A Tale of Two Buildings, 55 and 57 Spring Street
There is no truth, only stories. –Thomas King
Investors want to change the zoning of two buildings in the Special Little Italy District. Having purchased two adjacent structures, 55 and 57 Spring Street, for a total of more than thirty million dollars, they wish to commercialize the backyard spaces. They can only do so by petitioning the Planning Commission of New York City, by asking the Commission to remove the properties from the Special Little Italy District and to rezone them.
A fight between the residents who live nearby and the investors is expected. I thought that a brief recent history of the two buildings and of the surrounding neighborhood might help to decide the future of the properties. Having accumulated facts from the web, conversations, and hearsay, I here render a tale of two buildings east of Lafayette and north of Petrosino Square, admittedly anecdotal.
55 Spring Street
The 55 Spring story has two versions, the former owner’s and the storefront tenant’s, both as told to me, with only a few minor discrepancies between the two narratives.
Marlow Ferguson’s Version
I talked on the phone recently with Marlow Ferguson who is now 84 years old. He remembers having bought 55 Spring for $400,000 in 1975 with a $12,000 down payment. An actor and carpenter who would rather construct sets than act, Marlow began renovating the rental units immediately. He installed new plumbing himself. “Did you get permits to renovate?” I asked him. “What’s a permit?” he joked.
At the time young artists in nearby SoHo were illegally renovating spaces to live in illegally. Few of them got permits from the city. Their projects were not legal, the plumbing and electrical workers were usually not licensed, and getting permits from the city would have delayed their progress.
As soon as he purchased the building, Marlow froze the rents of the tenants of 55 Spring, most of them elderly Italian-Americans, at rent-controlled rates well under $100 a month. He and another actor/carpenter used the ground floor space to build things.
Marlow’s impulse was to protect the residents who had grown up in the neighborhood. He told me that a landlord that he knew of at the time told his secretary to make a list of the twelve tenants who paid the lowest rents. The landlord then filed to evict the twelve. Fearful and ignorant of their rights, half of them moved out. The others remained after fighting with the landlord in housing court.
Often several generations of one family lived in separate apartments in the same building. Gina Cecala, a widow and the current super of 55 Spring, often referred to now as the “Mayor of Spring Street.” was a young married woman when Marlow bought the building. Her sister and her parents lived in the building until they died. Gina lives there now. See the New York Times, On Spring Street, She Rules the Roost:
John J. Gotti was often seen walking along Spring Street with friends. One day, as Gotti stopped to rest for a minute, Marlow saw him leaning on his building and confronted him in jest. “Excuse me, Mr. Gotti, I don’t want to bother you, but I am afraid that if you lean here too long there will be bullet holes in the façade of my building.”
”Very funny, Marlow,” Gotti answered slowly and deliberately.
Even though he knew that Marlow was making a joke, Gotti moved. He straightened up, turned around, and walked away, exhibiting the strict, formal code of respectful behavior practiced on the sidewalks and streets of Little Italy. He leaned instead next door, on the façade of 53 Spring, Lombardi’s Restaurant, where Gennaro Lombardi had opened the first pizzeria in America in 1905.
Marlow wrote several plays, one about the exploits of a neighborhood character, Richard, whose success with women was legendary. The play created a buzz in the neighborhood. Everyone who knew Marlow and Richard gleefully attended the opening night.
When I spoke with him the other day, Marlow couldn’t remember the name of the play he had written about Richard. It was just one of many plays that he wrote during his years in the city. Indeed, he couldn’t even remember who Richard was, off the top of his head.
I am sure that the women in the neighborhood who knew Richard will never forget him; he cut such a dashing figure walking up Spring Street to and from his small used furniture shop at 51 Spring, where Vive la Crepe is located now.
Today Spring Street is so crowded with tourists that no one could possibly stand out and be noticed, except for the few people walking along the sidewalks while texting on their phones, the ones who expect everyone else to get out of the way. A docile herd mentality appears to prevail.
In 1991 Marlow directed a play in Roanoke, Virginia, written by Karon Sue Semones, who had grown up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She moved to the city to be an intern with the Muppets and stayed in Marlow’s building. She was one of many aspiring artists, actors and musicians who were moving into Little Italy at that time. As young Italian-Americans were fleeing, intellectuals and artists of all sorts took their place.
The newcomers were less stable than Marlow. Seeking new lives, they lived close to the bone. They chose to live in Little Italy because it was safe and it had cheap apartment rents.
Marlow and Karen Sue fell in love, became life partners, and made plans for a life outside of New York City.
