliness they’ve shown to me.” Four of five months from now, he predicts, “Camouflage will be pretty well forgotten, and there will be something else on this corner. But do we really need another fast food store or bank? This is an incredible neighborhood that’s under a major change, and I’m hoping it still can keep a little bit of what makes it unique.”

NOTE: This article was updated on the evening of January 29, to reflect the correct age of The Dish and take into account Wayne’s reader comment about the “boom years” (that phrase was changed to “gay-centric”).

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