The Demise of Gem Spa is Another Sign of a Vanishing NYC

Like so many others businesses that have closed in the last decades, Gem Spa in NYC’s East Village couldn’t sustain its business and closed in early May 2020. Although they had financial problems over the years, and most recently in 2019 after losing their lottery and tobacco license, the current owners said the COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw. If you read my blog, you may know that NYC is like a second home to me. The closing of Gem Spa feels like one other place of my youth has slipped away. Although I’m also upset that Jeri’s Grill closed in Chicago, NYC will always be associated with a magical time in my early adulthood when I was spreading my wings creatively, intellectually, and emotionally. This was before sky-high rents forced so many businesses to close and prior to gentrification stripped the Big Apple of much of its gritty character. Unfortunately, Gem Spa isn’t the only thing that has changed on this once incredibly hip intersection of the East Village. When I visited in 2018, I thought St. Mark’s pretty much resembled many other somewhat gentrified NYC streets, albeit with a few vestiges of its storied past.   Located on the corner of St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, the beloved and iconic newsstand dates back to the 1920’s. It operated under a different name until 1957 when the name changed to the Gems Spa – at some point the S was dropped in Gem. It was a favorite hangout of Beat poets, hippies, punk rockers, local residents, and tourists. They sold local newspapers and magazines, including a wide array of international and underground papers and magazines, except for pornography. The little corner business was also famous for its egg creams (a NY drink made from milk, chocolate or vanilla…

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The Greatest Magician of the Early 20th Century Wasn’t Houdini

A few months ago I was looking for vintage magic images to use in my collages. I stumbled upon wonderful posters for a magician named Howard Thurston. Well, you know how one things lead to another – I soon found myself engrossed in a superb book about said magician and the early history of magic in America. The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer sheds light on the greatest magician of the early 20th century who essentially faded into oblivion. Unless you’re a magician, magic aficionado, or collector, you likely haven’t heard about this guy. Everybody has heard of Harry Houdini, but as Steinmeyer points out, while he was a great escape artist, Houdini wasn’t all that impressive when it came to card tricks and illusions. Thurston was five years older and four inches taller than his peer and oft adversary Houdini. Early Beginnings Born on July 20, 1869 in Columbus, Ohio, Thurston had four siblings – May (Myrtle) the eldest was born in 1865, followed by Charles, Howard, Harry (who figures prominently in this story), and William. Their father’s carriage business collapsed in 1873 and he subsequently tinkered with making a wide array of inventions, none of which were successful. Unable to support his family, his father had a mild nervous breakdown and started spending a lot of time at the corner saloon. By all accounts, he was a wretched and abusive father and husband who regularly beat his children and wife. Other than Harry, the only mention of the other siblings in the book is when Charles was murdered in February 1920 while working as a railroad detective in Columbus. The murderer escaped after pumping eight bullet holes into Charles’ back. When he was just 12, Thurston started earned money selling newspapers on trains between…

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10 Female Artists I Didn’t Learn About in Art School

I’ve been reading old Art in America issues and it hit me like a ton of bricks that I learned only about a handful of female artists at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I do remember the visiting artist Jackie Winsor talking about Eva Hesse and Ana Mendieta. On the other hand, we were introduced to many female authors and several famous ones gave lectures. I met Elaine de Kooning, who was a guest lecturer during my art history class with Baruch Kirschenbaum freshman year. She showed us photos of the sketches for her commissioned JFK painting, among other pieces. It made sense that she was invited to RISD – apparently she was tight friends with Lee Hall, then president of RISD. Hall would betray her good friend four years after de Kooning’s 1989 death from lung cancer in her book, Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage / The Lives of Willem and Elaine de Kooning. By all accounts, this was a salacious, tell-all, shoddily researched book with mediocre writing that was butchered by critics. I think the reason we didn’t learn about more female artists was tied to the era in which I went to RISD, 1976 – 1980. Moreover, many female artists who later gained fame were virtually unknown when I was in art school. So in honor of Women’s History Month, here are 10 trailblazing female artists I’m glad I learned about – better late than never. This list barely scratches the surface, but it’s a start.   Grace Hartigan (1922 – 2008): I certainly was aware of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, but somehow didn’t know anything about Hartigan until recently. Interestingly, she was the first female Abstract Expressionist to gain fame in 1950, when art critic Clement Greenberg and art historian Meyer…

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A Visual Tribute to Barber Shops