In 1992 Marlow rented out the West storefront and basement of 55 Spring at a reasonable rent of $1,800 a month. to two French bakers who planned to open a patisserie/coffee shop.
Marlow’s play didn’t get to Broadway. He sold 55 Spring a few years after signing the lease with the French bakers. He and Karon Sue moved away, eventually settling in Roanoke, Virginia, where their theater, The Star City Playhouse, has presented more than one hundred outstanding but rarely performed plays.
The Storefront Tenant’s Version
One of the French bakers, Herve Grall told me this version. It starts twenty-five years ago as Herve is walking along the sidewalks of Little Italy towards 55 Spring Street. By chance, he encounters John Zaccaro who is on his way to work at his real estate office on Lafayette St. The two men know each other because Herve helped Zaccaro’s son set up a pasta factory, The Ravioli Store, that opened in1989.
While greeting each other, Herve tells Zaccaro that he is on his way to sign a lease to rent a storefront property. He plans to open a coffee shop in partnership with another French baker, Laurent Dupal. The ground floor will be named “Ceci Cela” and the two men will bake croissants and French desserts in the basement each night to supply fresh pastries daily. Zaccaro insists that he accompany Herve to the lease signing to make sure that Herve’s interests are protected.
In the late 1980’s many entrepreneurs were opening up small storefront coffee shops in the East and West Villages, paying $2,500 a month in rent, an amount that seems low today, but at the time was high, and many of the shops were going out of business after a year. Zaccaro was well aware of the trends in real estate and he was concerned that Herve’s rent might be too high for a business that was just starting.
In Herve’s version of the story as I understood it, he and Zaccaro met with Marlow Ferguson. The lease was revised. The rent was lowered. Terms favoring Herve were written into the lease. Zaccaro convinced Marlow, who was planning to sell the building in the near future, that having a tenant in the storefront with low rent and long tenure would not lower the sale price of the building.
Twenty-five years ago, Little Italy was still an Italian neighborhood. It was not an uncommon practice for local Italian owners when they were about to sell their buildings to sign long leases renting out their storefronts to a neighborhood friend or associate, leases as long as 20 or 30 years in duration, at rates well under the current market rate. This practice, while seeming on the surface to be a disadvantage to the buyer, had a salutary effect on the neighborhood, maintaining Italian influence at the street level where safety and comportment mattered. Marlow may not have been familiar with this custom, but Zaccaro certainly was.
Herve was a wonderful neighbor, friendly and responsible, and fun to talk with. Ceci Cela served the neighborhood with gracious business practices as well as delicious food.
Even though the bakery could have profited greatly from having a beer/wine license, the business never applied to New York State for one. “Out of respect for the neighbors,” Sandra Dupal, Laurent’s wife, told me.
The neighbors do not want any more places serving alcohol in the neighborhood. With the granting of a simple beer/wine license in a building that has never had one before, there is a chance that a business might ask for a full operating license in the future.
Because licenses to sell liquor in NY state grant the right to serve alcohol until 4 am, the local residents see any beer/wine license as the first step in a process that leads to late night clubs, crowds of loud, drunken young people on the streets at all hours, and pounding drumbeats that interrupt sleep. Powerful national “beverage” lobbies and an army of their lawyers fight local residents cleverly and fiercely, and they influence legislators to make laws in favor of their industry.
When Vive la Crepe moved in a few doors away, shortly after Ceci Cela had begun to add crepes to their menu, the bakery stopped making crepes. Because everything the bakery offers is excellent – quiches, ices in summer, holiday cakes, sandwiches, the best croissants in town and the best coffee in the neighborhood – the business does not have to compete with any other businesses. It just keeps producing excellent and fresh products that sell out every day.
When a chocolate shop opened next door and replicated Ceci Cela’s menu, the bakery took it in stride and didn’t complain. The chocolate shop didn’t last long. I heard that it closed because the rent was too high and the space was too small.
When a French pastry cart was slated to operate in the nearby park, Petrosino Square, Ceci Cela did not oppose a fellow baker, even if she was moving in on their territory. Local residents fought and defeated the cart, hoping to keep commerce out of the park. Matt Viggiano from the office of Councilmember Margaret Chin successfully negotiated a solution, finding another spot for the cart.
Until the late nineties, many of the storefronts west of Lafayette on Spring Street were occupied by tanneries and wholesale leather stores. There were two in a row just west of the door to my basement drawing studio at 64 Spring, a few across the street, and one named Minerva Leather in the space that is now occupied by Balthazar’s.
An old couple had a leather store next door to my studio entrance in a building owned by John Zaccaro. Theirs was one of the last leather stores remaining in SoHo.
