Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Then and Now: La Caridad on Broadway

La Caridad
La Caridad Restaurant, Broadway and 78th, ca. 1970.
One of the themes of this blog is the details of life matter. Corner joints may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but they serve a purpose and affect local residents in underappreciated ways. They give a neighborhood character, provide a place to meet people, and also often offer tasty treats for the discerning foodie.

One such neighborhood eatery was La Caridad (technically called "La Unica Caridad"). Caridad is a theological Virgin name that translates as Charity, representing Our Lady of Charity, a popular saint's name in Cuba. Located on the southwest corner of Broadway and 78th Street, it was a neighborhood fixture for 52 years. Opened in 1968, La Caridad offered Chino Latino food, which blends Mexican and Chinese food. Chinese-Spanish restaurants are an Upper West Side staple, though there are fewer of them now than there used to be. Here, we do a then-and-now comparison of La Caridad Restaurant on the Upper West Side.
La Caridad
La Caridad (then called "La Caridad 78 restaurant") in October 2007 (Michael Minn).
One of the things that endlessly fascinates me about New York City is that you can pick out a random photo from decades ago and it will have surprisingly recent echoes. Such is the case with the 1970s photo at the top of this page.
La Caridad
The La Caridad takeout menu in June 2009. Note that this is the Cuban menu, the Chinese food menu was on the other side.
You might think that some old black-and-white photo from before when most of the people reading this were born is just some historical artifact. Well, it is, but the restaurant itself lasted until very recently.
La Caridad
La Caridad apparently had different names through the years at its iconic location at the corner of 78th Street and Broadway. Just a random search of photographs shows it being called La Unica Caridad, La Caridad, and La Caridad 78 Restaurant. It was always known as La Caridad, though.
La Caridad
La Caridad changed over the years from the 1950s counter-seating diner setting shown in the top photograph to a more typical diner setting, with tables where you could eat and get in and out of quickly.
The delightful thing about neighborhood joints like La Caridad is that you could get good, cheap food that you'll never find at the big chains. Just pop in during a day of shopping and grab some quick vaca frita or sesame chicken, in and out within half an hour for under $10 per person. Try doing all that at the Golden Arches.
La Caridad
La Caridad, May 2009 (Google Street View).
La Caridad's founder, Raphael Lee, was a Chinese immigrant who had lived in Havana. He developed a love for both Chinese food and local Cuban delicacies from that city’s Chinatown. While the food is called "fusion," however, they never really and truly melded. You didn't get fried plantains and chicken with cashews on the same plate. 
La Caridad
Now, we're not talking about the Four Seasons here. These types of neighborhood joints are barely a step above the greasy pizza places that all began with the Original Ray's (I love Ray's pizza, btw). To be blunt, the Chinese food was standard Manhattan Chinese American (want some General Tso's Pork Chops?), while the Cuban dishes were on a separate part of the menu. If you were looking for something exotic and an "experience," you could turn the menu to the Cuban pages and order some sancocho soup. Your companion, meanwhile, could stay in the Chinese menu section and choose the nice and safe Crispy Spring Roll followed by Sesame Chicken. But it was still a melange of styles.
La Caridad
La Caridad, June 2019 (Google Street View).
La Caridad closed in July 2020. Even the New York Times took notice, that's how iconic La Caridad had become. Whether the closing was related to the pandemic is an open question, though that likely had something to do with it. Local residents noticed employees emptying out the store in the preceding weeks and the owner did not disclose why he was leaving. Who knows if it will ever be back, sometimes these restaurants pop up in other locations where the rents are low like they were when the restaurant was founded. But the memories remain of the glorious takeout and ambiance of a classic local joint.
La Caridad
La Caridad ca. 2020 (Robert K. Chin).

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Then and Now: Mermaid Avenue, Coney Island, NYC

Jack's Discount Center, Coney Island
Jack's Discount Center, 1970.
This series is all about the evolution of a city. We examine this by looking at details such as individual businesses and then seeing how changes in them reveal something larger about what is going on. The story of Jack's Discount Center in Coney Island is a good example of that.

