gray’s papaya lights go out on 8th street

grayspapaya has spent the past few days celebrating the life and death of Gray’s Papaya at the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue, with photos of its bright orange lettering being removed from its awning and reminiscent post from followers about drunken munchies and Gray’s goofy signage.

I, myself, best remember Gray’s Papaya, and the Famous Ray’s Pizza of Greenwich Village a few blocks up Sixth Avenue (which also recently closed for the second and final time), on my late-night walks home from Bob’s NYU dorm during our first year in New York, when he lived in graduate student housing on Third Avenue and I lived in the Jesuit Community on 17th Street.

After 10 or 11 p.m. the streets of the Village were dark and cagey, with sporadic figures darting about to either side of the endless heavy flow of yellow cabs and delivery trucks barging up the Avenue.Gray’s and Ray’s were like beacons on those late-night walks home: the dark, kind of scary silhouettes, standing at their large foggy windows eating, with the brightly lit fluorescent and neon displays at their backs.

This was New York to me.

The Village. Always open. Always a port or two in the night sea.

Bob was a total gentleman and most nights either walked me all the way home or put me in a cab. Back then we would not walk arm-in-arm as we do now, though he would have liked to. I was still a priest, for heaven’s sake! And, more concerning at that time, there were far too many news reports of gay bashings in the Village on a regular basis. But I loved those night excursions all the same, and the large handsome guardian ushering me to my destination gave me a very strong sense of safety.

So did the brightly lit storefronts and 24-hour activity on the streets.

At that time there were fewer vacant storefronts on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. These were the Village’s most active thoroughfares of cheep eats for college students and their rent-stabilized neighbors, funky shoe and card stores, t-shirt and head shops, the Jefferson Market, Sammy’s Noodles, the A&P, Bigelow pharmacy’s giant neon, B. Dalton’s, 8th Street Bookstore, which was later the drag queens’ sequined palace of Versailles.

At least now Versailles is a trendy wifi coffee shop instead of another empty storefront, which has been the destiny of most of the shops that have closed.

Poor Eighth Street. Landlord greed has left so many of its storefronts empty for months, sometimes years, over the past decade that the neighborhood (still my current neighborhood) feels vacant and foreboding. On several occasions, Bob and I have lost count at over two dozen storefronts that were empty between Sixth Avenue and University Place. Yesterday, quoted Nicholas Gray of Gray’s Papaya as saying that the landlords “wanted to raise my rent to $50,000 from $30,000,” a monthly hike unfathomable by anyone but giant bubble tea franchise, or in this case a trendy juice bar.

Of course, that’s exactly what happened over the past decade on our block of Eighth Street between University and Broadway, which has become “NYU’s food court.” Every chain from Cosí to Subway to Au Bon Pan and Chipotle is represented. Where there used to be interesting shoe and clothing shops, with products far too unique, cutting edge or outlandish for your average New Jersey mall, we now have the “dining options” from your average New Jersey mall.

Last week I chatted about these changes with a young woman behind the counter at ‘wichcraft. She didn’t quite understand why I would have wanted those old shops instead of all these food options. I tried to explain how those shops were what made New York…New York. But she looked away like I’d hurt her feelings…or maybe she didn’t want to hurt mine.

I know many will say that change itself is what really makes New York…New York. In the nearly 25 years I’ve been here, I have watched the City morph into something else every five years, and the people who inhabit it right along with it. The people from this five years, know nothing about the last five years, which knew nothing about the five years before that. Gothamist published a list of the places that have gone out of business during the Bloomberg administration alone. It is startling and depressing, and points to the problem of just rolling with the truism about “constant change.”

What we have seen in New York’s changes over the past decade isn’t evolution, development or progress. It’s simply endless flux, squalor, or, at best, homogeny, all driven by greed alone, often leaving a neighborhood like Eighth Street unable to regain footing of any kind, and ultimately driving business new and old away.

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