As a fine artist and photographer, I’ve always been obsessed with barber shops – visually. I don’t particularly like going to beauty salons to get my hair cut. I think barber shops are far more interesting and less snooty. After graduating early from high school, I would go on outings with my mom (who is also an artist) on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, where I photographed interesting storefronts. Even back then I was drawn to barber shops. My admiration of a few select photographers informed my early photographic work – especially those who worked for the Farm Security Administration, such as Walker Evans and Russell Lee, as well as the great photographer Berenice Abbott. All of them took wonderful photos of barber shops.     Back when I was an art student at RISD, I photographed quite a few barber shops in Providence and NYC. Unfortunately, I didn’t note where the NYC barber shops were located, however, I do remember one because of the circumstances. The below barber (on Lafayette Street) came outside when he saw me photographing the exterior. He volunteered to pose, which seemed nice enough. Nobody else was there and after he made a few suggestive comments and asked inappropriate questions, I high tailed it out of there rather quickly.     Many barber shops are still decorated with really cool ephemera and antiques that add to the appeal of getting your hair cut. An example is the JMC Barber Shop, which I stumbled upon last August in Elmhurst, Ill. I have never seen such a visual explosion covering every imaginable wall space – you couldn’t possibly get bored when you get your hair cut here!   While I prefer my vintage late 1970s black and white shots, I have taken color photos of barber shops when…

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Howard Clothes: The Final Chapter

  When I wrote the second article, Howard Clothes Tribute: Epilogue in January 2016, I thought I was done. Yet, this is still a topic of discussion in my family and clearly resonates with others, given the ongoing comments. As the sole surviving child of Samuel and Minnie Kappel, Elaine Winik provided a great deal of insight for the second article, as did her book Still Looking Forward, published in 1996. Elaine, who sadly passed away in September 2017, was a pillar of the Jewish community with a deep passion for and commitment to Israel. This article is dedicated to Elaine, her family, and all the relatives of the owners. In the last four years, I uncovered additional images and intriguing facts about Howard Clothes worthy of this final third article. The image below was being sold on eBay and I shared it with Elaine’s family members on Facebook. Unfortunately, nobody recognized anybody in the photo. Given the caption, I’m guessing this was a gathering for employees of one of the Brooklyn stores, rather than the factory.     The second photo is an undated Magic Lantern slide being sold on eBay. The back of the slide reads: A section of the Hand Sewing Department where the careful tailoring of our most skillful tailors is reflected in the fit and finish of Howard Clothes. It’s not a great photo technically, but it certainly has historic importance. I’m guessing it was taken in the 1940s or 1950s, given the media it was created on.     A Chicago Tribune article dated June 2, 1936 revealed that Howard Clothes made its first foray into the Midwest market with a store at the northwest corner of State and Quincy Streets in the Consumers Building at 220 South State Street. I found this great…

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Once Upon a Time on Maiden Lane – NYC

I’ve always been fascinated by the name Maiden Lane, an east-west street in NYC’s Financial District. It has such a charming and magical Old World sound to it. The western edge is close to the World Trade Center site and I likely discovered it for the first time in 2005, when my daughter and I visited the Ground Zero memorial at St. Paul’s Chapel. The street’s original name was Maagde Paatje, which is Dutch for Maiden Path. It was a footpath along a rippling brook frequented by lovers, as well as mothers and daughters who washed their laundry there on sunny days – sounds idyllic, indeed. After the street was cobbled over in 1698, the Fly Market opened where vendors sold fresh produce, fish, and meat under a covered roof until 1823. The Maiden Lane of old was a far cry from the bustling street that is home to the Federal Reserve of New York, other imposing buildings, and of course, Starbucks and McDonald’s. Two of the jeweler’s buildings still exist – Cushman at One Maiden Lane and the Diamond Exchange at 14 Maiden Lane, which was constructed specifically for diamond merchants and jewelers and completed in 1894.   I collect beautiful fraternal jewelry – primarily Benevolent Order of Elks (BPOE), Masonic, and Odd Fellows. In fact, back in the late 1980s, I drew illustrations for the F.N. Kistner catalog, a huge supplier of fraternal jewelry and gifts in Chicago’s jeweler’s row. Unfortunately, I wasn’t collecting these pieces back then, so I didn’t acquire any from Kistner. What inspired the idea for this blog were gorgeous sterling silver pieces I kept seeing on eBay marked Alfred Schickerling, 51 Maiden Lane. Most had patent dates of 1910 or 1911. This opened a proverbial Pandora’s Box, or in this instance, jewelry box….