One very hot summer day I saw the couple outside on the sidewalk. An eviction notice was posted on their door and locks prevented them from going inside their store where rolls of valuable leather remained. The husband sat in the glaring sun on a folding chair. They had been locked out of their business because their lease was up.
The wife sought refuge from the sun in the stairway of my studio making phone calls. As I walked up the stairs past her I heard her say into the phone, “Thirty-seven years of work with no vacation and it comes to this.”
My heart jolted. “I’ll do something about it, “ I said to her.
“No. Don’t,” she replied.
But I did do something about it.
Knowing that Herve was friendly with John Zaccaro, I went straight to Ceci Cela and told Herve.
“But they lost their lease quite a while ago and haven’t moved their leathers out, so the new tenants can’t move in,” he said.
“I have a friend who is an investigative reporter and she is coming by today,” I said. Then I threatened, “I am going to ask her to write about the old couple locked out in the sun.” Actually, I did have such a friend who was on her way to visit me about something else. I am careful never to threaten anything that I would not or could not do.
Herve was alarmed. “I had better call Zaccaro right away and tell him. He won’t want any negative publicity,” he said as he rushed to the back of the store towards the telephone.
Later that day, in front of the bank, by pure chance, I happened to see the best friend of the daughter of the old couple.
“Look at the trouble you’ve caused,” she said. “Everyone is angry with you. Steve Levin is furious. They have been given plenty of time to get out. Their own daughter is angry with them.”
“OMG,” I thought to myself, “I didn’t mean to cross Steve Levin.” Then I remembered having seen a big sign in the window naming Sinvin, Steve’s company, as the rental agents.
Steve Levin had helped me to rent Crosby Painting Studio in 1999, so I was indebted to him, but, to my mind at that moment, the old couple sitting in the hot sun mattered more than my bond with Steve.
So right there on the sidewalk in front of the bank, I shot back at her with bitter sarcasm. “I am sorry that I tried to help the old couple,” I said. “Please forgive me. Next time when I see an old couple baking in the sun. I will be as heartless and cruel as you and their daughter. I will pass them by and think to myself that it serves them right, the old fools.”
But I lied. I would do the same next time. Let them all hate me.
There was sort of a happy ending. That Friday afternoon, the couple’s son, wearing a yarmulke, loaded a truck with the store’s valuable rolls of leather with the help of a few men. They vacated the store and then drove away, with enough time to drive to their destination well before the sun would be setting and the sabbath would begin.
Ceci Cela’s lease in the storefront of 55 Spring will be up soon. The landlords will not renew it. The bakery is at peace with its destiny. It has opened a beautiful new store on Delancey between Bowery And Christie very close to my new drawing studio.
57 Spring Street
An online photograph taken of 57 Spring Street in 1986 and a picture that I drew of it in 1987 will have to be worth a thousand words each, because I don’t have any inside information about the building.
It is common knowledge, though, that Anthony Miccio, (1884-1965), an immigrant from Italy, moved his business, Milan Laboratory, into the storefront of 57 Spring in 1937 and that his grandsons, Anthony and Paul Miccio, moved the business out of the building in 1998 because they couldn’t get along with each other.
Walter Grutchfield reports that the New York Time wrote in February, 1999:
“Milan Lab dates to the turn of the century, when Mr. Miccio’s great-uncle opened a brewing shop on West Broadway. He was joined in 1904 by Mr. Miccio’s grandfather. For the next few decades, they specialized in wine doctoring, the adding of magnesium carbonate and other substances to regulate fermentation. During Prohibition, they sold flavoring extracts to bootleggers who made moonshine and bathtub gin. Mr. Miccio’s grandfather moved the lab to Spring Street in 1937.”
The other day I spoke with Dolly Matteo, an elderly resident of Little Italy. She smiled and looked thrilled as she recollected buying rock candy at Milan Laboratories as a child. Her grandparents bought wine-making equipment there, as did their generation of Italian-American residents who famously made wine at home.
For years there was a sign, now faded, painted on the side of the building. It read: MILAN LABORATORY “WINE MAKING AT HOME” 57 SPRING ST. and it pictured a stylized wine press.
The sign was a neighborhood landmark, an elegant, well-ordered, minimalist image. Candy for the eye. I loved it.
Gone now, like so much else in the Special Little Italy District.
I sketched 57 Spring St. in about 1987 from the third floor of 225 Lafayette, The East River Savings Bank Building, during the time that I was renting a small painting studio there:
A photo of the Milan Laboratory sign taken in about 1986, from Walter Grutchfield’s blog
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