Coney Island has gone through massive ups and downs over the years. The neighborhood we call Coney Island isn't actually on its own island (though it used to be kind of an island until Coney Island Creek was filled in during the 1920s/1930s) unless you count it being on Long Island. It is located on the western portion of the Coney Island peninsula west of Ocean Parkway.

Coney Island remained a sleepy little town far from the big city until 1878, when two major things happened. The huge Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion opened that year as well as the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railway, which opened on 2 July as the predecessor to the New York City Subway's present-day Brighton Line aka Brighton Beach Line. The original two-track line was acquired by the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation BMT in 1923, which in turn was folded into the modern subway system in 1940. The subway was the defining feature of the area, resulting in businesses being constructed along its route.

Coney Island reached a peak of fame as a destination in the 1930s through the 1950s. It was the chosen way for city residents to "beat the heat" in a time before the widespread use of air conditioners. Even though the beaches were far away for most people and insanely crowded, they were still better than sitting in a sweltering apartment. The subways remained at a nickel a ride from October 27, 1904, when the first subway opened, until July 1, 1948, when the fare finally doubled to a dime. This made them accessible to everyone who was willing to suffer the long, rumbling ride. However, by the 1960s the area fell into a steep decline as people got air conditioning and more and more city residents got cars or moved to the suburbs.

Anyway, I spotted the photo above from 1970 of a typical "dollar store" before they were known as such and were still known as "discount centers." This one was called "Jack's Discount Center," and it was located at the current street address of 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Coney Island. So, I decided to do a comparison of Jack's Discount Center in Coney Island then and now.
Jack's Discount Center, Coney Island
A shot in 1978 taken from the subway platform gives a little more perspective. Note the top of the subway car in the foreground.
The property, located at coordinates 40.5772094,-73.9818174, was originally built in 1930. Located a few blocks from the beach, it already was starting to look run down by 1970, and things didn't get any better during the 1970s. These types of discount stores used to be much more common in New York City than they are now. While you may still some scattered in various places such as 14th Street in Manhattan and the South Bronx, they've largely been supplanted by gentrification, exorbitant rents, and smaller, more focused chain retailers.
Mermaid Horizon
Undated, but the same site perhaps ca. 2000. Note that this version was called "Mermaid Horizon Discounts" in honor of the street location. Now it became a "99 Cent" store.
These days, businesses have to be real money machines to survive. That's why you see so many of these quaint old businesses disappearing, to be replaced by bank branches, pharmacies, and Starbucks establishments. Nothing wrong with that, it's what the people who are voting with their dollars want.
McDonald's at 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NYC
The new McDonald's in 2012, boarded up for Hurricane Sandy.
Around 2008-2009, the building, which was located on two parcels. Fiserv Mastermoney was drastically renovated and replaced with a McDonald's restaurant. While it certainly looks like the building was completely torn down, complete tear-downs don't happen too often in New York City for tax reasons. An owner needs to retain just enough original structural elements to be able to call it a "renovation." But, basically, the old 1930 two-story building disappeared around that time and was replaced by the current restaurant.
McDonald's at 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NYC
A recent photo of the location. Note that this angle gives you a little perspective, showing a sliver of the massive elevated subway line that is just across the street.
That area of Brooklyn has become a rough area over the years, and there was a fatal stabbing at that McDonald's on Easter Sunday 2014. That's just a reflection of the neighborhood, which has never completely recovered from its steep decline during the 1960s and 1970s.

However, lest you be left with the wrong impression, this particular McDonald's gets an "A" grade from the NYC Health Inspectors, so it has that going for it. It even gets onto Coney Island's "Ten Best Eating Establishment" lists, which may tell you more about the current state of Coney Island than it does this particular burger joint. The world needs fast food, though, and this looks like a great location for one.
McDonald's at 1403 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, NYC
This capture from Google Street View in November 2019 gives a little more context. The subway line is revealed right across the street. One can imagine that the original Jack got a lot of business from the subway trade, thus explaining all of his garish signs facing in that direction.
The story of this parcel of land really speaks volumes about the evolution of New York City. The small, independent businesses in their ramshackle buildings had their day, and now it is a time of chain restaurants and sleek architecture. There are some constants such as the subway lines, however, that maintain the structure of the city even as everything around them changes.

I hope you enjoyed this little walk through the past in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of our other entries!