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A Nostalgic Trip Down Canal Street, NYC

  My last blog discussed my love of “old-school” art supply and camera shops and my dismay about their dwindling numbers. After I posted that article, I started scanning black and white negatives I shot from 1976-1979 with my handy Canon FTb, mainly during magical sojourns to NYC from my ivory-tower RISD existence in Providence. Lo and behold – I discovered this panoramic view of Canal Street with Pearl Paint at the center. The street was a hop, skip, and jump away after my older sis moved to a garden apartment on Grand Street just east of Sixth Avenue. She was kind enough to put me up on all those NYC visits, even after she got married in 1978. Finding this photo and others brought back a flood of memories about how much I loved Canal Street back then and the many changes in the last few decades that have robbed this once quirky street of its unique character. Escalating rents have been killing ma and pa businesses in NYC for many years. Certainly, today’s gentrification is preferred to the blighted, empty storefronts that plagued the street for so long, but like other neighborhoods in NYC, Canal may be turning into any other upscale street in any other major city USA. A Short History of Canal Street Discovering my old photos of Canal Street prompted research on the intriguing history of the street that began as a solution for the growing problem of industrial run-off. Before Five Points slum existed, a small area of Manhattan called Collect Pond with its underground spring-fed lake, provided a major source of fresh water until the late 1700s. It became too polluted due to tanneries and breweries belching out vast amounts of liquid refuse into it. The water had nowhere to go because the…

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Art Supply and Camera Stores That Are No More

Favor Ruhl 425 S Wabash 1910 and 1938

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I was born with a crayon in my hand. By the time I was 5-years-old, I was drawing all sorts of things on cheap yellow paper my dad bought by the ream. The crayon was replaced with ballpoint pen, magic markers, colored pencils, pastels, paint brushes, sculpting tools, and by age 12, darkroom equipment. Going to art supply and camera stores as a kid was nearly as glorious as walking up the street to the corner store to buy my favorite candy. That’s right, for many artists and/or photographers, a visit to an art supply or camera shop is like unleashing an overzealous kid in a candy store! Nowadays, it’s hard to find old school art supply and camera stores – many have closed. In Chicagoland, you can buy art supplies at Dick Blick, Hobby Lobby, Michaels, JOANN Fabric and Craft, and a handful of small shops. Of course, you can always buy art supplies online, but it’s not the same experience. I first encountered Utrecht in NYC and later shopped at the store on South Michigan Avenue. Utrecht is now partnering with Dick Blick, although they are still doing business online independently. My favorite Chicago-area store is Artist & Craftsman Supply, an employee-owned shop in the old school model – while there are stores across the U.S., the Chicago location at 828 S Wabash reminds me of defunct stores of my youth. Good’s of Evanston is an independent store that has been in business for more than 100 years. It’s more renowned for its framing services and has a certain slick look these days that is the antithesis of old school. Thank heavens for Central Camera, a truly iconic old school store in the South Loop that has been…

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A Walk Across The Brooklyn Bridge

For eons, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge has symbolized New York City in much the same way as the Statue of Liberty. Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869 and it officially opened to the public on May 24, 1883. It has special meaning to me because my dad was born and bred in Brooklyn and is a true New Yorker through and through. He regaled us with tales of growing up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has been rough since the 1960s. He and his pal Bernie started the Osborn Street Camera Club, played stickball in the streets, cooked potatoes in the dirt at the local playground, and frequented the local candy shop called Jake’s. I always wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and finally did with my daughter on September 3, 2018, which was Labor Day, so it was quite crowded. Right before we walked across, we rode on the delightfully charming Jane’s Carousel, which made me feel like a kid again. It was just after Noon and boiling hot – I was so glad when we reached the Manhattan side. The pedestrian walkway across the bridge is 1.1 miles (1.6 kilometers). I didn’t much care for the crowds, bicycles, or the sound of a few loose wooden planks under my feet. Still, I’m glad I did it because the views were magnificent and almost surreal. As I was walking, I remembered the searing images of people fleeing across the bridge on 9/11. Of course, they were going in the opposite direction.   Brooklyn Bridge Mishaps   John A. Roebling started designing what would become the Brooklyn Bridge in 1867. On June 28, 1869, he was surveying the area for the bridge when a ghastly accident occurred. While standing on the edge of the dock at…

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Get Your Skee-Ball On

Outdoor Skee Ball

When I was a kid, I was particularly good at Skee-Ball. I remember one family vacation to N.J. to visit my Aunt Ella, stopping at some run-down arcade with Skee-Ball and rolling a high score. This talent continued through my teen years and early adulthood. When I visited NYC in the mid- to-late 1970s, I always made it a point to stop at the Playland at 1565 or 1580 Broadway and play Skee-Ball. As I recall, I accumulated enough tickets to win a metal Statue of Liberty souvenir. Back then, every neighborhood carnival seemed to have a few Skee-Ball lanes, but these dwindled over the years until you could no longer find them. Skee Ball was relegated to a a few old school game arcades and later to party venues like Chuck E. Cheese, GameWorks, Dave & Buster’s, and the like. The balls at GameWorks are made of cheap white plastic and simply don’t have the same “roll” as the originals or well-made new balls. Furthermore, one game costs four credits which is $1.00!

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